For a recent weeklong trip to Europe, I carried a single brown distressed-leather flight bag. With two sweaters, three turtlenecks, earmuffs and a scarf, I had everything I needed for a wonderful European vacation.
Some years before, I had traveled abroad for four months, with just that same brown bag. Somehow, even on the much longer trip, I still had everything I needed.
When I breezed through customs with my satchel last week, the customs inspector marveled, "How do you travel with so little baggage?"
I've been fortunate to travel a lot, and one thing I know for sure: carrying a large suitcase is not life-affirming -- not in the north of Thailand, not in West Africa, not in the American South. I don't want to spend any of my travel time hoisting and shlepping. I want to be able to get up and go, and to change courses -- quickly. Everything I possibly can, I leave behind.
It's all about the goal. On vacation, I've usually spent a lot of money and committed precious time to getting somewhere new. I want to be present every possible moment. I want to be spiritually uncluttered; I want my attention out, toward the architecture around me, or the artwork, or the undisturbed natural beauty. I want to meet people; I want time to think. And to do those things, I need to feel unburdened and must spend as little time as possible in my hotel room trying on outfits, styling my hair, even looking in the mirror -- at myself.
To achieve my goal, I accept that I won't have a dozen choices of which color shirt to wear. I don't need different makeup to go with the dozen outfits I'm not carrying with me. I don't need the hair styling equipment for six hairstyles that go with the outfits. I know all I really need is a minimum wardrobe, a simple hairstyle, and a great attitude.
The less "baggage" I carry around with me, the easier it is to see the world around me - to see where I can be helpful, where I am needed.
Interestingly, these guidelines for a good vacation are also great tools for the good life back at home. The less "baggage" I carry around with me, the easier it is to see the world around me - to see where I can be helpful, where I am needed. The more time I spend wallowing in choices of what to wear and what to eat, the less time I have to find the unique and new experience of the day before me.
A story is told of a group of travelers who visited the Chofetz Chaim, a great sage of the early 20th century. They were shocked to find his lodgings quite spare. "Rabbi," they asked, "where is your furniture?"
"Well, where is yours?" the sage replied.
"We don't have any furniture," they responded, "because we are just passing through."
He smiled, "And so am I."
While it is unlikely that any of us will choose to live without furniture, the lesson can still be learned. This life is not about acquiring things. Some things are necessary to living -- some food, some clothes, some shelter -- but at some point there is enough, and then there is more than enough, weighing us down. We purchase things, and we clutter our homes with them, because we think they will enhance our lives -- but as we clean and maintain them, and discuss them and repair them, these things can drain our lives and prevent us from getting on to the business of living.
Same with the focus on oneself -- it is wonderful to look healthy and attractive, but at some point creating the façade takes over living the life.
It is easy to control how much I travel with -- it's just whatever fits in the distressed-leather satchel. It is much harder to draw boundaries around what I own, control, and collect when I'm not travelling. It is more difficult to say no to the trivial in favor of the transcendent -- or even to know what the transcendent is -- when I'm not in a world-class art museum, in the Grand Canyon or at the Western Wall.
But the same general rules apply once you get home. Pick a few good outfits, the most important activities, and a great attitude -- and leave the rest behind. And I keep the brown satchel in the closet, as a reminder of how little it really takes to be happy.