published Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Shavin: Here are some lessons learned from the Bag Lady

By Dana Shavin

There is a short story often taught in writing workshops called "The Things They Carried." It's the title story in a book of linked stories by Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien in which he describes the things his fellow soldiers carried with them onto the battlefield. Some were intangible things (love, guilt, fear) while others were physical (M&Ms, morphine, M-16s).

From the banal to the macabre, the soldiers' possessions defined them, and it is through these sometimes strange, seemingly impersonal remembrances that the men come to life.

It's no secret that our possessions define and humanize us. What's sparked my recall of O'Brien's story now is that my husband and I are preparing to move and, as such, we are sifting through 50 years' worth of acquired stuff. There are the obvious things that need weeding, such as Fiestaware plates in numbers so large I once declared they would make even Andy Warhol cry (he was rumored to have thrown dinner parties for 2,000). There are the multiple can openers, the oversized Rand-McNally road maps (these make me want to run out and hug my GPS), and the books I've never read and never will until they appear on Kindle.

And then there are the things that we will unquestionably take forward into the next 50 years: shoe boxes full of photographs, my college roommate's brass menorah, the 20-year-old Sequatchie County newspaper article about a fire scare at the mental health center in which my husband, proud administrator, was misidentified as a "fire victim."

And diaries. Hundreds of diaries, because what if one day I forget what happened on Oct. 19, 1977? (I bought a black T-shirt -- with a V-neck -- at Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta and wore it to a midnight showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show.")

But there was one discovery for which I was completely unprepared. High up in my closet, and also deep in the bowels of my kitchen hutch, there rested a trove of paper bags. There were plain bags, colored bags, holiday-themed bags and birthday bags. There were a couple of frilly wedding bags, Banana Republic bags, Gap bags, and Greenlife bags. There were bags nested into other bags, nested into still others. If I thought I had a lot of Fiestaware and diaries, I was completely unprepared for the number of bags I own.

And not just own but am unwilling to part with.

"It's like your baggage is your baggage," said my husband upon discovery of the bags.

Maybe because I used to be a therapist and am now a life coach, or maybe because ever since reading Tim O'Brien's book years ago I'm enthralled with this idea of how what we cling to defines us, I'm curious about what my bags say about me.

"The bags are empty," said my husband, pessimistically. "Maybe you are, too."

But it just didn't resonate. I took a break from de-nesting bags and went to stand at the kitchen door, which looks out over our 10 acres. How many times have people suggested that our farm went to waste because I didn't have horses (which I actually did, for a time) or cows or crops? The suggestion that there was something missing -- because the pasture could have held something tangible but didn't -- always irked me.

To me, the farm wasn't a vessel whose worth depended on the value of its contents but was itself the thing of value.

Which begs the question: Are the bags, like the farm, valuable even empty? I honestly don't know. All I know is that I'm crazy about them. That they remind me of all the things I'll carry forward into my new home -- some tangible, like Fiestaware, and some not, like hope -- and that one person's empty bag really is another person's full plate.

Happy Holidays, and may all your baggage be gifts.

Contact Dana Shavin at Danalise@juno.com.

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