Your definition of what’s really important changes over time. The bare minimum set of people, stuff, and parts of the environment that you cannot be without. The baseline for you to be comfortable, or perhaps for you to even function.
You might not think about it often, but travelling brings it into sharp focus. The sudden need to decant your life into a couple of bags, complete with a weight limit. The paring-down process happens pretty quickly. What’s really, truly vital?
When I was seven or eight years old, the answer to that question was easy: Ghostbusters.
I was obsessed with the franchise for quite a while, and so was my younger brother. His birthday came at an opportune time. Ecto 1, the stylised Cadillac ambulance car that the Ghostbusters travelled in, had just become available in toy form, and it was at the top of my brother’s birthday list. He duly received it, and I was green with envy. I wanted that car. I’d been saving up my own allowance to get one, and – to our lasting detriment – we weren’t sharers.
A day or two later, I went to my mother and asked outright if I could have whatever remaining amount I needed to get an Ecto 1 of my own. Looking back, this was an opportunity for her to teach me an important lesson. She looked at me for a moment, then asked why I wanted the money. I replied that I was jealous of my brother’s toy. She thought for a few seconds, praised my honesty, and reached for her purse.
I had the car within the hour, and despite her generous intentions, we all know that she chose the wrong lesson. Some part of me knew it at the time, but it was quickly silenced, because I just had to have the toy.
My tastes shifted over time, and previously vital objects fell from favour, to be replaced by new targets of want and covetousness. Some of them will be familiar to you, and some of them won’t – the actual things themselves are ultimately unimportant. Suffice it to say that the cycle continued, varying only superficially.
If you asked me what’s vital now, though, my answer would be different; it’d be more circumspect. I’d frown, and make a low noise in the back of my throat. I’d stare off into the middle distance, apparently searching for a response that I felt was suitable.
Perhaps you’d add that it’s not a trick question, and that I shouldn’t overthink it. You’d smile generously, and slightly apologetically. Maybe I’d glance over at you, clearly distracted, to acknowledge the gesture.
“My wife,” I’d reply, most certainly. Goes without saying. She’s the largest part of who I am now, and as important to me as air.
I’d pause for another moment, then add “and something to write with.” This MacBook will do very nicely, or any of the inevitable subsequent ones that eventually take its place. Equally, a pen and some paper would work just fine.
I might also mention my basic travel packing lists that I keep on my computer; one for each common duration or distance of travel. I’d pull a list of basic clothes and toiletries from there. It wouldn’t be very long.
Beyond that point, I’d struggle to give you a meaningful answer. I have what I need already. I wrote this article from a country far from my own, with my life contained in a single suitcase. I wasn’t really missing anything, in either sense of the word.
As it turns out, my essentials are few indeed.
It’s taken me too long to realise that, and longer still to admit it to myself. There’s a saying that we buy things for two reasons: the good reason, and the real one. The real reason is usually just that we want it. We can say that our lives would be materially better with the latest object of our acquisitive lust, and maybe that’s even true once in a while.
Mostly, though, we’re just jealous of our brother’s Ecto 1.
I’ve been at war with myself over this. Struggling to accept that, while I love the sheen and smell and excitement of a new toy, fundamentally I’m drawn to simplicity. Cleanliness, breathing room, and the implicit order of sparsity. I’m happiest when my surroundings are a canvas for my mind, not a projection of it.
When I’m away from home, and my life is in a single suitcase, I’m forced to realise just how compactly I could be living – regardless of where I am. The next realisation is that I could be much more mobile. Light and agile, without the millstones of all my acquired possessions. I could live so much more simply.
I don’t want my home to be a sterile hotel room, of course; we need character and warmth. But when the core of my existence can fit into fifteen kilograms or so, it’s hard to even think about the closets, and the basement, and the drawers and under-bed storage all occupied with things that, most years, never see the daylight.
For me, that’s the real blessing of travel. Not the new sights and sounds and cultures – though they’re all invaluable for someone in my line of work. Not even the basic reaffirmation that we’re all the same underneath, and that almost everyone is decent, friendly, and looking for the same things that I am.
It’s the perspective on my own life, when it’s starkly shown in a handful of neat piles, against a bedspread, then lifted and packed into wheeled luggage. The case is closed, sat onto the floor, the handle extends, and I’m ready to go – anywhere. So what’s all this other stuff really doing here?
I want to trim down my life. I want to get rid of all these once-wanted things. I want to whittle away all this stuff, and be left with only what’s needed.
I want to have only what’s essential.
Just that one suitcase, ready to travel.