Sarah R. Callender

Sherpa

In General on December 4, 2011 at 8:19 am

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.

xo, sarah

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  1. Soon you will be carrying around long hair to add to your pocket stuff. You know what I can’t part with? Homework. My kids homework. All that paperwork makes me crazy but somehow I can’t purge it. Like one day I’m going to make albums of my kids homework.
    Thanks for your nice post. xo

    • Ooops. Because for Christmas, I got you BOXES AND BOXES of MY KIDS’ homework. And I don’t think you’ll be able to return it. Yes, my long flowing hair will fit so perfectly in my pocket. xo!

  2. Loved this one Sarah. I carry A LOT — and not just in my pockets! Working on my decluttering skills, but they will never be anything worth admiring. Dreaming of the lightness of Hawaii . . . . must have been fantastic! Cheers!

    • Thanks, Gretchen, for commenting! Another lawyer-mom posted a comment (her name is Jeannie) about how the clutter in her pocket represents the transitions between being a mom and being someone who works outside the home. I love that. You have the appearance of being totally clutter free . . . I’ll frisk you, though, in the hallways at school. 🙂

  3. When our brains are even remotely similar, my joy is unreasonably great.

    I have working really hard at this Carrying Peace in My Pocket Thing (http://occupyacj.blogspot.com/2011/11/idea-11-carry-peace-in-my-pocket.html) – when I wrote it, I knew it wouldn’t come naturally, but I am surprised by how Not The First Thing I Do it is. I have a sticker chart at home right now, with a sticker for each day I am peace-full with my husband. But apparently I can’t reach the peace in my pocket when I’m driving, or when I’m alone with my children for more than 3 hours at a time.

    A few more sticker charts maybe?

    Thank you friend, for writing and being and making my world immensely more interesting.

    • THIS is where you’ve been hiding your writing. How could I have missed this?!?! And yes, I have known from Day One (of not ever having met you) that there are at least a million similarities between your brain and mine. Really, the only difference, is that your brain speaks with a Canadian accent. I can’t think of a better person with whom to share a brain.

      I LOVE THAT YOU HAVE A STICKER CHART FOR YOURSELF. That makes me smile so big.

      Thanks for your dear comment, dear Alison.
      xo!

  4. While my home is completely clutter free, I unfortunately carry it in any and every place a pocket exists. It is a heavy burden to bare and one I hope to empty.

  5. Ah, love the phrase “pocket clutter!” I keep my house fairly free of clutter (just don’t look in that back room in the basement) but I do like stuff in the pockets of my various coats. A dog walk bag, a kleenex, pair of gloves, twisted bit of paper with something illegible written on it, white rock with black dot, black rock with white dot…

    Yes, meditating seems so small, but its effect is large. I like that it doesn’t matter if it was a good session or a not-good session; all sessions work about the same. Twenty minutes when my overactive brain gets to s.l.o.w. down and take a little rest.

  6. I loved that book. And your post. I’m a bit of a hoarder, but I’m working on decluttering both brain and closet. Step 1 is to get rid of things I don’t like. I’ll still be cluttered though, because I’m overly sentimental. Or maybe being sentimental is just brain clutter I choose to keep.

    • Hi Jodi! I think sentimental is fine . . . it’s like being wrapped in a big warm down coat of memories and a cup of hot chocolate. I loved being wrapped in a cup of hot chocolate. XO! 🙂

  7. Ahh, clutter . . . an old friend of mine. We have been together for so long I could not imagine my life without him. I can barely scrape together the guts to picture a day without pockets full of him; kleenex, lego pieces, keys, mittens and old shopping lists. Not could I fathom my drawers without paper clips, elastic bands, old batteries mixed with the new and a broken arms from Malibu Barbie.
    If I went on I would have written a monologue similar to the one above. It made me smile and made me fill with with guilt for all the clutter in my life. However somehow all my attempts to de-clutter are soon washed away by a new wave of stray puzzle pieces, pen tops, receipts and appointment notices. We are destined to be together.

    • Love this, Jodi. Clutter IS like an on-again-off-again romance. Why IS that? I KNOW he’s just not good enough for me (Clutter, that is) yet I keep taking him back. Thanks for the lovely comment. Love the images of Barbie arms and batteries and Lego pieces. It’s like the bits of foam and driftwood and bits of whatever that wash up on a ocean shore. BUT WHERE TO PUT IT!?!? 🙂 Thanks so much for your comment.

  8. Happy “50th” Sarah! I, too, celebrated my “50th” last week on Kauai with my husband. Despite it being our first trip together sans kids since our oldest was born, I found that I needed to fulfill my daughter’s collecting needs by returning with a plastic container of sea glass, kukui nuts, and the tail feathers of the ubiquitous feral roosters. They were all appreciated on my return so worth the carry. Keep writing; I love reading.

    • Yes, Julie! Happy 50th to you too! You don’t look a day over 25! Thanks so much for the fab comment. I love that we were celebrating (and carrying) in such similar ways. Hugs to you.

  9. Maybe some of that clutter can be seen as symbols of our joy? My pockets are filled with typical things: pacifiers, barretts, kleenex, grocery lists, rocks and sand; the clutter often serves as the reminders and transitions between my life at home and my life at work.

    The figurative clutter I carry with me, in part to assauge my working mother guilt, is photos. I am such a family photography geek. I spend too much time at work online staring at pictures of my kids from a recent weekend of family vacation. I have so much documentation of our life it’s ridiculous and I cannot stop. I need to remind myself at my desk that I really am a good mother, my kids are turning out well and I am giving them a beautiful childhood. The pictures refute what I paranoidly suspect people whisper about our family…”such beautiful kids, but their mother works, almost full time, in the city!! Can you imagine?”

    Maybe this kind of clutter protects me from vulnerability. When my kids pout and tell me that I don’t do anything for them or point out once again, that I am the only working mother in their classroom, I can refer them to these pictures for self-protection and to reform their own perceptions of the life they lead.

    Thank you Sarah, for a fabulous year of writing. Best of luck with the completion of the novel and its warm receipt into the literary universe. I look forward to your postings and wish you all the best this Christmas!

    Jeannie

    • This is such a fantastic comment, Jeannie. I love the line about how the contents of your pockets represent the transitions between Mom and Work. Beautiful, and so true. And, you have SO hit the nail on the head. Doesn’t guilt, especially Mom Guilt, weight about a thousand tons? You should save your comment and show it to your children in twenty or thirty years. Seriously.

      Thank you for sharing this . . . I just love your honesty and your willingness to share that which so many working mothers feel. XO to you and your gorgeous family!

  10. I love this one, Sarah. Especially this: “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.” I have had similar feelings this year (my “49th”). Today, on Ryan’s 4th birthday, I carried in my pocket the white-with-black-speckles rock that he found and named the “101 Dalmations rock.” And I thought about the fact that I will never again have a 3 year-old.

  11. You inspire me, Sarah. I am so happy that you share your voice with us!

    I ran with your Sherpa theme on my blog, http://scarlettstattoo.blogspot.com/ in today’s post, “Just Call Me, Friday.” and have linked back to yours. Spreading the word of your genius — yep, genius. I’m a fan.

    I also, am still comforted by the presence of Stuff! Particularly the tasty Thanksgiving leftovers presently crowding my fridge. You have sixteen bottles of Talking Rain Lemon Zest. I have one Key Lime Pie. Guess who’s gonna have to walk extra miles this week! I So WISH I had your scenery in my backyard.

    I did my spring cleaning this fall. Began with my office. I’ve never been more inspired to write, than when I sat down to a clean desk. Ahhh, organization! Love it. Need it. My kids’ closets, on the other hand, have a heartbeat.

    Love! And sparkling waters!
    ~Scarlett

    • Only ONE key lime pie? That hardly seems like enough . . . call me when you have at least double-digits of pie (and then I’ll rush right over and we can go to town together! Nothing like KLP to bring together new friends, I always say. Always.).

      Thanks, as always, for the massive ego boost. You are so stinking FUNNY. You should patent “my kids’ closets have heartbeats” before someone steals that. It’s brilliant. In fact, I may steal it myself (but I’ll credit you, of course!).

      I so appreciate your comment, and I look forward to reading your blog. Right now, in fact.
      xo, pie breath!
      s

      • *Big Smile*

        Five Yeas-ty Rolls!
        Four cups of gravy,
        Three helpings of asparagus casserole…
        Two of mashed potatoes
        …and…
        One Key Lime Pie!

        I won’t go hungry.
        xo, out of breath! ヅ

      • Awesome. I’ll be RIGHT over. And I’ll bring a poster of Seattle so we can look at it while we chow down. Now where IS my poster of Seattle . . .
        🙂

  12. Good day,
    I have never felt such a strong connection to a post while having nothing in common with the poster.
    I am an anti clutter person with absolutely everything that you can lay a hand on. My girlfriends used to get so mad at me when I would toss cards from them or my work that just wasn’t good enough for me, no matter how much they liked it. My lack of sentimentality has bothered almost everyone I am close to.
    But I have a plethora of mental clutter! It is a serious love/hate relationship that has been going on since I can remember.
    I love pulling out memories, movie clips, manic life episodes, (they are different from memories) and moments of the future that are inevitable. I love and hate to turn them over and over in my mind until even I feel they have been picked apart enough for one day or week and need to be placed back in their file for another time.
    Your clutter is so sweet and nostalgic:) Thank you for sharing it.

    Early Bird

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