The Things We Carry

by Susan Pogorzelski on March 22, 2010 · 19 comments

“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:

Keep this.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Positively Present March 23, 2010

This is an amazing description of what it means to live in the now: “holding close to your heart the memories of your experiences while looking forward to the next one.” Wow. I love that!


Susan Pogorzelski March 23, 2010

Thanks, Dani! It’s hard for me to let go of the past — for reasons that I can’t quite articulate and I’m not entirely sure of myself. But I’m trying to live in the present while still appreciating the past (and find inspiration to do so on your own blog! If there’s one person who know’s how to be positively present, it’s you!). Thanks, as always, for your thoughts and for reading!


Walter March 25, 2010

We will always hold the memories of our past. It holds a mysterious force that let us re-experience such unique happenings in our life. Our memories serves as the album of our life. 🙂


Susan Pogorzelski March 30, 2010

Walter: I love that — “our memories serve as the album of our life.” Such a beautiful way of describing what memories mean to us. They’re more than a retelling, a reminder. They’re a keepsake that we hold near and dear. Thanks for your thoughts!


Grace March 29, 2010

This is a beautiful post, Susan. I am also fascinated with memory. It’s suffice to say that I have a very good memory. I remember important details, never forget a face, remember what I had for breakfast when I was visiting my girlfriends two years ago, etc.
I thought about this yesterday when a friend and I were talking about how my Facebook photos are a complete trip down memory lane. There is no other place, where all my pictures are in one spot track the time I traveled and lived abroad, my college years, every New Years Eve, each trip I have taken, weddings, breakups, etc. For that, I keep myself tagged 🙂

Because it is hard to remember those delicious moments.

I’m also curious what people do when they literally force themselves to forget/erase a memory because it was so painful. I know people who can’t recall after sometime, a tragic moment in their life. Sometimes I want to erase it all, but then I realize it is what makes me human, what makes me breath, what makes me alive.


Susan Pogorzelski March 30, 2010

Grace: Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! With so much technology, we’re able to keep track of our everyday moments and not just the ones that were deemed special occasions — those times when you took out the video camera or poloroid to document and remember when. It actually makes you wonder what an impact that will have on our ability to remember…Will we not remember as much because we feel we have technology to do that for us? Or will those photos and videos just be the trigger for those trips down memory lane. I love how it’s the latter for you and that your memory is so sharp. I think especially the moments that really matter, your “keep this” moments are the ones you hold onto because of their personal, special meaning.

On the other end — forgetting, whether purposefully or due to mental deterioration (as with my grandmother with Alzheimers) — really does make you wonder. If you could forget, would you? I love that you say your memories and experiences — the good and the bad — are what make you human, are what “make you alive.” I absolutely share that same philosophy, but it makes you wonder if it’s more of an ignorance-is-bliss idea.

Thanks so much for continuing this dialogue and sharing your thoughts on this, Grace. It’s always a pleasure to hear your opinions and learn about your own experiences. 🙂


Ryan Stephens March 30, 2010

This is such a vivid and enlightening look at memories; I love it. I’m blessed in that I remember so many things. In fact, I joke with friends that I never take pictures because it’s easy for me to keep my favorite memories in my head to the point that I don’t need a physical image to re-live particular moments.

But I do put words and quotes on paper — things that I learned from as helpful reminders to utilize those mindsets, words of wisdom, etc. in my life. I guess it’s a funny dichotomy, my approach, but I think it boils down to a lot of the things you mentioned: learning, recalling who we used to be, and wanting to remember and be remembered.

Awesome post Susan!


Susan Pogorzelski March 30, 2010

Ryan: Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts! In line with what I was saying to Grace above, I think it’s great that you take “mental pictures,” that you have such a sharp memory. I think pictures, diaries, and letters are wonderful documentation, as they help us to remember and keep track of our life story, but in the end, the memories are what you keep close. In the end, they’re yours and yours alone.

I’d like to do some more research, but I read somewhere that there are actually two different types of memory (in two different areas of the brain? I’ll have to check on that again) — one of experience and what you live through and one of general knowledge — those words and quotes and facts that you can apply to your life, though they’re still words, quotes, and facts. I think of that as kind of like, one is that place for where you store your life — that part of who we are — and the other is the knowledge that we gain throughout a life. The mind is fascinating in that regard, in that there’s so much we don’t know.

We all remember things in different ways and maybe for different reasons. Pretty smart and complex, that brain of ours 😉

Thanks so much for the thoughts, Ryan! Great to hear from you!


Farouk June 8, 2010

i like your style of writing Susan,
you are talented 🙂


Big L December 3, 2010

Beautiful! I’m loving the people, reflection and charming stories that Reverb 10 is bringing me. I look forward to reading future posts of yours!


Susan Pogorzelski December 5, 2010

Thank you so much, Laura! I enjoyed reading about your “moment” as well! 🙂


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