The Elephant Suitcase

Even though I hate living out of suitcases, I have the whimsical desire to one day fit everything I own in one . . . 

Vocanic ash turned the sunset a deep red over the Marmara Denizi in Istanbul
Volcanic ash turned the sunset a deep red over the Marmara Denizi in Istanbul

It began with a little black bag. It was detailed with antique paintings of yellow elephants and golden vines, and maybe that was the reason I splurged $25 on it at a time in my life when $25 was a splurge. But, I told myself, it was practical: it had wheels on the bottom that rolled, gloriously, in every direction, and it was “carry-on” sized. I mean actually, fit-in-those-little-test-cubby sized. It other words, it was small.

That spring I traveled to Istanbul for two weeks and I had a one-day stopover in Zurich. I packed everything I needed into that little case, even though it was winter in Turkey and I took a full-length coat and a wool sweater. It felt like such an achievement. I smiled proudly when people said, “You packed so light!” But I still had way more than I needed, despite getting stranded an extra four days by the Icelandic volcano that made European air travel an impossibility.

Before I’d left, I’d also packed up everything else I had — into my car. And for the next six months I basically lived out of that car, from LA to Denver, Kansas City, Tulsa, Chicago, Detroit, Niagara, Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Boise, Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, San Fransisco, Sequoia National Park, back to LA.

Carrying everything you own in the world around on your back sure makes you think about what you own — and why — and what you even need all the stuff for — and how the heck it all got so out of hand. Tortoises aren’t slow because of their size, they’re just afraid and dealing with a lot of angst.

At that point in my life I’d already moved 7 times, not counting when my parents were the ones packing for me, and I was stunned not only at the amount of stuff I was able to accumulate through all that, but the amount I was able to retain despite it. For me, what wasn’t filling a logical need, was filling a psychological need.

It’s a common story, I moved around a lot as a kid. If not a lot — then at least enough. My mom learned to deal with the frequent rehabiting* by getting stuff, furnature, books, food, whatever at an alarming rate once we were in a new place. And my brother learned to deal with the loss by never getting rid of anything, be it the tiny cans of coke we got on the plane, or his birthday cake (which he once kept 7 years). I took neither approach. I like the things I own to be meaningful, so it was only in times of stress and loss that I held on to the stuff in my life — namely, times when I was moving. I used to unpack from college with a trash can beside me. In anticipation of leaving I would get overly sentimental, and just pack everything that came into my hands. So one month after my tour of the U.S., when I moved permanently to India, I went with three checked bags . . . and one overstuffed elephant carry-on.

Of course, that didn’t nearly max-out my closest. So I accumulated stuff to fill the space, and then decumulated** all that same stuff when moves to increasingly smaller apartments made me feel more like a pharaoh packed into his tomb than a living breathing person.

It’s all been a process of learning to live with less. For my last month-long trip I only took a backpack. Last summer, when I lived three months in Switzerland, I only packed my little elephant case. And the same summer when I flew to California to be in my cousin’s wedding, I only brought a purse. That is a really liberating feeling.

On this journey through life, I want to travel light. Not just of the external excess I carry around with me, but the internal baggage as well. This tortoise wants to shed her shell.

The journey begins here.

* not a word
** also not a word

What are your packing habits like? What could you do without?

2 thoughts on “The Elephant Suitcase

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