A Matter of Weight and Size

One of the best things about traveling is packing to come back.

Everything comes down to weight, then size. The weight requirements are rarely negotiable, the size often is. How much does this weigh, objectively, in the world? How much does it weigh to me? Does the size make it too big to fit in the remaining space? What can I move, rearranged, rethink so that I can make room for this thing that weighs a lot to me? The more you pack, the more you leave a place knowing it could be forever, the better you get at learning what something weighs to you.

That clock you bought can—even should—be wrapped in shirts and returned to its box and bubble wrap with a glove shoved into the almost-space remaining at the top. Shove the other glove into a crevice nearby. Definitely leave behind the cheetah print slippers someone gave you because she didn’t check the size, and which you used for months even though you find cheetah print disturbing, because the slippers were free.

I like to buy jewelry as gifts precisely because the pieces are light and small and understood. Scarves, too, make great souvenirs because they stuff into the weirdest corners until every seam of the bag stretches and groans, its largest version of itself, but the scarf itself objectively weighs very little. I once picked up rocks in every town or significant location I visited throughout 5 week study abroad trip to three countries, bagging and labeling them like a Martian astronaut. And after that level of commitment I felt I had to devote the weight and space to take them all back across the Atlantic with me. Where they have sat on a shelf in a cookie tin ever since.

The goal is to fit everything you personally find weighty in your luggage. For international return travel, I usually only take one checked back and one carry-on. I buy a cheap duffle in Barcelona or a London street corner and stuff it with souvenirs and new clothes and whatever else I want to come home with me. The return trip gives me two checked bags and one carry-on.

Checked baggage generally cannot exceed 45 lb each. Thus the night before I leave a place where I’ve spend any significant amount of time becomes a stressful exercise in declaring my priorities, and a test of strength and endurance as I repeatedly heave my bag into my arms as I stand on a scale and calculate the bag’s weight.

Sort. Weigh. Weigh. Arrange. Rearrange. Weigh and pray. Tell myself to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Get vicious. Re-sort. Weigh. Rearrange once more. Pray. Weigh. Add something back in that you cut. Weigh. Make a pile of what I’m leaving behind. Finally go to bed. Barely sleep.

When you’re home again and unpacking all your treasures for all your treasured to see, pray you reasoned well. Pray you have no regrets about the contents of the pile you left on your bed back in Johannesburg!

Things I Have Left Behind:
Slippers
Coats
Notebooks
Cardigans
An AirFrance blanket
An inflatable neck pillow
Belts
Medicine
Umbrellas
Jar of Peter Pan peanut butter

Things I Have Brought Home:
Magnets
Socks
London A to Z(ed)
A fancy clock
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Stuffed animals
Boots
Rocks
Plastic shopping bags
Necklaces
A sword
A vuvuzela
Flags
Betty Crocker crepe mix

Things I Have Regretted:
Betty Crocker crepe mix
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Rocks
An AirFrance blanket
Coats
Cardigans
Plastic shopping bags

Maybe you tend to drive. Maybe most of your trips are just to your grandmother’s and back. Maybe your return trip is heavy a cooler of leftover ham and more pie than you could possibly eat, but you still have one fewer bag after Thanksgiving than you did before. Maybe you don’t bring as much back from your trips as what you leave, so it’s a net loss. For good or ill. Light on gifts, heavy on exhaustion. Light on patience, heavy on endorphins. This is still a matter of weight and size. What did you choose to unload and leave behind? What was taken from you? What was important enough that you made sure to bring it back?

My past two trips have been of the lighter-returning-than-leaving sort. The first instance confuses me, as I didn’t leave anything behind. Not even accidentally, as far as I can tell. And yet it was easier to pack, load my bags into the rental, check into security, and get all my stuff back to my house again after we landed than it was to get it to Virginia in the first place. On my most recent trip, I took a lot of food for Thanksgiving and some gifts, so I knew I’d be lighter on the way back. However, I also brought a good-sized care package home with me, so you’d think it would have worked itself out to about even. Not so.

Maybe I’m just much better at packing to come home than I am to go somewhere. After all, going somewhere is full of unknowns. Will it rain? When? Will I be caught in it? Is this enough socks? What if it’s hotter than expected? Maybe I should pack a pair of shorts, just in case. It’s November in Middle Georgia, after all. You’re as likely to sweat as you are to shiver. So I tend to pack for a number of possibilities and encounter few of them. On the way back, as long as all the essentials end up at my house eventually, it’ll be fine. I know what home holds. I know I can adapt to it.

Now that you’ve been traveling for a while and are getting really good at this, look deeper than the lists. What was important enough that you never took it to begin with? What do you somehow end up carrying back and forth every trip, but you can’t remember the last time you actually used or needed it?

I’m this way with hair dryers. I know that there is one at my parent’s house and one at my grandparents’ house and even one at my brother’s apartment, as well as at almost every hotel in the country, and yet I still find myself trying to justify its odd shape and bulky curves and never-ending cord to myself as I pack for each trip. And I almost never take it. I used to, but I’ve packed a lot since then.

Late-night Drives

When was the last time you were out at 1 a.m.? Or 11 p.m.? Or 3 a.m.? Whatever really late is to you.

A couple weeks ago, Tyler and I were coming back from a musical at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and it was late. We got back to his apartment, I packed up my things—the bags and shoes I had littered across his apartment in the 5-minute whirlwind I’d created getting ready after work. And I sat down on the couch for, like, 2 seconds. And when I woke up it was even later.

Driving home, I was surprised by how many people were on the roads and the interstate. I wondered how many miles that truck had driven in the last 24 hours. How far the people in that car have been today and how far they will have to go before they sleep. Did they go to a concert or baseball game and live farther away than I do? Did they get a late-night call from a friend, for injury or illness, and are on their way to them?

I wondered about the car at the stop light and why that truck is coming out of my neighborhood. A parent headed to the store for their sick child? Or maybe just someone who can’t sleep and wants to drive around for a while. Maybe they are people like me, who stayed too long or fell asleep or watched a really long movie and are now going home to somewhere close by.

But the later it gets, the more dire I think those stories probably are. And I wonder especially about people on the interstate. What happened today, and in these last hours, to put them on the highway this late at night?

Everyone who has had a very late, very terrible night of driving, I hope there was someone praying for you as you went by. And I hope you found a hug when you got where you were going.

Things I Miss about Manchester

I’ve lived in Manchester twice, the first time in the neighborhood of Withington for 4 months and the second time in City Centre for 6 weeks. The flat I lived in the second time was about 10 minutes, walking, from the Manchester Arena where this week’s suicide bombing targeted young concert-goers and their parents. I would have been one of those people offering, at 2am, a cup of tea, a chance to recharge phones, even a spare bed.

To honor this city I adore and greatly miss, I’m making a list:

1. The people. Individual people, absolutely. The first I knew something had happened in Manchester was when I started getting Facebook notifications that friends had checked in as safe. But I also just miss the spirit of Mancunians. This is a former industry town, red-bricked and soot-stained with old canals and some gleaming new facades. First-rate public transit. Prams (strollers) in parks. Excellent museums and art galleries. Where there are more students than you can reasonably hope to count. Where I once saw a person in a rabbit costume walk sedately up the street. Where the Queen once attended a couple’s wedding in city hall. Where I could look up from my kitchen table and into the faces of passengers on the top level of a red double-decker. Where a statue stands of Abraham Lincoln, commemorating that though the American Civil War decimated Manchester’s economy, the ending of slavery in the US was worth it. They are extraordinary people.

2. Piccadilly Gardens. From hot chocolate at an outdoor table to watching children play in the fountain, from whirring over the city in a carnival swing to the Primark at the corner (good grief, I miss that Primark). I miss just walking through on my way to Arndale’s food court for lunch with a friend or to Printworks then a pub. (Both Arndale and Printworks are mere blocks from the arena.) I miss the ridiculous two Starbucks locations on opposite sides of the square, and a Cafe Nero, and another Cafe Nero around the corner. I miss getting desperate enough for a single Krispy Kreme donut that I pay that price and queuing for the bus in the freezing cold. I also miss running to the first stop up Portland Street when I arrived too late and my bus had already shut its doors to depart.

3. Food. MCR loves curry. And American restaurants. And Chinese food. Mostly curry, which is as it should be. And Chinatown is fantastic (I have a favorite place). Krispy Fried Chicken, Kansas Fried Chicken, and various other establishments (including KFC) can be avoided quite well, thank you. (The meat is hallal, there’s no such thing as extra crispy, they fry in olive oil, and it’s the greasiest food you can manage to find in all the Isles.) A friend begged me to go with him to the Arndale mall food court when Taco Bell opened. I know someone who threatened to move when the American-style burger place in the Northern District burned. But oh, goodness. The curry!

4. Parks. This is very much an English thing, but Manchester’s parks are amazing. I already talked about Piccadilly Gardens. Then there’s the one nearest my flat in Withington with double duck ponds and willows that look ready to whomp. The one where the Salford and Quays meet. The one where my friend took her boys to play every day, even in the rain, and where I also took them when I babysat them. The one we’d cut through visiting friends in Fallowfield. The one where I saw a 5-actor production of “Pride & Prejudice”. The ones attached to homes in the National Trust, great sweeping grounds of manor houses like Dunham Massey, Tatton Park, and Lyme Park (the house used as Pemberley in the classic “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries). There are even a couple more I can’t place. But parks are well kept and well valued by Mancunians.

5. City Katie. I’ve written about her before. She was her best self in Manchester. And she got really good at applying eye liner, mascara, lipstick, and blush on the train. Less so on the bus.

I long to hear the Mancunian accent. I long to queue! Every Christmas I miss the markets with an almost physical pain. I find myself wistful for a particular yarn shop, wishing I could get my watch battery changed at a certain hardware shop. I yearn for a specific Italian restaurant and please, please give me Nando’s! Did I mention Primark? I miss Primark. The Piccadilly Gardens one.

Manchester is truly English (much more so than London), truly British (see halal meat and curry), truly in love with sports (Man City over United any day), truly lovely in just about every sense of the word. And I am so, so sorry for them. I am also immensely honored to have called Manchester home those short, pivotal times in my life.

Things I Already Miss about NYC

I spent last week in the city of lights, specifically in Brooklyn and I was immediately a bit of a snob about it. I miss the narrow, tall house, the smooth wooden banisters, the orange and red tulips on my dresser. I miss the wonderful friends who hosted me. And here are some other things I miss.

Delivery on everything. We didn’t even order in groceries or pillows or bagels or postcards. But I could have. And I’ve missed that freedom.

Interesting food. Also bagels. And pizza. And macarons. And cart pretzels (even though I didn’t have one, they were always nearby). The restaurants themselves were fascinating: long farm tables so you can share a workspace, round tables stacked with silver plates of pastries, a narrow counter at an open window, a tiny square table in a former church.

Walking culture. I almost never say, “Let’s walk there,” in my life in Macon, GA. It’s still rarer for everyone in a group to assume we’ll walk. Even at church I take the shuttle to and from the back lot where I park. But in NYC, of course we walked the 1.2 miles to the book store. Of course we walked the 8 blocks from the restaurant to the theater. And I’m happier doing so. And I discover so much more along the way. And the Brooklyn Promenade my first night in town irrevocably captured my heart.

Trains. I love them so much a friend called me Sheldon. Mostly, I love that I can travel hundreds of miles without long waits and baggage hassles (as in airports) and while free to read, write, crochet, work, or any number of other things not possible when driving. Trains are soothing, scenic, inspiring, and the least stressful way for me to travel.

Good public transit. Set me down anywhere in a city like New York, ask me to get anywhere else, and I can do it. I don’t need a car or bulky bags—I can’t take anything too heavy with me—I just take myself where I’m going. I get to people watch. I get to share the space and experience with strangers. I’m also, as on trains, free to use my time because I’m not busy driving.

Connections. I had no idea how far the Chrysler building is from the Empire State building. I had no concept of how close Brooklyn Bridge is to Freedom Tower. I saw movies and read books about New York, so every place in New York was a shot framed under a lamppost, a pan of the skyline, every location disjointed and without context. I couldn’t see how the pieces fit together, relate to one another, and continually marveled at how near things were, even more than how big. Plus, I love recognizing a place I’m seeing in front of me from a favorite TV show or a well-loved movie (“You’ve Got Mail” came up a lot).

History. Yes, I love history. Give me a good museum and I’ll be happy all day. But NYC is, in so many ways, sacred ground. Every inch I walked and every train car and every seat in every restaurant has been vital in a person’s life. More than one person. In an old city, my heart beats in the echoes of all the heartbeats around me and before me. For centuries. Including people I admire and people I ought to admire but don’t know.

Art culture. Sculpture installations, galleries, musicals, plays, schools, book stores, and every other form or product of art. NYC is a place for art. When you visit the city, you’re expected to see at least one Broadway musical. The names of galleries and museums can be rattled off by people who have never been been to the Big Apple: The Met, MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Natural History Museum. And I do love art in Macon as well, and in Atlanta, but there isn’t a culture surrounding art in the same way.

Parks. City folks love—and need—parks. And NYC’s parks are unique, like The Highline: a former above-ground rail line full of trees and grasses and flowers weaving through the West Side along the river. Sitting on a bench in Cadman Plaza, I watched children race their scooters and nannies change diapers while a tiny soccer practice was underway. I live near a wonderful park that I use often, but NYC’s walking culture combines with the unique flavors of neighborhoods for delightful beautiful in high contrast to the surrounding miles of concrete. Not that NYC lacks green beyond it’s parks. I was delighted to find tulips growing at bases of nearly every tree on the sidewalks of Brooklyn.

City Katie. I love who I am in a city. I move through the world confidently. I’m comfortable. I’m so happy. Even when something goes wrong (or many things), I have options and I solve problems. Some days the city wins, but I win far more frequently. I’m flexible, patient, amused and amusing. I do so much in a day. I buy things that bring me joy and that I don’t mind carrying for the rest of the day. (It’s a good litmus test, really: am I going to regret buying this after carrying and keeping up with it for four hours?) I have access to almost any experience I desire. I’m creative. I’m so tired by the time I flop into bed at night. I’m on a constant adventure. I love being this creative, curious, confident, capable person. Driving to work in an ill mood this morning, I missed her the most.

On My Own

I recently read Kendra Syrdal’s post about loving a woman who have spent a lot of time on her own. After I stopped singing my favorite song from Les Mis (okay, I haven’t stopped), I thought back to last winter.

Just after Christmas, a friend and I took a long drive. We went north, settled somewhere gorgeous for a few days, then drove somewhere else. We stayed there overnight, drove on. We stayed somewhere new, we drove home. The whole trip was planned and we knew the addresses of the places we were staying ahead of time, but now the entire trip feels like nothing more than drifting. The pair of us were leaves that floated, back and forth, swayed by unseen breezes, until we settled back into life on the ground.

We Southern ladies saw more snow than we had in years. We met and reconnected with great people. We walked a lot. We found new bands to fall asleep to. We listened to Marissa Meyer’s Winter. We talked. We talked so much that I don’t know where we were that week—if it was daylight or night, if we were driving or sitting or walking or creating—when she confessed a fear to me.

She didn’t say it like she was afraid. I don’t know if she knew that’s what it was, this thing she was telling me.

She knew a man. She’d met him years before who had asked her out. She’d said yes and had a good time. Because of her schedule, it was a sacrifice to go. But she enjoyed herself. He asked her out again. She knew him, had known him, and trusted him as well as one can trust the friend he’d been to her. He confused her a little, which may be part of why she kept sacrificing sleep, studying, time with friends and family. She shaved time here and there, which added up to a couple of hours a week to spend with him. Then he asked her for a little more, and a little more. He didn’t push her, but he asked. An extra half-hour. A few texts. A movie. Slight things to most that were significant sacrifices for her to arrange. He called her a few days before Christmas to ask her to be his girlfriend. She asked, once she got back to town and after her trip with me, if they could sit down and talk about what that means. He said yes.

We were in the dark car, the dashboard throwing green and red and orange onto our faces as snow fell on the salty roads. Or we were lounging on white sofas under woven flannel blankets, knotting yarn into hats and scarves and blankets for unborn babies. Or we were breathing on our gloved hands in the not-darkness of a city’s New Year’s fireworks, huddled close in our thin coats. She’d told me about him already. Now she told me, “I don’t know how to make sure he knows I want him.”

The obvious answer might be, “Tell him,” but she wasn’t referring to their impending conversation, once our drifting leaves landed on the ground again. She meant making room for him in her life. She meant the lawn mower. She meant the space next to her in the pew. She meant the bargain sofa. She meant the laugh from her parents’ driveway.

My friend has been on her own for a long time. She’s been an independent landowner, a landlady, a professional, a traveling specialist. She expected to remain that way, in part because of her schedule and in part because falling in love isn’t easy for her. She’d made a life for herself where she rarely needed to call a mechanic and never took the broken lawnmower home to her dad. She organized rental vans for her furniture and brought cardigans to keep her warm at church. She’d figured out how to live her life alone, and she made it the best life she could.

She doesn’t need this man who wanted her to be his girlfriend. She doesn’t need his help or his companionship. Even as she confided this fear to me, she knew her life would be simpler without him: more sleep, more studying, more time for the people she already loves. But she wanted him there.

She knew he would need to feel wanted, maybe want to feel needed, but she didn’t need him. She wanted him there, if he understood exactly what her life entailed and still wanted them to be a couple, but she knew that it would take time to make room for him. It would be hard. I heard how afraid she was to do this, because what if he left? What if he changed his mind? What if it just doesn’t work? It takes so much longer to put yourself back together than it took to fall apart (thanks, Suzanne Collins). Learning to be lonely but okay is a bone-breaking kind of hard, but once you’re there, you can live. Maybe you can live for the rest of your life in just that way, delicate but secure.

My friend knew she’d need to trust him. She knew he’d need to feel wanted. So she was confessing that she didn’t know how to make that happen.

I heard her fear under her clinical tone, but I also heard her hope. After she laid everything out before him—what her life would look like because of her programs and her job—and after he considered what it would mean for him and them, she hoped he’d still want to be her boyfriend.

She hoped, and that’s why she was trying, more than a week before their conversation, to figure out what she would need to do to make it work, for him to feel valued.

I’m telling you this story about her because it could be a story about me. The details are not the same, certainly. I’ve decided to make space for someone at the same time he decided I wasn’t worth it. I’ve refused to make space, and he’s gone away hurt. But after last winter’s setting-less conversation, I realized that I have also built my life to be on my own. I want someone, but I don’t need anyone. And I know that, because I’ve been on my own for so long, strictly relying on friends for what I simply cannot do myself, it’ll be hard for him to figure out I want him. It will be hard for me to show or tell him.

I won’t need him. People like to be needed. Some people are used to being needed. I’d much rather be needed than to need anyone, though honestly I like being my own, mostly autonomous unit.

My friend is a beautiful blessing in my life. Her boyfriend thinks the same. I admire her so much for both her hope and her fear, for understanding herself this well, for giving me a few words to better understand myself as well.

Update: Their wedding was fun and poignant and lovely and loving.