When packing for a trip some wish to keep their luggage as light as possible. They invest in towels that pack into a palm, as thin as a leaf. They are prepared to do laundry. Others value heaviness, finding security in knowing that the things they carry have them more prepared — for anything. There’s an entire year’s supply of wet-wipes and disposable underwear tucked in there, three turtlenecks (for that beach holiday — because you never know), two extra pairs of shoes.
So what of the decision between weight and lightness?
When given the choice I’d take the latter any day. An oft-contemplated duality, I’m certainly not alone in my preference, being in perfect concord with the likes of Italo Calvino. In his essay on ‘Lightness’, Calvino brings up the myth of Perseus and Medusa to explain how the powers of lightness (the winds and clouds) are harnessed by the hero to defeat the monster. Such delicacy is what the writer feels is required of successful stories, and from language.
Intuitively, the appeal of lightness lies in the idea of being so unburdened that we soar, unfettered, above the world and all its affairs and concerns. In our various forms we each are Perseus, doing battle with monsters we shouldn’t turn our gazes upon, lest we turn to stone. To summon strength, we seek the ability to transcend and transform situations. So, associating the earth’s gravitational pull with the ticking away of earthly time and all its hours, I strive for lightness. Without weight I achieve timelessness, and therefore can belong to a different world.
As it is with travel, which is a more literal soaring. When I racked up double the luggage I usually carried for my recent trip to chase the Northern Lights, I was inappropriately mournful. Under the weight of all those extra sweaters, thermals, and assorted woollen things I had never needed before, I felt betrayed by my own understanding. This weight on my back was in complete opposition to my idea of travel as holding one’s self above the crush of the ordinary. This trivial weight had turned heavily symbolic. The lightness of travel had finally chosen, as with all things of this life, to reveal to me its “true unbearable weight” (Calvino again).
But Calvino’s lightness is not a “lightness of frivolity”, and the message here was that neither should mine be. When the Gorgon’s head is severed, Perseus does not escape it, but instead carries it in a bag. Calvino sees it as Perseus’ strength, this “refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden”. So our hero is still weighed down, but it is a “lightness of thoughtfulness”; Perseus achieves lightness despite his burden because he is able to look at the world differently.
Here is travel’s other appeal: for some, seeing difference leads to seeing differently. No need for intelligence or the imagination, all you need is a ticket. At a vastly different latitude, getting closer and closer to the Arctic Circle, the sparse, snowy landscapes revealed to me a colder, more spacious world. At times, as I looked out of train windows, my mind would be as clear and white as the fields and fjords I passed, my soul just as distant. But to achieve these few and far between minutes in which unruly thoughts would not appear, I had had to go very far for such unfamiliarity. Better then to be able to fly at a moment’s notice, into a different space, at a time of your own choosing.
In parting, know that from the severed head of Medusa sprang Pegasus, and from its touch, beautiful undersea coral. (From the weight of stone, lightness.)
Know also that a winged horse carries with it its own weight.
Know also this:
The heaviest of backpacks crushes the traveller. He sinks beneath it and covers less ground. But in the middle of the rainforest, at the foot of a waterfall, the traveller longs to be weighed down by the force of its water. Against the traveller’s back, the water pushes, cascades and envelops him, ensuring that he feels the experience to be real and true. Conversely, the lightest of rains leaves the traveller free to move no less quickly through pathways, the trace of rain leaving damp splotches on his t-shirt, as light as they are insignificant. Days later he might ask himself if it had truly rained. On that same day, when the traveller reaches the edge of the forest, he will be dried by the sun, and neither experience will be visible.
What then shall we choose?
Featured image by Fauziah.
Fauziah travels. Last December, she did not see the Northern Lights.