What it means to pack a suitcase — lessons from my late father

Learning to order my luggage and my life around versatility and care

Sherry Ning

Collared shirts and dress pants should be folded; softer garments should be rolled. Place the soft rolled items on the bottom and around the sides so they absorb external shocks. Lay folded items in the centre, with your most frequently worn outfit on top. Flatten the socks, in pairs, and snake the belts in between folds and crevices.

Packing a suitcase was one of the first skills I learned from my father. He was a Fortune 500 account executive who spent more time at airports and hotels than at our two-storey lake view loft by the Taiwan Strait. He was always busy, burning the midnight oil at his desk and working late nights at the office, or wining and dining with clients in foreign territories. Nevertheless, he was an excellent provider and a father who loved unconditionally.

Professionally, he was a manager, and his leadership ran deep through his character and the course of his every action. Personally, he was a very tidy man, and organization was second nature to him, including packing a suitcase, fitting all the groceries into the fridge, and scheduling my extensive portfolio of extracurriculars.

Less than a year after I transferred to U of T’s life sciences program in pursuit of clinical psychology, my father was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, one of the most aggressive types. What followed was a year of confusion, uncertainty, and, eventually, loss. My father passed away exactly a week after my 20th birthday. I was the first of my friends to lose a parent.

Losing my father was one of those ‘it’ll never happen to me’ situations. When such tragedy strikes, we look for someone or something to blame, and when we can’t boil it down to a quiet conclusion, it becomes simpler to assign fault to the axioms of life itself. It’s easier to bury yourself in self-pity and believe that the universe is just callously cruel to you than to unflinchingly accept that life moves forward. My takeaway is that change is the only certainty: life is in flux and time makes no delays.

Much like my father, I have a quirk for organizing and keeping things tidy. So as I fold, roll, and flatten the contents of my suitcases, I have learned to do the same to the matters of my life. The lessons I have gathered have stayed with me to this day.

Think big, then edit

The most effective way of packing is to brainstorm all the events you might have to dress for and coordinate the possible combinations that allow for maximum versatility. Then, add handy accessories accordingly. Always pack backup socks and undergarments. After all, the various dress codes of life require nuances in attire.

Planning ahead is an asset of mine; I’m organized and conscientious, which makes me a pessimist by nature: I brainstorm every possible outcome, identify a worst-case-scenario, and hypothesize its solutions. I rarely find myself disappointed because I’m never surprised by negative results and never face undesired situations unprepared.

I figure this is what makes me an earnest problem-solver. Sometimes, I even take delight in fixing an off-railed plan because it proves an earlier hypothesis I prepped.

However, the freedom in choosing what to wear should be fun, but these decisions often make me anxious. My father’s remedy for this neuroticism was to always ask: what’s the so-what? What do your choices mean? Why does it matter if X happens and Y doesn’t? What’s the ultimate goal of this decision? What’s the big picture?

The bottom line of most choices in life has to do with getting from point a to point b. Often, the lack of flexibility became the Achilles’ heel of my analytical disposition.

My father applied his sales philosophy to my upbringing: he taught me that almost everything in life is negotiable and that reality is structured for a bargain. His greatest muse was Winston Churchill, whose words “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required” were recited often. Change will always supersede plans: why should you ever expect a rigid blueprint to accommodate times that are anything but still and unmoving?

Accounting for anomalies and idiosyncrasies, the present offers nothing better than a chance to prepare for the future — this is the most valuable bargain you can have with life itself. Sometimes, we must take on responsibilities that are less than glamourous and make necessary sacrifices in exchange for a greater future. My father’s less complicated and more stoic way of saying this was: “Don’t worry, be happy. Deals come and go as they please.”

The art of suitcase packing lies in versatility: it teaches us that we must be accepting of changing possibilities and be prepared to adopt new ways of reaching our destination.

Arrange things thoughtfully

The real estate of an empty suitcase must be managed in detail: fold everything economically, then place the bigger pieces in first. Smaller ones can be slipped in where you see fit later. Sandwich fragile items between clothes or in the centre of the case. Pack jewelry pieces separately to avoid tangling and damage.

My father was an engineer by study. There wasn’t a single problem he wasn’t able to solve or fix. When we packed for his travels together, he always said, “Arranging things thoughtfully and purposefully will make it easier to find them when you need them later.”

The core reason for such clever pragmatism was that it was time-efficient: knowing where your belongings are makes your operations much more coordinated, giving you a lot more control over the grand scheme of things.

Life is a very limited experience. We build families, networks, cities, and entire hierarchies to formulate how we can keep a necessary order to contain our human interactions. On a micro scale, this means we must consider the sovereignty of the individual and the circumstances we’re each assigned to.

Have we nurtured strong relationships with people who genuinely want to bring out the best in us? Have we taken full advantage of the opportunities that realize our potential value? Have we diagnosed the bad habits that are killing us? Have we sown the seeds for the sake of future harvests?

Suitcase packing, applied, means you have the extraordinary ability to think, evaluate, and use your individual standard of judgement. You are free to order your life in a way that gives you control in overcoming inevitable challenges.

Truthfully, life is difficult. Everyone is destined for entropy; we are equally susceptible to despair, illness, and loss. All taken into consideration, we are barely the architects of our own fragility. But it’s within our power to act with purpose — in fact, it is our obligation to do so.

Our intrinsic value stems from the ability to act as if our actions make a difference, because they do. Take responsibility for yourself. Don’t lose sight of the big picture. Make worthy sacrifices. Be flexible with change, plan for the worst, and bargain with the future. In short, learn to pack your suitcase with great care and order. You’ll find everything much easier.

Cover visual: Packing a suitcase is an artform. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY