travelers-tales

By Jennifer Elle Lewis

Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards Bronze Winner in the Women’s Travel category

I spent five days packing a toiletry bag. It was for my first business trip post-baby. I’d already read in the Attachment Parenting Handbook exactly how many days I could be away from my six-month-old before he was irrevocably traumatized, calculated how many times a day I must pump before my milk would dry up, and ordered the most efficient and quietest breast pump for the long journey to New Delhi – but I wasn’t finished packing yet. That damn toiletry bag just wasn’t ready. If only I could get it organized, I’d be ready to go.

I looked at my suitcase, sides akimbo, laid flat on the floor, perfectly packed with an empty space for one key, missing, item. I suddenly noticed an old luggage tag reading “JFK” poking out at attention on the rubber handle. It was from my last flight, taken while heavily pregnant, back home to New York. I removed it, curling its sticky backing in on itself until it was a large ball of ink and scuffed-up barcodes. I had already placed a few all-too-carefully-selected clothes items into the hard-shelled case: a power suit, some jeans, a few pairs of beige maternity underwear, and a pashmina for haggling with vendors in the market. There was the breast pump I’d bring on the plane, and the backup breast pump I’d take in case that one broke, as well as the hand breast pump in case the backup failed.

I’d managed to plan this trip, which ought to take at least a week to execute with minimal comfort into a quick four-night jaunt – sleeping two nights in the hotel and two nights on the airplane. This way, I’d be to India and back again right in time for baby’s first Halloween, and without jeopardizing too much of the Attachment Parenting I’d worked so hard to develop. It would be almost as if I’d never travelled halfway across the world and back again.

I assessed the contents of the toiletry bag. It just wasn’t quite right. Would I need to bring Imodium and Gas-X? I was travelling to India after all, and not to make assumptions, but I should probably bring both. I wanted to look good, of course, so I needed the under-eye concealer and the spot treatment. But the organic bamboo nursing pads were taking up too much room, although necessary, since I didn’t want to leak through my bra while presenting in front of a room full of colleagues.

I felt the panic rising in my body again. There was nothing I could do to fight it back. It was better to just let it erupt out of me like it had fifteen times a day for the past five days I’d tried to finish packing for this trip. I felt heat and chills simultaneously as I sat paralyzed on the bathroom floor, toiletry bag gaping open. “How am I going to do this?” I asked myself while hyperventilating. This recurrent anxiety then turned to recurrent rage. “Why couldn’t this stupid fucking bag just be packed already!” I picked up the toiletry bag with both hands and threw it across the bathroom, its contents exploding outward as it hit the towel rack. And then I wept, like I had fifteen times a day, for the past five days.

They were waiting continents away for me to arrive, but had I ever really “arrived” anywhere in my life? And who was the “I” who was doing the arriving now anyway? What could I possibly offer my colleagues, besides the horror stories of vaginal childbirth or my newfound uses for fenugreek? Let’s face it, the gestation process had stolen most of my brain cells, and especially since I was considered a “geriatric” mother at 38, those sleepless nights with an infant had rendered me practically senile.

I yearned for the carefree days when I gracefully hovered between continents, perfectly packed, ready to tackle a new adventure. I’d throw back a gin and tonic, casually placing the plastic cup on a tray table, while laughing at some Hollywood blockbuster and accelerating miles away from wherever “home” was that year. But who was this new woman? This person laden with devices and accessories to support the little life she’d created in an actual home, solidly on the Earth. Who was this mother who dared to do both?

Flying: you go above, and there is a whole new perspective. You go above, the now-exposed tops of the clouds, fluffy like a Pomeranian, dense like a luxurious hotel bed, or sometimes, wispy, like the feathers in a Stevie Nicks costume. Grays, and whites and pinks surround you in a world all your own, far above man-made territories. It’s a place of between places. It’s a place, inspired by altitude, where you might feel closer to divinity. It’s a place, perhaps, where you could even become any version of yourself. Those wispy, transparent, mutable moments above 30,000 feet. Soft like the eiderdown of a mother hen. Except now you’re the mother hen – and you are hardly weightless. The whirring of your breast pump clashes with the whirring of the twin turbo engines. The cabin feels unsanitary. You are exposed and out of place trying to capture your very real vital life force from the insides of a flying tin toilet roll, that’s hurling your milk-filled body thousands of miles from the baby who needs it. And after you collect your precious life-giving nectar, you must pack it on ice until you reach a refrigerator 14 hours later, or dump it down the miniature metal airplane sink, where it will theoretically be propelled out into the ether, or more realistically, collected in a tank with the piss and shit of your fellow passengers. Never to touch those tiny lips, a carbon copy of your own, on the face of your beautiful baby boy. But why are you thinking about any of this? You’re not ready to travel. You’re not even packed yet.

I try again. I probe the mascara and travel-sized toothpaste out from underneath the claw-foot tub, dust them off, and place them gently back into the toiletry bag. They fall into position with a satisfying clinking sound. It’s almost as if everything is finding its rightful place. Maybe I can too. I take a deep breath, hold it in a few moments, and slowly exhale. “You can do this, Jenny,” I tell myself, as I stay firmly grounded on the bathroom floor.

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Jennifer Elle Lewis is an emerging creative writer and activist for gender-based equity initiatives. She has worked for International NGOs on issues surrounding gender, sexual identity and body politics, and has presented her research on panels and at colloquiums globally. Her opinion and commentary pieces have been published across Southern Africa and online. She holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from SOAS, University of London, as well as a BFA from The University of the Arts.