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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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January 2011 Archives

The Little Things

Normally, faced with a trip of any length - whether to New Orleans or New Zealand -- I can pack in a day or even just an evening, thanks to habit and a file of notes on what works and what doesn't for different climates.

I don't necessarily do my packing that fast, but I could.

This month, though, I'm getting ready for a different kind of trip: Rather than traveling through a series of exotic places, I'm traveling to a single, rather ordinary domestic place and staying put. I've rented an apartment in a town a few states to the south, where the landscape is ice-free and I'll be warmer while I focus on a long-postponed writing project.

The place I'm staying is supposed to be fully furnished - right down to the pots and pans, the sheets and silverware. Anything else I bring, my landlady assures me, is strictly optional.

But choosing what is and isn't going along has opened a whole new frontier of packing. It has forced me to think about my tiniest, most ordinary possessions - the seemingly insignificant things I use every day - and to consider them mindfully.

This shift in perspective came on in stages. At first, planning this trip, I thought in terms of decorative objects that would make a strange place feel more like home - a nice table lamp, for example; a blue pottery vase; a small painting or two. Now those seem like fripperies.

The really important stuff - as the Little Prince said - is invisible to the eye. Or darned near.

And that has changed my relationship with these little things. I'm taking them seriously now, giving them their due, really appreciating them -- and that feels new and very strange.

Just now, feeding my dogs, the mindful surprise was one of my grandmother's old metal cooking spoons. I have had three of them ever since I moved away from home 35 years ago, when my mother stocked my kitchen by cleaning out her own. The spoons were old when she got them.

They are literally time- tarnished: The left edge of each has been worn to a thin, sharp edge by a century of right-handed cooks, and that edge makes them perfect for digging dog food out of a can. If I use any other type of spoon, the dog food sticks to it.

A kitchen spoon has never been on one of my packing lists before, but because I am bringing my two dogs - also never on a long-distance packing list before -- the spoon in my hand this morning is now an essential companion.

Holding it, I realized that this trip has forced me to do what I tell my travel writing students to do: LOOK AT WHAT YOU OVERLOOK. Which may be where our attention should be all along, whether home or away -- on the little things we take for granted, the minutiae of daily life that make daily life possible.

Travel has always brought me insights - that's part of why I like it. But this trip, I see, has started before I even left home.