In the Fall of 2012 the house I was living in burned to the ground while I was away on a camping trip.
Nothing was salvageable. Or at least that’s what they told me anyway. I never even went back to check. I didn’t feel the need to sift through the rubble, or try to make peace with the smoldering mound of ash that was my life. Unbeknownst to me, everything was about to change anyway.
I had been living in the house with my boyfriend at the time, who by any definition, was brand new. We met at a beach party about a month prior to the fire. We hit it off, spent every waking minute together, and adopted a “sure, why the hell not” attitude when it came to taking “the next step.” I don’t really recommend moving in with somebody who’s practically still a stranger to you, but what I do recommend? Losing your so-called identity completely, so that what you’re left with in the end is completely, authentically you.
After the fire, all I was left with was a small hiking pack with my camping gear in it. A sleeping bag, some fleece leggings and tops, a warm sweater or two, and a single pair of jeans. I wasn’t naked, but I felt stripped completely bare. We had no house insurance. There was no option to look back.
It’s a funny thing losing everything you own. People would always say, “Well thank God you weren’t home at the time,” and “it’s all just stuff” and I would nod my head in agreement, knowing they were right. But I would secretly wonder who I was without my favourite high-school gym t-shirt that reminded me of my hometown. Who was I without the expensive skis I had been planning on using that winter. Without my kayaking gear. I wondered who I was now, without a job, without a home, and without any physical reminders of who I was before this fire.
No, I didn’t have years worth of possessions crammed into that tiny space. We hadn’t raised kids there, or experienced much of anything there really, but when you’re 25-years-old what you do have, what you’ve bothered to ship across the country, or schlep around in a backpack with you… well, it’s kind of important. Because there are certain things you can’t replace.
Like the beautiful, red sweater my college roommate Kelsey gave me, for instance. She had got it on a trip to New Zealand with her family, and said she wanted me to have it.
“It will suit you better,” she had said (though I’m not convinced that was true). We now live worlds apart, and who knows if I’ll ever see her again.
The fire also claimed the set of Hemingway novels my parents picked up for me at one of his old homesteads in Florida. My dad had beautifully inscribed the set for my 25th birthday. Left unread, reduced to nothing.
Gone was my favourite straw hat that I had purchased at a street stand in Vancouver after visiting with an auntie, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade.
My cowgirl boots.
And the list goes on.
And so my boyfriend and I were placed in an awkward situation.
“What do you want to do?” he asked me after we first found out about the fire.
I had nothing to go back to it seemed. Where we had been living, where we had met, was my summer home. My winter plans that year not set in stone, but revolving strongly around him.
“We can stay here I guess,” I responded, though I’m sure it came out more like a question. Here was a good option for him. Here was his hometown. It was where his friends were, his family. And thankfully, many of his remaining possessions.
I’m not sure how he really felt in that moment when he asked me what I wanted to do. It flashed through my mind many times that he may have felt stuck with me. Though I forced those fears down so deep they had a hell of a time resurfacing.
And so we stayed.
When we officially arrived in the city we moved to (though I wondered if it’s still technically called moving if there are no boxes to pack, no furniture to transport) my boyfriend withdrew $1,000.00 and handed me the cash.
“Go replace your clothes, Emma,” he said gently. He was doing what he could. Helping the only way he knew how.
It took three tries at the mall before I could actually bring myself to really replace things. Replace everything. On the first attempt I bought a wallet, thinking with a sinking dread of all the cards I’d have to replace. My sin card. My health card. My passport…
My second tour around the mall I managed to convince myself to buy a couple of bathing suits, reminders of sunny climes. Both of which I took with me on my first trip to Central America. The trip I’m on now.
But every time I thought about replacing all my “stuff” I got overwhelmed with the whole concept.
Our stuff serves as a tool, sometimes it serves as a comfort. So when everything is chaos, what do you hold onto if you don’t have stuff? And how do you just pick new stuff? Stuff that has no meaning to you? No history. Well, instead, you reinvent, which is what I did. But I did it for all the wrong reasons.
On the fourth and final time I went to the mall, my boyfriend sent me with a female friend of his for reinforcement. And $800.00 later, I walked out of the mall with a whole new wardrobe. One that I thought my boyfriend would like. A “girlier” wardrobe. It’s crazy to think about that now, having all those shopping bags in my hands. I haven’t been in a mall in nearly a year. And as a traveler, living in a tiny Caribbean town, I’m back to owning only a backpack full of clothes.
That might be why for months in those new clothes, something just didn’t fit quite right. It wasn’t until some time had passed, and I’d had clothing exchanges with friends, until I’ll rebuilt my wardrobe to hold memories, that I really started to remember who I was.
But then I experienced a bit of a backslide. One day last year I bought this pair of heart-shaped sunglasses.
I wore them everywhere. For every occasion. And shortly after I bought a second pair, a pink pair. And every time I wore them people would compliment me on them. Strangers would point and say “cool glasses” when I was walking down the street.
I started to feel like those sunglasses were a part of me. That they somehow defined me.
So, of course, I had to bring my favourite pair on this trip. My pink, heart-shaped sunnies made it with me from Cancun, Mexico down to a quick stop over in Belize City.
They went up to the highlands of Guatemala, and came back down the long journey to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua.
We had just arrived at a fantastic little hostel on the beach called The Surfing Turtle. I was heading into the ocean for a swim, and as I dove in, I realized at the last moment that the glasses were still on my head. I reached my hands up as a wave crashed over me, but the glasses somehow managed to float forward, skimming my fingers on their way down. I searched for them for 15 minutes, to no avail.
After coming out of the water I felt completely disheartened. Those were probably my favourite thing I had with me. And again, they reminded me of home.
But then I thought back to the fire. To all the things I lost, and simultaneously, all the things I’d gained. And finally, two years later, the lesson sunk in: we are not our stuff. Material possession are fleeting. Travel has reinforced that lesson more than anything now. I’ve lost, had stolen, or destroyed nearly everything I came down here with nine months ago, including things that I’ve had for such a short time that I barely even felt like they were mine in the first place. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, a friend came back from the States, excited to give me a gift she’d found: a replacement pair of heart-shaped sunnies.
I was thrilled to have a pair again, and so thankful for the gift. Sliding them onto my face felt like “coming home,” I’d said. But just one week later, the arm snapped off in the scorching September sun. This time all I allowed was a little frown and an “Oh, well.” Hopefully I’ll get my hands on some glue to fix them. But if I can’t, that’s okay too. Travel forces us to live within this realm of non-attachment, and to recognize that stuff, really is, just stuff. I hear you now, Fire. Thank you.
That’s why I’ve chosen the heart-shaped sunnies to be a part of my logo.
They are a symbol for travel, for change, for the minimalistic life I want to live. And they are a reminder of what I’ve experienced. Not a physical reminder, no, because I know now that those aren’t necessary. But a mental and emotional reminder to always hold onto my identity, to my sense of self in every situation. They are a reminder that no one and no one thing defines me.
Now I know, without a doubt that I am me. Naked, or clothed. Heart-shaped sunnies, or knock-off Ray Bans. In jogging pants, or an evening gown. Single, or coupled. Fire, or no fire. I am always me, no matter what. And that, truly, is everything.
Author: Emma Side
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Author’s Own