Harrisburg, ‘Hardship,’ and Tropical Storm Lee

I have been homeless once before.

Okay, okay, not in the dirty-in-the-gutter kind of homeless, where the money in my pocket is all I have to my name and I am sprouting an unshaven beard.  And as I write this on a dreary, barely-raining day, my cat is purring in my lap and I’m sipping coffee out of a mug bought on clearance for an exhibit of Roberto Cappucci’s innovative dress designs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that ran in the spring.  But outside my window, the Susquehanna River is rising due to Tropical Storm Lee and is anticipated to crest at 29 feet by tomorrow evening, bringing the water, by some estimates, to my front porch.  School’s been canceled for today, and I have packed a suitcase to leave.

The packing process reminded me of last summer, when I stuffed all I deemed important into a hiking pack and set off with my friend Lynn Palermo on a 15-day walking trip along the Western Front from Belgium into northern France.  The walk in itself was amazing: our path curved through farmer’s fields, wound along country roads between pointed-steeple villages, marched up mountainsides, and stomped across borders.  We passed through Ypres, a Belgian city that was 90% destroyed by 3 battles; through Aizy-Jouy, a tiny French town where most of the young men were killed in combat; la Caverne du Dragon on the Chemin des Dames where the fighting took place underground, the underground tunnels chiseled at Arras to hold 24,000 men before a surprise attack.  I was stunned at the scale of destruction experienced by normal people whose descendents described the effect of growing up beside the graveyards, the effect of still unearthing shells when planting flowers each spring.

But what also struck me about Lynn’s and my trip was the process of displacement.  After day 1 in France, I knew I had packed way too much to be carrying: I had too many water bottles (read: heavy), despite the heat; too many extra snacks (also heavy), despite the need for energy.  By day 2, I had thrown away tour books, ticket stubs, any extra maps, and the heels I had cut off from my insoles to make them fit better.  I think I even tossed a couple tissue packs which could have weighed, like, less than the change in my wallet (Euros are freakin heavy), but in my mind, they had become ludicrously unnecessary.  (Why would I ever have packed such silly things “just in case”?  Well, if I ever came to a toilet without toilet paper, well, I’d figure out a way around it, that’s for sure.)

But when you are carrying the weight of your possessions, your mentality changes.  Every item which I kept in my pack was selected deliberately, a process which whittled my belongings down to what I deemed essential: my journal, my camera, one water bottle, a rotation of clothes, some toiletries, and my portion of food. On day 3, I was longing to be among those who had a key to their own apartment and who slept in the same place every night, but by day 15–when we walked into Reims, France, the city of champagne and the crowning of French kings, I abhorred the idea of owning more than what I had on my back.  I had determined my difference between luxury and necessity.  I realized I was capable of living with very little, less than I’d anticipated.  It was liberating.

When I packed this morning, it’s too easy to say that I packed the sentimental (a tin box with stones from Ireland, my journal that my sister purchased in China that I filled with writings on Chile) along with the necessity (clothes for school, toothpaste, ungraded eighth grade essays).  Of course I did.

But what I noticed this morning, my choosing what to leave and what to take–just like my act of packing for voyages before–wasn’t a panicked take-only-what-you-can-carry.  My packing took over 3 hours with a couple of coffee breaks with Roberto.  I am not in a refugee camp in Kenya.  I am not fleeing as bombs are dropped on my home.  I am not displaced for my ethnicity or religion.  I’m not even one of the residents evacuated from Shipoke this morning, and, frankly, I have enough money to buy a night in a hotel room or Chinese take-out or a half-gallon of Turkey Hill graham slam if I find my relatively-undramatic situation too depressing.

Layers of luxury still shield me from true deprivation.

When reading Robinson Crusoe with the 11th grade lit class last week, I asked them to consider the commentary of Rick Steeves in his book Travel as a Political Act, which states: “In the midst of relative affluence, Americans seem to operate with a mindset of scarcity–focusing on what we don’t have or what we might lose.  Meanwhile [impoverished people] embrace life with a mindset of abundance–thankful for the simple things they do have” (89).

I then asked the eleventh grade to consider the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor.”

I had meant to show them the lesson that I already learned.  But now, sitting with my suitcase and car keys and an empty mug, I ask myself if I am still willing to do the same.

north of Reims, France, July 2010

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