It’s hard to believe that I wrote today’s essay post nearly 12 years ago as an assignment for a 400-level nonfiction course. A couple of years later, the piece was then submitted for consideration in Newsweek’s “My Turn” essay column. Alas, it didn’t make the cut, but it can now live on in blog form. Amazingly, much of the sentiment still applies to my life.
Life in a Bag
I may as well let you in on a quirk of mine: I own things in sets of fives and tens. From perfectly spaced hangers dangle ten t-shirts, five shirts in the other category, five sweaters, five pairs of pants—and five sets of nicer clothing, which I hardly ever and hate to wear. Why this obsession? I used move around a lot and I have my wardrobe down to an art since the places I moved to and from provide minimum amounts of square feet.
The bulk of my clothes—those articles essential for protection, warmth, and fashion—fit in the main compartment of a sturdy duffle bag. I could get by on less, but that would mean doing the laundry more often. This bag also has two end compartments: one side accommodates toiletries; the other side fits ten sets of white sport socks, five pairs of black socks, five sets of wool hiking socks, as well as five pairs of pantyhose, and yes, ten sets of matching bras and panties (I will not wear ones that do not match). Anything else that is crammable can come along too—camera, squishable shoes, battered paperbacks. You get the picture. My life fits in a bag.
When my life began expanding beyond what could fit in this bag, I experienced unpleasant bouts of anxiety. But how did I find comfort in living out of a bag in the first place?
I learned the importance of living lightly when I had to pack for a summer job in Yellowstone National Park. All I really needed to bring were clothes, but I opted for my own blankets and CD player since I had the luxury of a car trunk. Not until I traveled across America from Wyoming to Florida and back on a Greyhound Bus did I discover that all I needed could travel with me.
We all know that feeling—the feeling that we must buy something or die. Trendy shirts (picture those oh-so-flimsy peasant blouses dyed in loud notice me colors) or perhaps twenty shades of eye shadow (whose names invoke fresh springtime beauty) gather dust, all for the sake of momentary satisfaction and a high annual percentage rate. This urge is tamable. We can want—not need—to collect Tiffany Lamps. A trip to the mall necessitates disciplining The Greed Monster. For me, buying anything is a big deal, not only because what I buy must be easily transportable, but also because I cherish every object I own. When life is reduced to the contents of a duffle bag, things have a way of falling into place.
At the garbage dump, Grandma and Grandpa used to dig for discarded treasures. Junked items—bent frying pans, stained photo albums, rickety furniture—were rescued and deemed useable. They had good jobs, but they liked rummaging. One person’s junk may very well be another’s treasure, but my credo differs. Why do we need so much stuff? If we haven’t used something for a few months, we should give it to Goodwill. Periodically, we should ransack our homes, cleaning out our closets as well as our minds.
This brings me to the bouts of anxiety I mentioned above. I hate to buy things. I hate to spend. Diligently, I save for a second car because I no longer have the time to ride my bike six miles to work (thanks to the physical and mental strain of graduate school). But when it comes to clothes and food and books, I am frugal. Of course, I enjoy material possessions, but I feel most at ease when I have less to keep track of.
While finishing my bachelor’s degree, my husband and I set-up house for the first time—a far cry from the dorm-style rooms we’d occupied before in national parks. Buying a kitchen table and matching chairs nearly caused me a mental meltdown. I agree with Thoreau that belongings cause the owner stress. My future plans do not involve enslaving myself to house, car, or children. I want to be on intimate terms with myself. Nonessential items such as caller i.d. and cable television interfere with my wavelength and prevent a clear reception of life.
A former roommate’s wardrobe filled two closets. The metal rod holding her essential fashions gradually sagged and broke. I once rebelled against her knick-knack habit and encouraged Mr. Kitty to walk the stairway rail where she displayed them. His bushy tail sent those dainty bears flying. My roommate possessed a fancy red car, a gorgeous new house, and a used-up soul. She utilized my rent money for outings to the bar so she could bring home men. She (and her soon to be ex) lived under a pile of bills and owned everything but stability. She cried a lot.
My chief want in life is to live lightly. In the past, I migrated seasonally, north to south, job to job. My one consistent goal is to explore and thus own the world. Owning anything else takes second place. Books, sunsets, hiking. And husband, my best friend. Our love transcends material bounds. This love is so big that it envelopes my mind and travels with me. Unfettered and too big to fit inside a bag, it’s the biggest and best thing I could ever own.
What about you? Have you ever lightened your load of wordly possessions? What did that make you feel?