FYI, this is a (rare) personal-feelings-and-stuff post…
Just before my plane left Kathmandu on the evening of December 31, I said goodbye to my much-loved host family, to the biggest mountains I’d ever climbed, to five weeks of learning and sharing, and also to a ton of my belongings.
The first three months of my trip round-the-globe required warm clothes, boots, thick jackets, wool socks, hats and mittens. I was in Europe in autumn and Nepal in winter. But the next part of my adventure is taking me into the sweltering summers of the southern hemisphere – to South Africa, to Swaziland, to Southeast Asia. It’s in the 80s and 90s in these places, sun beating down on the hot earth all day long. The fact that I wouldn’t need my long sleeves anymore meant I could lose some of the weight of my hiking pack. And I also felt it was time I tried to let go of some of my sentiment and attachment to material goods.
My friend Joe just started a blog where he describes a similar urge and writes, “I am not my stuff.” I like this statement. I am not my stuff. I am not my things. I am not defined by my clothes or my shoes or my look or, really, any of my belongings or the things I cover my body with or fill my room with or have in my bag. At least, I am working towards finding a new definition of myself, for myself, that is not at all related to any kind of “stuff”, to “having” or “not having”.
So, I shed my belongings, leaving them stacked nicely on the bathroom counter of a dilapidated Kathmandu coffee shop/guesthouse, knowing someone would eventually claim them for their own use, to hawk, or to give to someone new.
I could have left clothes I didn’t really care about, clothes I could easily replace next winter at any Goodwill store. But instead, deliberately, I left my favorite things. I did this to challenge myself, to prove to myself that no, I am not my stuff. That I don’t need my favorite things to be me or to be happy. That I really don’t need much at all.
So, I left my favorite knee-high lace-up boots that I wore all over Boston and NYC last winter, working and visiting friends and dating and walking, walking, walking my favorite city streets. I left my favorite old wool sweater that was once a very special boyfriend’s, many happy and painful memories attached to it. I left my favorite blue and red winter hat that I’d bartered for just a few weeks earlier in some mountainous Nepali village, and the woolen mittens my father gave me when I was in college. I left my favorite blue and white candy-cane-striped leggings that I’d worn to my favorite yoga classes over and over again for the past three years. I left my best purple flannel that I have had since high school. And I left my once-favorite jeans and once-favorite corduroys, both quite worn but still perfect in their own ways.
I left my stuff on the bathroom counter, paid my $2 bill, and walked out. It wasn’t easy. In fact, I am still working on “getting over” the loss of my boots. Those babies were awesome. Nevertheless, I am glad that I followed through with my (very-last-minute) plan to detach myself from my belongings. And I take comfort in a quote from one of my favorite books, in which Patti Smith writes, “There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.” Patti’s right. There will be new boots and new sweaters and new favorite, worn-in-just-right jeans. And maybe next time I won’t get so attached to them in the first place.
Realistically, I’ll probably forget about most of the stuff I left within the next month, and certainly by the time next fall rolls around and I pull out my remaining warm clothes from their boxes in my grandma’s basement. And the upside is now I have room in my backpack. Room for gifts from Europe and Asia and Africa. Room for a few pieces of professional attire I’ll have to pick up before heading into Swaziland for my job. Room for lighter clothes to keep me comfortable in the intense heat I’ve just entered.
When midnight of the New Year struck, I was in the air somewhere between Nepal and South Africa. The weight of my backpack had significantly diminished, and I felt lighter, too. At the risk of sounding trite, I feel that this trip has changed me. I just feel different. I feel free of so many pressures and expectations. Yet somehow, I still feel focused and driven. This is so exciting for me, because it’s why I left the USA in the first place. I wanted to figure out how to balance my career ambitions with the rest of my life, including maintaining friendships and making art and spending time in nature and practicing yoga. Can I have both worlds? I wrote in my journal last July, after a particularly challenging week at the office. Can I have my “dream job” and all those other things at the same time? And now, I feel like I can. I feel like I can do whatever the hell I want to do and be whoever the hell I want to be. I’m by no means done with the journey, but I’m happy to be traveling and happy to be in Swaziland next week, doing the work I love with people I respect and being in a new place – still having an adventure, in one way or another. And I’m excited to figure out how to maintain a balance whenever I decide to call this backpacking thing quits.
No, I don’t think leaving my clothes in a Kathmandu coffee shop bathroom on the last day of 2012 led to any big epiphany. Months of traveling and learning a huge amount about myself, and my place in the world, are more likely responsible for the above paragraph’s revelations. But I do think that shedding my belongings contributed in a significant way to how free I feel, as I welcome the first day of 2013, alone in Johannesburg, in a different coffee shop.