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A luggage carousel at an airport with identical silver bags, no people. Photo: Rik Rey/Getty Images

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Losing Your Luggage Can Feel Like Losing Yourself

What goes into a suitcase is never just stuff.

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Five years ago, I shoved a good third of my wardrobe and checked it on a flight to Las Vegas. I was ridiculously excited about the six-day trip that I was taking with my mom, and it showed in my overplanning and overpacking: three sets of workout gear for the half-marathon we were running, and all of the gym sessions I somehow thought I’d manage afterward. Books to read poolside. Makeup that I was actually going to try to wear. Approximately three dresses for every club night, show, and meal. A plethora of cardigans and my most prized Judas Priest shirt.

I never saw any of it again. According to the airline’s tracking system, my suitcase did make it to the baggage carousel that night. It just never ended up in my hands. Either someone accidentally walked away with it, mistaking it for their own, and never bothered to return it, or someone stole it. (Which was an issue at the time — Delta actually took steps to curb baggage carousel theft the following year.) I was left with nothing but the running shoes, change of clothes, and stuffed bear I’d managed to fit in my carry-on — and an overabundance of catastrophizing, emotions, and self-recriminations even more likely to burst than my vanishing suitcase had been.

I was sad because I’d just lost a large portion of the clothes, accessories, and cosmetics that I’d taken years to lovingly assemble, and panicked because I had no clue how I was going to be able to afford to replace any of them. I felt guilty because the very ability to lose non-essential possessions on vacation is still the result of a pretty privileged life. I desperately tried to learn some sort of Important Lesson about materialism from the whole thing, but that didn’t stick and then I felt guilty about that too.

Then I felt resolute because I wasn’t about to let my loss rob my mother of the first vacation she’d taken in forever. As much as I ended up loving that trip, though, a hint of melancholy remained. I missed my stuff, or something about my stuff, and neither the new items I picked up on the trip nor the reimbursement I eventually got from the airline could completely make up for that.

I also felt guilty about that until a friend called me in the middle of packing for a business trip a few weeks later. “It’s just a collection of office clothes and toiletries. I’m not even sure I’d miss them, specifically,” she mused. “But it’s still a piece of my life that I’m putting in here. I think I’d feel a bit lost if I arrived without them for any period of time, let alone forever.”

In the months that followed, I had a number of conversations like this. Friends and family approached my misadventure with a mix of sympathy and anticipatory panic for their own upcoming trips. Other members of the unlucky 3 percent of people whose lost luggage isn’t found and returned within two days — including one woman who lost her dress on the way to her Vegas wedding — reached out to me after reading a ridiculous blog that I posted on the topic to tell me their own stories. More often than not, some variation on this theme came up. We were dealing with — or afraid of — a loss that somehow went beyond the material or the monetary.

Unless you have the kind of budget and temperament that allows you to purchase all new goods for any kind of trip, what ends up in your suitcase is a collection of things that you’ve amassed over your lifetime for a variety of reasons. Most of them were probably never intended to be in your life forever. Toothbrushes wear out. Clothing sizes and styles can be outgrown. To lose them all at once, though, is jarring. This is especially true when they were supposed to accompany you somewhere for a specific purpose.

From even the most practical perspective, luggage that you deliberately pack for a purpose is essentially a physical manifestation of your plans for a trip. (Emergency packing is its own beast that mostly illustrates some of the bizarre places your brain can go in moments of stress. After safely evacuating from the devastating fires in Fort McMurray in 2016, survivors found some comfort in laughing at some of the bizarre choices they’d made in the heat of the moment. I inexplicably packed five sundresses to go visit my beloved grandmother on her deathbed.)

If everything that you put together to make those things happen suddenly vanishes, then your plans are permanently altered, too. Sure, you might be able to replace your necessities and salvage most of your itinerary, but it’s never exactly the same after that. At the very, very least, you’re going to find yourself on an urgent underwear-hunting excursion that you never wanted or even considered before.

There can also be an emotional cost that comes along with this drain on time and resources. For anyone who’s at all sentimental, or anyone who’s put thought into their appearance — through interest, obligation, or the nebulous combination of the two that often happens in our society — what goes into a suitcase is never just stuff. There will be things that the packer chose to represent them in some way in there, and things that make them feel good. Each item will have its own memories attached to it, and its own potential to make new ones in the days to come.

If the items you own are a reflection of who you have been and who you are, and the things that you pack for a trip are part of your vision for what you want to do — and maybe even who you want to be — when you go there, then the sudden loss of all of those is a symbolic loss of a piece of your past, present, and future all at once.

I can’t recall exactly what I was trying to say with the overabundance of things I put in that fated suitcase half a decade ago. I think it might have been “I am, indeed, fancy enough to stay and eat at these posh establishments, but I would also like you to notice that I haven’t abandoned my metal roots.” But I do remember the excitement with which I packed it, and the history and the dreams that came along with each choice.

I never got to be any of things that I dreamed about when I packed. It’s not easy to unwind when you’re filing lost luggage reports, researching insurance claims, and waiting for follow-up calls from your airline. The wardrobe that I’d spent years cultivating through careful and diligent shopping was hard to replicate with the few sales-rack spoils that I felt I could comfortably afford. I’d desperately wanted my break from the real world to be as carefree, effortlessly stylish, and ridiculous as possible. Whatever exploits I thought I might get up to on our first night there, they definitely did not involve sobbing and feeling like both who I was and who I could be was suddenly out of reach in the bra section of a Dillard’s at closing time.

It wasn’t enough to ruin my trip, which ended up being a far more interesting adventure than anything I’d actually planned. And I never came close to transforming into a minimalist as a result of my luggage loss, but it did inspire a number of philosophical conversations about the different ways that different people relate to the stuff that they want and/or need to take everywhere with them. The bride who lost her dress laughed about the clash between expectations and reality that happens with almost every wedding, and the problems that were heightened versus the problems that disappeared when such a major component of her plans went MIA. The pre-business trip phone call from my friend quickly developed into a discussion about her ambivalence about her corporate job and her fear of losing it that mirrored everything she’d just told me about her suitcase. My therapist and I also spent some quality time digging into the reasons that I get so emotionally attached to stuff and figuring out how to handle that issue more mindfully in the future.

Maybe somewhere in Las Vegas, someone opened up that suitcase or found some of its contents at a thrift shop and discovered something new in there for themselves. Sure, the person picking up the navy and yellow running shorts couldn’t know that they’d originally been purchased with money that the wearer’s parents didn’t really have to spare because they wanted her to feel more comfortable in her new gig at a high-end gym. The person eyeing the striped cardigan would never guess that the tiny tear in its seam was the result of a craft night gone bizarrely off the rails. But maybe they saw a future in those things that I never could have dreamed for them, either.


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