Since the end of April, I’ve been houseless and thus not as productive as I was hoping I would be this summer. I won’t bore you with all of the details or complaints, but suffice it to say that my seemingly perpetual state of transition over the last few months (which has now come to a halt, thankfully, in Calgary) has been both incredibly annoying and somewhat insightful, at least regarding what I want to blog about today.
Being houseless and undecided about where to live has a strange effect on one’s sense of self worth, especially when motivating factors in the decision involve two people, potential career prospects, and somewhat contrasting preferences about weather. My partner and I recently drove from Calgary to Vancouver and back (12 hours each way) in a rented cargo van. All of our worldly possessions (which don’t amount to much at all) were resting in a storage locker in my home town and a basement in my partner’s hometown. We’d been on the move for quite some time — a few weeks in England, a month or so staying with family (both sides), in our own bedroom, on couches, air mattresses, chesterfield cushions converted to mattresses, various beds and breakfasts, hotels, taking trains, planes, and automobiles back and forth, never seeming to rest in one place for longer than a day or two. We also managed to look for, and find, a new place to live in Calgary after deciding against Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto (and we don’t even expect to be in Calgary for much longer than a year).
Last week, the evening before our move to Calgary and the impending 2000 km drive to Vancouver and back, I had an extraordinarily Dickensian dream. I don’t actually remember the details, but I know that I woke up in the middle of the night struggling frantically with a too-heavy piece of imaginary luggage. I woke up frustrated, exhausted, and absolutely furious about having to move yet another piece of luggage from one place to another.
Since that dream, I’ve had Dickens on the brain, and particularly a few key lines from a piece called “An Unsettled Neighbourhood” (Household Words 1854), which documents the changes in Camden Town after its first introduction to the railway. Overcome by numerous attempts to profit from railway business, the neighbourhood undergoes what Dickens calls a “physical change” in both design and moral character after the railway’s emergence. Dickens’s ultimate protest speaks to my own frustrations over the last few months:
“I have seen various causes of demoralisation learnedly pointed out in reports and speeches, and charges to grand juries; but, the most demoralising thing I know, is Luggage. I have come to the conclusion that the moment Luggage begins to be always shooting about a neighbourhood, that neighbourhood goes out of its mind. Everybody wants to be off somewhere. Everybody does everything in a hurry.”
I know this feeling, intimately and somatically. All of my possessions (and especially my books) have sent my back and arms into fits. My choice of career has been challenged by things. I feel out of mind and want to be somewhere else, anywhere, as long as it’s settled. And not only have my things taken their revenge on my body for being stored away for months, but Luggage has also, obviously, permeated my dreams. As Dickens suggests, there is no going back. Once set in motion, luggage circulates perpetually, carving a moral cavern into each and everyone of us. “We dream,” Dickens writes, “in this said neighbourhood, of carpet-bags and packages. How can we help it?”
We dream of packages. I dream of luggage. I’m exhausted, physically, emotionally, and apparently unconsciously. We’re close to being completely set up in our new place in Calgary, but Dickens’s warnings about the moral dangers of unrestricted mobility (for those who can afford it) still haunt my thoughts. Railways have a nostalgic value today, as we’re all so used to air travel and automobiles, and their endless supply of both freedoms and annoyances (traffic jams, delayed flights, customs, etc). I enjoyed riding the rails in England this summer from station to station to station, so I’m certainly not immune to the nostalgia of the industrial era’s first great democratization of travel. At times, I even enjoy the freedom of the open road, or the puzzle of having to fit an endless number of mix-matched boxes into the back of a van or a storage unit.
Yet, throughout the past few months, I just haven’t been able to get Dickens’s ominous words out of my thoughts – we dream of carpet bags and packages – “we are, mind and body, an unsettled neighbourhood. We are demoralised by the contemplation of luggage in perpetual motion.”
I’m exhausted, tired, and I hope all this moving about is worthwhile in the end. Is it? Please, please, readers, let me know if it is. I suspect we all dream of luggage in some form or another (latently or manifestly), especially in today’s global network. Are we all part of one big unsettled neighbourhood?