Saturday, November 6, 2010

Meg Wood: Stop and Smell the (What's the Opposite of Roses?)

Every summer at the library where I work, we box up the previous year's research journals and send them off to the bindery where, as legend has it, a bunch of convicts at the Walla Walla state penitentiary bundle them up into volumes and bind them in hardcover.

I say "as legend has it" because this prison thing is not exactly advertised on the bindery's web site ("Now with 85% more felonious labor!"). I only heard it once, from a customer support rep, and it's entirely possible she was pulling my leg. But I like the idea, especially since the only other bindery in our region is run by a group of Trappist Monks. That seems like a good balance. Balance is key.

Anyway, about six weeks after we send them out, the journals come back to us neatly packed in brand-new boxes. As soon as I see the delivery truck roll up, I always bounce out of my chair with excitement, calling out loudly my dibs on getting to unpack them (not that I've ever had to arm-wrestle anyone for the gig, mind you -- it's more the principle of the thing).

Why so much enthusiasm? Two words: sweet, sweet packing paper.

Sorry: four words.

The bindery, you see, uses real packing paper when prepping our materials for return. And, oh, man, do I ever love that paper. You know the stuff I mean? The manila colored stuff that feels like newsprint and comes in large sheets -- maybe two feet by three feet? The real stuff. The stuff used by professionals. The bona fide shizznit of packing paper.

It's nice paper, no doubt, but what I really love about it is the way it smells. The first time I ever sliced open one of those bindery boxes and the sweet smell of those pages wafted up to the sensors in my nostrils, I was almost knocked off my feet by a sudden tsunamic wave of nostalgia. Smells are extremely tightly connected to memories for me, and that was an aroma I hadn't encountered in a very long time. A smell of home. Of change. Of new beginnings.

The smell of my childhood.

I grew up the youngest of three kids in a Marine Corps family (though, I should note I'm only the youngest by five minutes, and I contend my twin was only born first because I shoved her out so I could have a few moments of blissful, womby peace). During my youth, we moved multiple times, usually from one side of the country to the other and then back again: South Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Arizona, Japan, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, etc. etc. ad infinitum (or nauseum, I suppose, depending on how you feel about Texas).

Every time, the movers would pack everything up in that wonderful paper on one end, and on the other, in our new house, our new town, our new lives, we would unpack it again. Though many military kids lament the constant uprootings and replantings of their youths, I loved it. Every place a new start. Every town new people, new schools, new experiences. I didn't make friends easily, and I didn't need to -- I wouldn't be there long enough for it to matter all that much. The shorter your roots, the easier your transplantings -- it was the perfect lifestyle for an introverted self-loather like me.

Perhaps oddly, unpacking was always the best part of every relocation for me. Even if it only took a week to get to the new HQ, it still felt like everything in the boxes marked "Megan's Room" was brand new. Unpacking took days -- it was like a long holiday overloaded with gifts. Gifts and hope and aspirations. Stuff could even be organized as it was put away this time; maybe it would even stay that way. (My mother just snorted derisively at that last sentence, mind you. So did my husband.)

And now for the secret sharing part -- the part I bet you don't know about. There is, in fact, a method for dealing with all that delicious packing paper. A technique we kids were taught by my parents as soon as we were old enough to assist. You see, you can't just wad it up and chuck it in a bin, one smooshed-up sheet at a time; you'll never fit it all in that way.

No, sirs, there's a procedure. What you do is this: as you unwrap, you pull the corners of each crumpled sheet gently apart, removing all trace of whatever shape once nested inside it. Next, lay it flat on a hard surface (table, floor, teetering tower of unpacked boxes -- your choice depending on risk assessment), and then quickly smooth it out, edge to edge, with the flat outside of your hands. Smooth it sharply, karate-chop style. The paper makes a brisk whip-whip sound as you go. Once it'll hold a more-or-less flatness, move on to the next object in the box. Unwrap, pull corners, lay flat. The next sheet goes on top of the previous one, whip-whip. Then the next sheet on top again, whip-whip. And then the next, and the next, and the next again.

Breathe in the smells as you go: the paper, an extremely distinct combination of raw tree pulp and dryer lint (don't ask me; I but know 'tis true); your stuff, like your last home; your new room, like fresh paint and looming adventure. And possibly mold.

When you have a good-sized stack of flattened paper, start at one edge and roll the pile up tightly, a paper jelly-roll. Then, you see, you can stand this tube up in the bin, tucking others in around it. Fitting in three, four, maybe even five times the amount of paper that would've gone in the same space had you just lobbed it in there one crumpled piece at a time.

There's no need to rush, mind you. Transition is a process. Fresh starts take time, care. Embrace the process. Don't neglect the procedure. The procedure is the key to everything. Mindfulness, determination, method. This new start is going to be the one. If you're careful enough with it, it will almost certainly be the one.

The first time I ever unpacked one of those bindery boxes at work, the time I got that first blissful emanation of reminder, everyone within ear shot of my office came by to see what that "whip-whip" sound was all about. I explained the strategy in detail, mostly to faces that seemed thoroughly unimpressed. Whatever, I thought, as the person arched an eyebrow and said, "Um, oooookay." What do they know about packing paper, I continued, setting the next sheet carefully on top of my pile.

As I ran my hands smoothly, briskly across its corners, leveling out all its bumps and puckers, I breathed in that smell, heady with memories of the dozen mulligans of my youth. Whip-whip, whip-whip, whip-whip, repeat. Whip-whip, whip-whip, whip-whip, begin.

Meg Wood is a librarian who also reads a lot of books and watches a lot of movies. You can find out what she thinks of those last two things at her web site and blog: and She also likes Facebook friends and Twitter followers. She's just sayin'.


  1. "If you're careful enough with it, it will almost certainly be the one." Nice, Meg. Sad and hopeful: the essence of moves of every kind.

  2. Great illustration of how the littlest things can jump start our previous selves. Is it a longing for the past or remembering that joy can be found in the simplest things? Either way, reading it started me thinking about how I do that too.

  3. As someone who is finding transition can last an awfully long time, this line made me smile: "This new start is going to be the one. If you're careful enough with it, it will almost certainly be the one." Well done Meg.

  4. Thanks, everyone! I really appreciate your comments so, so much. Whew. Always a bit nerve-wracking putting something out there, right?