The Things We Carry

Class assignment: Take an inventory of your bag, pick three telling items, and let them tell.

1. Pencil

In the back pocket, a green Michigan State University pencil, sharpened at a steep angle, with a fresh eraser the color of a garden pot. It came in a pack of fifty, bound with a thick rubber band, purchased at the campus surplus store, and given to me by a student named Harold. It was our last day together, and pencils were needed for course evaluations on mark-sense forms.

Harold was a Vietnam vet with a slim build who wore wire-rim glasses and held a job on campus. He often brought me small items of the sort needed by those of us who work on paper—erasers, pens, paper clips.

I wasn’t the only recipient of his gifts. He gave little things to his fellow students, too. He baked cookies with macadamia nuts and brought them to class in a special tin. He was always thinking of ways to encourage the others.

One afternoon the class was discussing the writer’s voice. A compelling voice, I said, isn’t always pretty. Behind a strong voice is the character and power of a lived life. It’s a sound you want to listen to, but it doesn’t have to purr. “Like Bob Dylan,” I said.

The students, decades younger than I, groaned. En masse they agreed that Dylan’s voice stank. Once they got up a head of steam, they couldn’t say enough about just how awful it was.

Harold spoke up: “If you think Dylan can’t sing, listen to Nashville Skyline.” The next day he arrived with Nashville Skyline burned on a CD.

Harold’s own voice expressed a self-deprecating humor with the softness of a dove.

“You walk into the room with a pencil in your hand,” sang Dylan in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Years later, Harold’s pencils still roll when I pull open the top drawer of my desk.

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2. Chalk

The assignment was to write a poem in imitation of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I wanted students to write their imitations on the blackboard, have them cram together at the front of the room, fitting their lines between others. How stuck we are in our seats! Wedged into little desks hour after hour, looking at screens, while all our energy drains down to our feet. I wanted to get back to basics, to chalk and words, to the slant and length of the letters, the indentations of lines, to scraping the letters onto the blackboard, like a wet, black bough.

I wanted to read the poems out loud again and again, until the students became poets, accustomed to hearing poets’ voices in a classroom, speaking their poems—to fill the boards with the electric colored words, and to leave them there for those who came next.

My plan required colored chalk, so I went to Office Max. I found the stubby kind for sidewalks, but not the thinner sticks that are easier to manipulate. After searching in vain, I located a clerk and asked where I might find chalk.

“Chalk,” he said, as if dimly trying to recall his days in second grade. He led me to an aisle I had already searched, and examined the shelves, filled with the accoutrements of digital techno-wizardry. He soon gave up, pulled his phone from its holster, and called back to the stockroom. Another clerk came out to help.

“This lady is looking for chalk. Do we have any?”

“We don’t carry much chalk anymore. People aren’t using it because, you know, PowerPoints and whiteboards,” the second clerk said. He walked me back to another aisle I had already scoured and pointed to a small, solitary box hanging from a display hook. The box was empty. Someone had stolen the chalk.

“I’ll check the storeroom,” he said.

I looked at Pilot V5 fine-point pens for a long time. At last the clerk reemerged, carrying the jewel in the Office Max firmament—a tiny box of chalk.

“It’s the last,” he said, “the very last.”

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 3. Book

Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s story of saving herself from addiction and despair by hiking a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. In preparation she stuffs her backpack, which she calls Monster, with thirteen books, including four of my own favorites: The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor, and Dubliners by James Joyce. After finishing a book she burns it, shrinking the Monster on her back.

But the Dream she carries all the way to the end, reading the poem “Power” at night like a prayer (“her wounds,” says Rich of Marie Curie, “came from the same source as her power”).

Cheryl carries the Dream all the way because she cannot reach the end of her venture empty-handed. Her bag must not be exhausted. There must be something to find at the conclusion, something to discover, the journey’s revelation and truth, the truth of her story of rescue, the conversion of wound to power: a book.

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