Although the plane doesn’t leave for another 48 hours, I have already broken out in a cold, clammy sweat. No, it’s not fear of flying, though I confess to being afflicted with that, too. Instead, it’s another, perhaps less commonly discussed travel related anxiety: fear of packing. While I love to travel, the actual process of sorting through my possessions, deciding what I need and what I do not, arouses in me a kind of primal panic, as if the wrong decision will somehow leave me exposed, vulnerable, and adrift—a stranger in a strange and hostile land.
It’s not that I’m not organized—far from it. Days before my journey, I lay everything out in neat piles on my bed: t-shirts and underwear sorted by color, socks balled tightly as fists, shoes nestled toe-to-heel in their floral drawstring bags. I circle the piles like a panther stalking its prey, adding to one, subtracting from another. I break out all the cosmetic samples I have been hoarding for months—the doll-sized bars of soap, the foil packets of shampoo and conditioner—and add them to the mix. I make lists; I check them twice.
But despite my best efforts, I can never seem to get it right: I either bring too much and feel as if I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, or I bring too little and end up like Cinderella before the timely appearance of the fairy godmother. I remember traveling through Europe on a student rail pass years ago; I somehow felt it was imperative to my well-being and happiness to lug with me the thick, taxicab-yellow terrycloth bathrobe I had recently started sporting around my dorm at Vassar. Even dry the thing weighed as much as a woolen horse blanket; yet despite its cumbersome heft, I refused to be without it. On that same trip, I made a pilgrimage to a famous bookstore in Oxford, and while the extremely courteous staff were more than willing to ship my precious —and of course hardbound—volumes back to New York, I would hear none of it: the books, like the bathrobe, were going with me.
Then there was a trip I made, solo, to Paris. The September day I departed from JFK International Airport was blazing hot, smack-dab in the middle of a late summer heat wave that had the city wilting like week-old lettuce. I packed sandals, cropped linen pants, and sundresses, utterly unprepared for the 55-degree temperatures I found when I touched down at Charles de Gaulle. My first night there, I slept wearing my nightgown, my only blazer—a light, unlined cotton affair—a half-slip and a silk scarf that nearly strangled me. The next day I hurried off to shop—hardly a punishment in that fashion-drenched city. But instead of looking in a leisurely manner, considering my options, weighing my choices, I had to blow my whole clothing budget in a single morning.
Or else I forget some small yet essential item, like the tried-and-true Land’s End black maillot I neglected to pack when I visited a good friend at her weekend house in Bucks County. While my ever-so-gracious hostess loaned me one of her bathing suits without a second’s hesitation, it neither fit nor was flattering, and I spent the entire time feeling like a walrus that had mistakenly wandered into a party of swans.
Is that what it is then? The fear of not fitting in, not feeling comfortable or at home? Of course, one is not at home when one travels—that’s precisely the point of traveling. But there is a delicate stasis that I’m after, some way in which I want to achieve the perfect balance of being receptive to what’s new while at the same time having some continuity with what’s not. Packing right would be the bridge.
Not everyone, I know, is similarly plagued. My husband can pack for a trip of six weeks in an hour without a twinge of anxiety. Three shirts, two pairs of slacks, two pairs of shoes, a few changes of socks and underwear, hat, jacket, and it’s a wrap. He tosses his few toiletries, such as they are, into a clear, Ziploc bag. I watch with envy and with awe, but I know I will never be so nonchalant about the process of leaving one place and going to another.
The ancient Egyptians treated death as the ultimate journey; their tombs were literally crammed with all that they would ever need in this life, or in any other: clothing, jewels, wigs, headrests, tools—in miniature, because even the ancients needed to conserve space—glass vessels for perfume, slate palettes for grinding cosmetics. They knew they were off to a place they had never been and from which they would not return. Packing well was the final act of preparation to ensure that the passage was smooth and the landing without bumps. I can relate. And while I don’t aim to pack like an Egyptian, for an eternity that seems less and less certain in our fraught and tremulous age, I still long for a time when I will feel sufficiently at home—in the world and in my all-too-mortal skin— no matter what I’ve brought along for the ride.
McDonough is the author of the novels The Four Temperaments and In Dahlia’s Wake. Her children’s book, The Doll with the Yellow Star, is the 2006 winner of the Once Upon a World award presented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.