The Things I Carry

Not many people know this, but for over the last week and a half I have been going through a very stressful ordeal concerning my passport. I sent my passport in at the beginning of August to the Ghana embassy in order to get my visa squared away for my upcoming trip. It arrived at the embassy on August 3 and I put it out of my mind, as I typically do not worry about Visa approval, and I was on vacation in NYC with my friend Matt. The last time I put in for a Visa from the time I mailed it to the time I got back, only four days passed—same embassy. So when I returned home on August 8 and there was no Visa I was a bit surprised. But they have about a week business days to process it. And as the days went on and those days were up I started to get very anxious. I called the embassy every day, and on a “good” day I got to speak to an operator who would then transfer me to a voicemail in the consulate office. No one would speak to me about the matter. I left for vacation without my passport, knowing that I would be leaving in a week upon return. I called every day on vacation, and my mind rarely strayed from the thought of what happened to it. My parents would check the tracking number, and they would see that there was no record of the packet being sent back to me, and they too called the embassy regularly. Finally a few days ago I got through to someone in the embassy and they claimed that the embassy had sent my passport back to me on August 3—the same day it had arrived in their office. At this point I REALLY started to panic, because if what they said was true, it was then August 23, and it would have been 20 days since my passport entered “limbo.” I did not know where to lay blame. FedEx said they never received a package, and the embassy claims they sent it. I began to think about making the necessary preparations to get a new passport, new Visa, and change my plane ticket—a costly but potentially necessary plan. To make an already long story short, I did the only thing I could really do at the time, along with many other close friends and family I had told about the situation. I prayed. And miracle of miracles, when my mom checked again for the tracking number, somewhere out there—who knows who—the package had been overnight mailed to an Indiana FedEx location. And my journey to Ghana on September 3 was back on in full force.What the week and a half made me think about though was more than just my passport.

I never realized what those pages of stamps and visas meant to me until they were nearly taken away from me. I never realized its sentimental value until the first tears fell on the white pillows of my vacation bed. It seems almost trivial, doesn’t it? Crying over something that, although relatively expensive, could be replaced. But every page that is marked of that passport is a memory made, not just in passport history, but also in my life history. From Spain to Morocco, China to the Netherlands, and everywhere in between it is a journey dreamt and accomplished, stamped onto the pages of a book that takes me home. It’s a book that shows that while there is a place I call home and I am a citizen of one country, I am deeply drawn to the homes of other citizens of the world. I laugh every time I see my double stamped entry from the airport in Amsterdam for the same day, just ten minutes apart. I “exited” the Amsterdam area of the airport to walk a woman who did not speak Dutch or English to her connecting flight. I was moved by her story she told me on the flight over from Madrid of her only daughter recently dying in Russia. It turned out, when a guard stopped us, that she had been illegally staying in the European Union for months, and he made me tell her in Spanish (another language she brokenly spoke) that because I sweet talked him, he would not do anything to her, but she must not return once her flight got to Russia. My friend Dan still believes to this day that I was tricked by an old play, and helped harbor either an illegal immigrant or a drug trafficker across borders. And then when I was walking back from helping her, I had to cross back into the Netherland’s territory, and confused workers restamped my passport. It’s those memories, whether of a good story or an amazing time studying abroad or a first time in Africa that those visas and stamps evoke. And I was so upset over the thought of losing it because what are those sentiments to someone else? How could they know or care why the right corner of the third page is slightly creased? My passport is part of the things I carry as I begin every journey. And I realized in almost losing it that there are things I always carry as I start each journey, and why they have a special place in my baggage. In his short story, which is part of a larger book by the same name, “The Things They Carried,” author Tim O’Brien writes:

 The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between fifteen and twenty pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism.

Those were the necessities of survival during war. The things I carry are also determined by necessity, which for me are the necessities of reminders and memories along my journeys. Besides my passport, among the necessities are an 8×10-framed photo of my family, one of two stuffed animal bears, and a porcelain figurine of a black angel.

The 8×10 family photo rests in a gold frame, and is always displayed in some prominent position wherever I travel or reside. On journeys were I am mainly on the go, I ease it out of the gold frame so it is easier to transport. The photo dates back to the summer of 2007, when a young girl had just graduated from Cascade Senior High School and had accomplished what she had always wanted to—she was headed out of state, off to the “big city,” to attend a prestigious university. High school graduation was when the possibility of possibilities became very real. My family took a series of photos in our backyard to commemorate the occasion, and my then soon to be sister-in-law captured the full family moment. It’s not even the greatest or perfect of photos in relation to the hundreds of others of our family photos that exist. It was summer, so there’s a haze to the photo thanks to the sun and the green of our backyard. And there’s a glare on my glasses, so my eyes are hidden behind a fuzz of sun and glasses. But every time when my mother asks me if I want another photo for that gold frame, I tell her no. I say that this one is fine, and this is the one I’ve always had with me since it was photo snapped into being. It’s the moment it captures and the people it captures within it. I like to think that when I travel, my family isn’t very far away, and that 8×10, now four years old, photo—even amidst its “imperfections”—is the perfect reminder.

My two bears that I alternate between are named Angel and Mr. Wilson. Angel is quite possibly one of my least ambitious and creative names of my stuffed animals. I have an extensive stuffed animal collection and have names from Lemon Meringue Pie to Ferdinand Amadeus Mozart III. And Angel is named Angel because, quite frankly, she has a halo and angel wings. Mr. Wilson is named because of the shock value whenever I say something like “I miss sleeping with Mr. Wilson.” Of these two bears I always pick one of them to come with me on my journeys—whether they are long journeys of a school year or short journeys of a weekend roadtrip. Some people look at me with disapproval of my age mixed with a “childish” plaything, while others smile at the statement of innocence a stuffed bear comes with. That’s why I love them. They remind me of innocence and unspoiled youth. When I hold them they radiate the type of happy flashbacks only they possess the power to recall instantly. When journeys get rough, that instant connection with soft, cotton fur is a quick respite.

The newest item on my list of things I carry, although still a few years old, is my angel figurine. She is carved of dark brown wood and is kneeling in prayer, with her wire wings fanning out behind her. I’ve been asked before if the fact that she is a black angel is of great importance to me. My answer is yes and no. It’s no because I’m not waging a war against mainstream depictions of heavenly angels.  And it’s yes because it does mean something to me that in the figurine’s physical image, part of my own physical image is reflected, and her call for prayer and her reminder of God’s protection are essential to my life. Mother Teresa said, “Do not look for God in the far land, He is inside of you, He is you.” I don’t think she meant that we are in actuality God, but rather that in our very lives, we can be an embodiment of the type of goodness and love God—in any religion—calls us to take part in.

So the physical things I carry, reflect, as Tim O’Brien writes, “The things men carried inside.” They reflect family, wishes, love, comfort, and more. And as I begin packing for Ghana this week in preparation for my September 3 flight, they will certainly be tucked away safely among the luggage.

My family photo and angel figurine at my apartment in Ghana in 2009
Angel and Mr. Wilson

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