A conspiracy theorist could make a solid case that there is a mass cabal of chiropractors seducing people into carrying the heaviest possible bags everywhere. The same conspiracy can be demonstrated with laptop advertisements, which are all like public service announcements about poor ergonomics. High heeled shoes are a tangent all their own. Sit in any coffee shop and an astonishing array of bulging satchels, drooping backpacks, and enormous handbags will be displayed. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a particular bag is supposed to be a purse or a diaper bag. Some people, mostly women, will have two or three separate bags. What on earth are we carrying in there?
In college, I carried a huge tote bag that I called my filing cabinet. It had my textbooks, notebooks, and flash cards for the day. It also had my day planner, library book, wallet, keys, pens, lip balm, lunch, hat, gloves, scarf, umbrella, mini flashlight, folding scissors, a whistle, paper napkins, crumpled receipts, mail, business cards, and whatever other detritus I felt I had to have with me. My attitude was to bring everything “just in case.” Since my bag was so big and so full of so many items, stuff would tend to get lost in there. It was like a black hole. Everything got sucked into its gravitational field and nothing ever got out.
Things gradually changed after I got a smartphone and became a distance runner. I would set out to run for two hours, and realize that all I needed was my house key and my phone. I would put my ID and a debit card in my phone case for emergencies, but in practice I never needed them. My comfort level built as I realized that my phone, key, ID, and debit card were all I needed at least 80% of the time. Not carrying a purse became my default; it was something I only used for special occasions when I wouldn’t have pockets. (Speaking of conspiracies, why do most women’s garments lack pockets? It’s like we’re samurai).
My distance running segued into backpacking. There is a big swing between carrying 6 ounces of personal items and carrying 1/3 of your body weight, unless you happen to be a gecko, in which case, Hello! The point of backpacking is to bring everything you will need for physical survival over the length of the trip. It’s exciting, because you can reach pristine, staggeringly beautiful remote areas that otherwise can’t be seen. It doesn’t take long to figure out that clutter has a higher price in a trekking pack. Every ounce of junk is a tradeoff for an ounce of food. Lack of discipline punishes the knees. Backpacking builds confidence in how little we truly need for survival, comfort, and even luxury.
We have “go bags” for ourselves and an extra one for our pets. They’re grouped on a shelf where they will be easy to reach if we ever need them. My husband experienced the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, and had to leave town for a few days until water and power were restored. Where we live, it’s sensible to be prepared for earthquakes, wildfires, flash floods, and mudslides. There’s about a 1:3 chance that we’ll be asleep when the need to evacuate occurs. We want to be able to grab the pets in their crates and get them out safely. There won’t be time to rush around grabbing anything. There won’t be any way to carry armloads of extra stuff, either; not without risking the loss of our panicked critters. It’s not the probability of an event like this that’s important, so much as the level of risk if it ever does.
Our relationship to material objects can be pretty weird. The things we carry every day are often talismans rather than functional tools. We think we’re making our lives easier because we’re prepared “just in case.” That sense of preparation can be an illusion when we’re unprepared for real trouble. We burden ourselves for the sake of a sense of security that should perhaps be gotten by other means.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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