The Things We Carry

I remember back when Flickr was a thing (I don't even know if it still exists, and I don't want the distraction of looking), I used it mostly for looking at photographs that people would post of the things they carried in their bags -- handbags, backpacks, briefcases. I was intrigued. I liked to see what different people felt important enough to lug around with them all day. The whole idea of what we carry intrigues me. 

In the College Writing I and II classes I teach, we sometimes read an essay/short story, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. It is a collection of short stories about a platoon of soldiers' lives during the Vietnam War. O'Brien moves back and forth between the figurative and literal meanings of the things that we carry, one moment concerned about the tangible things that weigh us down and then the intangible and internal things that do the same. 

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And I am all over the place in thinking about this. I'm intrigued by handbags, notebooks, and baggage. I'm intrigued by literal and figurative baggage. 

I got my first handbag when I was in Ms. Neblitt's fourth grade class at Our Lady Help of Christians School. It was a chestnut brown saddle bag that had a suede inlay, with the Gemini symbol burnished into it, on the front flap. I cannot imagine what I carried in it. I can't recall. It couldn't have been much. I didn't have my period yet. I wasn't wearing makeup yet. I'm thinking it carried my small memo notebook and something with which to write. My guess is that was about it. And in fact, my current handbags often carry little more than that. 

I rarely make a handbag purchase these days.  But when life events change or life takes a turn, when there is a big shift, I often mark the events or ocassion with a new handbag or a new notebook. I have done this for my entire life. It is like literally turning over a new leaf. 

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My most recent handbag purchase, after the death of my ex-husband and father of my sweet boys, led me to a wonderful luxury consignment shop after I'd made by bag purchase, in search of a liner/handbag organizer to keep the contents from marking the inside of the bag. Before I knew it, I was engaged in a conversation about the things I carry with the owner of the boutique. I found myself talking about the tactile experience of my writing and my notebook and the inside of my purse. There was something sensual and organic about it, such that the liner changed everything, and I decided not to get it. The owner talked me out of it. I could have talked to her about this for days. The whole experience has led me to think more and more about what the things that we carry and the things in which we we carry them mean to us. 

There is no lesson nor moral to this story. I am wondering aloud, something I think we don't quite do enough of. Too often we are looking for answers or some imparted wisdom. I have none. I'm mostly filled with questions these days. 

What are the things that you carry, figuratively and literally?

 

The Beauty of Gratitude

I think I first heard of a gratitude journal many years ago on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah espoused writing down something for which you were grateful each day. Being grateful, it has been proven, leads to increased happiness because it helps us to focus on what we have versus what we don't have. It helps us to put things into perspective. 

However, I know that keeping a daily gratitude journal can lead to burnout for some people. it did for me. Rather than focusing on the things for which they are grateful people begin to focus on the task of writing down things down. The list becomes the thing, instead of the gratitude. When this happens, the focus shifts, and people either lose momentum or don't get the intended impact that comes from actually being grateful. So, while expressing gratitude has proven benefits, such as an increased sense of well being, a gratitude journal is not the only way to express gratitude and it may not prove effective for everyone. 

Last weekend, my sons and I expressed gratitude to one friend by hosting a dinner party in her honor. We selected the items we would have on the menu, which required creativity and thoughtfulness. And we made paper crafts, something which she loves. We made origami cranes and rabbits to adorn the table and strands of pennant banners to hang around the room. We paid attention to the details to show her how much she was appreciated. 

We have other friends to thank, and are trying to think of personal ways to thank each of them. Expressing gratitude by honoring someone feels good to the the one being honored, but we benefited as well.  This kind of "active gratitude" made a tremendous impact on my sons, increasing their awareness and acknowledgement of how much this person did for us and how much we appreciated her. 

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And then there is the thank you note. In an age of digital technology, sending a thank you can be as quick and immediate as shooting off a text, but it's not the same. Taking the time to carefully write out a thank you note makes a difference. I will go the extra step of addressing the envelope beautifully and choosing just the right stamp. Nothing makes me happier than to hear that my thank you note brought the recipient to tears. When that happens, I know it's done its job and I have really let that person know how much they mean to me. 

Try to think of different ways that you can incorporate gratitude into your own life, so that you can experience the beauty of it. 

Running Out of Time

Was it Buddha who said that we make the mistake of thinking we have time? Regardless of who said it, it’s true. We wait until later, until tomorrow, until the kids go to sleep or finish school. We waste time and assume we will get more of it. It seems plentiful, doesn’t it? How many minutes today did you spent on Facebook or Instagram or watching television? And that is not to say that those things are necessarily “wasting time,” but to what extent are they the best use of your time? To what extent are you using your life in the best possible way? How well are you valuing the time you have with the people in your life?

My relationship with my ex-husband was a difficult one, filled with conflict and misunderstandings. Interactions only became more difficult as time went on, even though I’d hoped they would become easier. When he said he was going to Ireland from May 8th to May 25th of this year, I remarked that I thought that was a long time to be away, considering other circumstances that were happening in our lives. But, on May 21st he had a heart attack and would die from complications on June 2nd. Now, a long time has become forever. I will never see him again, never argue with him again, never again roll my eyes when he shows up at the door, never cringe again when he texts because I know it’s going to be a difficult interaction. My God, did we waste time. We ran out of time before the relationship ever got any better.

I’m sure you’ve run out of time in a relationship too, if not from death, then because of some other circumstances or barrier that prevents you from saying what you wish you could say or hearing what you wish you could hear or doing what you wish you could do. Running out of time is hard. It’s unsettling. It haunts you. These are the ghosts that walk beside us, invisibly taunting and nagging us, wanting attention, wanting resolution. 

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The unsent letter is a helpful writing technique for trying to work through the unfinished business of life, and grappling with the loss of time. Click here for more information about unsent letters.

My Life's Purpose

When I was school-aged, my mother had a keepsake book for me in which she kept  my mementos from each school year. The pages were actually envelopes. On the outside of each envelope were details to be completed by me, including things such as the names of new friends and what I wanted to be when I grew up. Six choices were provided for girls and six choices for boys. Boys could choose from fireman, policeman, cowboy, astronaut, soldier, or baseball player. Girls got to choose from mother, nurse, school teacher, airline hostess, model, and secretary. Could the lists have been any more limiting and gendered? When I was in the first and second grade, I chose nurse, which was the obvious choice because my mother was a nurse. But when I was in the third grade, I noticed the blank line and obviously realized I had a mind of my own. I wrote in “author.” I knew enough at eight years old to know that being a nurse was not my life’s purpose. Still, later in life, I found myself struggling with the question, “What do you want to be when you grow?” Though, I seemed to be certain as a little girl. 

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Do you recall what you wanted to be when you grew up? How close did you get to fulfilling your life’s purpose, as you’d predicted it as a child? Why do you think you did or didn’t become what you said you’d become when you were free to dream and the world was yours to bend at your will? For me, I know that confidence had a lot to do with the decisions that I made as a college student and later as an adult. As much as I always wanted to be a writer, I didn’t believe that I was talented enough. I became a social worker and later a paralegal, as I toyed with the idea of law school. I later went to graduate school and became an English teacher, settling into a career of teaching academic writing on the college level because I lacked the confidence to even try to become a writer. I would be the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree and I certainly didn’t want to waste it on a pipe dream.  I gave up before I even tried, which is worse than failing.

If you didn’t become what you want to become when you were a little girl or boy, what stopped you? 

I’ve always been fairly certain that I was put on this earth to share my words with others. Strangely enough, that is very much what I do today, regardless of my job title. The whole idea of crafting one’s own story, authoring one’s own life, is really at the cornerstone of all that I teach in my writing classrooms, as well as my journaling workshops. This has also enabled me to make peace with my own life, as it has empowered me to live the life that I want to live. But this has evolved over time and required me to take a risk. Most people didn’t think that spending the bulk of my time inspiring other people to write their own stories and craft their own lives was a purpose.

Here are two things I have come to believe:

  1. It takes courage to live a purposeful life because others may not agree with your purpose. 
  2. We can never be truly happy and satisfied unless we are living a purposeful life. 

My life’s purpose is to break destructive cycles in my own life and craft the life I want to live through writing and to teach other people how to do the same.