It starts at the grocery store on the mainland. I hand my cooler and canvas bags to the cashier, who passes them to the bagger, and I start to unload a full grocery cart. I have an itching need to get the cart unloaded quickly so I can get to the other end to help bag the groceries. I would actually prefer to do the whole job myself. No, I am not trying for a customer-of-the-year award, it’s just that I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to how my groceries are bagged. I want the bags to be full and efficiently packed, to use as few bags as possible. I’ve even had a few compliments on my bagging techniques such as, “You should get a job here!” More often, though, I get strange looks as I snatch the loose bottle of laundry detergent out of the cart and put it into a bag. The 12 pack of beer is heavy, but put it in a bag, please, because there is still room for bread, chips, or produce on top of it. I explain, with a self-conscious smile to the bagger, that I have to carry these things onto a boat, all the while hoping she is not thinking, “Wow, stuck up b*tch! She’s bragging about her yacht.” There is a method to my madness. On a passenger ferry, going to the Cranberry Isles, it is far easier to keep track of four heavy canvas bags than it is to keep track of 10 bags and pieces. The main reason, though, is that I am trying to avoid the shame of carrying too much baggage.

Not everyone feels a sense of baggage shame, but I know I’m not alone. This is not emotional baggage but the emotion that crops up for me when I have a lot of stuff to put aboard the boat. Other than pre-vacation conversations in the privacy of the home, the worry of bringing too much stuff is particular to riding a passenger ferry. Public transportation to the islands features such an intimate, limited space that there really is no way to hide yourself or your personal belongings. On a gorgeous summer day, with so much to behold outside the boat, one might only experience a fleeting glance from other passengers. On a foggy day, where visibility is limited, however, checking out someone else’s belongings is akin to people-watching.
“Judge not lest ye be judged.” Good advice. But baggage shame comes from judging oneself more than others. I am only too happy to hear someone arrive on the dock and say, “I can’t believe we brought all this stuff!” It just makes my day. If I want to return the favor, I can say something like, “Wow! Is that all you brought for three weeks? Great packing job.” Then I can help them load their stuff aboard the boat. Baggage shame escalates in the summer because the boats are more crowded with people on vacation. At low tide, everything must be carried up or down the ramp between the dock and the float. The shame can increase with the number of times a piece is handled. It’s a little easier on everyone when the tide is high and the boat loads and unloads alongside the dock. On such a day, with calm seas, the freight often rides out of sight on the roof of the cabin.

High tide is not the only important timing for minimizing baggage shame. If you are the first to arrive with a big load of stuff, there is a better chance of stowing it neatly on the appropriate side of the boat for your island, before anyone else can see it. As others arrive, you can help them with their stuff, seemingly disconnected from your own baggage. Timing also comes in to play if you are running late. It is hard not to judge those who show up with a car full of stuff, just as the boat is ready to leave. Many times I have opted to take a later boat, rather than make everyone wait while I load my things and then have to park the car. The time to reserve judgment is when you are on the last boat of the day. We all have been stuck in traffic, at one time or another, racing to catch that last ferry ride. It behooves us to be patient with last-boat-latecomers because the next time it could be us.
Oh, how we islanders long to, just once, drive our cars directly from the grocery store to our houses! Time and tide would be inconsequential. We could load and unload any number of bits and pieces in total anonymity, without having to keep track of them many times over. This is actually possible if one wants to drive onto a barge, and arrive on the island that way. There is another option. When I first moved to the island 35 years ago, I didn’t know how long I would stay. The uncertainty did not prevent me from bringing a lot of stuff, but baggage shame kept me from bringing it all over to the island on my first trip. I just left it in my car and waited to put it on the boat when my brother arrived one week later, so people would think it was his.

The best advice for dealing with baggage shame, or any shame for that matter, is to lighten up or not let it bother you. Every time my friend Susie arrives from New York, she brings an assortment of bags, boxes, plants, and a very hairy dog bed that travels back and forth with her dog. Her hair dryer, a roll of packing tape, slippers, and the dog’s water dish are just a few of the odds and ends that don’t find their way into a bag or a box. And yet, the bits and pieces all manage to show up with her as she arrives on the dock, smiling shamelessly, so happy to be back on an island in Maine.

-Islesford June, 15 2011