It is common in the new year, of course, to take stock of what we have accumulated or built up or held onto in the year just past, peering into the drawers and crevices of our lives to examine what lurks there–this regret, that past-due jar of Oktoberfest mustard crusted shut, oh look an overdue library book–as we embark on our annual crafting of resolutions, deciding what we want to carry into the future with us.
Me, I’ve literally got some baggage to deal with.
In late November, unexpectedly, I found myself on a late-notice work trip to Montréal, the kind where you spend more time in vomitous, lurching, snarled-traffic taxis that have that cloying and taxi-specific stale-cigarette-and-aggressive-air-freshener-chemical-strawberry smell than you do in flight, the kind where the meeting you attend is complicated and important and brain-bending, the kind where you find yourself dragging your wheelie bag up the slush-and-salt encrusted roadway from the Métro to the Trudeau Foundation offices on Sherbrooke.
And then the wheels fell off. Literally.
Over the course of several blocks, and then across the full breadth of an airport terminal, one of the wheels on my bag just … disintegrated. Layers of rubberized plastic cracking, then catching, then peeling and flapping. I bump-bumped it along behind me, noisily askew and unpredictable, skiddering and halting and sliding and catching.
Same same, bag. Same same.
This 21″ Samsonite soft-sided bag is one of the enduring relationships in my professional life. I bought it in 1999, at Staples in Edmonton, because I needed a real suitcase, that I could bring on an airplane: I was starting to go to conferences. I was making an effort to grow up, and a rollaboard bag is grown up. I considered it an investment piece, because it cost me in the region of $150. “I will use this for a very long time,” I thought, as I shakily handed over the bulk of that month’s discretionary money. And I have.
Luggage means you are going places. This bag and I have gone places. And I find myself asking now: where am I going next?
I got my very first piece of luggage when I was four or five, a Christmas present to my sister and me from our paternal grandparents. Well, it was three pieces of luggage–a ‘carry on’ shoulder bag, small old-style suitcase with a carry handle, and larger suitcase, all tucked inside one another like nesting dolls. Orangey-tan faux leather for me, leisure-suit blue faux leather for my sister. We would be travelling as a family to visit my grandparents for the holiday, so the bags were immediately put to use. I felt so sophisticated. These suitcases travelled everywhere from Florida to summer camp to university with me, from 1977 until about 1997, actually.
In 1997, at the very end of my BA at York, I won a scholarship simply to travel to Europe (yes! isn’t it amazing?) in a classic backpackish style. But I had no backpack. I bought my own luggage for the first time: a black canvas MEC waterproof backpack–the kind where you can zip away the backpack part and hook on a shoulder strap to pretend like it’s a suitcase, but it isn’t. This trip was my first time on an airplane, my first major solo trip. I spent weeks practice-packing and practice carrying to get three weeks of clothes and necessities into this bag in such a way I could carry it around from train to train, hostel to hostel. I used this bag to travel to Edmonton later that summer, on a training trip for the Orlando Project, on which I had been offered a research assistantship to fund my MA at Guelph. My life changed a lot that summer. When I moved to Edmonton the following summer that was the bag that came on the plane, and that brought me home for holidays.
That Samsonite roller bag was the start of a new set of journeys for me, a bag for fast trips, a bag for rolling on smooth concourses rather than heaving into trunks or carrying over cobblestones, a bag that took up very little space and that I could live out of in a small corner in a shared hotel room or next to someone’s couch, a bag I could roll into a job interview and look appropriate. And those were the things I did, two or three times a year, for twenty years. I delighted in the ever-diminishing amortized cost of that bag, held tight to my sense of myself as that scrappy but forward-thinking grad student that was smart enough to buy it.
My life is changing again. That bag fell apart in the heaviest travel year I’ve ever had, at the end of a year in which I have been challenged to become the next version of the person I’m going to be. This past year, everything hit simultaneously: I came out of sabbatical to my first full teaching load in about five years, two new preps. I won a $100K SSHRC grant. I got a positive review on a book manuscript submission (that used to be my dissertation) that needs revision. I won a Trudeau Fellowship. I started a podcast, was nominated for two teaching awards, published my first piece in disability studies (and outed myself as autistic and ADHD in the very first sentence of it). I co-taught a grad course in a new area, went to a conference in a new field, and did a ton of media interviews (and appeared in a movie called Assholes: A Theory). In July, I hit my 15 year anniversary at the University of Waterloo. Fifteen years!
Mid-career hit with a mostly-positive thump. People invite me places. They assign my stuff to their grad classes. I find myself mentoring my own junior colleagues. I have a kind of clarity and sense of my own competence, which was unexpected and amazing. I have a travel and research budget that exceeds my capacity to quite comprehend. I am meeting diplomats and prominent academics who are somehow now my peers. Opportunities are multiplying.
But it’s still a thump. It feels kind of like Ms Pac Man, where I’ve munched a power disk, and while that makes it possible for me to rack up all the points and win, everything just got way louder and faster and I’m panicking about grabbing everything I can but still trying to methodically clear the level. It’s frenetic. It’s a mixed blessing. The wheels fell off my bag.
Things are changing.
Here’s where I went last year: Pittsburgh, twice, 4 days each, two different conferences; Vancouver, five days, Congress; Montreal, **three times**, each for two days related to Trudeau Foundation work; Mount Orford, Québec, for five days for Trudeau retreat; Yellowknife, for seven days, for the inaugural Trudeau Foundation Institute for Engaged Leadership.
Tomorrow, I’m flying to Washington for three days for Trudeau planning meeting. Six days after that back to Montréal overnight for an event. Washington again for a week in March, then Moncton for five days in May, Montréal for a week in October. Maybe more planning trips. This is without any conference travel, so who knows?
I bought a new bag for this new life. Even on Boxing Day it set me back more than $300, a 21″ rollaboard Travel Pro Platinum Elite Spinner, recommended for power travellers by Wirecutter. It’s this magical kind of suitcase with ten million weirdly useful pockets, including one for an external battery pack for my poor overworked devices, that somehow compresses time and space to make everything I pack 80% smaller than it seems to be before I put it in. It’s a kind of cranberry colour, sedate but a little distinct. I also: bought a tiny travel size hair straightener, tiny travel versions of my favorite toiletries, and I’ve dedicated a drawer in the guest room to Things That Travel With Me Every Time, like my little bag of first aid things, and extra chargers, and a case for my glasses. I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice, with less fuss. I feel 100% less stressed out about packing for all these trips now. Do I own two hair straighteners now? Yes. But I’m never going to be freaking out the morning of a trip waiting for my giant straightener to cool down before I try to shove it into a bag I wanted to have had ready at the front door 30 minutes earlier. This is who I am now.
I used to travel light, and cheap, and infrequently, and with a bit of panic and fuss at the outset. I’m not that person now. I still travel light, but I insist on the good parking and the good bag, and it makes sense to have doubles of things (and doubles of the things I like to use, the good stuff) because I spend so much time living out of my suitcase. It was hard for me to write out where I’ve gone this year and where I’m going because those paragraphs describe someone who is different from how I see myself, from how I want other to see me. I’m not sure how I feel about this new person yet: I have baggage, if you will, that I’m dragging bumpily behind me, wheels askew, not quite working but tinged with moral rectitude and thrift.
What am I going to wheel with you into 2020? Whatever it is, I hope the baggage rolls smoothly in the direction you set for yourself, whoever you may be or be becoming.