Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Things They Carried

In one of my college literature classes, we read a collection of stories by Tim O'Brien called The Things They Carried. The first of those stories, the one by the same name as the collection, talked about the things a group of American soldiers in Vietnam carried with them.

It starts out with what you would expect--all of their clothing and equipment and gear--and then keeps going a little deeper. Eventually, the reader learns a great deal about each of these men, because of the specific items they had with them. A photo of a baby. A cross. A letter. Then we learn more about these specific items and why these men carried them, sometimes for surprising reasons.

If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. But as I've recently gone through and purged a bunch of the things that I carry around with me, both before my move and after it, I've discovered that there are certain Things I Carry that I'm not ready to get rid of.

These are things I brought with me to North Carolina from Texas...and I can't get rid of them.
I mean, seriously. A single, broken drumstick. An ugly, dirty stuffed donkey for goodness sake. A shredded to no end cat collar. And an ugly pair of black, leather shoes that are caked with dried on mud.

Just looking at it, and thinking about it like that, it's hard even for me to remember why they come with me--why I have such a hard time letting go. But then I look at them more closely, individually, and there's no way I can not keep them.

For instance, the cat collar.

This collar belonged to my very first cat, Bailey. Bailey was my sweetheart. He was big and fluffy, and he loved to snuggle. He was scared of almost everything, but he wasn't scared of me. When my younger cat started trying to sneak out the front door, and actually got past me one time (she waited in the bushes by the door, and then hissed and grumbled at me when I finally opened the door and let her back in, like it was my fault she had gone outside), I decided that my cats needed tags with their names and my phone number.

No, Bailey would never dare to step foot outside--he was too scared--but I put him in one anyway. And he hated it. Within a couple of weeks, he had the poor thing shredded so badly that it was getting tangled in his fur. When the stupid thing ripped a chunk of his fur out one day, I gave up and decided he could go without. When I took it off, I put it in a drawer, thinking maybe sometime I would find a different collar that he couldn't shred...and I could use the same tag.

I never found another collar. A few months after that, he got very sick and we had to put him down. But I still have his one and only collar, complete with a phone number I no longer own. I thought about tossing it before the move, but I just couldn't. And I still can't.

Then there's this ugly stuffed donkey.

This is Jingles. Jingles isn't just ugly and dirty, but he's older than me, and he's got bells in his ears. Annoying bells in his ears. Every time you move him, he jingles. Hence his name.

He's so old that I'm afraid to wash him. I don't think he'd survive the wash. So the stains he's got? They're staying. I also don't really have much need for stuffed animals any more. I stopped sleeping with them over two decades ago.

I could keep him around for my nephew to play with, but I don't trust him to take good care of Jingles. He's a rough-and-tumble boy, and he's destroyed more toys than I can count. My cats, also, would LOVE to play with Jingles. But I don't think he'd last a day in their clutches.

So why do I keep him? Jingles was a gift from my last living great-grandmother to me. He belonged to her (her daughters gave him to her), and when she died, I was her youngest great-grandchild (I wasn't yet one). I don't remember her. I never knew her in a meaningful way. But still, I have a part of her...and so I keep it.

Then we have this single, broken drumstick.

I was a percussionist through junior high and high school, so I have broken my fair share of drumsticks over the years. But why keep one?

This one wasn't one of mine. I never had its pair. It came from the drummer of a band whose music helped me through a very difficult time in my life. Years later, I got to see them perform live from the second row. After the show, the drummer handed me his stick just before he walked off the stage.

Despite the potential for splinters, I don't know that I'll ever be able to get rid of it. Maybe I should frame it. That might be safer.

And then, finally, we have the ugly pair of black, leather shoes caked with dried-on mud.

Why on earth do I hold onto these? Or if I'm going to keep them, my haven't I cleaned the mud off?

The mud has been there for about four years now. The last time I wore these shoes, I was at my Grandpa's funeral. It was raining that day in south Texas, even though it hadn't rained in way too long before that. It wasn't just a little rain, either. It was a soaker, where the water really got down into the ground.

I wore these shoes because I didn't want to destroy a good pair. We had to walk through thick, heavy mud to get to the burial site. It was all over everything, but the rain washed some of it away before we got back inside. Some, but not all. Some of it was so thick, so heavy, that the rain couldn't cleanse it away.

When I got home, I put those shoes in the bathroom to dry out, thinking I'd clean them off in a day or two. Four years later, I still haven't been able to bring myself to do so. I know, intellectually, that washing the mud away will not change anything. The mud is not Grandpa. Grandpa is dead and buried, and nothing I do or don't do can change that.

Yet I can't clean those shoes, and I can't get rid of them.

So these are the Things I Carry. I don't know how long I will carry them, or if they will have so much control over me in ten years, twenty, forty.

What are the Things You Carry? Have you ever been able to let one of the Things You Carry go?

**Originally published at Lady Scribes**

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