Editor’s Notebook: The things we carry
The scene outside of the Royale on Tremont Street in Boston on Friday night. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
On Friday, I returned to Boston for the first time since the virus changed everything. There were seven of us in all, including three teenagers headed for a concert on Tremont Street and four adults with plans for a long walk and a quiet dinner.
We took leave of the girls once they were safely in line at the Royale, and made our way to Copley Place for window shopping and later the Common, which buzzed with joyful people and even happier dogs. In ways big and small, it felt like the world of before. We walked with lightness, talking casually about work and family, weekend plans and short-term hopes – all the little updates we share with people who are well acquainted with the early chapters of our stories.
I’d never felt so at ease in the big city.
Had it been 15 degrees warmer, I don’t know that we would have ever stopped walking, but the chill pushed us toward the restaurant well before our 6:30 reservation. The host was unfazed by our early arrival and led us to a booth in the back where we ordered drinks and appetizers to draw out the evening.
Unsurprisingly, I suppose, for four longtime friends in the thick of middle age, the conversation didn’t take long to find its way to the unhealed wounds of living. We talked about embarrassment and regret – not always in specifics but as phenomena – and how the memories of our worst moments assault us frequently, unexpectedly, and ruthlessly. With caution, we approached the places where the secrets reside – the ones we keep from others and a few we try to keep even from ourselves – with each of us sharing all we could bear to in that moment and not a sliver more.
I know each of these three people about as well as any person can know another, I think, but I realized that evening I have paid too little attention to the weight they carried, carry still, will carry always. I know my own burden inside and out, but too often I fail to imagine the burdens of others.
The next morning, I woke up with the title of a 1990 Tim O’Brien novel about the Vietnam War bouncing around inside my head. The why is obvious now, but at the time I didn’t quite get it. On Monday, I finally pulled “The Things They Carried” from the shelf.
“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha …”
It’s a brilliant way to start a story, and just two sentences in the reader knows quite a lot about the character: “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack.” One soldier carried a diary and another comic books. Kiowa, a “devout Baptist,” carried an illustrated New Testament. But as O’Brien gets to quickly – on the third page – that’s not all they carried, not even close: “To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive.”
I can only imagine what that burden feels like for O’Brien, a veteran of the war who “lovingly dedicated” the book to “the men of Alpha Company.” I can only imagine what it feels like for the gloomy stranger waiting in line at the grocery store on Sunday morning. And in truth, I can only imagine what it feels like for the three loved ones with whom I shared a table in a Boston restaurant on Friday night.
I can only imagine the weight of the things they carry, but it’s important that I do.
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