Souvenirs. Trinkets. Knickknacks. Tchotchkes. Ornaments.
These words tend to make us think of belongings that we accumulate over a lifetime, sometimes with little thought or intention. They clutter up our desks and tables. They take up space on shelves and windowsills. We ignore them. We dust around them. We let them collect dust. We complain about the clutter.
And then there are keepsakes and talismans.
According to my red, battered Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a keepsake is “something kept or given to be kept as a memento.” According to that same dog-eared dictionary, a talisman is “an object held to act as a charm to avert evil and bring good fortune.”
To me, keepsakes and talismans are kept and treasured with intention. We keep them because they remind us of something important and bring meaning to something that may be abstract. I recently packed up all of my belongings and put everything into storage, minus some clothes, some shoes, some jewelry and accessories, my computer, my camera, three boxes of books, camping equipment, a wire file box of essential documents and papers, and a small plastic shoebox of “stuff.” That “stuff” was my box of important things that I wanted to have close, that I wanted to have with me all summer.
While my summer flies away in miles run, laps swum, stories scribbled, essays drafted, and Spanish phrases learned, this box is the permanent amongst impermanence. I take time out in New Mexico for exercising, writing, and learning. I labor to figure out fall plans for Colorado: where will I live, how much will I work, when will I return to school. Those questions get answered with a sprinkling of dreams and a heavy dose of pragmatism and logistics, but I keep coming back to that little plastic box.
Inside the little plastic box are the reminders of my heart and soul. They are what I bring with me, no matter what road I take, no matter what adventure I choose. They are little things, of which there is little cash value. These are not priceless heirlooms, nor are they junk. Some were gifts, but they have been erased of others’ essences and now fully inhabit my heart and personality. I could live without them, but they feel sacred.
I do not know if they provide good luck or good omens, but they do provide comfort and purpose. I am not sure that keeping them protects me from harm or bad luck, but it does help to remember what formed me, what shaped me, and what is deep down and inside of me. Of course, I know I was formed by experiences and loved ones and my own mistakes, but the things inside this little box remind me of all of that and more. They are touchstones, markers, memories, reminders. They are part of me.
Jars of holy dirt and holy water from El Santuario de Chimayo. There is a beautiful and quite sacred little church in northern New Mexico. I remember going there with family in junior high. We were told that the church and all within was miraculous. People from all over come to take some of the holy water and the holy dirt, believing in the blessings and healings that the water and dirt provide. There is historical and cultural and religious significance to the place. It is also a place of quiet beauty. When I graduated from college in northern Wisconsin, I returned to my beloved New Mexico to find work and begin a life. I lived in Albuquerque for a few short months, working a wonderful temporary job as a front desk secretary for a senior citizens’ center. Although the job had nothing to do with my undergraduate studies (environmental studies), it had everything to do with building a life. In two months’ time, I had approximately 20 newly-adopted grandparents. To this day, that was my favorite job even though I was itchy to work in my chosen field. I chose to move to Minnesota and live with two college friends, and all the grandparents and staff threw me a sweet goodbye party. One of the gifts was the jars of holy dirt and holy water, “to keep me safe.” Right after that party, I put the jars in my glove compartment, but then on my last day of moving, I took them out of my car in a flurry of looking for insurance papers. I didn’t replace the jars and two hours later I had a car accident that shook me, damaged my car, and made me doubt my choice to move to Minnesota. I still moved to Minnesota, but the love of those people at the senior citizens’ center stayed with me. I carry the dirt and water to remind me of love, the power of prayer, and to remember the fragile-yet-determined 22-year-old I was. Those jars remind me to believe in and look for miracles.
Storyteller figurine. In my lovely little hometown, we have a lovely little library. In late spring, before my first year of high school was finished, I asked the librarians if I could put together a story hour. Like most librarians, they were patient and willing and open to the idea. That they were willing to work with me and my sporadic summer schedule (think travels to see my dad, family reunion, summer leadership camp) and leave me to my own devices was quite amazing. Each week, I scoured through the kids’ books, agonizing over what I would read. Then I tried to come up with a craft or an activity that could go along with the book or theme or holiday. Preparing for the story hour was almost as much fun as reading and playing with the little ones. At the end of the summer, the two librarians gave me this small Native American figurine. That summer put my love of teaching and reading into a new phase. That summer working with those librarians helped to plant the seeds for my current career. Those librarians opened up a world for me, and helped me realize that I might be able to carry on their tradition of working with children and community. I hold this little statuette and gain strength and remember the joy and love of sharing a story. I love telling and hearing stories. All cultures have stories and storytellers. And at the end, all we really have are our stories.
Small framed picture of the cottage at Walden Pond. I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau in the summer before ninth grade and it changed my life. It awakened a new consciousness, it inspired my career and spiritual path, and I fell in love with someone who had lived more than a century ago. Since then, I have read many other books that have changed me, but none that have shaken up everything I knew before and after, like Thoreau did. I have yet to visit Walden, but Thoreau is a spiritual brother (I have tried to move on from my literary and spiritual crush) and his experiment in living simply inspires me daily. It reminds me that kindred spirits can be found across the times. This small picture, a pen and ink reprint, is my talisman, to remember that one can change things, to remember that it is important to have a higher purpose. It is my remembrance to live my ideals.
Three seashells. I grew up in New Mexico, so water and the coast are still a bit of a mystery to me. A couple of childhood vacations to California included time to play and shiver on the beach and collect sea shells. My mother gathered up our bounty, poured them into a decorative jar, and placed the jar on a shelf in the bathroom. That jar of shells was part of my reflection all throughout adolescence as I inspected pimples and picked at my braces and hoped for a hairstyling miracle. Two summers ago, my mother and I sorted through several of her boxes, in preparation for a garage sale, and found the jar of shells. I pulled out these three shells and we parted with the rest in the sale. Those shells, while forgotten for years, remind me of those childhood trips and those glimpses of what felt like the edge of the world. The shells serve to defy expectations, because they are strong while seemingly fragile. They defy other expectations because my limited experience at the beach is of remembered goose bumps, blue lips, and a heavy sweater, not heat, sunshine, or bikinis. I pick them up and think of past and future travels, and expectations to be defied.
Music box. I received this little music box as a small child. I loved that it was uncovered and as I turned the handle the little pins moved as they struck the metal comb. It played a familiar lullaby from childhood and to this day, turning the handle of the music box reminds of bedtime, story books, and rituals of night. This little music box reminds me of being little. I teach children and I think it’s important to remember what it was like to be the age of my students. Machinery, music, memories, this is a keepsake, and perhaps a talisman to keep from forgetting childhood.
New Mexico license plates. New Mexico is one of the states that only requires a rear license plate. I have two license plates, from two different cars I drove in my 20s. Both cars were used cars from New Mexico and came with me (at different times) to Minnesota. I keep those license plates as confirmation of my identity as a New Mexican, regardless of the place where I live. My heart and soul and sense of place are all New Mexico. I cannot explain it, but it is there in my blood, in the oxygen in my lungs, in my bones. These are part of my identity and sense of self, not memories of cars or road trips, but the state where I grew up and was formed and feel most complete. These plates are talismans against forgetting and perhaps my road signs for returning.
Rosary. I am not Catholic, but grew up in a mostly Catholic community and I am fascinated with the ritual of praying with a rosary. I bought this strand of rosary beads when I visited the Pilgrimage Church of Wies, or Wieskirche, while traveling with my sister in Bavaria, Germany. Sure the purchase of the religious artifact was as a souvenir, a remembrance of the trip. I chose it, though, as a symbol of the larger part of my spiritual and religious journey, which is bumpy and filled with curiosity and faith and debate and prayer. Prayer beads, like those in the rosary, are used in many religions and traditions, and I find them complicated and beautiful and sacred.
Navajo sandpainting. Three years ago, my two sisters, niece, and I drove to the Four Corners (where the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah all meet) area to visit Mesa Verde National Park and to see the Four Corners Monument, which is located on Navajo tribal lands. Several Navajo artists had set up booths and tables to sell their artwork, jewelry, and crafts. I bought this sandpainting, freshly finished the day before, and talked for a while with the artist. The painting is titled, “End of the Trail” and he referred to the Trail of Tears, when many Native Americans were forced from their lands by the U.S. government and into resettlement in “Indian Territory.” Many Native Americans died along the way, along the Trail of Tears. The painting is both beautiful and heartbreaking. It is my talisman to remember the pain suffered by so many before me. It is my talisman to remember the world is full of good and bad, often close by and together. History and the present come crashing into the ideas we hold dear. We cannot whitewash the past, but we can learn and do better. How can we find the beauty? This painting is a talisman against the darkness and is the attempt to bring in the light.
Blue wood block. The blue is the blue of a late night sky. The four-letter word “Live” is stenciled in the color of old book pages. I bought this at a craft fair where I was busy coordinating the recycling and composting for the event. The simplicity of the design and the word struck me. At that moment, a dark one in my psyche, I needed that very word, Live. Not that I needed the reminder to live, but I did need the reminder to examine what that meant to me. It was at that moment that I began to examine my life and think about not only what I wanted, but how I could be of service. I am still figuring out some of those directions, but this little wood block helps me to remember that a simple life is complicated. How we choose to live and create and be is our own talisman.
These objects lead me to memory. They lead me to action. They lead me to reflection. They lead me to prayer. They lead me to new journeys. They lead me back to myself. These are the objects that have become the building blocks of my life.
What are your talismans? What are your keepsakes? What are the touchstones that remind you of your journey? Where do they lead you? What do you hold sacred? What do you hold dear? What are your building blocks?