In the hours before our family moved from California to England for seven months, here’s where you would have found me: on my hands and knees on our living room floor, sweating and pulling random items out of my bag. I yanked out sandals, a fanny pack, a striped scarf, then zipped up the monstrosity again. My husband stepped on the scale, lifted the bag again. “52 pounds.” I groaned and went back in: I guess I didn’t really need this book, these boots? Did I really need this many pairs of socks? I fished out anything that would push my suitcase over the 50-pound weight limit.
Why all this fuss over making everything fit? Because my husband, daughter and I moved abroad for half a year and took only one suitcase each. This was, of course, no overnight bag; it fit a fair amount. But this trip was going to span three seasons, which meant being prepared for snow, torrential rains and heat waves. The lowly Samsonite also had to fit shoes, pajamas, slippers, toiletries, plugs, bags, medication, and jewelry. And, yes, of course, Cambridge has clothing stores, but the idea was to be as self-sufficient as possible. We were not going to be buying wardrobes when we arrived. (Books, it turned out, were another story.)
When my husband and I made our one-suitcase deal, I worried about two things: First, that I’d pack badly and end up with clothing that was inappropriate for the weather. And second (this one niggled at me more): that I’d get bored of my few pieces.
Well, I was wrong. I managed, miraculously, to pack without any gaping holes. (No forgotten pjs!) But the bigger lesson was around what I did bring.
Of course there were moments when I stared at the same pair of black GAP overalls I’d already worn twice that week and think, You? Again?, but mostly what I felt was relief. Pure, unadulterated relief. I’d been ruthlessly honest with myself before packing and brought only my most beloved pieces along, items I knew, without a doubt, I’d wear. And perhaps most important, I’d packed nothing aspirational. Nothing to the tune of “When I lose five pounds,” or “I’ll wear them to [some fancy event I’ll never attend],” or “In Europe, I’ll become a dress person!” or even, “This one works perfectly with, like, four safety pins to close the gaping around my boobs.”
No. None of that kind of mishegoss made the cut. Farewell to change! Farewell to hope! Farewell to when in Rome! Every piece qualified as something I regularly reached for at home, fit me exactly right this very instant in this perfectly imperfect middle-aged body, and made me feel comfortable in my own skin.
So, what did I bring? Three pairs of jeans, the aforementioned black overalls, three jumpsuits, T-shirts, turtlenecks, two blouses, a few sweaters, four jackets/coats, and a dress I have yet to wear. I packed underwear, bras, socks, pajamas, trainers (I’m apparently British now) and clogs, and bought a pair of boots when we arrived. The end.
Unsurprisingly, with my choices narrowed, it now takes me a fraction of the time to get dressed in the morning. This isn’t only because there are fewer options to wade through, but because there is nothing on offer whose value or fit I question for even an instant (same goes for earrings and makeup). Everything is something I love. Everything works on me. It is, in short, a revelation.
This might make me sound absolutely bonkers but after a few months of dressing like this, it started to feel like a metaphor for — friendship, maybe? And even for life? Do I want clothing or people hanging around my closet or my life that I wouldn’t want to reach for any day of the week?
Do I really need all this excess stuff that doesn’t fit me or my life anymore? Why am I holding onto so much?
Five months in, I’ve missed almost nothing from my closet, except the fanny pack I tossed out at the last second. Has this made me want to return home and donate everything in my closet? Kind of. A capsule is easy and doable and less expensive and has given me so much more brain space (as well as closet space). There are no more piles on my bed, aka morning rejects I didn’t have time to hang back up before school drop off and only get to at night, lest I be forced to sleep with them (which I have done).
But I’m much more interested in the capsule’s metaphorical implications: Sometimes, it turns out, it’s okay to pare down, in the clothing department and elsewhere. Not everything fits forever: sweaters, heels, bras, jobs, homes, hobbies, friends. This may feel sad in some ways, but it’s also refreshing to see that “forever” is not necessarily the marker of success. The marker of success, these days, feels like having just what I need, nothing more, and all of it right for me.
I wouldn’t call it joy, the feeling that overtakes me when I glide open my uncluttered British drawer, but I would say it’s soothing, a little like opening up “favorites” on my phone. It’s because I see myself, as I am right now. I don’t have to shapeshift, I don’t have to improve, I don’t have to fight with my body or my tastes. I don’t have infinite choices that don’t feel right.
What, I wonder, would happen if I did that in more parts of my life?
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies.She has also written for Cup of Jo about beauty, marriage, teenagers, loss, and only children.
(Top photo by J. Anthony/Stocksy.)