When I was 7 years old, my parents packed up their life and moved me and my four siblings to the other side of the world. Since then, I have lived in four countries and moved over 20 times. In fact, my oldest son’s first crib was a suitcase on the floor next to my bed.
Needless to say, I have learned a thing or two about packing over the years, whether it is just for a weekend with family or an indefinite stay in another country. Here are some tips I have picked up along the way:
We don’t need nearly as much stuff as we think we do. Soon after we were married, my husband and I moved to a small Mongolian town on the edge of the Gobi Desert. We took six 70-pound suitcases full of all sorts of must-haves, from spices to a full winter wardrobe. However, I soon realized that everyone around us only had a few changes of clothes. My students would typically alternate between two outfits, washing one each night and wearing the other one while it dried. Since I didn’t want to stand out any more than absolutely necessary and I certainly didn’t want to perpetuate the “rich American” mindset, I started to do the same. All those “essential” clothes and the fancy gear that I had crammed into my bags ended up staying right where they were … in my suitcases.
Nonessentials are sometimes more important than the essentials. Music of all kind is soul food for me, especially when I am the one creating it. One of the best and easiest ways for me to recharge and de-stress is to simply sit down in front of a piano and play a few songs. But pianos don’t fit well with a nomadic lifestyle. They are expensive and too heavy to move easily. Finding a piano tuner can be next to impossible when you live in the African bush or the Mongolian steppes, and what happens if a key breaks or a string needs to be replaced?
For years, every time we moved to a new city or country, I would say, “I can’t do this anymore. I have to buy a piano.” But I never did, and my soul slowly dried up.
What I didn’t realize was that by not recognizing and responding to this need deep within me, I was crippling myself emotionally and limiting the depth and the quality of care that I was providing for my family and for those around me. It took me a long time to realize the hurt that my “sacrificial” lifestyle was inflicting on myself and others, but after 10 years, I finally broke down and bought a piano. It may be expensive and unwieldy, but it has significantly increased my joy, my sense of peace, and my feelings of contentment. The old saying is true…“If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
Pack things that will help you feel at home. Before I had kids, it was easier to leave the photo albums and mementos packed away back in America. I wanted to keep them safe—all sorts of things can happen when you live overseas, and who knows if you will be able to fit them in your suitcase next time? Also, who wants to go to the trouble of printing, framing, and hanging pictures when you might be moving in six months or a year?
But this all changed when I had kids. One day, I looked at the empty walls in our house in the African bush and realized that they were growing up in a house, not a home. So I started leaving room in our suitcases for special things…baby pictures, Christmas ornaments from the grandparents, and favorite toys and games. Our house slowly came to life and developed a personality of its own. It may just be stuff, and nonessential stuff at that, but I saw my whole family relax and become more at ease with our circumstances.
As a family of five, we made our last international move with only six suitcases. I had to leave most of the clothes behind, but I managed to fit in special pictures that my kids had drawn, sports awards, crafts that they had made at school, favorite books (the ones you want to throw away because they have been read so many times), about 50 pounds of Lego, and even a giant (de-stuffed) plush lion.
Because of our lifestyle, my kids are unable to draw comfort from having always lived in the same house and in the same town, but I have found that I can help them feel secure and at peace through familiar objects, music, colors, textures, and smells. What I choose to pack in our bags can protect the emotional stability of my family and is key to our ability to thrive (not just survive) in a new setting.
It’s pretty clear that what I put in my suitcase has changed over the years. The world has changed drastically from when an international move meant taking along everything but the kitchen sink. These days, all those “must-haves” that I hauled to Mongolia can be found in just about any corner shop in every part of the world. But I haven’t shifted my focus from essentials to nonessentials, per se. Rather, I have learned to prioritize my soul needs over my physical needs. A quality life is far better than one of quantity.
What is the one item (or items) that makes it into your suitcase for every move? How has the way that you pack a suitcase changed over time? What are some “nonessentials” that nourish your soul?