Cheerful robots accompany my son to school each day. They adorn his backpack and welcome his homework folder, library books and lunch box each morning. They stand guard in the cubby room while he learns and schleps home paper airplanes and monster sketches each afternoon without complaint. They are lovely, well-behaved robots that add a bit of whimsy to each school day. They never smirk when we forget them and have to rush home again or gripe when they are thrown unceremoniously on the floor at the end of a long day. I love the robot backpack.
It is not the first backpack I’ve loved. I have a collection of old loves in the basement. I don’t need them, but I can’t bear to let them go. This is strange because I can be shockingly unsentimental about things. Grandma’s china? I’ll pass. Childhood report cards? Recycled. Wedding dress? Donated.
Old backpacks? Those are different.
When I look at my old backpacks, I don’t only see things I have carried; I see things that have carried me. Carried me from crisis to calm. From confusion to clarity.
Each backpack is like a before and after snapshot comparing the person I was when I put it on to the person I was when I took it off. When I finger the outdated fabric and fraying straps I am transported back to earlier versions of myself.
There was the version of me facing down college graduation with no idea what to do next who crammed the essentials into a purple and gray backpack with an impractical diagonal zipper and boarded a plane desperate for a rite of passage. When I look at that backpack, I see a girl experimenting with new versions of herself in each country visited, trying to tease out who she is and who she is not. I see a girl hesitating at the airport gate months later not sure she’s ready to go home but ultimately boarding the plane with the courage to go after what she wants and embrace parts of herself that might disappoint her friends and family. I see a girl who puts her seat back in the upright position understanding that the world is full of nuance and some of life’s greatest adventures lie in the gray areas.
During times of looming transition, the siren call of my backpack and boots has been nearly audible. The black backpack is the one I was wearing on the curvy trail in the thin Rocky Mountain air where I found the courage I needed to walk away from a relationship. I wore a mauve backpack on my 27th birthday as I carried my firstborn up a river in Zion National Park—deep water baptizing his toes into a life of adventure and my hips into the reality that my life had changed forever. The pink ultra-light pack kept me company on a 45 mile trek through Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness and helped me feel slightly more ready to shed my SAHM status in exchange for a paycheck with each step taken.
The blue backpack is the oldest of all the packs on the shelf. It was my first real backpack, purchased for me by my big brother. The plethora of pockets, extra straps, and ridiculously heavy fabric mark it as a relic of a different era. An era before my brother and I began finding creative and uncomfortable ways to shave weight from our packs. An era before kids and spouses and other complications made time together so rare.
I carried those backpacks and they carried me. I carried them up steep hills, through dense forests, and across rushing rivers; they carried me toward new versions of myself. For that, they have my gratitude (and the top shelf of the basement closet). I have no desire to go back. I don’t want to be the person I used to be. I don’t want to walk the same paths again. But I do want to leave room to honor the former versions of myself who needed to walk those paths.
I look at my son’s robot backpack and see the toll of two years of daily wear. It is the backpack I applied to his shoulders on the first day of kindergarten knowing all too well that a backpack is a promise—a promise that the person who puts it on will not be the same person who takes it off.
Next year, my son will start second grade. He will have a new teacher, new classmates and a new backpack. Some day soon, in a quiet ceremony that only matters to me, I will induct the latest (and smallest) member into the Backpack Hall of Fame on the top shelf of the basement closet.