The Things We Carry
“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
– Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”
There was a draft coming in from the door nearby, ushering in the late November air. On the plush red bench that wrapped around the length of the cafe, other weary travelers tried to cover themselves up with blankets or coats. I dug into my own suitcase and layered my fleece jacket over my sweater before bunching up some other (somewhat smelly) dirty clothes under my head as a pillow, and after lacing my hand through the gaudy ribbon that hung from the bag, my eyes briefly scanned my surroundings before falling closed.
It was 3am, Paris time. I was sleeping on a bench in a cafe in the Charles De Gaulle airport with half a dozen other strangers. I was cold; I was tired.
I was smiling.
Practically giddy, actually, though I’m pretty positive going twenty-plus hours without sleep played its part.
I wanted to capture this moment — this feeling of complete independence and personal empowerment, of trusting the universe, of believing in myself. I wanted to hold close the memories of the past three weeks and everything I had experienced, seen, felt — the smiles, the tears, the hope, the inspiration…
I thought: Keep this.
It’s a mantra I’ve been saying to myself ever since my grandmother’s funeral, when my entire family from my mom’s side gathered in the parlor of the funeral home in New York to share pictures and stories and laughter and memories. There was so much love in that room that day — among the tear-soaked tissues, the fresh-cut flower arrangements, and the dim lighting from 50-watt light bulbs. It filled up every corner, alleviating the grief and embracing us in understanding and togetherness.
Keep this close, I reminded myself in a silent prayer in the parlor.
Remember this moment, this feeling, I thought during Paris’ early morning hours.
The idea of memory has always fascinated me, and with my admitted reluctance to let go, to let the past live in the past — no matter how many times I try to tell myself otherwise — it’s no wonder. Why do we remember and how do we forget? If a lifetime is made up of a thousand days, hours, minutes, and moments, how do certain memories rise to the surface and how are others long forgotten?
There are so many moments in my life that I hold dear, and while these memories may become distorted with time, I still keep them close because of what they’ve taught me and who I was with. There’s so much I’ve seen that I wish I could frame, so many sounds that I wish I could record, and so many experiences I sometimes wish I could relive.
I wonder if that’s why we remember — so we don’t spend a lifetime chasing after a moment that is long gone, hoping to replicate what once was. I wonder if that’s what it means to let go of the past and live in the now — holding close to your heart the memories of your experiences while looking forward to the next one.
I wonder if that’s why we write, why we’ve been documenting our stories throughout history, why we share.
Because we want to remember and be remembered.
Because we want to learn from those memories and take comfort in them.
Because we are linking our past selves with our present selves and who we will one day be.
And so, as these moments come and go, though they may be fleeting, we smile to ourselves, close our eyes, and imprint the moment on our memory with a whispered reminder: