You can only take what you can carry with you

I first learned that when I packed up all the belongings I had come to own in my first eighteen years of life in my car and moved away to college.

I learned it again when I condensed my life into a few bags and boxes to move from my childhood home to my AmeriCorps job in Boston…and again when I took a job in China…and then when I drove a rented minivan to Detroit…and when I hopped on a plane to start working with Remote Year…oh yeah, and all of the times that I picked up my pieces to call a new place home in between.

I learned it the first time I boarded an international flight with a comically large suitcase, my Beloit College duffel bag and my childhood pillow in tow. My cousin had to endure me dragging my luggage (and pillow) along unpaved gravel and historic cobblestone streets as we travelled throughout Nicaragua for ten days. I was a junior in college and it might have been my fifth time on an airplane. I grew up in a working class suburban home in the Midwest where “travel” typically consisted of head Up North for a few days. I was naive and ignorant, inexperienced and over-prepared. That trip I learned how not to pack, how not to travel. I learned to grow.

I learned it when I spent most of the summer of 2014 homeless…well, displaced…well, living out of a couple backpacks because I sublet my room, lost a job and couldn’t afford rent in Boston. I made it through that summer thanks to the companionship of a woman who met me on a whim and stuck with me through all of my ups-and-downs, the generosity of a frisbee teammate who opened up her home to me and let me stay in her room while she shacked up with her boyfriend, and a part-time temp job at a college bookstore that paid me minimum wage. I learned to feel the weight of everything I carried with me — the weight of my mistakes, my regrets and my belongings.

I learned it when I spent the first five months of this year traveling by train, plane, bus and car to 35 different US states having conversations, developing relationships and thinking up new ideas for a nonprofit with global reach. Those five months included a five week trip where I rode Amtrak up, down, across the country and back. On that trip, I had to pack clothes suitable for February climates from Madison to Miami in a couple backpacks. On that trip, I learned how to define my necessities and live without excess. I learned that whatever I decided to bring with me I would have to drag through the streets of LA and the subway in New York. For every additional pound, I would have to deal with more sweat on my shoulders and more throbbing pain in my lower back.

On a Sunday in the middle of that trip, I found myself without a place to stay in Miami the night before a Monday morning train to Savannah. With no predetermined place to rest myself and my things, I had a friend drop me off in Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road Mall with my bags that Sunday morning. I spent the rest of the day wandering, sitting, watching, waiting, listening, reading and reflecting on the tenuous nature of stability in my life. I recalled how easily it had been for my life to fall apart in the past and considered how devastating it had to be for anyone who wasn’t as lucky or privileged as I was to recover from my own misgivings and failures. I sought deeper empathy to find unexpected, but much needed personal healing. That night I rested my head on a dilapidated mattress in a slummy Little Haiti Airbnb and I was content.

With all of the moving I’ve done and the baggage I’ve had to carry, I’ve gradually learned to live with the burden of my belongings — my useless, meaningful things, my traumatic experiences and my broken, dysfunctional family. Their weight on my shoulders has kept me grounded; their pressure on my back has helped me feel secure, but their presence has ultimately kept me from venturing too far from a place of comfort, from truly exploring myself in the world.

This past weekend, I boarded a flight from Belgrade to Istanbul with nothing but a small, loosely-filled pack on my shoulders and, as I walked through the airport in Belgrade, I felt uneasy. I had gotten so used to the gravity of carrying everything I owned with me that I hadn’t realized how afraid I was to live and explore without my baggage.

I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life living out of bags. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time learning what I can carry with me. It’s taken me time, but I’m finally learning how to let go of what I can’t…and, no, my childhood pillow no longer makes the cut.

I’m learning how to let go of my things, my holdups, my trauma. It’s the simple art of unclenching my fists, taking deep breaths and actively relieving myself of the baggage that I’ve picked up over the course of my life. As I’ve gone on, I’ve learned that I need to take less and less with me; that includes the things that have negatively affected my life up until this point. I can only take what I can carry with me and that’s okay because everything I need will meet me along the way.