One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen was a wedding dress in a charity shop window. I was hunting through the piles of discarded shoes and china ornaments, searching for photography props for a piece of University coursework, and as I entered a back room there it was, faded ivory silk with delicate beading that caught the light as it swung slightly in the draft from the door.
It seemed tragic, this dress; an object so prized and wanted, dreamed over, saved for and squeezed into for the biggest day of someone’s life, now discarded and branded with a tattered second hand price tag. I imagined a jilted bride, heartbroken, dumping the dress outside the door of the charity shop before speeding away into the night. I imagined two people in a marriage in which the happiness had ebbed away, trapped in a house full of shouting and tears, in which the dress hung silently in an upstairs wardrobe, a constant reminder. I imagined a bride happy and content, who lived her whole life with the person she had stood beside in that dress and agreed to love and honour, until she died peacefully in old age and the dress was taken down from the attic and brought to the charity shop by a generous daughter or grand daughter.
I conjured so many stories about that dress, and the woman who had worn it, trying to imagine what circumstances had led to it ending up in that draughty charity shop window. Because that’s the thing about belongings, isn’t it. They have stories within them, they mean something to people.
Over the last month I have packed up my entire life into boxes and bags. Some of these have been taken to the charity shop. Some have been sold and passed on to new owners. Some have simply been thrown out, or taken to the recycling centre to be destroyed and turned into something new. Some have been wrapped in newspaper and stored in my parent’s attic. And what I have left is a backpack and a carry on, every belonging I will have for the next couple of years reduced to 65 litres and a 20 kilo weight limit.
It’s a strange idea that people have, that people who travel long term shouldn’t care about belongings. If anything, I would say that travellers are collectors by nature. We collect experiences and stories, take photographs, keep notebooks. We pick up mementos and souvenirs, bracelets and books and the e-mail addresses of new friends.
And the objects that we choose to own as our belongings are not just ‘things’; they are tangible memories, small physical pieces of our identity. They embody our tastes, our choices, and our experiences. I own objects picked up from all over the world, and each one conjures a specific memory – the prayer flags I bought from a temple seller in Kathmandu, the necklace made by a Vietnamese hill tribe, the book I bought from Leakey’s bookshop in Inverness. These are objects which have a significance that is irreplaceable, and so much more valuable to me than their tiny monetary worth.
The things that I have taken to the charity shop over the last month don’t carry this emotional significance, but they do represent a shift, a seasonal change, a new beginning. It feels cleansing, to lose these belongings – clothes that I will never wear again, dishes and glasses that sat in a kitchen which is no longer mine. They have gone to make way for a new phase, as I set off to explore a new continent and try out a new, location independent way of life.
Another year in which to collect new memories, new stories; and the objects that embody them. And one day I’ll be able to pick up one of those objects, from a shelf in a house that I don’t yet live in, and I’ll have a tangible memory of that year I travelled overland from Mexico to Chile, right there in the palm of my hand.