I travel a lot.
Maybe a third of each year I spend in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Korea and around the US.
I realized this morning I have a refugee’s relationship to travel, to my home and to the stuff I have collected that I carry around the world. I discovered an emotional architecture functioning in background, ready to deploy, should I have to run for the hills, the consulate or the friendlier border, political or emotional.
I realized I pack and organize the things in my life prepared to then progressively leave them along the path.
Over the years I have read histories and personal memoir of real life flight from peril, oppression or disaster.
Recently we saw this in New Orleans where some residents have still not returned.
The 1930’s saw mass movements of citizens escaping invasion or fascism in China, Germany and Poland.
Amy Tan tells of an ancestor in China fleeing desperately, having to jettison the coveted possessions of her life, one by one, and then, finally, heart-broken, leaving her baby under a tree for a kind passerby to care for.
I recall the lifeboat joke of desperate survivors faced with the decision to toss either the heirloom piano or grandma overboard.
I see Americans on television, detained abroad for months or years, finally released. I wonder what they have in their pockets.
Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for fifteen years in Myanmar, and while not technically a refugee, this had to feel like it. At least she had all her stuff.
And I love the history of Nyogen Senzaki who came to the United States in the 1920’s, and wandered San Francisco and Los Angeles with his “floating zendo”, sitting with anyone who was interested, carrying only a picture of Manjusri Boddhisattva.
So I pack as a refugee, beginning with that minimal collection of survival items I know I need then adding the creature comforts. I always have, at the core of my kit, the things I want near me before abandoning those too, stripping off my clothes and taking my last steps.
This is not theory or fancy, but an intimate geographic feature of my emotional cartography. Several months ago I had to leave my home hastily, with no advance planning, and have not returned since. I easily selected the right stuff to take with me.
I keep a sleeping bag and pad and winter jacket in the boot of my car, just in case.
Sandy and I had to evacuate last year ahead of the firestorms in Four Mile and Sunshine, less than a mile away. We loaded both cars, working from a prepared list, and fled. Later, I looked around the hotel room and considered in retrospect what we thought most important to us.
A friend asked me, “So why are you like this?” A good question.
It could be having had forty-nine addresses, forty-six of them since high school.
I have walked thousands of wilderness miles over the years, with only what I could carry on my back. That could be it.
Zazen could be the culprit, the non-pursuit of non-thought, stripping away all but the basics, and then discarding those too.
Maybe I have become conditioned to expect change and loss and always want to have my sneakers laced up, ready for the worst.
Or something darker.
I would be honest and tell you if I knew.
I don’t really compare my experience to the terror and grief of the world’s refugees. The pain and suffering humans endure is unimaginable. I have it very easy. But this emotional preparation is no less real.
Closer to home, my Dad has embarked on his last trip this year, allowing my brother and me to move him from his condominium in New York and a life of freedom and choice, to an adult living facility in Washington. We sold his home, his cars and donated many of his things. Since, he has been hospitalized and now lives in a rehab facility with even less. He has two pair of pants, five shirts, toiletries and his comfy slippers. But not for long.
And please don’t get me wrong: I love my stuff as much as anyone. I love my house, my mountains, my cars, my books; music, statues, toys, chop sticks, tea sets, guitars, computers and artwork. I have smart-looking suits and sport coats and hats. I have four pair of glasses. Like my Dad, I have very comfy shearling slippers. I love all these things. I love most the people in my life. I love the fantasies I have constructed about who I am and what this world means. I love my opinions dearly. I love it all. Please don’t take them from me. I want to live forever.
I fill my house and my life with things, ideas, relationships, a self image and an assumed stature among the rest of you.
But this all gets compressed or stripped down when I travel, or when I have to evacuate, or quickly vacate. I can live indefinitely with two pair of pants, one pair of shoes, six shirts, six big boys, six pair of socks, a light jacket, my PC and phone and assorted connecting devices. It all carries on, in one Tumi bag and one backpack. Luxuries are a book, a map of China, an English-Zhongwen dictionary, Altoids, Monster ear buds, I Pod and a few other comforts.
In a pinch, I can get by with the backpack and the clothes I wear, as I make sure to have a minimal toilet kit and rain jacket inside.
If I have to leave the pack, my passport and wallet go in my front pockets. My phone is a last holdout, having become essential these days.
When life’s fires come, I will load the car with what I think matters most: words, pictures, documents, instruments and tools for creating new things I love. I leave my comfy slippers behind.
When my temporary refuge collapses in an earthquake or a paramilitary force invades and I am forced to flee once again, I make sure I have a pack, my laptop, glasses, credit cards, cash and a passport.
If I must run, I pat my front and rear pockets for the absolute basics.
Next, I stand alone without my things and shed my clothes before stepping into the uncertain flames of the future.
Finally, I carry only the warmth in my heart and the luminous emptiness at the still center of my life.