Lately, (thanks to my Zen Buddhist mechanic) I’ve been cognizant of clutter—brain clutter, desk clutter, closet clutter, book shelf clutter, even fridge clutter—and how much better my brain and I feel when there is less of it. So, over the past few months, I’ve been cleaning out. My shoe closet is just a bit less Imelda-ish. I no longer own 27 pairs of stockings purchased circa 1996. And, instead of buying in bulk, I let myself buy “one extra.” That way I never run out of the essentials, BUT we also don’t have twelve tubes of toothpaste in the bathroom drawer. For a while, we did. Now we have ten. Sometimes I like to call Husbandio at work at say, “Hey, on the way home, can you pick up some Crest? We just ran out.” I can hear him roll his eyes.
As for brain clutter, I have been meditating every day. Who knew! Meditation always seemed like a bunch of totally unproductive just-sitting-around time. Seriously? A time where you are not allowed to multitask or daydream or even THINK? Who has time to sit around and not THINK or DO?!?
But, as it turns out, I AM a meditatey gal. I feel better, lighter, when I don’t have to carry stuff around in my head. When, for ten to forty minutes each day, I can coerce my brain to simply shut the heck up. Mental floss, that’s what I like to call it. It keeps my brain from getting that nasty tartar build-up and halitosis. It keeps the depression at bay.
I do, however, find it difficult to escape pocket clutter. Nor do I really want to. I like finding last year’s treasures kept safe in the pockets of an unworn coat or forgotten purses. Little time capsules, many of which include partially eaten chocolate bars that, I can say with certainty, still taste good after two seasons of pocket-mellowing.
I like finding old grocery lists.
I like finding scraps of paper on which I’ve written writing-related brainstorms: “her mushroom-colored hair” or “Elliott doesn’t suck hard candies; he chews them” or “his dad exploded against a bright blue sky three miles over Cape Canaveral.” (Please don’t steal that last one; it’s a line in my work-in-progress.)
In my pockets I also find the treasures that Sweetie asks me, her Sherpa mother, to carry. About half the time I will decline: No, Sweetie, I will not carry that stick that is shaped like an lower case “l.” Or No, Sweetie, if you want that pretty leaf, you can carry it.
But the other half of the time I will nod, accept the heart-shape chunk of concrete in my palm, then slip it into my pocket. It will remain there for weeks, sometimes months, and when I discover it, the pokey bit of weight in my pocket, I find it’s difficult to throw it away.
This past week, which contained a day where I happened to turn “Fifty,” we cashed in on Husbandio’s frequent flier miles and hotel points and rental car coupons and hightailed it to the big island of Hawaii, where, what with all of the freeness of the travel, our biggest expense was sunscreen. And rum.
Thus, I had the pleasure of switching decades beneath a huge red sun hat, slathered in SPF 50 and sipping a mai tai, a sunset smeared across dusky sky.
Perhaps because I was turning fifty and thus feeling a smidge melancholy that if I am getting old, then my children must be getting old alongside me, I agreed to carry whatever Sweetie asked of me. Lava rocks light as ping pong balls. Purple and red bougainvillea blossoms, delicate like the skin on the hands of elderly ladies. Fallen plumeria flowers lying in the wide-bladed grass like girls in Easter dresses. The piece of crap Hawaiian bling, a necklace she bought (with her own money) with a big-arse shell hanging from a bunch of small-arse shells. I told her it was very, very fragile and that it would most likely break easily. And when it did, I carried it. Mystery pods and macadamia nut shells. A heart-shaped piece of coral and another piece of coral that looked like a bird bath and another piece of coral that really did look like a little table. All that I carried. Happily.
All this carrying made me wonder why pocket clutter is more acceptable than sock drawer or closet clutter. Why do we carry what we carry? And, how do we decide what we will and will not carry? And gosh, think of the times when we wish we could unload that which feels too darn heavy!
On the flight home from Hawaii, for example, I carried fourteen granola bars. Fourteen. AND three turkey sandwiches, two Luna bars, two small boxes of Wheat Thins, two boxes of animal crackers, a bag of dried cranberries, Jolly Ranchers, two packs of gum, two packs of Tic Tacs, and a ziplock of Dove chocolates. Oh, and a half-gone bag of tortilla chips.
We are a family of four, and the flight was five and a half hours.
But I worried we would get hungry.
What we carry can certainly clutter the overhead compartment. What we carry can certainly weigh us down. But it’s comforting to feel prepared. The world feels unstable. Marriages crack, kids get leukemia, innocent people get killed by drunk drivers. But I have, on my person, fifteen pounds of granola bars for a five hour flight! Nothing can hurt me!
Have you read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried? Holy moly. If not, you should. O’Brien, a Vietnam War veteran, has written what he calls a “a work of fiction” the first chapter in which he describes, in great detail, what the young American soldiers carried in their packs while marching over hills and through swamps during the Vietnam war.
Will you please read an excerpt? I know it’s long, but please, don’t skim it; read it. You’ll miss the weight and beauty of the writing if you merely skim it.
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. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-size bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed five pounds including the liner aid camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots-2.1 pounds – and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RT0, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, Carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated. Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost two pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.
They were called legs or grunts.
To carry something was to “hump” it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, “to hump,” meant “to walk,” or “to march,” but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive.
Almost everyone humped photographs. In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carried two photographs of Martha. The first was a Kodachrome snapshot signed “Love,” though he knew better. She stood against a brick wall. Her eyes were gray and neutral, her lips slightly open as she stared straight-on at the camera. At night, sometimes, Lieutenant Cross wondered who had taken the picture, because he knew she had boyfriends, because he loved her so much, and because he could see the shadow of the picture taker spreading out against the brick wall. The second photograph had been clipped from the 1968 Mount Sebastian yearbook. It was an action shot-women’s volleyball-and Martha was bent horizontal to the floor, reaching, the palms of her hands in sharp focus, the tongue taut, the expression frank and competitive. There was no visible sweat. She wore white gym shorts. Her legs, he thought, were almost certainly the legs of a virgin, dry and without hair, the left knee cocked and carrying her entire weight, which was just over one hundred pounds. Lieutenant Cross remembered touching that left knee. A dark theater, he remembered, and the movie was Bonnie and Clyde, and Martha wore a tweed skirt, and during the final scene, when he touched her knee, she turned and looked at him in a sad, sober way that made him pull his hand back, but he would always remember the feel of the tweed skirt and the knee beneath it and the sound of the gunfire that killed Bonnie and Clyde, how embarrassing it was, how slow and oppressive. He remembered kissing her goodnight at the dorm door. Right then, he thought, he should’ve done something brave. He should’ve carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long. He should’ve risked it. Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should’ve done.
What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty.
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe fight and the responsibility for the lives of his men.
As an RTO, Mitchell Sanders carried the PRC-25 radio, a killer, twenty-six pounds with its battery.
As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&M’s for especially bad wounds, for a total weight of nearly twenty pounds.
As a big man, therefore a machine gunner, Henry Dobbins carried the M-60, which weighed twenty-three pounds unloaded, but which was almost always loaded. In addition, Dobbins carried between ten and fifteen pounds of ammunition draped in belts across his chest and shoulders.
As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle. The weapon weighed 75 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full twenty-round magazine. Depending on numerous factors, such as topography and psychology, the riflemen carried anywhere from twelve to twenty magazines, usually in cloth bandoliers, adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, fourteen pounds at maximum. When it was available, they also carried M-16 maintenance gear – rods and steel brushes and swabs and tubes of LSA oil – all of which weighed about 2 pounds. Among the grunts, some carried the M-79 grenade launcher, 5.9 pounds unloaded, a reasonably fight weapon except for the ammunition, which was heavy. A single round weighed ten ounces. The typical load was twenty-five rounds. But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried thirty-four rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than twenty pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear. He was dead weight. There was no twitching or flopping. Kiowa, who saw it happen, said it was like watching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something -just boom, then down – not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spins and goes ass over teakettle -not like that, Kiowa said, the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom. Down. Nothing else. It was a bright morning in mid-April. Lieutenant Cross felt the pain. He blamed himself. They stripped off Lavender’s canteens and ammo, all the heavy things, and Rat Kiley said the obvious, the guy’s dead, and Mitchell Sanders used his radio to report one U.S. KIA and to request a chopper. Then they wrapped Lavender in his poncho. They carried him out to a dry paddy, established security, and sat smoking the dead man’s dope until the chopper came. Lieutenant Cross kept to himself. He pictured Martha’s smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, more than his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her. When the dust-off arrived, they carried Lavender aboard. Afterward they burned Than Khe. They marched until dusk, then dug their holes, and that night Kiowa kept explaining how fast it was, how the poor guy just dropped like so much concrete, Boom-down, he said. Like cement.
You see why you can’t just skim that passage? Doesn’t the tedium of the list reflect what must have been the tedium of war? And the weight! The weight of what we carry on our backs and in our pockets and our hearts can prepare and protect us; it can also make us feel we weigh one hundred tons. And make it even more difficult to get through airport security.
Yet to some extent, what we carry, especially the intangibles, make us who we are. For better or for worse.
While running along a lava-banked road on the morning of my 50th birthday, I allowed myself to listen to an entire album (I am a slow runner) by The Weepies. It’s a beautiful CD, but the songs are bittersweet because I listened to that CD overandoverandover during big-time hard times a few years back.
So why did I listen to it on a day I’m supposed to be only Happy? Running directly into very sunny sun and incredibly windy wind, it felt good to be reminded of the hard times that contribute, just as the happy times do, to the core of our selves. It felt good to be the only person running on that stretch of road because I could sing at the top of my lungs and the wind would carry my singing, not away, but along with me.
What we carry in our pockets, in our purses, in our packs and, most important, in our hearts, defines us. Some of that, the destructive stuff that serves no purpose or adds no opportunity for growth or wisdom, should be donated or tossed or recycled. But other parts, even the hard and painful stuff that feels like baggage, we ought not toss that. It adds to our richness and our layers. It weighs us down so we don’t blow away in a stiff wind.
What about you? What do you carry with you? Please share, if you’re comfy, the literal and the figurative pocket-fillers, the items that protect you from and prepare you for the world’s uncertainty. The funny things you’ve found in your purses or packs or pockets. Or, how have you decluttered your life?
I accidentally ordered sixteen bottles of Talking Rain Lemon Zest sparkling water in our latest grocery delivery. Sixteen. I’m the only one in our family who drinks it.
It really was accidental, but man, I LOVE knowing I’ll be adequately hydrated for at least three weeks. After all, you never know when the city of Seattle’s going to turn off the water, right? Clearly, I still am comforted by the presence of stuff. Ohm.
As an aside, I want to thank you for reading and subscribing and commenting throughout 2011. It is immensely gratifying and fills me with head to toe happiness. I wish you the most joyful of holidays (in this, the season rife with clutter!) and a very peaceful start to 2012.