One of my favorite American novels is The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien. In the first chapter, he writes about what they carry in their packs. Today, while hiking we teased one young lady for packing an entire jumbo box of goldfish in her pack along with a pudding cup, not her best choice of snacks for a 6 hour trek. We talked about what they needed for the upcoming overnight. We remembered the one who wanted to hike in with an actual knitted afghan despite its heaviness and the one who needed her stuffed elephant despite being an eighth grader. Some carry the fear of never having slept in the woods or wondering if the rain or thunder will wake them up. Most carry the thrill of independence. They carry one another along with good stories and giggles and the anxiety of maybe having to poop in the woods. Tim O’Brien’s characters are young men in war; the irony is that they are only a few years older than some of the girls we hike with and watch grow up summer by summer. One of our oldest was once one of the youngest whose sister carried much of her pack. Now she carries us all with her leadership and ability to make those around her forget their nerves at the trailhead. Her pack carries all that she needs and will carry her off to college in another year.
O’Brien describes both the items they physically carried along with the emotions which carried them through the days of war:
“American soldiers in Vietnam during the war carry many things, most of them from home. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters from a girl named Martha, a college student back in New Jersey. He loves her, and though he knows she doesn’t love him, he hopes she will… The men carry some amazingly heavy physical and emotional burdens. Jimmy Cross, the leader of the platoon, carries navigation tools and the responsibility of taking care of his soldiers…Jimmy Cross receives a pebble from Martha the week before Lavender dies. She says she found it on the Jersey shoreline, right where the land separated from the water, and she thought it symbolized her feelings toward him. He doesn’t understand this, but he thinks it is romantic. He wonders who she was with that day. He keeps the pebble under his tongue and thinks about walking with Martha, not carrying anything…” (O’Brien, The Things They Carried)
These girls move pretty quickly and easily up and down mountains, fit and lithe, and I watch their springy steps. I hike upwards with strength and endurance, carrying many years of muscles and experience. Coming down though, my co- leader, Rebecca, and I feel the weight of worry, of worn joints and of imagined injury. Rebecca carries a new hip gracefully; rather it carries her down the mountain. Our girls talk as they move even when tired; we could never sneak up on anyone given our laughter and powerful voices.
Together we carry concern for family members or friends dealing with illness or stressful parenting situations. We carry empathy and compassion about body issues and first loves and standing up for oneself. We carry the desire to be “up standers” and not bystanders. I share with them how a little girl recently asked me if I was going to “pop out a baby” because my “belly looks like it has a baby in there.” Awesome, right? Just what every woman wants to hear. Here’s the thing: I shared this with our girls because we want them to remember no matter their shape or size or how many pounds they may carry at 42 years old one day, each one is strong, even mine which is carrying more since I carried two babies. We still climb mountains and carry a lot in our packs.
We teachers carry extra worry and love for those students in our classrooms who are so desperate for attention they sometimes spray paint buildings or throw words or fists at each other. We mothers carry the hope our children will make good choices and few mistakes; we carry the knowledge though that they will screw up, and it isn’t a matter of when; rather, parenting makes us carry a reminder of how often and how hard they may fall. We carry concern when someone closes off their feelings; we carry extra snacks and water and bug spray for those who sleep late and forget. We carry our own inadequacies in maintaining balance. We carry first aid kits filled with Star Wars and Doc McStuffins bandaids which barely scratch the surface of their booboos, their hurts, or their scrapes. We carry the regret of not having done enough for the kid with the sad eyes whose parents continuously kept moving from one home to another and back again.
We carry breakfast crumbs and maybe even toilet paper on the bottom of our shoes we don’t notice until getting into the car. We carry smudges of peanut butter on our upper lip and the irrational fear of forgetting to brush our teeth or put on deodorant. We carry small sticky hands in our own no matter how old those sticky hands get. These young women already have a lot in their packs to carry; we always love when they share what they are carrying– whether it be watermelon, Oreos, worries, or “what ifs”. We are honored to be carried along too as long as they’ll have us.