Is there anything harder to do than to leave home?
Oh, I don’t mean those life-passages that are monumental transitions—going to camp for the summer, leaving for college, moving one’s address to the first rented apartment, following a job across the country, etc.
I mean those more simple departures—getting ready to take off for a family vacation or relocating to the summer home, traveling overseas, or even going to church Sunday after Sunday. Something weird happens in many people’s psyches—nerves get jangled; we think of all the things we haven’t done, and try to get them ALL completed in the week before we travel, or the hours before we are due at worship.
It has taken me many years to learn the art of leaving home. If I’m traveling, either for several days or several months, I really don’t want to come home to a filthy, disorganized house, so I will try to leave it the way I want to find it. Moving four kids, as I often did, through a packing process for a trip will turn any saint into a harridan—and I was never very saintly to begin with. What’s more, most of my travel involved Christian trips. I was traveling on the Christian speaker’s circuit, taking airplane flights because of assignments for religious journals, teaching in small spiritual retreats, or attending board meetings of national not-for-profit religious organizations.
It seems as though my leave-taking should have been a little more filled with equanimity, repose and serenity. In addition, I always forgot something—a crucial hairbrush, toothpaste, a half-slip—which I rarely wear these days, but then, I rarely stand on a platform any more, in a circle of revealing lights in front of hundreds if not thousands of people.
Well—pre-preparation is the key. Instead of rising at 3 a.m. and stuffing clothes into the washer and dryer, and packing my clothes, frantic about not being ready in time, I have one small suitcase with my toiletries always ready to go. I use it as I’m getting dressed the day I travel, and I make sure everything is in it that I need because I’ve checked it out that morning. Now, when I return home, I make a list of what I’ve used up, put the sticky note on the bathroom mirror, and don’t store that suitcase until I’ve purchased the missing items. A Nigerian saying reminds us, “The day on which one starts out is not the time to start one’s preparation.”
For long complicated trips where I will be crossing time and climate zones, dressing formally and informally, I put out a suitcase at least a week before I go, try on clothes I may want to take, make as many of the same color combinations as possible, put out the jewelry and accessories that go with each outfit, try to eliminate two or three outfits that I think I might need but probably won’t. I have one friend, a consummate world-traveler, who only takes two pair of shoes—the shoes she wears to travel and another pair for a change. Her clothes are all one color, and she never packs more than one purse.
I have yet to reach her exemplary model, but I am adhering to my rule about suitcases: If you can’t carry (drag, hoist or haul) it yourself, it’s too big. Get something smaller. One medium-sized suitcase, one smaller bag, one purse and a satchel is the absolute limit (oh well, I might carry a coat on my arm—depending on the temperatures where I am journeying). The airlines with their carry-on fees, of course, are screwing up this hard-won plan, so I am working on discovering alternate suitcase systems.
“The venerable tradition of traveling with one satchel or bag symbolizes the fundamental philosophy of pilgrimage: Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Phil Cousineau writes in The Art of the Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred. I am not here yet; I would like to be.
Cousineau recommends (as do many other writers) that we consider every journey, every home-leaving, no matter how short (trip to the grocery store, doctor’s appointment, or a daily run) as a potential pilgrimage. One family tells how they take a half-hour to “sit on their suitcases” before departure. This calms them; they remember what they have forgotten. More importantly, they remember what they are journeying for, the purpose of the trip ahead. How many times have I rushed out of my house only to have to return for something crucial I’ve neglected to bring.
Alexander Schmemann, the Russian Orthodox priest, reminds parishioners that Sunday worship begins beforethey leave their houses. So do the little and big pilgrimages of our lives. The biggest aid in an equitable home-leaving is an inner attitude. Mother Teresa once remarked, “Pray before you do anything.” Journeys, large and small, are made fruitful when we pray ourselves into the way. I pray (when I remember—haste, again, is the enemy) for safety, for caution, for attention, for receptivity. You do not know who you will meet, what you will find, where you will end your journey—even if it is just out the back door (or going to church). Louis Pasteur once commented on this quality of being ready, “In the field of science, chance favors the prepared mind.”
How many times I have whizzed past something intriguing discarded in someone’s else’s garbage, a street festival, or a beckoning road and thought, Oh, I wish I had stopped there.
Leaving home for those journeys where you will certainly return—doing this well is an acquired habit, a learned art. The author Martin Palmer writes, “True pilgrimage changes lives, whether we go halfway around the world, or out to our own backyard.” Let us learn to leave home well.
Other projects involving Karen right now are: Working with teams of Christian women to design Retreats of Silence, in both 24-hours and three-days formats, through the aegis of Hungry Souls. Developing hospitality initiatives that train Christian men and women how to use their own homes in caring outreaches through the Open Heart, Open Home ministries. Launching the Global Bag Project, a worldwide effort that markets sustainable cloth shopping bags to provide sustainable incomes for bag-makers in developing nations. Researching the impact of listening groups while overseeing some 240 small groups over the last three years. Experimenting with teleconference mentoring for Wannabe (Better) Writers. Designing the Tales of the Kingdom Web site.