The Essentials, Sentimentals, and Ghosts

Essentials, sentimental, and ghosts (the latter not pictured) sprawled on my desk, as is usual after a trip - At the House, Phnom Penh

Essentials, sentimental, and ghosts (the latter not pictured) sprawled on my desk, as is usual after a trip – At the House, Phnom Penh

One month from today, a plump-bellied plane is supposed to ship me from Phnom Penh International Airport. With me, will be included:

+ Things I brought to Cambodia
– Things I leave in Cambodia
+ Things I acquire in Cambodia to bring to the US
+ Things Cambodians ask me to bring to the US
+ Things Americans ask me to bring to the US
= Things flying to the US, one month from today, in a plump-bellied plan

Based on the above, the following conditions must be true in order to ensure the packing experience proceeds smoothly:

  1. “Things flying to the US, one month from today, in a plump-bellied plan” must be less than or equal to “Things I brought to Cambodia”
  2. “Things I leave in Cambodia” must be a high value
  3. “Things I acquire in Cambodia to bring to the US” must be a low value

I am notorious for taking a long time to pack. Some people pack their possessions in mere hours. I lack this talent, being excessively meticulous, considering the array of ways one could possibly manipulate the arrangement of books and underwear to maximize the limited amount of space inside a suitcase. I have yet to commence packing for leaving Cambodia, but as evidenced by the above mathematical model, I have started a mental map for it. I visualized two categories of things that will accompany me on my departure.

First are the Essentials. These could be things like a pair of clean, un-holey socks, a passport or other form of identification, and maybe an extra pair of clean, un-holey socks in case the first pair gets dirty or holey. These are the administrative supplies of daily living, the items in travel-size form that are simply too adorable to resist purchasing. For the most part, one person’s essentials are the same as the next person’s. The essentials are the things you carry in order to qualify as a moderately functioning, sanitary, mobile human being. For me, the essentials are the most common things you’ll find in my backpack:

  • Handkerchief (to wipe sweat or tears, but mostly sweat)
  • Hair band (to control sweaty hair)
  • Chapstick
  • Wallet (to hold business cards, ID, and wads and wads of wads of Khmer riel)
  • House keys
  • Phone
  • Ear plugs (to buffer loud people, places, and things)
  • Laptop
  • Multiple battery chargers for multiple electronic devices
  • USB stick
  • Sunglasses & Face mask (to protect against the hazardous effects of UV rays and air pollution/ help me hide from the attention of general society)
  • Eye drops
  • Agenda
  • Prescription glasses (that I almost never wear)
  • Fine tip black pen, fine tip blue pen, colored pen, mechanical pencil, lead pencil, highlighter (there are times when one requires a very specific type of writing utensil and a cheap, nonperforming ballpoint simply will not suffice)

The second category of things I mental mapped to pack are the Sentimentals. Unlike the essentials, which are the easily replaceable ordinaries, the sentimentals are the nostalgic personal talismans, like:

  • Letters that miraculously made their way through the Cambodian postal system and into my ownership
  • A little button-eyed owl, hand sewn from floral print cloth, sent as a well wishing birthday bird to me from my sister
  • Works of fiction and non-fiction, collected from used bookstores in Phnom Penh or from good friends abroad
  • A pair of deep green jade drop earrings from my mother, that I seldom wear, but always take with me, in case there is an occasion that calls for it
  • A Huguenot cross necklace and a painted tiny wood carving of a donkey, from a history professor who wears a Huguenot cross, and who is fond of donkeys
  • Two journals, one old one handmade and tattered and filled out, and one new one with lots of lovely promising pages to fill
  • Notebooks jotted with phone numbers, email addresses, Skype IDs, quotes, addresses, sketches, scribbles, and unidentifiable smudges
  • A Bible, stuffed with scraps of papers-turned bookmarks
  • One fish scale, for prosperity
  • A brown leather watch, near blackened from left wrist perspiration
  • One red dust encrusted grey canvas backpack that has gone with me nearly everywhere in Cambodia, and carried both essentials and sentimentals along the way

While mental mapping my essentials and sentimentals, I remembered a book we read in 11th grade literature class, The Things They Carried, a collection of stories by American author Tim O’Brien, about his time as a soldier during the Vietnam War. The first chapter is an account of the things he and his company of troops carried. O’Brien roughly splits the things they carried into two categories:

  1. “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.”
  2. “The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition.”

The things of necessity were items such as guns and ammunition, food and water, reading material, medical supplies. The things of superstition were objects like photographs of the women they loved, a good luck pebble, a rabbit’s foot, a severed thumb. I do not typically pack guns or ammunition or severed thumbs, and nor do I foresee ever doing so, however I can identify with the practice of carrying the things of necessity (the essentials) and superstition (the sentimentals).

But, towards the end of the chapter, O’Brien brings up another category of things that he and the fellow comrades carried:

“They all carried ghosts,” he said. “…Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.”

These Ghosts are the formless intangibles that you cannot load into a backpack, strap onto your shoulders, or nestle within your clutch. But, they manage to bear you down, with undeniable, ungraspable power. These ghosts are called memory.

In the next month, there are a lot of memories that are going to have to be packed as well. They will most likely be filed into spaces and corners in my brain. Over time, I will take them out, review them, and reminisce the grief, terror, love, longing; re-experience the hurt, laughter, insecurity, hospitality. And, as I’ve learned from looking at history and memory in the context of the Cambodian genocide, I assume these filed memories will be altered. Because, memory is a filtered story, continuously wrung through sieves called bias, politics, trauma, emotion. And the product is as O’Brien calls them, “odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.” However, as beginning-less and end-less as the ghosts called “My Memory from September 2012 to July 2013” will surely be, I hypothesize that the parts and chunks of them crammed into my head will stay with me much more stubbornly than any of the essentials and sentimentals the plump-bellied plane is going to carry. The ghosts shall remain in my company, for an unforeseeable period of time.

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