In My Own Write: Baggage Check

Why do so many of us get anxious when there’s an empty suitcase to fill?

Two suitcases (photo credit: Courtesy )
Two suitcases
(photo credit: Courtesy )
The only baggage you can bring / Is all that you can’t leave behind – from ‘Walk On,’ a song by U2
As I checked in for my two-week trip to the UK last month and watched my luggage roll out of sight on the airline’s conveyer belt, I reflected on how fortunate it was that the only thing that got weighed was the suitcase’s physical contents, and not the emotional baggage that had accompanied it.
For there’s no doubt: Packing to go away might sound like a purely practical business; but in my experience – and that of many people I have talked to – it is an exercise characterized by considerable anxiety.
What is it about filling a small oblong container with essentials that causes such dismay? Well for starters, there’s the word “essentials,” defined as those items you really need. But once you venture out of your familiar surroundings to another country and another clime, how can you know what the essentials are, beyond obvious things like passport, toothbrush, underwear, and the like? The other side of adventure and lure of the unknown is fear of misadventure, and of the unknown itself.
CONSIDERING THE contents of my closet amid a heatwave here in Israel, I found myself overwhelmed by the prospect of juggling clothes for two diametrically opposing British weather scenarios – cold and nasty, or really hot and sunny – each of which, given global warming added to the well-known vagaries of the British climate, was possible during my trip.
If that wasn’t enough, rain too was virtually guaranteed during what, by mid-month, was already being called “the wettest June in 100 years.”
Was my brother trying to be helpful when he told me over the phone: “The only thing I can say for certain is that it won’t snow”? “Don’t bet on it,” I replied, only half-jokingly.
I glumly recalled the June morning many decades ago when I was still living and working in London. I had left for work in a surprisingly bitter cold wearing a scarf and gloves – gloves in June! – to emerge from my Oxford Street office into an unpleasantly warm and humid afternoon in which the parked cars on the street were all covered by a fine yellow dust.
Next morning’s newspapers gave the explanation: The yellow dust had blown over from the Gobi desert.
If packing for a holiday in England defeats me, it may well be lingering shock from that experience.
DO I subscribe to the idea that one should travel as lightly as possible? Definitely. But, sadly, my mind and my emotions propel me in opposite directions – which of course is why I find packing a problem.
Mentally, I know that the unexpected can arise despite my best efforts, and that taking a minimum of clothes and other stuff is the way to travel easily and pleasantly, especially if I am going to be living largely out of a suitcase.
But emotionally, I am leaving behind my home, my comfort zone, where my closets and drawers are filled with everything I need, there at hand should I require them, the very knowledge that they are there giving comfort.
When I am away, my suitcase becomes my home.
How to pack all contingencies, all multiple demands, into that one small space? And suppose I need this or that item, and it isn’t in there? Shock and horror! Not really. Or only the idea of it, while I am fretting over the packing. Once I actually set out on the journey, I know I will be in a place where I can buy anything I’ve forgotten, if I feel I really need it. And I have done so, more than once.
Interestingly, however, this knowledge doesn’t make my packing any easier – a sure indication that psychological factors deeper than reality and experience are at work.
It’s essentially about losing control, that’s the nub of it. And to those of you out there who, like me, strain to make sure they are prepared for every single, possible eventuality: We’d do well to forget it and internalize the truth that having real control over our lives is an illusion, so we might as well chill out and take things – including packing a suitcase – a bit more lightly.
WHAT CLOTHES to take on a trip forms a big part of many women’s packing anxiety – men’s attire is so much less complicated! One tip I read that sounded eminently sensible was to avoid outfits and footwear in different bright colors and stick to basic shades like navy or black, beige or grey, where everything can be mixed and matched. If that sounds boring, colored scarves and jewelry will change the look without adding bulk to the luggage.
Something I’ve found useful is to note down in a little book clothes combinations that worked well last time I went away. It cuts down on the agony of deciding what to pack next time – well, in theory, anyway.
AS PEOPLE get older, they become more prone to feelings of insecurity and may find it harder to control the emotional – and consequently physical – side of packing, resulting in mounds of stuff they will likely not use while they are away.
My husband, Sheldon, is quite aware that he often packs “clothes I know I won’t need. I don’t wear them here, and I most probably won’t wear them there, either. Their presence in my suitcase is annoying at the same time as it’s comforting.”
To deal with the increased insecurity that aging often brings, I wonder whether regular small forays out of one’s comfort zone – trying new foods, activities, ways of doing things, etc. – might well act as a confidence-booster, much as exercise strengthens weakened muscles.
CAN I talk about you? I asked my 26-year-old daughter Avital, eager to prove that the apple does sometimes fall far from the tree.
“Go ahead,” she said, in her easygoing way.
She has always been a last-minute packer, taking the whole problematic business as lightly as I would put a pack of tissues into my purse prior to leaving home in the morning.
“For me, there’s nothing painful about packing,” she says.
“Most of the time I’m going to civilization, where I can buy something I need if I’ve forgotten it. I just make sure I have my passport and important stuff like that.”
Far from the tree? This apple has landed at the opposite end of the next field.
“When I’m going out of my routine,” she says, “I relax. I feel I’m on holiday, and just take everything as it comes.”
CIRCUMSTANCE forced a friend of mine – a fashion-conscious, well-dressed woman – into a new realization about holiday stuff she had thought she couldn’t do without.
“After a flight from England to Israel, my suitcase didn’t turn up, and I walked out of the airport with a few basic items the airline had given me. I felt amazingly liberated, and had a sense of freedom walking out with just that little bag in my hand.
“Do you know,” she laughed, “I was quite sorry to see my suitcase again – this massive bag of clothes.”
It’s yet another example of how less is often more.
“You’d be surprised at how little you actually need when you’re pushed to the wall,” another friend commented.
IN THE end, packing to go away may be seen as a metaphor for life changes of any sort, which can be so frightening because each one signifies a step out of the comfortable and familiar into the new and uncertain.
Some people embrace change, more of us shrink from it. Yet without the courage to risk change, we change nevertheless, becoming a little drier and more static with each day.
I know that well; and next time I’m facing a trip and the usual jitteriness about – heaven forbid! – finding myself without something I’ll need once I arrive, I will start packing with the premise that I am certain to find I’ve forgotten something – and equally sure that I can 1. get a replacement; 2. improvise; or 3. do without.
MY HUSBAND and I are talking about going to India next year. Better start packing now.