Cheryl Strayed Tells The Story Of Her Most Prized Possession In This 'What We Keep' Excerpt

by Kerri Jarema
Michael Kovac/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

I am one of those people who can't help but become incredibly attached to physical objects. Clothes, books, knick-knacks, photos, you name it — I'm quick to assign sentimentality to so many of the things I own. And even though I've learned over the years to get better at casting off items, lessening my stack of to be read books, and just generally taking a more mindful approach to the items I own, there will always be the one or two special things that transcend usefulness to become something more akin to a talisman — an object so beloved as to become a lucky charm, embued with a personal kind of magic. It is these objects that Bill Shapiro and Naomi Wax are focusing on in their new book, What We Keep: 150 People Share the One Object that Brings Them Joy, Magic, and Meaning. You can check out three exclusive excerpts from the book, written by author Cheryl Strayed, author and activist Janet Mock and designer Jene Park below!

What We Keep, which hit shelves on Sept. 25, features contributions from 150 people like Strayed, Mock, Park, Ta-Nahesi Coates, James Patterson, and many more — including non-famous people from all walks of life like a cloistered nun, a makeup artist and an assembly line worker — to share their own personal treasures and the stories behind them. Shapiro, bestselling author and the former editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine, collected tales from a wide-range of individuals, all revealing the often hidden and always surprising lives of the objects we hold dear.

What We Keep by Bill Shapiro & Naomi Wax, $16.51, Amazon

You can read all about the items Strayed, Park and Mock chose as their most prized possessions below. And then read more about the rest of the 150 objects and their owners in What We Keep, out now!

Cheryl Strayed, author, Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things; co-host, Dear Sugars podcast

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"This has always been an object of wonder for me, but I’ve never talked to anyone about it. Even my husband didn’t know the story — and we’ve been together 20 years.

The first week of first or second grade, we were asked to bring something in for show-and- tell. I walked around our tiny apartment in Chaska, Minnesota — by then my parents had divorced, my mom was a single mom with three kids, we were poor — and we didn’t have anything interesting or cool for show-and-tell.

I decided I’d bring this murex shell. It was given to my mom by her father, who was in the army in the Philippines in the ’40s and ’50s. It was spiny and glorious. It had an air of mystery. But there was one problem: I wanted to say that I’d found it on an exotic beach. That’s what I wanted people to think. For my story to work, though, I would have to separate the poufy red velvet pincushion part — which was glued into the crevice — from the shell. I used a butter knife, and I can still see where I made some progress. My mother came upon me and told me I couldn’t do that. She said, “You can take the shell — but as it is, like a pincushion.” I remember thinking that that ruined everything. I wanted so badly for people to think I’d found this shell. I was in tears. I was obliterated. And I didn’t bring it.

The shame about being poor goes all the way back, and having a glorious shell was the opposite of that. You know, there’s what you remember now but also what you remember imagining then, and I remember that even then I had this image of myself as the kind of girl who would be walking on an exotic beach, who would find a magnificent shell like this. It was not only that I was there but that I found the shell. I wanted to be lucky. It was also about beauty, about the ambition to be venturing out in the world and in a far-off place. What I knew was that I wanted to be something that I wasn’t, that I wanted people to see me as someone who I wasn’t. I’ve come to realize that it wasn’t that I wanted to deceive but that I wanted to become.

The shell pincushion now sits on a shelf in my bedroom. Looking at it, knowing I had those thoughts of who I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to live, and knowing that I’ve done it, is the most beautiful, the truest thing. It’s the core of who I am. The shell is like this present: It holds in its very being both the girl I was and the woman I became."

Photo courtesy of Bill Shapiro

Jene Park, creative director and CEO, Thomas Wylde

Photo courtesy of Aldo Carrera.

"I grew up in Korea, after the war, with a single mom and three siblings. We were poor and didn’t have a lot; I remember drawing the things I wanted to have. My mother worked seven days a week at the fish market, and she wouldn’t leave until all the fish was sold. She might come back at seven at night or she might come back at nine. The best moments of my life were when I met her at the bus station on rainy nights, holding an umbrella. I could be in that bus station for two or three hours waiting. There’s not a lot a kid can do for a parent, but when she’d step off the bus into the rain and see me, she had such happiness on her face.

Some years ago, I saw this photograph at an exhibit in Paris and said, “Oh my god, that’s me!” Now, it sits in my office and is the first thing I see and the last thing I see every day. It’s a daily reminder, not only of me holding that umbrella but of me as a foreigner and immigrant. I came here without speaking the language but worked hard and eventually started my own fashion design company. The girl’s expression is like a little child forced to become an adult, reminding herself that she has to jump into something. That’s me. Looking at it, I get a powerful, primitive feeling. It brings me back to the beginning."

Janet Mock, author and activist

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

"This is my holy text. It’s the same copy I read in 11th-grade English class. I was one of two black kids in my entire high school, and reading Their Eyes Were Watching God was the first time I’d felt deeply seen. It’s a book about a black woman’s journey to self-revelation and love, and it made me think it was possible, in some world, some years down the road, that I would be able to write my own journey of self-discovery and love.

When I was 16 and a half, the text was all about the romance, you know, all about the love, but every time I returned to it, there were different layers. I realized later that there were feminist layers, racial layers, the way she’s growing into becoming a writer, the way she invented her own language sometimes, writing the way her people spoke.

It’s been with me on so many levels. As a trans woman, the disclosure piece, in telling your story to someone you care about, someone you hope to have a relationship with, is fraught with all kinds of anxiety and fear and potential loss. So when I wrote my first book, Redefining Realness, I stole Hurston’s structure, which opens up in present-day with a woman telling her story to someone she deeply cares about.

I actually began my wedding vows to Aaron with words from this book: “He looked like the love thoughts of women.” When I was younger, I was lovesick even though I had no experience with romance or anything, but the first time I read these words, I remember saying to myself, “Oh my god, I want somebody who looks like the love thoughts of women!”

It’s the book that has been on every single bookshelf I’ve ever had since the 11th grade. Now, it’s on the desk where I write. It’s the book that I turn to."

Photo courtesy of Aaron Tredwell

Reprinted with permission from WHAT WE KEEP © 2018 by Bill Shapiro with Naomi Wax, Running Press