You will never, in all your life, meet a person who packs a better suitcase than I do, and I’ll tell you right now, the secret is not organization--it is simplification. Get rid of your crap. Do not own things in the first place. Surrender the weight of what you carry and the wild, wide world is yours.
Which sounds easy--“when in doubt, go without” and all that--but to achieve true freedom you must be brutal as a consumer. Is dental floss on sale two for one? Don’t fall for it--one extra thing taking up room to pack and repack, and, besides that, what if your teeth all fall out before you ever need to use it? Now you’re the dummy hauling around extra floss for no reason.
Yes, floss. Insignificant weight until you add it to that pen you bought, the T-shirt you had to have, the non-travel-sized thing of shampoo, until one day you wake up dragging the weight of a rolling suitcase taller and heavier than your own body and you’re exhausted trying to keep track of all these things you’ve convinced yourself you need--Where did I leave that? Did someone take the other? Why can’t I find my socks underneath all these stupid boxes of floss? Trapped.
My packing credentials were passed to me from my namesake and honed since my birth, straight into foster care and never adopted. The longest I’ve lived in any house is eleven months, and now I am seventeen years old, so you do the math.
At school people sometimes ask me what it’s like to live this way, which, I suppose for kids who lost or were removed from a family they once lived with and maybe loved, is a legit question, but for me is like asking a person born blind what it’s like to not see--it’s not like anything. I’ve got no objective context because I was left newborn, nameless, cord still attached, and jonesing for meth at John Muir Medical Center in California. A “foundling.” When no one came to claim me, the NICU nurses named me for him; Child Protective Services let them put Muiriel on my birth certificate, and I have grown into it.
On my eighth birthday my social worker, Joellen, picked me up, and we walked a wooded Seattle path along the shore of the Salish Sea, and she told me how lucky I am to carry the honor of this name: Muir, a Scottish naturalist, father of our national parks, a guy who slept outside nearly all his life. We sat beside the water, and I unwrapped her gift to me: not a toy or the glitter hair barrettes I’d secretly hoped for.
The Wilderness World of John Muir. A weighty, hardback anthology of Muir’s best writing about nature, curated by another naturalist, Edwin Way Teale, who arranged the essays in a way that makes them also a biography of Muir’s life.
I mean . . . birthday dream of eight-year-old girls everywhere.
The transcendental nature and half the vocabulary of the book were beyond me, of course, because third grade, but Joellen has, all my life, been more about what I need than what I think I want. I skipped rocks, and she told me Muir’s story like it was mine, his days a timeline of my own.
“Muir’s whole life was about protecting the natural world because nature is vulnerable; it can’t defend itself against people. ‘Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away.’ ”
She read a passage to me, and marked it so I could find it again:
Standing alone on the mountain-top it is easy to realize that whatever special nests we make--leaves and moss like the marmots and birds, or tents or piled stone--we all dwell in a house of one room--the world with the firmament for its roof--and are sailing the celestial spaces without leaving any track.
“All living things, we are one family,” she said, “together in one home, sleeping beneath the same stars.”
With my pinkie finger I petted the illustrated black bears hiding in the forest trees on the cover. I did not know then what first edition meant. Joellen put her hand on my head and made me look up at her.
“Muiriel. Do you understand?”
Not that day. But Joellen planted the seed of Muir’s wisdom that grew into the truth that comforts me now: he lived nearly all his life more at home outside than in, and I understand why. Every house I live in smells different; the rules and beds and people are never the same. But one walk outside and I am always home, beneath the same sky. Alone is not lonely. Nothing to miss, nothing and no one to wish or search for. John Muir set me free.
He walked thousands of miles over mountain ranges and forded rivers; slept in trees and deserts and forests; and carried with him only a washcloth, a bar of soap, a loaf of bread, a compass, and, oddly, a stack of heavy books he felt were as vital as the bread--which I think is ridiculous--so I see his books and raise him one library card. But as Muir loved Thoreau, I love Muir, so every move to each new house, I pack The Wilderness World in with the socks.
Socks are important. Warm, dry feet are key to movement, and therefore to freedom. Socks are packed pressed flat together and rolled, tight, like well-made sushi. Two pairs of shoes (indoor and outdoor), one raincoat, one lightweight warm coat, seven sausage-rolled shirts, three pairs of pants, one pair of shorts, two sets of pajamas, three bras, seven rolled-up pairs of underwear. Basically, your suitcase should look like a grocery store deli platter of cotton-pinwheel party sandwiches, exactly a week’s worth of outfits--laundry on Sunday. No new item of clothing is allowed in unless an old one is removed; anything reversible is twice as welcome in any well-packed case. Seriously, I could give a TED Talk on this shit and, oh, let us not forget the Holy Grail of packing: the toiletry kit. Flat, water-resistant nylon and plastic, four refillable bottles for soap and shampoo, pocket for a nail clipper, razor, tampons, hair ties, toothbrush, toothpaste, and your one floss.
I can pack and be out of any house in four minutes flat.
Except this day: eight minutes, twenty-three seconds.
Dying in sweltering summer heat in a bedroom crammed with bunk beds the day after my seventeenth birthday, I kept Joellen waiting while I debated for the hundredth and maybe last time the merits of abandoning a secret I carry that renders my “John Muir Packing” TED Talk a bunch of hypocritical garbage.
Hidden among the sushi socks and sausage shirts is a stash of compulsion in a blue-and-white-striped pillowcase tied in a knot. A sieve of burden and humiliation that in each house catches new things I collect and carry with me year after year, and I don’t know why.
Muir would be so disappointed. Or maybe he would understand.
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
“Little blackbird nest,” Joellen said the one time she saw it, while helping me pack in fifth grade. I rushed to hide it. “Not everything has to be useful to be loved,” she said.
In my experience, that’s debatable.
Besides, these things I carry are not loved--a ship does not love the barnacles clinging to its hull. Still, even on this August day, I could not bear to let them go. I held the bag of worthless loot and agonized until Zola, the small girl who’d slept in the bunk beneath mine for the last few months, came in.
“Here,” she said, and put a small metal thing in my hand. An Allen wrench.
“In case you get lonely,” she said. “Okay?”
I nodded. “How was swim class?” I asked. “You put your head under yet?”
“Oh, Zola.” I sat on the bed. “You have to remind her.” This foster mom was well intentioned but forgetful as hell. Especially, it seemed, with Zola’s very few activities.
“Will you come see me ever?” she asked. “Can I write you?”
I rolled the wrench around in my palm. “Not sure writing is allowed,” I lied. “But you never know when you’ll see someone again.”
Zola’s face fell. My eyes stung.
I didn’t want to keep Joellen waiting, and besides, if she had her way, this was maybe the last of packing, unpacking, packing, unpacking, so I dropped the Allen wrench into the pillowcase, removed one of the things and slipped it into my pocket, retied the knot, and carried it all in my perfect suitcase to her waiting car. To one more--one last--foster house.
“You want to come out?”
Zola nodded and trudged beside me.
Joellen was in her usual spot at the curb to give the foster mom time to say goodbye to me because she always thinks parents will miss me, which is not entirely true; it’s just the older I get, the more help I am around the house, and that is what they will miss. I don’t blame them. Most foster parents are overworked and exhausted, and I am not only not a burden but often useful. Sometimes I feel bad for leaving, like I’m ditching a job knowing there’s no new employee to take on my duties.
This foster mom hugged me, said she wished I didn’t have to go. “Maybe you’ll be back, though.” She sniffed. “A bad penny always turns up.”
I ran back into the house and fetched a wad of toilet paper from the bathroom because she was crying a little and the house tissue box was empty. On my way out, I added Kleenex to the magnetic shopping list on the fridge and Zola Swim Class 8:00 a.m. to every Tuesday square in August on the paper calendar tacked to the wall.
Zola hugged me around my middle, and I let her and felt my throat swelling tight, so I turned to the newest kid, a boy whose arrival this morning made my being here untenable--no more room at the inn; he’s younger and needs it more; our ages and genders can’t share a bedroom--who did not hug me because he is ten years old and scared and also doesn’t know me, so I waved to him, alone on the porch swing.
I let Zola squeeze me a few seconds more. I put my hand on her head for a moment, then took the porch steps two at a time.
Joellen popped the hatch of her worn-out Subaru, the car I’ve ridden in since I was still in a five-point car seat, and I tossed in my suitcase. Leaning across the passenger seat, she--small white lady, permed brown curls framing her round, middle-aged but unlined face--unlocked my door and smiled up at me. She’s shorter than me, and I’m barely five five. She sits on a pillow to drive. “Ready?” She smiled again.
“What’s a bad penny?” I asked. “Why would it always turn up?”
She took her hand off the wheel. “Who said that?”
“No one. Just wondering.”
“Well. It’s like . . . bad decisions come back to haunt you. Or a bad person keeps showing up where they’re not wanted. Like that. Why?”
I looked forward to the road, not back at the house. Not at Zola alone on the porch. She’ll be okay. She’ll be fine. She’ll go home soon.
One more year, starting today. All I have to do is stay unnoticed and unadopted until my eighteenth birthday and I’m free.
“Let’s go,” I said, and buckled in.
At the Seattle ferry dock, Joellen bought a ticket for one car, two passengers. She saw me eyeball the ticket and passed it to me. “Here you go, Blackbird.” I put it in my pocket and felt the thing I’d taken from the pillowcase, a tangled necklace chain I worked to unknot. My first ferry ride. A year from today I will buy my own ticket to go anywhere I want, anytime I want. Joellen pulled into the line of tourists’ and commuters’ cars leaving Seattle to cross the Puget Sound, thirty minutes over the blue-black water to what Wikipedia calls “a forested island the size of Manhattan, with a population equal to 0.4 percent of Manhattan’s population.” Thirty minutes from Seattle, where I’ve lived nearly my entire life, but I’ve never been to any of the islands because what foster parent has the time or gumption to haul a bunch of kids on a ferry across the Sound for fun?
This island, Wiki also tells me, holds the grim distinction of being the place where America’s disgusting Japanese internment began but is described now as “twenty-seven square miles of land, much of it untouched forest, marked by thirty-two miles of trails and farms and fields, and rocky shoreline.” And houses and some schools. And now me.
Our line moved, and Joellen parked in the ferry’s belly full of cars. It felt like driving on water. She led me up two flights of steps in a metal stairwell to the top deck, and we leaned together over the rail in the cold sea air and sunshine, Joellen wrapped in a blue down jacket, her short curls moving like mown lawn, me taller beside her in forgettable jeans and T-shirt, straight brown hair whipping around dark eyes in my nondescript white face. The ferry sailed from the dock, and Ivar’s Fish Bar, the Ferris wheel, the Space Needle--all of Seattle--grew smaller on the horizon, water churning in the ferry’s white wake. I breathed in the brackish sea air and tried to absorb the beauty of the water reflecting the summer sky, and the skyline, and I tried to exist in the moment, but electric nervous heat squeezed my heart.
“You can ferry back for a visit whenever; just call and I’ll pick you up,” Joellen said, and then, for the gazillionth time, “I’m sorry. I tried so hard to find something in the city--”
“I know,” I said, and almost added, It’s okay, even though it wasn’t.
“There’s just nothing for you right now. I mean, there’s hotels, but I’m not doing that to you. Not one bed in a house in all of Seattle, and I wanted--”
Her let’s have a talk tone. I love Joellen. I don’t love talks.
“I need you to try,” she said. “It’s only twelve months. Think of it in weeks or hours, count them down, mark them off, do what you have to, but you’ve got to stay put. One house. Senior year matters for college, or just . . . for life. It’s important. You need to concentrate, no moving around, just this last one school. Please. For me.”