Ordinarily, I am paralyzed by the act–no, the necessity of packing. Sometimes, I don’t even get to the act. Someone else does it for me, or I just throw a few random things in a backpack so airport security will have something to rifle through, and call it quits.
My explanation for this deficiency of mine borders on the metaphysical: The black hole of an empty suitcase is so charged with the unforeseeable, with the abject potency of possibility, with the purely hypothetical–like that theoretical stuff called dark matter–that I can’t begin to think what to do with it.
As a traveler, this has been, at times, a handicap. I never wrapped my mind around what I would need as a student in Tibet, at Oxford, as a teacher in Spain. But this time is different.
This time, which should have been worse than ever since I was packing for a year in Mexico not only for myself but for my family, I knew precisely what I wanted.
I have known, in fact, since 2005, when I left Ecuador for good. That day, jostling past volcanoes on my last rust-and-sputter bus bound for Quito, I glared out the window at anyone who so much as approached the compartment where my ratty backpack was stowed. My humor and patience and everything else one needs to share a bus ride with live poultry had been abundant for nearly a year, but that last day they simply ran dry.
“Next time,” I announced to my then-boyfriend Steve, “we’re moving to Latin America. I want my own home. I want a car. I want to live like grownups.”
I was finished with homestays, done with dorms and “imported teacher” housing and hostels. I was finished flitting. Most of all, I was finished with everything connoted by the term “backpack.”
In the five years since that surly bus ride, many things have happened:
- Steve and I bought our own little house in the U.S.;
- We acquired dogs, family heirlooms, chickens, clutter, a garden, a few more degrees, and some very good friends;
- We were married under cottonwood trees at the end of a dirt road;
- We had our first baby, a yellow-haired boy who is now two, and only mildly terrible.
In the midst of these developments, my concept of “home” has shifted from a whirligig world, planet Earth twirling from one day to the next, to the soft, seasonal turn. I watch the peach tree grow, flower, and fruit. Look baby, peaches. So soft. Now taste—.
But I am forgetting #5: We’re pregnant with #2.
Contrary to what I myself expected, my prescient chicken-bus promise to myself compounded with the conditions and priorities of my current “life phase” meant that moving to Mexico for my husband’s PhD field research, compliments of Fulbright, has, for the first time in all of my international moves, NOT entailed any scenes of me unraveling over a gaping backpack. Having a home actually means that I think I know how to fake it for a year abroad.
Of course, there were impasses.
The girl Steve fell in love with in El Salvador where we met teaching high school used to do things like fly off for a week in Bolivia with little more than a whim, a change of underwear, a camera, and half of an address for an old friend. Even our wedding vows were couched in minimalism, with a reading of a Carolyn Forché poem:
Tin spoon, teacup, tremble of tray, carpet hanging from sorrow’s balcony.
Say goodbye to everything. With a wave of your hand, gesture to all you have known.
Begin again with bread torn from bread…
So, while he has seen me pull my hair out over empty luggage plenty of times, Steve was not prepared for this evolution in my relationship with materiality. And I didn’t mention it to him.
Of course, he was tipped off when, a full month before we were scheduled to leave, I packed an Army surplus sack with baby gear for #2. If the unborn got a bag that big, he remarked, well, we’d never make it to Mexico.
I ignored the snark, and kept packing: an old suitcase for my son, an over-sized duffel (new for the occasion and not designed to be carried easily), our one good suitcase for computers, cameras, and other research equipment. Then I started packing US Mail one-price international boxes.
The experience–this sudden confidence and know-how–was a bit like those traveler dreams where one suddenly speaks and understand a foreign language perfectly.
Two days before our departure, Steve couldn’t resist poking around in my giant duffel. He found maternity clothes, normal clothes, a mattress for #2’s bassinet, and–
“SOAP! You packed SOAP?!”
–a three-bar box of the elegant soap my mother sends to me from the Red Lion Inn whenever she or anyone she knows is passing through Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
The soap is important, but I had packed more than soap. I had packed a light down comforter, wedding-present sheets, towels, my son’s entire stuffed animal collection (leaving behind, with some grief, his nearly life-sized teddy bear). I had packed dozens of children’s books, Green Eggs and Ham, Owl Moon, The Runaway Bunny, and so on. And in those shipping boxes: Legos and Matchbox cars.
For years, I had packed trying to imagine what I would need where I wasn’t. Moving to Mexico, I was simply trying to pack some of the life that I knew, some of the life that I wanted.
I didn’t care about what the weather would be, or what those who had gone before had longed for, or what would be remotely useful. I wanted to sleep on familiar fabric. I wanted to read my son the stories that I once loved, that he already loves, in the language that I love most. And, yes, I wanted to slip a few perfumed bars of soap in with my underwear and sheets so they would smell like they smell at home.
I surrendered the soap–such are the costs of marriage, but I kept the rest.
Now, a week after the soap showdown, we are settling into an apartment in Mexico. There are Matchbox cars on the tile floors of this kitchen where I write, having shoved Curious George aside to make room for myself. And last night, when we returned from a dinner out (after we admitted to ourselves that the beans we were cooking wouldn’t be ready until long after a toddler’s bedtime), my son pointed at the green door in the old stone walls of this old city and said, “Home!”