France right now is in the middle of a presidential election, and the winner will be (a) the ultra-liberal, cash-machine, start-up-style Golden Boy, or (b) the ultra-nationalistic woman who has inherited her father’s revisionist, neo-fascist party.
If you’ve ever gone through a similar electoral conundrum, you know how it feels to see your friends argue, cry, exclaim in anger, panic, despair, plan to emigrate. Yesterday, as yet another pessimistic conversation started, I let my mind and my eyes wander around my apartment. I asked myself one question:
If I had to leave everything, my home, my life, my friends tomorrow in a hurry, if all I had time to do was grab an empty carry-on luggage, what would I fill it with?
You probably asked yourself that question at least once in your life. As for me, when I woke up this morning, I decided I’d know the answer for sure.
The 4 Rules
I stood in silence in my living room and immediately felt overwhelmed. What was I supposed to pack? The things I'd need in an emergency? The things that were worth money? The things I could never replace? The things I'd miss? The things that linked me to specific events and people? From the very first minutes of that little experiment, I learned that all these were very different things. So I set myself 4 rules:
What I Packed
So I followed these 4 rules, and this is what I packed.
I stared down in shock. I thought,
So this is my life. This is what matters the most to me.
If you and I met, what you see on that photograph would tell you more about myself than any kind of legal record or story about me told by my relatives… And it fits in a carry-on luggage.
What I Learned
What I felt was surprise, amusement, and relief. The 4 rules I had set for this little experiment taught me in a very short time the difference between what I possess, what I'd miss, what I need, and what defines me so deeply, that it is of equal importance to what I need, even if it has absolutely no practical use.
I wouldn’t have packed the same things had I set different rules. Take the books for instance. If it were about leaving to a deserted island, where I'd have no way to buy anything more, I wouldn’t have picked those books, no matter how precious they are, because they are not my favorites. And if it were about having a friend take care of my belongings after I leave, I would have picked extra clothing instead of those books.
I also learned something else. We own an attic in our building, so I went up there and started looking around for things I might want to pack. I walked to this big cardboard box I stored there years ago. Photographs of my former life. My teenagehood, my twenties. Friends come and gone, friends still around, friends who have since passed away. I started pushing things around so I could extract that box and examine its contents carefully. But eventually I stopped. That box had followed me every time I had moved. It contained what I had once considered as the most important objects and photographs in my life. Now I couldn’t even remember what it contained exactly. I could very easily envisage to just let go of it; to abandon it to a stranger or a dumpster. I reflected that if a box is stored for years in an attic, then what it contains must not matter that much. It probably is reassuring to know it’s there, to know that we have once been young. But maybe we should learn to let go of those things earlier in our lives.
I reflected that we do not have one life. We live several lives, we are several selves, and what has once mattered, will not matter anymore someday. I stood there in silence and wondered if I should feel sad, or if I should feel happy to have moved on to a new life, a new self.
I also measured how lucky I am. How extremely privileged my middle-class, White, Western ass is. What would I have packed, if I were born elsewhere? Would I have packed anything, if I were fleeing war without any idea of where I’d end up?
If you want to know more about what I packed, keep on reading. If not, just stop here. If I made you curious and you'd like to lead the same experiment yourself, I hope you’ll write a post to say what you found out. #YourLifeToCarryOn
The Contents Of My Life
Basic needs for 3 days. Numbers 1 to 4 are clothes for two more days. I figured I could do some handwashing if needed. In 1, a thermal shirt, a pair of thermal pants, a thermal beanie and on top my Alaska cap. I bought that cap during a five-month road trip with my wife and I love it. Fun memories. Beautiful memories. In 2, a fast-dry towel, a toothbrush with a small container of toothpaste, a bag with two extra pieces of underwear and two extra pairs of socks. I figured I’d come across public toilets with free soap in them. In 3, two extra t-shirts and one light sweater. In 4, a complete thermal & fleece pajama outfit. I don’t know why, but comfy pj’s are just as important to me as second breakfast is important to a hobbit.
An external hard-drive. Number 5 is 21st-century cheating. It contains all my digital life, mainly photographs. (You may want to point out to me that there are safer and more modern options for storing files than external hard drives. Don’t sweat it. I don’t even own a TV.) I decided that I wouldn’t pack my laptop. Isn’t that interesting? It is probably the one object I manipulate and pamper the most everyday. Turns out it doesn’t matter that much.
My travel journals. In 6, my three travel journals. Since my wife and I met, we travel every summer and sometimes for longer periods. The journal you can see on top is a birthday present she gave me for my 30th birthday. Since that day, I write in these journals everyday when we are on the road. As I don’t keep a diary in my daily life, these journals will one day be the only witnesses, the only records of whom we once were. One day, we won’t be there anymore to tell our story, and these journals will tell the best part of it. They will be a collection of our punchlines.
Books. Most of what I own are books. In 7 and 8 are the four books that I thought were irreplaceable, or that I couldn’t possibly resolve to see ending up in a dumpster. The two books in 7 are travel journals. One is Raymond Latarjet’s journal about Lapland. I found it up our street in a second-hand bookshop. It is a rare book and that copy is signed by the author. The other one is Graham Peck’s Through China’s Wall. I found it in a bookshop in Nelson, British Columbia. It is a rare book and this copy is a first edition. Now the two books in 8, or at least the writing that they contain, are totally replaceable. Virginia Woolf’s writing can be found anywhere. But you see, these two copies are Hogarth Press editions (Leonard & Virginia Woolf’s publishing house), and both still have their fragile paper cover designed and painted by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister. Objectively, it’s the most useless thing I have packed. Yet somehow, I just couldn’t leave without them.
Lizzie. In 9, this is Lizzie. We found her in a charity shop. The sign sewn on her butt says her name is Fiona. But we called her Lizzie. She’s very special. Right before our five-month road trip, my wife and I were based in Golden, British Columbia. One month after our arrival, I fell from a sled and broke my back. This was a depressing and painful moment, and my wife came back one day from her errands. I was laying down in bed and she put Lizzie in my arms. I did everything I could to recover quickly, and when Spring came at last, we left for five months. We slept in our car all that time and wandered everywhere west of the Great Plains, from Albuquerque in the South to Fairbanks in the North. For every single mile that we drove, Lizzie was sitting in front of the driver’s seat, facing the windshield, facing the road. She came back to France with us and now she sits next to our bed every night. Sometimes when I look at her, I imagine that her eyes are magical. I imagine that every single mile of that road we drove is trapped in her eyes. That I just need to look at her to be there again. Say, on that empty road between Fruita and Rangely, Colorado. There, we have been young, happy and free. Sometimes I wonder if one day I’ll be corny enough to ask that she be put beside me when I die.
“The most beautiful day in your life.” In 10 are letters, cards, hand-sewn gifts from our wedding day. You can see that they are laid on a Pride & Prejudice tote bag I’m very fond of. Above them is a small hand-made travel photo album my wife made for me.
The secret box. In 11, a wooden book that you can slide open, like a drawer. My wife painted it and worked on it using pyrography. Inside is more art by her, including a quote by Virginia Woolf (whom I am very fond of, as you certainly have guessed by now). Inside the book are notes and tiny objects that our friends gave us when we left for our long road trip. Lest we forget how much they love us, and how much we love them. Sometimes on the road, I opened that book, read the notes, fiddled with the tiny objects.
A Lego version of us. Yep, that is what is in 12. When we leave for a trip, we pick the two little versions of us from the car and take pictures of them in different settings. These girls have landed on a glacier next to Mount Denali, Alaska, for God’s sake! They had the time of their lives. Today, I figured I’d pack their 4WD vehicle with them.
Identification papers. In 13, passport, driving licence, credit card, family booklet (in France, this is a record of you and your partner as a married couple, and you make additions everytime you have a new child).
Huh. In 14, a piece of wood I picked up on a beach in Tokeland, Washington. I wrote our names and the day’s date on it. I don’t know why I packed it. It’s very light drift wood anyway. What the hell.
Charms. In 15, two tiny “traveling Buddha” statues and a tiny “lucky cat” statue. I got them as presents, one by one since I’m a teenager, always before a trip. I never thought I’d be superstitious, but there you are.
Something for tea time. In 16, 2 napkins embossed with our initials, under a royal crown, hand-sewn by a professional. If there is one thing you can say about my mom, it’s that she has a unique sense of picking the proper wedding present. I packed those because when my wife and I wake up every morning, a part of our minds is already waiting for tea time. We love tea times. We always have them together, with loose-leaf tea, porcelain cups, complete with porcelain tea pot, milk pot, sugar pot, marmelade pot and all.
Jewellery. In 17, my most precious jewellery. A bracelet essentially made of juniper seeds, picked up and assembled by a Navajo craftman I met in Monument Valley. Next to it, a necklace made by my wife for my thirty-something birthday, in which she painted the first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway. Finally, above it, the closest thing I have to a diary. Everytime I’m going on a trip, even for a weekend, I have that book around my neck. If I’m suddenly getting the feeling that the moment I’m living is really special; if I suddenly feel my eyes taking in everything, the people, the lights, the colors; if I suddenly hear my mind wishing it could remember that moment forever, then I take off that necklace, and I write on a new page the date and exact place.
The unexpected guest. In 18 is a very old bracelet my grandmother gave me when I was a teenager. It is a cheap, worn piece of metal adorned with fake precious stones. My grandmother is kind of a shy and reserved woman, but one day she came to me and said: “This bracelet belonged to my mother, and she gave it to me as her eldest daughter. Now I only had boys, but you’re my eldest female grandchild. I must pass it on to you so you can give it to your eldest daughter one day.” To be honest, I never paid attention to that bracelet. It’s been in a box at the top of my bookshelf for as long as I can remember, and it moved from home to home with me. Today, when I rummaged through my things, I immediately picked it up, with a “there you are!” kind of feeling. The way our minds work…
It is now late in the evening and everything is in that carry-on luggage. I didn’t unpack it yet. I think I’ll let it sit there for a while.
There is just one thing I wish I could have packed in that suitcase: our wedding dresses. They are huge and fragile. They now are neatly folded, protected with silk and stored in a beautiful wooden chest, right in the middle of our living room. The top of that wooden chest serves as a coffee table. My wife asked me what I planned to do with them. She asked why I wouldn’t have them shipped, or taken care of by a friend after we leave at 4pm. So I told her about the 4 Rules. She looked thoughtfully at the coffee table for a while. “Well yes, I understand.”
Silence. I asked, “Is it too upsetting to imagine them ending up in the hands of a stranger or in a dumpster?”.
She looked at me and smiled, her tea cup halfway up to her mouth. “They wouldn’t. I’d set them on fire when we leave and let everything else burn with them.” As I poured myself a cuppa, I thought, “Wow. She really does care about those dresses.”