Going through my bookcases to decide which books to keep, store, or give away, in advance of my upcoming move back to Mexico, I came across my well-marked-up paperback copy of Tim O’Brien’s now classic 1990 short story collection, The Things They Carried, based on his service in Vietnam.
I stopped my packing efforts to reread the first story, after which the book is titled. In almost hypnotic cadences, O’Brien repeats the phrases, “the things they carried” or “they carried” throughout this chapter to help us understand these young servicemen and what mattered to them as they faced the terrifying unknowns of jungle warfare. For example:
“They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes, fingernail clippers, PsyOps leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more. Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green marmite cans and large canvas bags filled with iced beer and soda pop. They carried plastic water containers, each with a 2-gallon capacity. Mitchell Sanders carried a set of starched tiger fatigues for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide. Dave Jensen carried empty sandbags that could be filled at night for added protection. Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion. … They carried the sky … they carried gravity.”
What it’s coming down to for me now, as I face the unknowns involved in packing to move to Mexico, is this: triage. Dividing my already relatively meager belongings (I went through a first pass last spring before leaving for Guanajuato for the summer) into three categories – those that remain in my Taos condo, which I hope to soon rent for the first year I’ll be away, those that I give away or throw away, and those that I’ll pack to take with me. I’m still in the process of deciding what I can finally let go of, and what I must carry.
This, as I alluded to in a previous WOW view, “Travel Light,” posted last January, is a process countless Americans in my age group are going through right now, and I’m sure we’re all finding it both difficult and liberating. We’re downsizing our lives and possessions to fit our new, post-retirement status. We’re closing big old doors and walking, by faith, toward smaller new ones, whether those new doors are in a new county or a new country with a lower cost of living.
My mother, I remember, wasn’t able to do this. I have a vivid memory of her standing over boxes in the basement of our family home — boxes filled with her four grown children’s childhood toys and games and dolls – holding her head with both of her beautiful hands and weeping. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t pack and leave the red-brick house she’d loved for four decades and all the memories it contained, even when her longtime boyfriend offered to marry her upon her imminent retirement and move with her to a cottage he’d bought for them on Shelter Island. She never made it to Shelter Island. She died in her home of brain cancer within two years.
In this, as in other ways, I intend not to follow my mother’s path. I’ve been trying to learn how to let go, turn corners, and move on. I am no longer a caterer, so I don’t need so many baking pans and so much kitchen equipment. I am no longer a college English instructor, so I don’t need quite so many books, three-ring notebooks and papers. In Mexico I won’t need winter boots, bulky winter coats, or wool scarves and gloves; so I’ve given them all away.
Of course I’ll need to pack necessities – warm-weather clothes and shoes, as well as toiletries and such. And I’ll pack my “toys” too – sewing machine and sewing supplies, paint sets and pads, blank notebooks and journals, this MacBook Air. Everything else will have to be small, lightweight, and unbreakable, things of sentimental, inspirational, can’t-live-without value. Among these, so far, I know I’ll be packing:
* The tattered red King James Bible my first boyfriend, a member of the church in NJ I attended in my early teens, gave me for Christmas in 1958, inscribed inside, “…always remember that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God’ (Romans 8:28), Love, Dick” and underlined throughout in red pencil.
* The battered Penguin paperback of N.J. Dawood’s English translation of The Koran – a must-read for all non-Muslims, I feel — from which I read inspirational passages every morning when I lived in predominantly Muslim Mali for three years (1998 to 2001). Its lyrical messages, such as this one, uplifted me every day: “It is He [God] that has created for you the stars, so that they may guide you in the darkness of land and sea” (6:97).
* A brass candleholder, the sole survivor of a pair my grandmother bought for me in Maine in 1961, when I, at sixteen, spent the summer with her on Penobscot Bay and helped her with her work. Perhaps this might help light the way.
* My mother’s manicure set, in its blue, zippered case: A reminder to me that my hands will never be, no matter what I do, as beautiful as hers.
There’ll be more such items, I know. I’m still in the process of packing — and proceeding on faith.
As with the soldiers in Tim O’Brien’s book, it’s the small things we carry, for comfort or good luck, that define us.