If I have ever truly cared about you, at some point I gave you a copy of The Things They Carried.
I’m not really a mixed messages kind of girl. You can literally weigh my devotion to you based on whether or not I ever handed you that book.
My devotion to that novel is intense, but it’s not one that stems all the way back to my childhood. I actually never even heard of the book until I became a teacher and realized I was expected to teach the thing after I finished The Catcher in the Rye, an experience that did not end well. I had to calm my students down when they became furious by the book’s somewhat ambiguous ending that refused to lay everything out neatly and then tie the strings of the narrative into a sweet bow. Something I’ve learned over the years? The average reader wants to be left with absolutely no questions – the average reader wants to have everything resolved perfectly.
Teaching a book I’d never taught – or read – was daunting as hell. At first I simply looked at it primarily as a book about the Vietnam War, and I was nervous that I’d have to become a pseudo-expert on some new piece of literature while simultaneously acquainting myself with a time period that occurred before I was born, one that I mostly knew about due to Oliver Stone movies.
Fuck me, I’d think to myself at night as I would glance around my living room and see the white and orange cover of the book on the corner of my coffee table where I kept it in an effort to actually get myself to read the thing. I’d turn it over and feel the book against my fingers and I’d trace the matte cover and I’d read the blurb on the back and I’d look closely at the photograph of the author and wish that he was not wearing a Red Sox cap.
I’ll read it tomorrow, I would tell myself every night. I’ll read it over vacation.
I actually finally read the damn thing on a plane – or at least the beginning of the book on a plane. I was heading down to Florida with my boyfriend and something happened and we were somehow upgraded to First Class and we stretched our legs happily in front of us during the short flight and he wanted to hold my hand but it was too hard doing so and turning the pages of a book at the same time. I flew through the first chapter and then I went back and read it again because it was so dense and so beautiful and it conjured up images I could barely comprehend. I underlined a single sentence and then full paragraphs. I read the words again and again. I pulled the headphones from my boyfriend’s ear and interrupted him as he listened to Foo Fighters to read him perfectly formed lines of language that allowed a reader to know the literal and symbolic weight of all that a young soldier has to carry – before, during, and after the war for a battle that could never really be over due to losses that could never be adequately defined because it was just too difficult to understand what had been lost in the first place.
I got through the remainder of the book while I luxuriated in the pure relaxation a vacation in a warm location can provide. I drank gallons of water and dipped by feet in the coolness of the swimming pool and I’d move my toes through the water and watch the flares of the sun make a mini rainbow dance across the water’s surface and I would wonder if the polish on my toes was too pink and then I would pick The Things They Carried back up and read chapters at a time.
I couldn’t get over the genius of the way in which the story was constructed. The action jumped around in time, making the experience of reading the book disjointed and nonlinear – which is to say I loved it. There were stories about being smack dab in the brutality of war followed immediately by a chapter that took place many years after the war and reading it felt like the equivalent of being thrown into a speeding car that accelerated further as it took the hills and the valleys at a breakneck speed and I felt my stomach drop in the way I usually hate because I only really experience that feeling on a roller coaster or in my dreams when I have that horrible feeling of free-falling into nothingness.
I realized long ago that I am one of those people who really enjoys having those vicarious reading or viewing experiences that plunge me face first into the darkness of another person’s frenzied mind. I like horror films. I love the feeling of detached fear. I appreciate swimming through an author’s pain and not needing a towel when I get out of the water.
And I know I am not the only one who feels this way.
There were certain elements in The Things They Carried that impacted me every single time I read it or taught it and a few are kind of inexplicable. Sure, reacting to a character’s suicide post-war and to the loss of a beloved platoon member during a battle that exploded as if from nowhere make sense, but what I can’t completely explain is why the continued refrain of the line, “I’m forty-three years old and I’m a writer now…” – a line woven through several chapters of the book – makes me choke up every time I read the words. I’m not forty-three, but I do feel like a writer now and I look at that short sentence and I wish I understood if it is the purity of the words or that it grounds the reader in the present or if it serves to reacquaint the reader with the character guiding the story that twists my heart in the best of ways.
My favorite chapters are probably On the Rainy River or Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong. One is a pre-war story, the other a war tale, and both are so descriptive that I feel like I can even smell the residue of shrapnel in the air and I’d look forward to sharing those particular chapters with my students every year. If a kid didn’t love the book, I often found I couldn’t really like the kid – and I won’t apologize for that. I mean, I forgive them for thinking that it’s appropriate to surreptitiously text during class and for turning in work with the word “you” written as “u” – I’m allowed to hate them for the book thing.
But even though it’s not my favorite, that first chapter – The Things They Carried – is maybe the closest thing to written perfection I have ever seen. The chapter lays out the tangible and intangible things these young soldiers must lug through the fields and Tim O’Brien gives the actual weight of some of the items that must be carried and the entire thing leaves me with a haunting image of a kid only a year or so older than my students being buried by fear and by responsibility and by anger and by pride. It is a chapter that makes me wonder how a single person can read it and not think, “What do I carry?”
Me? I carry a ton of shit. I think that everybody does.
When we’re speaking literally, here’s what I have in a purse or in my work bag just about every single day:
· At least three lip glosses, none of which I’m all that into anymore, but my favorite shade has been discontinued and I’ve been too busy to start petitions or hold rallies so instead I keep ordering new things from Sephora and I am disappointed every time. I mean, how hard is it to create a shade that’s part coffee and part mocha that stays on for more than an hour? I’m seriously asking that question and I would love a response.
· A pen – usually blue ballpoint – though I rarely use it anymore. I used to reach for it all the time, back in the days when I would scrawl ideas into a small leather journal that I also carry, but now I type ideas and inspirations and reminders that I need conditioner into the notes app of my phone.
· Gum. Peppermint flavor.
· My wallet, stuffed to the brim with Starbucks gift cards that are probably depleted.
· Q-tips to fix my eyeliner on days it feels like running down my face like I’ve embraced a Goth lifestyle.
· Tissues – both clean and dirty. I mean to throw the dirty ones away – of course I do – but I forget sometimes and then I feel total humiliation when some random screener at Yankee Stadium has to rake through my bag before allowing me entrance into the place and finds himself touching crumpled tissues. “They’re clean,” I lie. I think lying is wrong – unless it serves to make both people feel better.
· Tampons – which I always have, except when I really need one. Then they all go missing.
· A small bag of maple-flavored quinoa, my new favorite thing to snack on. I remember the days of mini Twix bars lining the bottom of my purse and I have to say that I miss those days.
· My phone, and I thought it would take me forever to get used to the fact that it’s bigger than my last iPhone, but now the old one just looks silly.
· A mini toothbrush, as I was raised to believe that it’s better to be safe and have a clean smile than anything else.
· On evenings I might not be coming home, I’ll cram the following into one of my huge purses: a small makeup bag with powder and mascara; deodorant; flip flops; sleep shorts or sweatpants; a thong; a tee shirt or a tank top; and some Benadryl, just in case the place I find myself is inhabited by a cat. As long as I don’t touch the kitty and the house is somewhat clean, I probably won’t end up in the emergency room.
It’s a lot of stuff I drag with me throughout each and every day, but it’s nothing compared to the other shit I carry. The rest of my – let’s just go ahead and call it baggage, though I really hate the connotation of such a thing – cannot be measured by any kind of legitimate scale, but I think much of it is what causes my shoulders to always feel deeply knotted underneath my skin.
I carry the goals I have for the future and the mistakes I have made in the past. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made some mistakes that I cannot come back from, if my old motto of “In the grand scheme of my life, this moment will not matter,” was a motto I never should have had or if I relied upon it for far too long. I would love to be the kind of person who can genuinely believe that every misstep can be seen as a learning experience, but I think I was born without that philosophical DNA.
I carry all kinds of dreams: daydreams, night dreams, and recurring anxiety dreams. The night dreams are almost always dictated by what I went through during the day. My psyche must process things quickly because the events of the day turn up in my unconscious state in the dead of night and the images that form in my mind represent what is happening in almost real-time in my life. And when the day was great, the dreams can be amazing. When the day was one fraught with conflict and fear, I find that I go to sleep with a feeling of dread. I know what’s coming. The anxiety dreams are typical: having to run but being unable to move; trying to hit someone but my hand won’t connect; not being able to find a testing room; cutting an entire semester of college classes; and my teeth falling out. The tooth one is the worst. I smile a lot and I can honestly say that a smile without teeth is terrifying unless you’re the Gerber baby. The daydreams are pretty consistent too. There’s a lot of imagining myself in an amazing gown – these days, I’m veering towards a strapless silver Chanel – and winning an award for a script I wrote and what my life could be like if I didn’t live in New York. I imagine a world where my writing matters to the masses and I imagine myself as a better writer.
I also try to imagine myself taller without having to wear five-inch heels and, since that won’t ever happen, I then move on to the daydream of one day locating heels that are actually comfortable rather than running the gamut from brutal pain to numb toes that I have considered snapping off just so the shoe will fit better.
I can’t be the only person to have such a fantasy, could I?
I carry with me the ability to rationalize. It has to be something that I was initially taught, but I took those teachings and I ran with them. I can now rationalize my own behavior – and I can also rationalize your behavior, but that’s kind of where I can get into trouble. See, I probably don’t know enough about you to explain something away, but I always believe that there must be an excellent reason for somebody behaving rudely or inappropriately; I should begin to cart with me the belief that some people are simply assholes.
I carry with me the joy that not everybody is an asshole.
I carry lessons that I have learned from wise teachers and patient friends and parents who never stopped trying. I’ve learned to listen and to keep my mouth shut about things I do not know enough about rather than yap away to hear the sound of my own voice.
Don’t refrigerate tomatoes but do refrigerate bread.
Do not get bangs on a whim. You’d think this lesson would take hold after just one terrifying bang experience, but I needed to go through the pain of having an inconvenient layer at the front of my head twice.
Don’t take a yes or no question directly to the top boss. If he or she says no, there’s nobody to ask to reconsider.
Do deal with as much as possible with humor.
Ignore people who tell you that you smile too much.
Wear sunscreen instead of baby oil when you are seventeen and lying out on somebody’s blacktop driveway in July unless you want to have to sleep naked with cold washcloths all over your body.
Begin the day with oatmeal or egg whites.
Always be on time unless there is a twelve car pile-up.
Self-awareness is necessary if you want to be even slightly normal.
Sharing your thoughts and ideas with the world on a blog will lead to some remarkably uncomfortable moments that will really matter, but only for a little while.
Keep your closets organized, change your sheets frequently, and get rid of clothing you haven’t worn in over a year, but prepare yourself for the moment with your sister when you offer her the stuff you’re getting rid of first and she responds by holding up a see-through tank top and just looks at you until you feel something that’s probably shame.
Lessons aside, I also carry with me memories, including the one of what his face looked like when he saw me in that see-through tank top. And I carry memories of waiting in lines for hours at Disney World when I was a child and watching my father drive away for the first time to his new house and falling in love for the first time almost by accident and deciding what I should wear for my first day as a teacher and the internal prayer I’d have each day for that first month: Please let this pit in my stomach go away. Please let work become a place where I am confident.
I carry with me now an utter sense of confidence in my teaching.
I carry ambition with me now more than I ever did before and at first it felt like I was wearing shoes a size too big. It took me a while to get used to feeling like I should be ambitious. It took me longer to see that there’s often nothing more essential to success than pure, uncut ambition.
I carry fear and I might need a larger metaphorical backpack for it. I fear losing family members and I fear not making the most of the time I have with them. I fear not being enough for somebody I love. I fear that watching reality shows is killing my soul. I fear moments in the future – unavoidable ones – that will be devastating. I fear what my home will be like without my dog, who is seventeen and showing her age. I fear what could happen if I get off the phone with someone I love without saying, “Be careful,” something I only realized I do a few years ago.
I carry with me the gratitude that the people I love have never asked me why I end a phone call with those words. They just accept it.
I carry movie quotes and song lyrics and a mental file of Film History. I carry an addiction to shopping online and the belief that I need to start wearing more color. I carry hair that is too thick for my liking and I give it too much power over my days and myself. I carry the inability to feel happy if I don’t look good that day and I carry the inability to get rid of such a silly thought process.
I carry with me the shards of beliefs I had that were proven wrong over the years: that people are good at heart; that intentionally causing someone pain rarely occurs; that the newest Ghostbusterswould indeed star Bill Murray; that a script I wrote would already be in production. But I also carry resolve that grows daily and a desire to embrace intentions that have become more defined.
I carry regret for having hurt people. I carry a blunt manner of communicating that might sometimes be too blunt. I carry the inability or the unwillingness to let a conflict simmer. I carry the bullshit quality where my voice shakes when I’m angry and it infuriates me every single time because I sound frightened and I’m not; I’m fucking furious.
I wish I carried more bitterness and anger, but I never seem to shop in those emotional boutiques.
I carry compassion and passion. I carry joy and misery. I carry the enjoyment of solitude. I carry shock from when pain hit the first time and some of it settled deeply inside of me. I guess I carry with me the reluctance to cast it all aside.
I carry the understanding that everyone has things that must be carried.
I carry the awareness that nobody tells another person absolutely everything.
I carry with me the knowledge that every person experiences elation along with desolation.
I carry with me empathy and selfishness and curiosity.
I carry the belief that life will always be challenging.
And I carry the certainty that it's worth it -- that it's okay -- to fight like hell to get exactly what I have always wanted.