Have you ever heard the classic icebreaker question ‘If you had a fire and could only save one thing, what would it be?’ Imagine if your super fun reply was ‘well I did have a fire – and I lost it.’ That’s right; you had a fire and now you’re also a master mood-killer at a party. It’s really not your week, is it?
The Great Bedroom Fire of 2012, as it’s fondly remembered six years on (cue a fire emoji followed by a cheeky wink face) wasn’t huge but it did shatter the window, burn through 3 large boxes of belongings and take on a wardrobe. (Spoiler alert: when it comes to fire versus wardrobe, fire wins.) My small rented bedroom was completely blackened from smoke but salvageable after I begrudgingly handed my final student loan installment over to the landlord.
I was on the bus when my housemate called to tell me my room had caught fire. I hadn’t clocked the dozens of missed calls and her words ran over me a like a cold breeze; truly chilling. Hm, although maybe chilling isn’t quite the right word. (Fire emoji. Cheeky wink face). Next I asked the same questions anyone would:
Are you sure everyone is okay?
Did anyone else’s things get damaged?
The answers ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ were reassuring but otherwise, the situation was exhausting. But over time a strange thing has happened – this seemingly negative experience turns out to have been a positive one. As I prepare for a long stint of traveling, I don’t feel any sense of loss as I sell the remainder of my things. It’s easy to pack a carry-on for long-term travel once you’ve learned experiences are way more important than stuff – although I did learn this lesson the hard way. I really did lose the one thing I’d have liked to save, by the way. My grandmother wrote me a letter before she passed away, it was in the same area as the fire, and it’s gone now.
For many months I desperately wanted to read that letter. It took time to understand it wasn’t the letter I missed – I just still missed her. I had come to see the letter as a material manifestation of my grandmother rather than paper and ink, but it never could replace her or the experiences we shared.
We big up our possessions when packing too. Taking that red dress is irresistible once you’ve imagined how cute it will look when you walk the streets of Florence, but when you look back you’ll only care about the lively chatter of the locals and smell of fresh pasta. We conjure up scenarios where we might need that pen knife/three extra scarves/a bubble-wrap canoe… when we’re only off to Disneyland. And it’s amazing how many bits and bobs we hold on to whilst out on the road just so we have palpable evidence of ‘memories’ – whether its brochures, laundry receipts, a half-eaten tarantula. But if these items get lost you won’t grieve for them; you’ll simply be confusing ‘stuff’ with your longing for a moment you can’t go back to. The fire destroyed my old journals but didn’t erase my past. (To be fair my diaries were hardly Samuel Pepys anyway, you know, being pre-fire and all.)
Remember how I mentioned three boxes got burnt? I’ve forgotten what was in them. When travelling, I avoid temporarily attaching meaning to stagnant items – such as tickets or keepsakes – no old fliers get screwed up in my bag! An outfit which goes unworn lightens my load as I give it away. Gone. Gone like those moments which we treasure. Back in 2012 fiery smoke surprisingly deflated the top hat I once wore as part of a Willy Wonka costume, but I still get to remember the moment my friend turned up to a party dressed as The Giant Peach. Perhaps I will always need my grandmother, but I don’t need a letter to remember her.
Plus now I get to enjoy the bemused look on people’s face when I casually tell them I set my house on fire. (Hey, they don’t need to know I accidentally knocked the safety switch on an electric blanket, right?)
In a world of commodities, it can be hard to not get swept up with the delivery van, yet most people will still tell you they’d rather have a holiday than a disorganised attic. There are items I don’t advocate chucking away; postcards from best friends, old love letters and the keepsakes left behind from beloved grandparents. But I won’t be keeping these things in a fireproof box; whilst I’d love to keep them safe, I love the people more and sadly you can’t control what happens to the ones you love. You can only treasure them.
Take a moment to consider what you want to look back on. Click off the shopping websites, step away from the sale. Go visit your friends or – now here’s a thought – choose to spend money on travel. Dusty boxes won’t show you’ve lived so you better leave some stories behind. Because when the sun sets fire to the Earth and we all turn into ash, we want to show the stars we knew how to have a good time.
On that happy note, I’m ready to leave my things behind and go see the world. Who’s with me?