The Things They Carried (a reading)

A young man marching
carrying what is unseen
fighting his own war

Several years ago, one of my students visited me after school to talk about issues he was dealing with. Not criminal in nature but serious struggles that would challenge even the strongest adult. We talked for a while and I offered him resources that I thought might be helpful. After our conversation, I periodically checked in on him. I have not heard from him since graduation, until recently. The nature of our conversation had a completely different tone this time. He told me about the overwhelming challenges he went through after high school, and some he continues to work through, but his life looks completely and positively different now. I could not be more proud of him and honored to hear from him. Although this post is inspired by one student, the details of this scenario could describe several students I have had the honor of working with through the years.

Our conversation made me think about the many “things” that people might carry, that are invisible to everyone else. That would describe most of us. Those thoughts reminded me of a book I love to teach, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Because the book is set in the Vietnam war, it is dark and graphic at times, but throughout the book O’Brien’s writing is descriptively and poetically beautiful. The first chapter shares the title of the book and describes the many tangible things men fighting in the Vietnam War had to carry, like weapons, food rations, and mosquito repellent, then the chapter moves into the intangible things men carried. After reading that chapter my students had to write a poem about the things they personally carried, both tangible and intangible, and then present their poem to the class. The final poems were moving and revealing and created a sense of community in my classroom.

I will not ask you to write a poem, dear reader, but I will share an excerpt from the “intangible” section of Tim O’Brien’s outstanding book. Edited for language and strong content, however, if sensitive to the realities of war this passage may be a trigger.    

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
excerpt from Chapter 1~


They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment. They crawled into tunnels and walked point and advanced under fire. Each morning, despite the unknowns, they made their legs move. They endured. They kept humping. They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really. Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.

By and large they carried these things inside, maintaining the masks of composure. They sneered at sick call. They spoke bitterly about guys who had found release by shooting off their own toes or fingers… It was fierce, mocking talk, with only a trace of envy or awe, but even so the image played itself out behind their eyes.

And they dreamed of freedom birds.

At night, on guard, staring into the dark, they were carried away by jumbo jets. They felt the rush of takeoff. Gone! they yelled. And then velocity—wings and engines—a smiling stewardess—but it was more than a plane, it was a real bird, a big sleek silver bird with feathers and talons and high screeching. They were flying. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear. They laughed and held on tight, feeling the cold slap of wind and altitude, soaring, thinking It’s over, I’m gone!—they were naked, they were light and free—it was all lightness, bright and fast and buoyant, light as light, a helium buzz in the brain, a giddy bubbling in the lungs as they were taken up over the clouds and the war, beyond duty, beyond gravity and mortification and global entanglements—Sin loi! they yelled. I’m sorry… but I’m out of it, I’m goofed, I’m on a space cruise, I’m gone!—and it was a restful, unencumbered sensation, just riding the light waves, sailing that big silver freedom bird over the mountains and oceans, over America, over the farms and great sleeping cities and cemeteries and highways and the golden arches of McDonald’s, it was flight, a kind of fleeing, a kind of falling, falling higher and higher, spinning off the edge of the earth and beyond the sun and through the vast, silent vacuum where there were no burdens and where everything weighed exactly nothing—Gone! they screamed. I’m sorry but I’m gone!—and so at night, not quite dreaming, they gave themselves over to the lightness, they were carried, they were purely borne.

Tim O’Brien is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and engaging speaker who did serve in the Vietnam War, but his novel is fictional. One can’t help but wonder, when reading his book, what actually happened and what details are a product of his imagination, or are blurred war memories. If war stories interest you, I highly recommend the book and suggest watching one of his interviews. I find his views on story telling particularly interesting.

Thank you for reading and listening. Be free. Be well. 💗 Michele

Reference: O’Brien, T. (1990). The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books. 21-23.

Photo 1: by Pixabay (Pexels) Photo 2: my image taken in Newport, Oregon

Find my photos on Instagram ~ @mlsefton

© 2021 Michele Lee Sefton.

57 thoughts on “The Things They Carried (a reading)

    1. Thank you. There are some amazing teachers out there. God bless them! 😇 Yes, students may not be in a war, but many young people (and adults) are fighting their own wars. Life can be so challenging – especially for young people who have yet to gain independence. I appreciate your visit and feedback. 🙏🏼

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The honor is mine. I went through a difficult time in HS, and because I did, I had a strong empathy and perceptive heart for students who were dealing with more than their share of challenges. I think in helping them, I helped to heal my own young self. Thank you for your kind words. 🙏🏼

      Liked by 2 people

    1. That is what caring and dedicated teachers do. 😊 Thank goodness there are many out there doing that everyday! Teaching is a challenging profession and one that often left me feeling like I could have done more, but there are many rewards. I am grateful for my years in the classroom. I do not miss the endless grading! I am happy that I still teach, in other settings. Thank you! 🙏🏼

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s heart-warming to meet teachers like you!❤️ It’s always sad to see adults dismissing students’ problems citing teenage.
    I loved the excerpt and look forward to reading the book. The idea of being frightened to be cowards is rather strange but makes so much sense at the same time. Thank you very much for sharing! It’s always a joy to stop by here!🤗

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Deepthy. 😊 I was very fortunate to have several teachers, from elementary thru high school, who made a positive impression on me and who encouraged me. I felt called to follow in their footsteps. To connect with students, beyond just lecturing and grading, is very special and the greatest reward teaching offers.
      I am glad that you enjoyed the excerpt. Thank you. I could have easily read the entire chapter! Not sure anyone would have listened to the entire audio. 😂 Yes, the idea that the greatest fear is being embarrassed gives the readers great insight into their mindset and one that O’Brien develops so effectively. Thank you so much for being here. 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aw that’s amazing! I would say my education so far has been more grade-oriented than anything. I’m so happy you were inspired to take up teaching too, it’s such a beautiful profession to be able to interact with so many different individuals! I agree!!
        My pleasure! I would! I love books that leave me confused and wondering for hours😂
        Always a pleasure!❤️

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You have an inspiring and fun spirit. ✨ Those qualities, and more, combined with your intelligence – you are a force! I am so grateful to have connected with you. I agree, I too like books that make me think and wonder. Writing a book sure is doing that to my brain. 😂 Thank you. 💐

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Aw that’s kind of you to say! Me too! It’s been wonderful meeting you and rather educational reading your poetry!💕 Nothing speaks better than experience 😂 Of course!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s heart warming to read about the loveliest profession n such wonderful students who acknowledge the learning and gratitude to their first best resource of learning to handle life’s situations. Teaching field is the best profession I forever feel from my heart ❤ 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and connecting with my story on such a sweet and gracious level. Teachers are in a unique position to influence young people. I was blessed with several teachers who greatly impacted me and whose lessons and words are still with me. I felt called to teach and did my best to pay forward what they gave to me. 😊💗

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  3. Al Bell

    Superb in all respects, Michele.

    As a young Navy pilot, I remember confronting death and assumed it, only to be wrong by less than a second. I didn’t have time for the kind of fear described by the brutally honest excerpt you shared with us. In any case, serving on the ground versus in the air offer quite different experiences. A couple of years later, I tracked the remains of a flying buddy through Manzanita and boulders after he managed to get all but one of his crew to safety before his P5M-2 finally failed him completely. I think almost daily about John Collier and what his final second must have felt like. Multiply that by almost 1.2 million Americans who’s last seconds were spent on our behalf in wars both justified and those much more questionable. But, at the individual level, just being there is accepting of the possibility of that last second in lieu of a lifetime. It rests with others to justify putting them in that situation. It rests with us, actually, and that is a heavy burden to bear. If only the Constitution had only found some other way to begin instead of “We the People….

    Your dedication to education in the broadest and deepest sense has once again connected your lucky readers with one of the most personal and challenging experiences humans can face. One person at a time. In their heart of hearts. Unseen, but forceful. It turns out that some burdens have immense mass and very little weight. Mr. O’Brien serves us well and honors the men and women who understand that truth. There is no reason I can think of why we should be insulated from their reality.

    Reality, after all, is the foundation on which gratitude must rest if it is to be honest.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Al, you have an incredible gift of sharing lessons in a manner that is highly engaging without being sensationalized, informative without getting lost in the minutiae, gentle yet powerful, personal with a keen awareness of the bigger picture, and informed by experience without being boastful. I am always impressed by your ability to weave intellect with unconditional love. You are a talented teacher and writer. I am honored by your presence here and blessed by our friendship. Thank you for your service and for inspiring me (and others) in the countless ways that you do.💗

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      1. Thank you, Michele. It is always gratifying to receive acknowledgment from you. You inspire all of us in your community to stretch our grasp and understanding. What is even better is to know that this pattern on these pages will continue. Sustained learning is such a rewarding journey and your inspired life is a powerful torch lighting the way. Shine on!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Michele, girl, this tugged at my heartstrings. ❤ My husband is a Vietnam vet and he shared some of the experiences he faced when he and the guys in his platoon dealt with being so far away from home on foreign soil. This song by Creedence Clearwater Revival is one of the many songs of the war era the soldiers listened to. The music was all too often the very thing that helped them get through the challenges they faced in a situation they could not easily escape. 😥

    I love your analogy and how much you helped that one student who needed someone to listen to them, even if you could not take those burdens he faced off of him. You’re so right. When we stop and reflect on the things we carry daily, things we may not even realize we’re carrying, we try to find some way to escape the burdens that weigh us down in spiritual shackles. So often, we run into people who shut down, wearing a mask as you noted, with torment in their spirits, not knowing how to unload. This can be self-destructive due to the weight of it all, especially when much of the stuff you may be carrying does not belong to you at all. But girlfriend, I applaud you taking the time to simply listen to this one young man, having compassion and empathy in your heart.

    This is such an inspirational piece you’ve written my mountaintop marvel. 🤗🌄😉 You’re a very special spirit Michele and your sincere gratitude in being able to identify and connect to the human condition is admired more than you realize! 🥰💖😍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kym, you are such a fun and loving person with a big heart. 💗 Thank you for sharing that your husband is a veteran and for his service. 🙏🏼 Reading and teaching books and related current events about war (and time period) is one thing but surviving through combat is an entirely different matter. 💔 I shared music from the period, when I taught this book. Of course, I worked music into my lessons whenever fitting. 😄

      You are incredibly insightful and articulate in expressing human behavior and spiritual matters. I appreciate you and your thoughtful comments. Your description of my time with my student offers me a broader awareness of my (unextraordinary) actions and a feeling of gratitude for having had the opportunity to be there for another human being. Moments that we all experience, whether we are the one needing a hand or one offering a hand, or sometimes just an ear to listen. 💗

      Thank you for sharing your light and helping me to see mine. 💖 Happy Sunday to you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Michele, how much do I appreciate you…let me count the ways! 🤗 Girl, I had to take a moment to breathe and take in the essence of your words after reading your compassionate and powerful reply back to me. You are indeed extraordinary, all because of your humility and willingness to give of yourself so unselfishly. 😊

        You truly let your light so shine that others can clearly see your good works. Sometimes we don’t pay attention to how brightly our light can shine when we are generously giving it away, and I thank God for that. ✨ Honey, you are a breath of fresh air, and I am sitting here currently picturing you as Julie Andrews singing the Sound of Music on that hill. 🎵🎤🎶 You are a true teacher at heart and it shows. 👩🏽‍🏫👩🏽‍🎓👨🏽‍🏫 People matter to you and that’s why you are able to listen to and recognize the potential in others and find hope in your natural environment. I am so honored to connect to you on this platform, but even moreso…spiritually. 🙏🏼

        I could go on and on, because you are a true gift to those who you are connected to, be it family, friends, or your online group of followers. Today is a blessed day and one that I am truly enjoying, and I’m not doing much of anything! LOL 😜😱😊

        Hugs and smooches sweetie! 🤗❤😘

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Kym, you truly are a gift to my days, to my soul. 💖 Thank you for your generous and loving nature and for the kindness and light you shower on me. I do not have a sister in blood, but I have a sister in spirit and words with you, beautiful lady. 🙏🏼 I am laughing at the thought of me singing on a hilltop like Julie Andrews. I do not sound like her, but I am always singing. 🎶 And dancing too, of course. As are you!! Right? 💃🏼 Hugs and kisses!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Michele Lee, girl, right now, at this moment, I am verklempt! ❤ I am at a loss for words and perhaps that may be a good thing. I don’t want to mess up this moment and disturb your groove. I am humbled, truly I am. 🙏🏼😊👏🏼

        Yes dawlink, I am dancing…always! 💐🤗✨💃🏽😘
        Your sister in spirit. 👩🏽‍🤝‍👩🏻💞😍
        Kym

        Liked by 1 person

  5. What a gift to have a teacher like you who shines the light of conscious attention on the inner journeys of your students. I know how much difference it would have made to me. There is so much invisible indeed underneath the life lived outwardly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your beautiful words leave me humbled and understood. I could write a book in response to your first sentence. 💗 I won’t do that, but I will say thank you. Yes, one teacher can make a difference. I was blessed to have several. They were my angels and role models. 😇 So true. Writers and other artists probably outwardly share more of their inner lives than most people. 💛

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, Michele, what a powerful story – and, the expert is stunningly written. What beautiful writing. Your reading was lovely as always. I’m also so glad to hear about your student. Thank you for sharing this lovely work and story with us. Oh, and CCR is awesomeness. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jeff. So happy to read that you enjoyed the excerpt and the reading. It was hard to choose one passage when I so much wanted to share the entire chapter! The entire book, really. 😁 Thank you about the supporting words for my former student. So many students who have walked similar paths. I often felt I didn’t do enough as a public high school teacher, but those special moments of connection come along and remind me that that might be true, such is the life of a teacher, but I always led with compassion. 💗 Yes! Great song. I played that, along with others, during this book unit. I always tried to bring the era, the story alive. Sharing music from the period helps!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome. Michele. Always. I’ve connected with many college students similarly, and that connection is a wonder. So heartfelt to read. Compassion, indeed. Ah, yes, a perfect music accompaniment! 😃❤️

        Liked by 1 person

    1. David, your words are a special gift to my soul this morning. 💖 Thank you. 😊 Some of my former students would have gladly traded places with you. 😆 I led with compassion and kindness, but I was relentless too. With a strong passion for the subject I taught and a gift for organization and follow-thru, let’s just say, there were no “free” days in my classroom. 👩🏼‍🏫✍🏼📚 = 🤦🏼‍♀️🤦🏼‍♂️ = 👩🏼‍🎓👨🏼‍🎓

      Liked by 1 person

  7. So wonderful to know that your student turned out to be so amazing!!! And I’m not surprised you had a positive impact on him! You are a good soul. Stay blessed always, Michele ❤️❤️✨

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He is making his way in this world. 💗 A world that sometimes gives young people a lifetime of troubles. Thank you so much, Diana. I feel the same about you. 💐 Have a wonderful week.

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  8. Pingback: The Things They Carried by Michele Lee – Gobblers / Masticadores // Editores: Manuela Timofte / j re crivello

  9. I don’t know what Tim O’Brien’s thoughts were when he served in Viet Nam, but I don’t believe he his comments regarding thoughts and beliefs are reflective of all of us who served in Vietnam. I volunteered for Vietnam, in part for adventure (I was 17 when I joined the Army, 18 with the Military Advisory and Assistance Command in Iran and 19 when I arrived in Vietnam. But in addition to adventure, there was also a part of me that wanted to be like Lafayette. I would say my service in Vietnam pales in comparison to his, but perhaps not my reasons for going. As for the American people, when I returned home. I thought they were rather a disappointment in how they treated the returning soldiers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on O’Brien’s excerpt and your reasons for volunteering. 17 is so young. I cannot even begin to imagine, not only the courage needed to volunteer for a war, but what it must feel like as a parent to have child fighting in a war. My grandfather fought in WWII and my brother and his son both served in the military. My own father could not serve in Vietnam for health reasons, but he wanted to. As for O’Brien’s work, he does describe it as fiction, but certainly the views presented in his novel are not reflective of all who served. It is a shame and a disgrace that soldiers were not shown the respect and honor they deserved when returning to the states. Thank you for your service and thanks again for leaving your thoughtful comment. Best to you. 🙏🏼

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