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Packing List Mantra


GUATEMALA CITY —Packing a bag is an act of meditation.  The packing list, written down and repeated becomes a mantra that embodies the will to move from one place to another, the incantation that calls the trip into existence.

This is a list, and a story about a list, that I have been working on for a long time.  Sometimes, when I need to clear my mind, I go over it, trying to think of nothing else but the things I will carry and where I will carry them to and if they will carry me.  Through force of effort I transport my mind to that place as best I can, drawing on past experience and training, on imagination and study.  I try to exclude the present and think of each thing that will go into my bags, imagine where it will fit and how it will feel to carry that bag, carry those things I have chosen on taxis and busses and airplanes and trails, all the way to the journey’s farthest point and back home again.  Can I carry these things far enough?  Will their weight be worth it?  Where will I carry my passport and money?  What will I read?  Will I be able to walk in dark places?

I meditate on the weather, meditate on uncertainty, meditate on local customs, weigh the balance between being prepared and carrying too heavy a load.  Can I get though the trip, complete the assignment, come safely home?

I list the items in my head and add up their weight and bulk, feel the cold and the sun and the wind of where I am going.  I go inside the bags, inside the pockets and pouches, imagine myself as each item pressed against every other item.  Will I break, will I leak, will I wrinkle?  I decide, weeks or months before I leave, what I will wear to the airport.  The night before I leave, I lay out those clothes, complete with whatever will be in the pockets.  I know when I wake up that my passport is already buttoned into the pocket of my jacket with my ticket, my belt is already in my pants, my money is secure.  I know where all the metal items are.  I go to sleep ready to close my door behind me and go from home to ticket counter to security to waiting lounge to the jetway and my seat.  I know what it will feel like to lift my carryon overhead and slide my camera bag under the seat, that I will slip my journal and a pen and a book into the seat pocket in front of me.

The packing list is a mantra and the motions of travel, the airport, customs, taxis, are type of katas, moving meditations.  Each trip is different, a different mantra, a different kata for which I prepare a different prayer, a different set of movements that must work together and I test myself as if under the Master’s watchful eye.

When I approach the checkpoint can I go through with the minimum of fuss?  Can I remove my shoes, my electronics, my watch and belt and hat smoothly and without error, maintaining a calm and happy demeanor that, at best, makes the other travelers and the harried employees calm and happy as well?  If I somehow set off the metal detector I have failed.  It does one thing and I know what that is.

Can I pass through these obstacles by making each move and word perfectly?  It is always a test, always slightly different, but if I make it through with time to spare I enter a sort of temporary state of bliss.  Once you have committed to a trip and paid the ticket, turned off the lights and locked the door behind you, faced the gauntlet of the airport and made it through security and found your gate, you have one of those rare places of peace.  At this point you are committed.  There is no going back.  You have chanted your mantra, said your prayer, spun it into reality, and now there is only the plane to board and more challenges to come.  But right then, right now, you can only be where you are, suspended, unable to go forward or back, alive and in the moment.  You have plenty of time to think during the coming hours hurtling through space and time in the hissing nowhere half light but just for the moment you can smile, drink a coffee, and be nowhere but where you are.

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