03 July 2009

Packing: Mandatory Minimalism

Some writer once sent another writer a very long letter he ended by apologizing for the length. "I didn't have time to shorten it," he said.

Perhaps the story is apocryphal. I gave the writer in question a masculine pronoun because, as I recall, the writer was male: The literature professor who related this story to me many years ago told me the writer's name, which I recall as a male.

Anyway, real minimalism--as opposed to cutting just for the sake of cutting--is difficult business. Although Robert Browning's poetry has lost almost any appeal it ever had for me, I will credit him for a wonderful summation of the ethos: "Less is more." Of course, lots of artists and CEOs have interpreted that statement, for which Mies van der Rohe rather than Browning usually gets credit, in ways that would probably leave Browning and van der Rohe spinning in their graves.

Now I am trying to practice a sort of minimalism. I am packing for the flights I will take tomorrow. I want to keep everything in one carry-on bag. Because I am transferring from one flight to another in Denver, I want to eliminate the possibility of waiting for a bag that doesn't arrive, and of hoping that they will ship it in some timely way to the hospital.

I used to pride myself on how minimally I could pack. Other people, too, recognized that ability I had. Bicycle touring is good training for that. You have even less room for carrying equipment in a set of bicycle panniers, handlebar bag and seat bag than you have in backpacks or duffel bags. And, depending on how long you're going to be on the road or trail, and how far you'll be from bike shops, you need to carry some spares and tools.

On a bike, you deal not only with space limitations; you have to consider the fact that everything you pack onto your bike has to be pedalled up any hill you encounter or into the wind, if it's blowing at you.

I will not have such considerations on this trip. On the other hand, I won't have many opportunites to buy things I might forget. Also, I want to bring my laptop and cell phone, in part to keep up this blog and my other writing, but also to stay in contact with people to whom I promised I would. Until the last couple of bike tours I took, cell phones weren't much smaller than today's laptops, and the laptops would fit in the laps of one of those mythical creatures you might encounter by a remote lake or Alpine pass. Plus, I took those trips to get away from the people and things I knew, so I didn't want to do too much to stay in touch.

I used to spend a couple of weeks, even a month, on my bike. Then, at the end of it, I'd visit friends in Paris whom I would not have seen otherwise. I always enjoyed those trips, but now I can admit what I was really doing.

And now? The past few years have been about embracing who and what I am, for better and worse. This trip is to help me culminate at least part of that process, which I suspect will take the rest of my life--and, according to Buddhists, one or more lifetimes after this one.

First I had to scrape away the corrosive residue of anger that I once mistook for my protective shell. It was what got me to drink, fight and perform all those other nearly-suicidal feats on which I prided myself. Then I had to peel away various layers of sadness and despair.

I'm still discovering what's underneath all those layers, although I know a few basic things about what I've found and expect and hope to encounter. So, the surgery I'm about to undergo is both a culmination of one kind of change in my life and a continuation of a journey of discovery.

Whatever else it may be, I've got to travel light. I'm talking about minimizing spiritual as well as literal baggage. Minimalizing the former will be another process that will continue throughout my life, and beyond, while minimalizing the latter is something I've got to finish tonight, unless I forego sleep.

Robin, the manager of Dr. Bowers' office, said I should consider myself lucky if I get any sleep tonight. For once, I hope she's wrong. That's not the sort of minimalism I had in mind!

Whatever happens tonight, I had a fine day in spite of all the running around I did. Millie and John had me over their house for a "last supper." Of course, Millie, being a much better Catholic than I've ever been, would never call it that. Lisa, their unmarried daughter who's dating a standup comic (whom I like a lot), joined us for a repast of Spanish-style chicken and rice with chorizo and peas, and a salad. Yum!

And they had a surprise for me: a birthday cake. Not just a birthday cake, though: a strawberry shortcake. Now tell me, wouldn't you rather have a strawberry shortcake than just about any "real" birthday cake you've had?

No minimalism there. But sometimes you need something fulsome in order to practice minimalism.

Now that I've shown what a fraudulent philosopher I am, I'll get back to my minimalism, I mean, packing.

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