(Existential) Inventories

Taking stock of the usual – and the unusual

Hello and welcome to the 47th issue of Place! Travelling light is often easier said than done. We all want to be prepared when we travel, but what if, at times, our concern of being ‘safe not sorry’, detracts from the experience itself? And, in return, what we take away from these journeys? In this week’s dispatch, Jens Renner writes about the connections he’s noticed between the sparse inventory that accompanies him on his travels, and the pared back life he’s experienced while being stuck in one place during the pandemic. If travel can offer us a moment to be disconnected from our usual surroundings in order to gain a new perspective, can this ‘at-home’ journey we are on do the same?

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Abandoning the usual

For a while now I have found myself contemplating an existential inventory of sorts. As my life has been slowed and external distractions locked away, confronting what is really mine has been unavoidable in the absence of all that has vanished. 

I tell myself that most of my old life will return after a period, after this chapter comes to an end. And of course much of it will. But what will things look like when this journey is over? And who will I be when I return?

It is common knowledge in Buddhism that in order to move freely, we are required to lose attachments to the things around us. That what we might take for granted as components of our daily lives will distract us from states of joy.

Other religions are perhaps a bit more accommodating of our instincts to attach to and depend on things and relations. But they, too, have invented rituals that require us to abandon our usual inventories and to subject ourselves to transformations – think of walking the Camino de Santiago. 

Since I’m personally neither ready to fully give up my attachments, nor interested in solutions tied to religious doctrines, I have in the past gone into this practice of what I think as of ‘abandoning the usual’ while traveling. 

I have boarded planes, trains and buses, gradually learning to carefully curate my inventory for the trip. One pair of pants. Freedom. Two great books. Joy. Then, with a return ticket in my pocket, I have moved in the direction of the unknown.

I learned the lesson of travelling light the hard way. Before my first big trip alone to Vietnam, I splurged to get a new pair of hiking shoes. Along with them I brought my running shoes, sandals and flip flops, four pairs of pants, a full set of rain clothes and quite a few t-shirts. I had to buy a huge backpack to carry it all in. I wanted to be safe, not sorry.

After dragging most of it around unused for half a year, I was filled with the regret of my decision to bring so much. It weighed on my shoulders, but just as much on my mind - what if I forgot my new hiking shoes somewhere? The act of moving around required so much of my attention, that I realised I was missing out on being present in the experience itself.

And so, on my last trip before the pandemic, I flew to Jordan carrying only essentials. I was wearing the only shoes I brought, a simple pair of sneakers midway through their lifespan - the trip neither used to break them in nor wear them out. There was nothing to remember when moving to a new place, and so the place itself became the center of my attention. 

One thing that has made it on all my trips is a travel journal. I don’t usually write in a journal, but when I’m away, an instinct - or perhaps intention - to record my distilled views on the essential truths of my existence, as it is only possible to do when viewing it from afar, has brought me to write.

I’ve made lists of things that I know makes me happy that I’ve missed. I’ve written notes concluding that a bicycle is in the top three of best human inventions ever. I’ve promised myself to find balance between being in nature and living in the city.

I have found great inspiration in travel writing such as Ted Simon’s. Set almost thirty years apart, Simon took two four-year journeys around the world alone on motorbikes, twice renouncing the stable trajectory as a journalist that he was on.

I’m not sure if Simon was moved by the teachings of Buddhism or simple experience, but either way, his ability to detach and travel light was, much like myself, learned the hard way. On his first trip, Simon stuffs the four bags on his motorcycle. He wants to anticipate the unknown that will meet him around every corner around the world, but his baggage ends up heavy and unmanageable: “I suspended my judgment and went on adding to my pocket universe like an agnostic crossing himself before battle.” Soon after taking off, though, he learns to let go. He allows the places that he goes to to take control of his thoughts, his perception of himself, and his surroundings – all the while writing down what comes out of it. 

During his first trip in 1974, he found himself contemplating in-between continents with his motorbike on a ship from South Africa to Brazil:

“I had come to a point in my thoughts where one day, on the deck, it seemed to me that I had uncovered a fact about myself and the world, a way of looking at my relationship with others, that promised a great liberation. 

‘If I can just fix this thought’, I told myself, ‘I shall find a wonderful new freedom for myself.’ 

At the same instant, below me in the sea, a great shoal of flying fish burst out into the sunlight. It was an incredible display that described exactly how I was just then feeling. Up to then I had never seen more than one or two fish at a time, nor did I ever again. It was a dream come true.”

Simon doesn’t disclose his revelatory thought to the reader, but I feel his point is clear - in order to go to the outer edges of ourselves, we need to venture out into the world on our own.

As rising material standards have transformed traveling from an elite hobby or the undertaking of unattached journalists like Ted Simon into a simple leisure activity, the potential that taking ourselves out of our usual surroundings holds, deserves to be recognized. As the pandemic is forcing us to take a break from the usual, this is more true than ever. In some ways, the last year has followed the pattern of traveling that I see and so admire in Simon.

First, the pull to explore, and the adjustment to uncertainty. Then, the observations and reflections while on the road, the philosophizing, the lessons. And, finally, reemerging back into one’s life, hopefully a bit wiser. 

I, like most of us, am stuck on the ground, contemplating what I have around me. 

When I emerge the next time from this prolonged place of in-between, I will do so with reinforced meaning, just as I’ve done after traveling. My gratitude for people and things around me will be stronger. My motivation to nurture my chosen attachments likewise.

Contemplating what I do have at the moment, I have found myself happy to live in a house with people that I like.

I have found myself lucky to be curious about activities solely asking for my attention. Literature. Newspapers. Movies. Music.

I have found myself grateful to be equipped with a functioning body. To walk, breathe, look, listen, sleep. To wake up, calm, in peace.

This is my inventory. The things that I have no matter what. And I’m realizing that they are more than enough.

- Jens Renner is a Danish journalist and radio host. All photos courtesy of the author.

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