[Click here for other posts in the series Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Life of a Freelance Writer]
…And You Can Only Save What You Can Run With
If you’re part of a Western culture, you probably own way too much stuff. If you’re Slavic, you don’t necessarily own too much, but you definitely never throw anything away, endlessly downcycling and saving things for rainy days. You can imagine how dangerous being a product of these two cultures can be.
The first time I became truly aware of the amount of STUFF in my life was when I had to move from Ukraine to the UK, a few years ago. There was no container, no truck, not even the trunk of a regular car – only two people’s worth of airline luggage allowance. I knew I wasn’t going to fit twenty-odd years’ worth of things into two suitcases that my spouse and I could take on the plane, but I sure did my best.
It took me the best part of two weeks to go through everything in my only-slighter-bigger-than-studio apartment. Stuff got donated to charity (bags and bags of clothes and toys), dropped off at libraries (some of the books and textbooks), given to friends (jewelry and miscellanea) and offered for collection on the ground floor of my apartment block (heaps of stationery). Not to mention at least a hundred pounds of scrap paper dropped off at a local recycling center, a small mountain of defunct hardware lugged to the only place that would take it (recycling is a pain in Ukraine if you’re not a company), and I’m pretty sure I’d remember more things given time.
After all that, I, predictably, still couldn’t bring everything that I wanted to hang on to, leaving a few shelves and boxes and a suitcase or two sitting and waiting for me to come back for them. Coming back has been an issue, so most of them are still sitting there. But the truth is, if I could click my fingers right now, and have anything from my old home teleported to me? I’d ask for my wedding dress (for sentimental value), my bridesmaid’s dress from a friend’s wedding (because it’s an awesome evening gown), and the books I still haven’t brought over. Whatever else I left behind… actually, I can’t even remember what else I DID leave behind.
I’m glad that my move across the continent happened relatively early in my life. Not only because when you’re in your mid-twenties and in the middle of your 9-to-5-goes-goth-punk-alternative transition, sleeping on the floor can be cool (and not too much of a health hazard). But also because once you’ve learned to live out of a suitcase/backpack, you learn to appreciate the freedom that a minimalist lifestyle gives you, and become reluctant to clutter your life up again.
That is not to say that I’m not attached to my possessions. In fact, I love them an awful lot – which is why I’m highly reluctant to acquire new ones. Unless we’re talking about books or music, of course. And certain DVD box sets (can the extended edition of all the Hobbit movies be out already, so it can sit next to my LotR set?). But clothes, shoes, and similar consumer goods? Before I buy a new one, I’m going to love to death the ones I have already.
Fun fact: I recently retired a ring that I bought in 2009. Not because it broke, but because I literally wore it down until the silver plating rubbed off, and the metal underneath wore so thin it was cutting into my skin. The replacement for it is a black widow spider ring, silver throughout, and if it lasts, I’ll happily be buried with it before I replace it.
Now, back to the title of this post. That was the question I went around asking some people in my circle, after watching a family member fight a losing battle with physics and airline luggage restrictions. (And vowing to be even more frugal in my purchases as I did so.)
So, here we go. These are my friends’ and family’s answers to my question of:
…Say your house is on fire, and you can only save what you can run with. What would you bring, assuming that people and pets are safe?
Mooncore Bunny, programmer and game engineer:
“My computer and USB memory sticks with backups.”
(Please note that the computer in question is a desktop. But memory sticks will fit into a pocket, so it might just work.)
MoonlitMeda, mathematician and crochet enthusiast:
“My bag of yarn, my tablet, and the Caesium Scarlett plushie [pictured]. (Then I might burn to death while trying to decide what to grab from my bookshelf).”
So, in summary, it looks like people, when pressured to pick possessions to save, choose things from the following four categories:
– data / physical products of our work or art;
– items of sentimental value.
While my sample isn’t exactly a statistician’s paradise (everyone above fits in the 20-30 age bracket, ±2 years, and comes from an income level equivalent to middle-middle-class), you’ll see that people on my list come from different professions, including business, art, and technology. Some answers were geared towards practical items more than others (people who said they’d bring warm clothes, IDs, other documents that would be a PITA to get reissued). But you’ll note that only one person above didn’t include any items of sentimental value, memorabilia or photographs in their list – and he did so by disclaiming that his data is already backed up!
It seems to me that whether we like surrounding ourselves with a lot of stuff or pick a more minimalist lifestyle, our priorities tend to land in similar places when the chips are down and houses are on fire. And that is – tokens of our experiences. Reminders of places we went to, of people we’ve met. Items that, whether one of a kind or generic to start with, were made unique by the experiences they shared together with us. The closest that possessions can come to being our friends.
Which brings me right back to why I don’t want to own too many things. Because the ones I already own – I love them too damn much.
P.S. You’re probably wondering what I would take out of a burning house. Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you hanging. Here’s all I would bring.