Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
[p.37]Many magazines-from Ladies Home Journal, which I read as a teen-ager, to MS, which I read as a prime-of-lifer, to Roughing It Raw, which I read during one dreamy summer when contact with reality was minimal-have published articles about How to Pack. How to pack for a weekend, how to pack for a cruise, how to pack for a ten-day hike into a wilderness so primitive the birds still sport a few scales. But I have yet to read an article about How to Unpack. And that’s the one I really need.
I can pack in less time than it takes to settle on a TV channel for the evening. I can pack twice in the time it takes three friends to decide where to have lunch next Tuesday. But I seem constitutionally unable to unpack. Unpacking a small bag used for a sleep-over in Salt Lake City takes me four days. Unloading the week-end bag from a trip to Jackson Hole takes one week minimum. I’ve now been back ten days from an extended spring trip to Europe, and I don’t think I’ll see the bottom of the suitcases before Labor Day.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it were just a matter of tripping over two fully packed suitcases in the middle of the bedroom. But of [p.38]course, that’s not the situation. The situation is two bags perpetually yawning, trailing their unlovely contents over all available space like the devouring pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
A pile here, hoping to be laundered. A stack there, waiting to be escorted to the bathroom. A little cluster of presents anticipating delivery as soon as life gets back to normal, ho-ho. The ill-at-ease group of items borrowed for the occasion and not yet returned, silently sending you guilt messages from the dresser. And somehow, the recently returned traveler seems to have a lengthy list of chores and projects far more urgent than unpacking.
Those of you who do not recognize the scenario above are certainly free to leave now if you like. The rest of us will draw our chairs into a circle and convene the Lay Psychologists League for yet another session.
Just what is at the bottom of unpacking interruptus? Is it as simple as the fact that some people are good starters and poor finishers? Does it have to do with after-burn—the complex of mopping-up chores that accompany so many otherwise pleasant activities, from having a spaghetti dinner for eight to tramping with the dogs through the cool, fragrant (burr-infested) woods?
Perhaps it arises from the disparate principles governing packing and unpacking. When packing, we are guided by two concerns: What will I need? and Is there room? Unpacking has a very different and much stickier set of concerns: How come there’s not room for this in the closet now if there was before I left? Should I wash this lingerie or just face up to the truth and throw it out? If I keep this combination model-ship-picture-frame-and-candlestick, it will just collect dust, but if I don’t keep it as a souvenir of the trip to Cape Cod, will the Codders notice when they come here this fall? Will I really put these theater programs in a scrapbook, or will they Simply add to the paper collection mildewing in the basement? This battery-operated so-called mosquito repelling device (bought expressly for the trip) has a money-back guarantee: is it worth my time to write a letter of complaint complete with photographs documenting my mosquito-bite scars, package up the impotent little gadget, tote it to the Post Office, pay for its flight home, etc.—or should I write off its cost as tuition in the Graduate School of U Live and Learn?
[p.39]Well, let’s keep an open mind on the question. Surely there’s a paper to be written on the subject-maybe a master’s thesis. (I read a thesis once on “How to Wash a Blanket”; the actual title was longer, of course, but that’s what it all boiled down to.)
Before we adjourn the meeting, let me throw out one final idea. The real unpacking from a journey doesn’t have to do with clothes, toiletries, and accumulated souvenirs. It has to do with experiences, insights, inner changes—what we went away hoping to see and do, what actually happened, what we have brought back with us that we didn’t have before, or what we lost along the way. A colleague recently returned from a tour of China and said, “The trip skewed my whole world view. I have a lot of mental re-arranging to do.” Whatever happens with the suitcases, we all need to “unpack” in this metaphoric way from journeys that we consider significant. We need to be able to share with those close to us what the experience has meant. If we are lucky, we find people who really care and who want to listen. Some of us use the resources of personal journals to “unpack” in depth. An important truth we women confront is that a great many of us have rarely had opportunities to “unpack” from the ongoing life journey we all take, have had little or no chance to say where we have been and what we have seen and felt. Instead, we have had to keep that precious baggage within ourselves, usually unexamined even by ourselves, all our lives long.
If you wonder why we are seeing more and more published biographies, autobiographies and oral histories of women these days—and not just of so-called distinguished women—the answer is that at last we are starting to value and to search out the still-unpacked treasures from the attics and the basements of women from all neighborhoods of life, past and present.
If you have a trip ahead of you this summer, bon voyage! If you’ve made yours, welcome home! And as to the unpacking, well, I frequently find inspiration in movie titles. Like Now, Voyager. Or It’s Never Too Late. Or that great classic, Come September. Ah yes, that seems to fit.