Jul 13, 2020 | Writing

The Art of Packing


The Art of Packing


In three months, I will move to South Asia for at least two years. There, I will make some kind of home, but a provisional, partial one.

Author’s Note:   Almost nine years ago, I moved to Bangladesh to teach first-year composition at a women’s college with students from twelve South and Southeast Asian countries. In the months preceding my journey, I wrote this essay, which is about the struggles of packing, but which is really about the struggles of preparing for the unknown. In hindsight, now that I know all that awaited me in Bangladesh, I can’t quite connect to the version of myself who wrote this essay, at least not enough to revise it. So that’s how I know it’s ready to be published. It’s not for me anymore; it’s for somebody else.

I’m a dreadful packer. Not in the usual way of over-packing; I’m a reasonably light packer, just a bad one. The problem is simple: I love packing. I love it fiercely and foolishly. Packing is an exercise in the imaginative: how best to slip into some mystery. Some other landscape. The suitcase is a dream, not, as it really should be, a plan. I can trace this to my first trip to San Francisco the summer I turned fourteen. I was in love with someone I’d never see again but whom I planned to marry, and I had a lot of thinking and feeling to do after our separation at the end of camp, and there was this plain, tan, knit sweater that seemed to be perfect for what I saw as an adult trip to a sensible, adult place. I bought a Kafka novel the day we arrived, and that sweater, the steep hills, and Kafka are what I remember about San Francisco, along with a certainty that I would live there one day (I have not and will not).

I’m a good planner when I’m in charge of the whole plan. Planning a party, I’m consummately organized, if just a little extravagant, because to throw a party is to create the landscape in all its proportion, rightness, and detail. When an unknown terrain awaits me, the chameleon within, the girl who thinks adulthood means absolute freedom, takes me over, and I end up with seven scarves but only one shirt; or all my new favorite sheer blouses, pearls, and boots, but no camisoles, no pants, no skirts, two party dresses and my nicest lingerie and swimwear. I’m exaggerating only slightly: I always manage, but it’s always a hassle, and I’m always too cold.

My bad habits start at home. At home, lately, I begin dressing by choosing tights or a belt and build from there. In my younger days, I once threw a party just so I could wear my new red boots; otherwise, I never could have walked far enough in them to go anyplace. But at home, I have all the components of a whole, reasonable outfit. Abroad, I will not, unless I get better at packing and fast. 

In three months, I will move to South Asia for at least two years.

There, I will make some kind of home, but a provisional, partial one in a too-large, semi-furnished apartment to be assigned to me. Every summer, I’ll return to the United States for several months. These circumstances and others severely limit what I can and should pack. Many of my things are too heavy to ship or take, and the much-better portion of my clothes, boots, scarves, and tights will be useless in a coastal city whose temperatures rarely dip below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The climate-appropriate clothing I do own is unsuited to walking the streets solo as a woman in a Muslim country. So: this is not a transfer of household. But neither is it a vacation.

Years before I had a residence of my own to put them in, I acquired entire sets of sterling silver chargers (a gift) and Gorham Chantilly Lace-patterned tableware (an inheritance); a tea service for eight; a commanding crystal cake stand and a demure china one; a fully appointed picnic basket; numerous instances of original art found at ages thirteen or sixteen or nineteen in—to me, then—exceptional galleries visited during trips to Charleston, Alaska, Sante Fe, and SoHo, NY; vases big and small; countless objets; two plush armchairs, and an art deco bookcase. And boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of books. I say boxes, and not shelves, because that’s where they’ve been throughout my years of living on my own. The books I read then are not the books I read now.

Given the above, surely I need not enumerate all I’ve obtained in the past seven years of leasing six different apartments and houses, all with their own peculiar furnishing and decorating needs. As you’ve already guessed: way too much.

One summer, I did pack for a two-month residence away from my things, but those months were spent in New Orleans. Even with my inclinations, the solution there was simple: I brought all my dresses, all my sandals, all my jewelry. Plus, I had the luxury of arriving by car, which I could stuff with everything I could possibly need or not need.

Not so when I expatriate. This will be not be an affair of a single, ecstatic suitcase. There will be things to store, others to sell or lend; things to send ahead of me with the knowledge that they will arrive perhaps months after I do; others to cram into duffels whose arrival will be delayed for a few days since the connecting flight from the capital will be on a very small jet; and the small number of items I decide I really must have to survive those intervening forty-eight hours. And there will be plenty to get rid of and re-buy there that isn’t worth the effort or the cost in excess baggage or shipment. All these decisions require calculation or at least informed estimation, but I learned from a three-day visit that the offerings can be unpredictable: the right kind of soap, but the wrong kind of towels; a dozen varieties of hazelnut paste, but no cornmeal.

Arriving at college in Southern California, my suitemate, Lauren, who instantly became my dearest friend, brought one suitcase and had boxed and shipped the rest of what she needed from her home in the Bronx. The boxes were unfortunately delayed for two weeks or more. Somehow, though, from my perspective at least, what she selected to put in the one suitcase was exactly right. She had one sarong that she used as a sheet and another as a kind of bed curtain; one great sundress; a flattering but comfortable pair of sandals; and the kind of skin, bone structure, and hair that permitted her to wear the same dress five days out of the week. Her homesickness quickly took the form of missing the rest of her things, but I, who had brought tons of all the wrong stuff, was enthralled and deeply envious. Though reasonably content with my own skin and hair, I’ve always been clumsy, and manage immediately to stain or weirdly wrinkle any item I have to depend on.

She in her sundress and I in something unmemorable would walk around our beautiful campus talking about how we were so lucky and we shouldn’t take the beauty and all the flowers for granted, and as long as she lived, I didn’t. If she lived still, I would ask her advice now on what to pack for South Asia. But nobody can really teach you how to manage that kind of grace anyway.

People, friends and family, when told of my impending move, have called me brave. But in fact I’m not brave. Though nobody is forcing me to take a job teaching college literature in Bangladesh, I don’t feel that life has presented me with any other good, adult option but this. Life never does, does it? There is always only one way. Perhaps it is brave to accept one’s too-rapidly approaching fate, but I mostly feel helpless. I’m certain that I’ll get a double dose of dengue fever from a mosquito bite and faint in the street, like one professor I met there during my visit, but that unlike her I won’t be caught just in time by kind, faceless strangers, and instead I’ll fall in a trash heap and get bitten by something larger.

After a year of dating a string of inconstant men, I’m sure that right as I leave, the one I’ve known the longest will decide he’s ready to get serious, that I’ll miss him horribly, and that he’ll find someone new very fast and won’t visit like he said. Probably nobody will; probably something will prevent even my mother from visiting.

I’m bound to make a poor decision regarding the length of my hair.

I’ll have to give up all my vices—good alcohol, tv dramas with ensemble casts or strong middle-aged leads, and extreme romantic flightiness.

I won’t adapt. Living in New York exhausted me, and I got nothing done; Chittagong is more crowded, polluted, and unnavigable than New York, and everything happens in Bengali. I did all right in Paris, but I was a student there with almost no responsibilities, and besides the alphabet was my own.

My admittedly pat refrain, that I expect to learn more from my students—all female, hailing from twelve different Asian countries—than they will from me will surely become all too true, and I will fail to reach them entirely or to convince them that poetry is relevant to their very real plans to make positive change in the lives of people in their region.

But of course, the biggest problem I foresee will also be the root of all others: I won’t pack right.

My one consolation is that my hero, Julia Child, met her by all accounts loving and supportive husband, Paul, after age thirty, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

And so: Julia Child, Marguerite Duras, Julia Child, Julia Child, Julia Child.

I only wish that I knew how they packed.

I’m not the first young woman writer to be captivated by Joan Didion’s famous packing list, the one she kept taped inside her closet during the 60s in case she needed to dash off to report a story. Reprinted in her essay on that period, “The White Album,” the list is a good, sensible one, with some moments of glamour: basic apparel and toiletries but also bourbon, a mohair throw, a typewriter. She doesn’t wear shirts or, seemingly, underwear; she wears leotards.

Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

The list achieves functionality without sacrificing comfort or personality (for all her claims of anonymity, the essay itself is about American myth, and she doubtless knew that the idiosyncrasies in her list would resonate with her theme).

Though I share Didion’s drink of choice (and will take full advantage of the two-bottle customs allowance), I can’t wear leotards because my waist is too long, and besides, I’m packing for a move, not a quick assignment. No chilly motels for me: the air-conditioning in the faculty housing is barely sufficient for a good night’s sleep and it shuts off several times a day along with the rest of the electricity. My everyday modes of transport will be the school van, my own two feet, and bicycle rickshaw, not a Hertz rental.

I’ve sought and received more relevant advice. One future colleague, Joanne, graciously sent me the packing list she made before moving there a year ago. Annotations describe what she’s very glad she brought (high-quality sandals, iPod) and what she wished she brought (walnuts, vanilla extract, exercise videos).

Her list will be my guide in many respects, as will its accompaniment, a list of food items unavailable in Chittagong. This second list functions partly to help me pack, since I can and will carry some dried fruit, nuts, maple syrup, dried herbs, chocolate chips, but also, in part, to help me imagine—and acclimate—in advance, for the list also includes items that would be impossible for me to pack or ship: frozen vegetables, Roquefort, celery, fresh parsley, fresh pork. Though there’s an outside but real chance that I might pack an entire Jamon Serrano, say.

This is where my imagination begins to compete with itself, and gets me into trouble. I’m drawn irresistibly to the outsized, extravagant, and unreasonable. On one hand, this could mean that whole ham, or a quarter wheel of French sheep’s milk cheese. A trunk—though I will pack in cardboard boxes and duffels, in my head I pack in old-fashioned trunks—a trunk filled entirely with artisanal grains: polenta, quinoa, spelt (which I don’t even cook with here), farro, Arborio rice, Israeli couscous. And all manner of china and silver. A glorious, unnecessary mess, like one described in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, in a scene I first read perhaps ten years ago but that has bewitched me ever since:

There were always damp towels on the floor then, and cataracts of her underwear tumbling from the drawers she never closed, a big ironing board that was never folded away, and in the one overfilled wardrobe dresses, crushed and shouldered sideways like commuters on the metro. Magazines, makeup, bank statements, bead necklaces, flowers, knickers, ashtrays, invitations, tampons, LPs, airplane tickets, high-heeled shoes—not a single surface was left uncovered by something of Molly’s, so that when Vernon was meant to be working at home, he took to writing in a café along the street. And yet each morning she arose fresh from the shell of this girly squalor, like a Botticelli Venus, to present herself, not naked, of course, but sleekly groomed, at the offices of Paris Vogue.

So, on one hand, the magic and alchemy of excess.

Equally unreasonable, and equally alluring, is the idea of a total asceticism toward things familiar and American. I could sell all my furniture, cookware, dishes, and clothes; bring only those twin bottles of bourbon, some single, well-chosen talisman, my laptop, and a suitcase of the most essential books; buy a few saris and salwar-kameez when I arrive; and upend my diet: all Bengali, all the time. Millions of people eat lentils and rice and vegetables daily, meat and fish weekly, at best. So too could I.

The struggle here is between two clusters of material anxiety, set on opposite poles: my things comfort me, but they also hamper me. Unlimited choice is freeing, but also heavy, cumbersome, expensive.

Of course, that isn’t really it. That’s part of it—that exists, in my thoughts about this—but the trouble is, at either end of the spectrum, I’m hoping that my stuff or the lack of it will define me, the way Didion’s list defines her: she’s unwilling to go without warmth, the ability to do work, or her paradoxically characteristic brand of anonymity, and she brings what it takes to achieve those but not a shred more. Or the way Molly’s tornado of feminine luxury and her unlikely, daily, exquisitely coiffed emergence from it seduces Vernon, not to mention the likes of me. Or the way my friend Lauren’s few selections reflected her effortless, inimitable loveliness.

The real anxiety is: how will my own list look ten years out? Whom will it seduce? What sort of person would make the kind of list I’ll end up making? Before me is the best chance I’ve yet seen to shed a skin and remake myself into a new woman. Will she be winningly flawed and tragically self-indulgent, or will she inhabit that childhood fantasy of mine, the romantically chameleon poet with just the one plain sweater?

More crucially: am I in control of that person?

Whatever kind of person my things reveal the new me as, I wish she wasn’t asking herself these narrow-minded, narcissistic questions. I wish she realized that a person can live a small, mean life even in a faraway place, that she risks being more concerned with relating to literary icons than to the people surrounding her. Even when everybody tells her she’s so brave.

So perhaps it’s Joanne, not Joan, who has the truly enviable list. The one I should emulate. Joanne’s list isn’t destined for a landmark essay; it’s a response to her actual, present needs in a new, unfamiliar, difficult place, where she has—and I will have—very demanding and potentially very meaningful work to do. She and her family are healthy and happy in Bangladesh—they have succeeded despite those few oversights on her original list. She has adapted, not as a brushstroke on a painting or fictional character in a novel or persona in an essay but as a person in a place: she lives her life and does her job, and enjoys the occasional chocolate chip cookie, the occasional tailor-made salwar-kameez. Maybe these aren’t strict necessities, but they aren’t symbols, either.

Joanne’s list, organized into a series of spreadsheets, has its own beauty. With hers, the romance is in the clarity and rigor, the refusal to lower the standards of organization and sensible planning in the face of a journey that will be chaotic and unpredictable. It’s a slight, light raft on a fearsome new sea.

But I have no such standards and could no more conjure them than my things could pack themselves. Joanne’s clarity, Joan’s fierce precision, Molly’s charm, Lauren’s grace are forbiddingly singular. They can’t be mimicked, least of all by someone as hazy-minded and apt to misstep as I.

So here’s what will actually happen because here’s what always happens: I will run out of time for self-remaking or even proper, prescriptive list-making because I’m busily seeing friends, working, and packing, the last of which will often mean unearthing some old treasure and taking an inspired break to reread old letters, old notebooks, old lists—and, days from departure, in a furious hurry, I’ll make new lists but haphazardly, on scraps that I lose but mostly recall, lists I follow but halfway. I’ll print out Joanne’s list and follow it to the letter, except when I don’t. Despite already, here, dismissing these fancies as trivial, at odd moments I’ll indulge my decadent side and layer bubble wrap around a teapot, and the next moment I’ll embrace the poet-ascetic and give away all my pants. At other intervals I’ll regain my senses and include only the medicines I really might need, or recognize that I’d be unhappy without my favorite pillow and unable to find its equal but can easily go without wool socks, even if they are hand-knit.

Like I said, I’m a dreadful packer, and that’s unlikely to change. I’ll omit some of what I really need and tow heavy objects that I’ll use once, and only then to make their journey seem worth it.

But I’ll manage. I always do, in my own singular way.

Illustrations courtesy of Undraw

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