I’ve had a lot of trouble writing this post. I had trouble deciding what to write about, and finally settled on writing about the idea of “traveling light:” what the phrase really means, when one pauses to think about it, and how it applies to the way one lives one’s life, not just as a traveler, but as a human being. I’d hoped to approach this through writing about packing and “pack-ratting”, and about the ways in which traveling a lot (and making travel a priority in my life) has taught me—or forced me to learn—how to travel lighter, if not how to travel light.

But as I started writing, I found myself struggling to put together sentences that hung together with any sort of coherence. At first I blamed myself for being unable to write with sufficient clarity or directness. Or rather, I blamed myself for lacking the clarity and directness of mind necessary to the creation of writing that contains those same qualities.

But as I continued to struggle, I realized that it’s not entirely my fault that I have trouble really understanding how to travel light, and what makes doing so such a good thing. Our culture is awash in contradictory language, and part of my problem comes directly out of the swirling morass of inconsistencies with which we address ideas of heaviness and lightness in the world today. It’s hard to navigate the slim and fragile space between carrying just enough with you wherever you go, and carrying too much or too little, when all around you there are dozens of conflicting messages competing for your attention. There are the spiritual warnings not to “carry too much baggage,” the wallet-breaking cost of extra bag fees for all the real, physical baggage we do carry around, and the warring advertisements, urging us to waste less, use less, to be green, while at the same time urging us to buy, buy, buy, sometimes in the same 30 second commercial. The world tells us it’s good to travel light, but also good to be grounded; bad to be too weighed down, but also bad to be flighty.

Poster at my bus stop. I hate it.

And in all of this I haven’t even mentioned one of the most pervasive dialogues about heaviness and lightness in our culture, that surrounding discussions and representations of our bodies themselves, of what is beautiful, what is healthy, what is normal  (ideas which walk hand in hand with our conceptions of what it is ugly, hazardous, or unnatural).

A lot of my posts recently have been about struggling with adjusting to staying in one place after having spent so much time on the move, and part of this struggle has been trying to learn how I can keep “traveling light” while I’m not traveling—while I’m just living my life. It’s been the struggle to translate the literal application of traveling light to a metaphysical plane. This began when I noticed myself having a hard time distinguishing “settling in” from “buying a lot of stuff.”  I’ve been asking myself questions like do you need to buy a bunch of furniture to feel settled? Or should you wait until you actually feel settled before you buy any furniture? And after those questions, other, harder ones, like Why am I so naive/materialistic/confused as to think furniture has anything to do with truly being settled?

Earlier, when I was struggling to write an article about packing, and budgets, and saving money to travel, I made lists of tips gleaned from my experiences. The lists included 3 things to take with you (#1. many many pairs of clean dry socks), 3 things to leave behind (#3. anything you’d be utterly and irreversibly heartbroken to lose), 3 most indispensable items (#1. my extra large travel towel), 3 most dispensable items (#2. those shoes I never, ever wore…) and a three general principles for spending less at home to help you save money for your next trip abroad (#3. take care of the stuff you already own).

I thought maybe writing a bunch of lists would make things clearer to me, would help me sense some kind of rhythm, pattern or balance in my experiences that I hadn’t seen before. But words like balance, though they feel comforting coming off the tongue, can be just as confusing as the swampy verbiage of weightiness or lack thereof, of trying to travel light without leading a life that is weightless and superficial, or of being grounded without being terribly, immutably weighed down.

A few too many suitcases. Credit: malias.

And distance, a change of perspective, won’t always make things clearer. Far from it. Sometimes the places you go to look for answers greet you with great unreeling ribbons of doubt, and you leave them lost in the questions you brought with you, not knowing where to look next.

If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that it’s naive to think that any one thing, or any one place, holds answers to all the questions that I have. And I’ve learned it’s naive to think that traveling, just by itself, can teach you where to find yourself, how to live well, how to be more responsible and compassionate, or how to change the world. I’m not even sure that traveling is the best way to learn how to travel light. Sometimes I feel like traveling has actually made my world heavier. Maybe my backpack is lighter, but my mind walks around carrying more than ever. Traveling has taught me to take in bigger portions of the world, to ask bigger questions, and to expect more from myself. And luckily, it has also taught me that I can survive feeling confused, alone or out of place. So maybe, in the end, traveling light doesn’t mean carrying less. Maybe it just means being stronger and better prepared, so whatever burdens you bear, whatever questions you have, they’re easier to carry because you feel the value of their weight.