The Things We Carry

My favorite bookstore in childhood was “The Bookery” in a place called Placerville, California (Pictured above, source and source) Every day-after-Christmas from the ages of 0 through 9, my dad and uncle (and sometimes my mom) would take me there. We would spend hours. And I would spend all of my holiday gift money on stacks and stacks of used books. I read them all.

My favorite bookstore in adulthood has been “Bookshop Santa Cruz.” (Pictured above, source and source) No other place has captured me quite like it since my early college years. By the back entrance on Front Street, there is / was a epic used book section. Side note: I’ll never forget, one day, going to look through the non-used books, however, and finding a $20 bill inside Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” I kid you not, that was the book I was going to buy. I bought the book with the $20 bill–an at-the-time “starving college student” putting myself through school. Serendipity.

9780767902892-us-300One of the used books I picked up in that era at Bookshop Santa Cruz was one by Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried.” (The same cover art as here pictured left, source.) I loved the title. I loved the concept. Cliffnotes: It’s a “collection of short stories…about a platoon of American soldiers fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War…based upon his experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division. O’Brien generally refrains from political debate and discourse regarding the Vietnam War. He was dismayed that people in his home town seemed to have so little understanding of the war and its world. It was in part a response to what he considered ignorance that he wrote The Things They Carried….O’Brien plays with the genre of metafiction; he writes using verisimilitude. His use of real place names and inclusion of himself as the protagonist blurs fiction and non-fiction.” (Source)

We carry our stories with us.
Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 10.06.53 PM.pngI had the great privilege of hearing author and Hunter College faculty, Colum McCann, in person and for free (!) two years ago, thanks to the incredible event offerings from Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. (Another historic, fabulous used-book spot.) If you don’t know McCann’s stuff, his descriptions are incredible–particularly in “Let the Great World Spin.” I quoted him at the end of my “Syllabus” blog post, from that night I heard him speak, saying:

Some people think stories are up in the air and kind of new age and fairy type stuff, but I don’t think so. Stories can heal us. In the end, death can take away an awful lot of things, but the only thing that cannot be taken away is our stories. We’ve got to not put them in a little tissue box.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 9.37.14 PMSeth Godin wrote a book close to home for me, being someone that has always gravitated toward marketing and advertising. It’s called “All Marketers are Liars Tell Stories.” I always say that even if it hadn’t been my paid / formal work for 17+ years, I’d still devote time and energy to observing, appreciating, and studying its art form. It really is just applied psychology, sociology and anthropology with socio-linguistics / language and change theory thrown in. Think about the last purchase you made based on advertisements. What mascara was purchased because it wasn’t going to clump–setting your eyelashes free so your beauty to be seen by all? Or the last tech item / device you purchased that would make your life easier so you could be free to spend time the way you wanted to spend your time? We buy the story.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 10.04.28 PMI love the book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.” (My hand pictured holding it, right, with my favorite painting in the background.) In so many ways, it unpacks the stories we carry with us. What are the “givens” that we subscribe to? What are the undergirding assumptions that drive the decisions of our everyday lives?

The book challenges us that in acknowledging the stories, passions and values we carry, we can discard the ones that actually are in direct opposition to our values–then hold close / elevate those we actually want to be driving forces in our existence.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 9.37.35 PMSeth Godin’s book is pictured above and to the left here on sand because I read it on Playa de Long Beach in Southern California last 4th of July weekend, 2016. James Baldwin is quoted in the inside cover: “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” I need to tell myself–“If I love you, self / Hannah, I have to make you conscious of the stories you don’t see you carry.”

51zJS6PmxbLI’ve recently been struck by the work of sociologist Dr. Yuval Noah Harari (pictured right, source). His book “Sapiens” and in particular, his interview with none other than Russell Brand on “Under the Skin,” episode 5 (link here) have really impacted my thinking around this topic. He projects that humans are the only species that construct entire systems based on stories. The system of capitalism is based on the story that this little piece of paper has value and if I give it to you, you owe me something in return. An hour of my time is worth a certain number of these pieces of paper. <Money>

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 10.30.16 PM.pngMy coworker Trinity Chandler is helping her daughter Kyla with her application to Washington State University’s Honors College (pictured left, with husband Don). One of the two required essay questions for admission is the following:

Imagine you are backpacking through a foreign country. Because you want to engage with the local population, you have brought three items in your backpack that will help them learn about your culture and worldview. Apart from your smartphone (we know you’ll bring those) what three items have you chosen, and how do they represent these aspects of you?

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 10.50.53 PMTrinity and I talked through how interesting of a question that is. In reflecting in the pre-write, Kyla is thinking about writing about carrying with her a folded American flag that her step father gave her middle school when he was stationed in Afghanistan. Her three parents each have served–in the navy, army and national guard. Kyla may carry with her a Michelle Obama calendar (pictured right, source) that she gives her mother for Christmas each year–a reminder of their heritage of blackness and her desire to serve specifically the black community in her future work as a dermatologist. Many dermatologists are ill-equipped to help individuals with more melanin in their skin, particularly when it comes to addressing special cases and conditions. Kyla may bring a blown glass art piece as well with her–a profound reminder of all of the heat and pressure it takes to make glass, just as it takes both in real life to make and contribute beautiful things to individuals and communities. Her grandma raised her mother and her to always bring a gift to leave behind.

knapsackThere is a great concept and body of work called “The Invisible Knapsack” by Dr. Peggy McIntosh (pictured left, source). She presents that we all carry with us stories about ourselves and how we compare to one another that drive our assumptions about ourselves, our worldview and how we relate to other humans. Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 12.42.46 AMI had the great honor of co-facilitating an exercise on the topic with some staff in my Seattle University department a couple years ago with a friend, Coury Shadyac, who did a lot of that unpacking as a part of her Teach for America teaching and administrative roles.

Consistent with how I roll increasingly these days as my book piles are getting higher and higher, I don’t think I ever read the whole book, “The Things They Carried.” And yet, the book has been challenging me and following me everywhere I go these ~16 years since I bought it. I’ve carried it with me. Case in point: the title of this post is based on its title.

We carry our bodies with us.
Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 9.26.20 PMI’ll never forget talking to the girl next to me at a free sewing class at the Seattle Public Library in Ballard. Her name was Natasha. Now, 7+ years later, it has been an honor and joy to get to know Natasha (left) and her partner Nate. I have had the honor of journeying with many photographers throughout my life, but none quite like Natasha Komoda. Her bar of technical excellence mixed with her skill of executing visions of beauty and depth go unmatched in my book. It’s not just that. She’s driven and passionate about heart-centered, impactful work professionally expressed. During the time she lived in Seattle, she started “Femmeography.” It’s still a practice of hers today. The brilliance of Natasha’s Femmeography work is that it is therapeutic. Women have the opportunity to witness their bodies that they carry with them in the everyday–and yet with their physical beauty so undeniably front and center and indisputable. It’s truly an art. Why is it an art? Because it is so troublingly rare for us to witness the basic reality that we carry our bodies with us, let alone that we carry beauty and strength in our bodies wherever we go.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 9.30.59 PM.pngWhile I was both staff and a graduate student at Seattle University, I had the privilege of being able to have lunch with (now) Dr. Larry Walls–also a graduate student in a doctoral program on campus. I took this photo of Larry (right) on one of those lunches. Larry asked me: “When you go to meetings, how do you show up?” As I took time to think, he told me that for him, he shows up attentive to how people carry their feelings in their body language–their reactions. When I answered the question, I realized that I show up wielding language and markedly aware it–the chronology of communication(s) presented and worldview / values between the lines in everything said or led.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 9.45.07 PMA friend and colleague, Dr. Brendon Taga, says (pictured left, with his partner Jesse to my left): you may not be able to control other people’s response, but a good leader takes responsibility for them. How we carry our bodies is our responsibility. Self-care and intentionality of how we show up and how we carry ourselves are critical and have impact whether we like it or not.

stevechildress_1422469949_11I had a memorable, challenging conversation with Steve Childress in an office kitchen at Seattle University (Steve pictured right; a photo taken on a photoshoot I led in my communications job there). He is now a PhD student at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. Steve was recapping for me one of the most impactful episodes of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” for him, entitled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”  The whole episode leaned into the idea of hair. Yes, hair. How something like hair type, hair style and how people present can have impact. The intersectionality of sexism along with other threads and themes in the O.J. trial.

We carry words and expressions with us.
Having lived with artists, among artists, been raised by artists, and lived for art throughout my life, I recognize deeply that words and other forms of expression are things we carry with us wherever we go.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 11.05.30 PMIn my favorite podcast, “You Made it Weird,” in an episode with Elizabeth Gilbert, she mentions that there’s an Italian phrase for when people are using a lot of words but not saying very much. “Aria fritta,” which literally means “fried air.”

The-Daring-Way.pngSociologist, Dr. Brené Brown, is brilliant. Her TED talks in particular (both!) are highly recommended. Check them out, here. In her book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” (image source) she says:

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

She also reflects that vulnerability in others is strength and in me it’s weakness. How can we allow ourselves to first of all, be ourselves and then also express ourselves?

In community organizing and social justice activism work, there’s talk about creating a “brave space” versus a “safe space.” That word “safe space” is presented in settings where there’s vulnerability in sharing–a reminder that “what is said here, stays here” and to be gentle with each other’s vulnerability. However, there’s an idea that no space is safeespecially when sharing the depths of ourselves with others, particularly strangers. It is, however, a brave space. A time and space to express in ways that are liberating for self and for others. 

We carry relationships with us.
Relationships can and should occupy our attention, resources and time. All of life, if you think about it, is relationship with other people, creatures, the natural world more widely–ideas, worldviews, you could go on and on.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 11.03.11 PMSometimes, however, we carry weight with us in relationships that does not serve us well. It may be a romantic partnership, a friendship that is one-sided, or even just a perspective or “role” within a relationship that itself is unhealthy. On that note, and in that same aforementioned “You Made it Weird” episode with Elizabeth Gilbert, they talk about “leaving your parents the f*ck alone.” We have this great desire to change and “fix” our parents and family members. To pass on the spiritual practices and gadgets / gismos that are making our lives more free. It just weighs us down and is not something our family even want from us.

A closing reflection and dedication…

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 11.33.37 PMI am grateful to carry ideas, people and books with me every step of my journey. I remember being so enchanted by Dr. Michael Stach‘s teaching style. In class or when being one of the groupies in his office after class, he would pick up a book and say; “This book is about ____.” Then reach for another one off a shelf and say, “And this one is about ____.” And it went on. In one sentence, he would incapsulate essence. Here I find myself, 17 years later, writing over 2,300 words dedicated to that aim. Thank you, Dr. Stach, for all you model and inspire–particularly what you have for me, related to a humanistic understanding of history, socio-linguistics and its power, and the art of seeing the world through the lens of wonder and humor. Thank you, Dr. Stach, for what you carry and for what your carrying has imparted to me.

*UPDATE:
When sharing this post with Dr. Stach, he wrote to me in a Facebook message:

“(Ultimately) to say “This book is about…” is totally wrong. War and Peace is about 3 families in Russia during the age of Napoleon but really it is about… It’s about different things to each reader depending on how old you are, what’s going on in the political world, if you are in love or grieving. Maybe that’s the thing with classic books. They speak to us at different ages in different ways. I suspect the people my age (Vietnam era) might read “The things They Carried” differently from a young person about to go to Iraq. And certainly, looking at the recent revelation of sexual assaults in Hollywood, any sociolinguistic study would see women carrying very different things to a job interview than a man would.

He continued to say that someone may say that a book is about X, Y or Z to interest you to read it, but “what you carry away may have nothing to do with why you started reading it. Take the books that really haunt people for the rest of their lives.”

A reminder that though we may carry similar books, identities or categories of experiences in theory–we all have unique takeaways, meaning-making and expression. So powerful and important. Rumination, reflection and learning always continues.

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