The Things (We) I Carry

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The Things We I Carry

I finished reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried today – for the second time in the last three months.


It’s a novel about the Viet Nam War. Except it’s not.


It’s on the NYT’s Book of the Century list, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and has received numerous other honors. Except it’s more.


The Chicago Sun Times said “The Things They Carried is as good as any piece of literature can get.” I could not agree more.


But in the end, this book is about the power of story. It’s about the power of story to tell truth at a level no amount of fact-recitation can do. It’s about the power of story to rescue us from our angst and shame and fear and guilt. It’s about the weight I carry from my failure and disappointment and grieving, and how weaving together the story of all of it can help to make sense of who and what I am.


All the lives of the things now dead in me cry out for explanation, for redemption, for meaning. Deep in the core of me I realize it’s really just me crying out for these things, but it feels more like something outside of myself. Something detached from this moment and its breath.


Did the words not said to me mean what I heard? How about the actions taken or losses suffered? Did the moment my courage waned relegate me to my old self-fulfilling prophecies? Are my new self-determined steps leading to the same old path, or to some new horizon? And if a new horizon, will that horizon be populated by the reminders of the dead?


I am at some times more aware than at others that I carry much of my past life and experience with me. Often, I’m aware that the way I carry these things is not helpful to the present moment, yet discarding the extra weight sometimes seems like death all by itself, so deeply ingrained in my psyche it seems.


But the story – my story and yours – somehow helps to come to grips with the past while also insisting that that past relinquish its grip. I don’t know exactly how this happens, but something in me knows it does.


O’Brien says it in a powerful and insightful way at the end of his masterpiece of a book. Having recounted enduring images of the lives of the dead who still populate his life and memory, he closes with the insight embodied in this image: “I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”