Libraries

I attended an event at the Meridian International Center last week. One of the rooms at the Meridian House is a library. There is a strange surprise about a library in a foundation. The odd assembly of books—all the Russian history (because the foreign service world centered on Russia for decades), a case of biographies of men and women important in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and then the random exception, a book by Carly Fiorina (published as she was making a run at the Republican presidential nomination), and then a shelf that jumps from A Woman in Egypt to Lee’s Lieutenants to The Great Influenza. Organization sometimes struggles when books are added.

I notice, besides John Barry’s book about the pandemic of 1920, there is also a copy of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club; both these books are on my shelves at home. I will guess that if I looked more meticulously that I would find other overlaps in our collections. I wonder about the constellation of editions that connect library after library, and how I have felt a kinship with those who share editions with me. This person, this place, is not so strange.

I have written about my books before, both about the joy of having—and unpacking them—them and the burden that they signify. My books are a kind of roadmap, both the orange Home Depot Home Improvement 1-2-3 and Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Some books I have not opened in years, others I revisit with uncanny frequency. They all point to something, somewhere.

The Books

Almost fifteen years ago, I put my books in the attic. They were out, in shelves, but tucked beneath a sloping ceiling and packed behind all manner of family detritus. When my ex-wife and I separated, I moved them into my main living space, where they sang back to me after their—or my—sojourn.  My books matter to me, and I felt their absence. Getting them back onto tall shelves, walking past them every day, reminded me of what I had done, what I had learned, and what I wanted to do with my life and mind.

I have books about writing, books about religion, books about education, history books, philosophy (what we called theory in graduate school), fiction, poetry, books full of art and art history, and even books about sports—mainly baseball. I have a hard cover edition of Dickens published by Chapman and Hall with pages that requires a pocket knife to cut open.  I own a set of Andrew Lang’s color-coded Fairy Tale books.

The books reflect my preoccupations over the past thirty years.  Much of what is on my shelves I first read while I was in graduate school. Some I acquired afterward to keep me in touch with what I spent six years studying. Some comes from undergraduate college—books about gothic art and architecture, an old edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are some newer books that reflect my current interests: a collection of Sumerian mythology, a book about Djinn.

As much as I love my books, as much as they tell a story of my past, as much as they feel like an external manifestation of my mind, I think it may be time to lose them.

How long can one hold onto the past—a past that weighs an actual ton—without moving into the future? Yes, there are some things that I would keep, and this is true of more than my books, but they possess so much gravity. What is the past to me? Of course it is, was, everything. However, the future beckons, and requires a kind of lightness to which things do not lend themselves. Even memorable things.

There are other presences in my life—deep and profound connections. This time last year, I started unraveling the two jobs I had in Norfolk, Virginia. I moved away from those jobs and in the process also moved away from my daughters, who continue to live with their mother in Norfolk. Of course, I separated from and divorced their mother. It may seem inconsequential, but over 30 years ago, I picked a cat off the street, and have had cats ever since. I have never been more than three weeks away from them. This year I considered giving up a long standing fantasy baseball game that I have played for nearly 30 years with friends.

I wonder about what I have given up, but also what I have stayed with over the years. I have been a teacher for over 20 years—including my work as a TA in graduate school, over 25 years. What would it be like to not teach? I wrote for years, and then, if I didn’t stop, I slowed considerably—at what hazard, I cannot guess. I am writing again now, and have been, but can’t help wonder why my work slowed to a trickle.

I wonder would it would be like to be free of obligation and free of the gravity of myself—that ton of books, the closet full of clothes, my job, my family, my cats, even my friends. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had just chased words—the stories that I had declared as my purpose when I went away to and then stayed in graduate school. When I went away to graduate school, I traveled in a single car, with a mattress tied to the roof, and a single cat riding in the passenger seats. What would it be like to travel to what’s next with even less?

I do not regret the life I led, nor the life I lead; regret possesses a gravity greater than all the books own own, and I have no time for that. Not now. Nonetheless, I am aware of another life that exists, not over the horizon, not over the rainbow, but buried deep within me. I don’t know how I have kept it buried for so long, or at what cost—or even at what gain. Still. It is there.

I wonder, and wonder hard, and the wondering stirs something in me, something alive and insistent. What will I carry into the future? What must I carry? And what must I leave?

Packing again

I am unpacking and repacking old boxes. I have no fantasy that I will throw away old essays or my notes from Joyce and Woolf classes. But there are things I threw into boxes as deadlines approached, and now, when I look at them, nothing. I have whole boxes of emotional and intellectual cul de sacs.

Some of it is technological detritus. Phone cords? Old phone earphones? Some are records from past lives. A checkbook from Pittsburgh? A W-2 from Binghamton? There are kindnesses. A condolence card from my father’s funeral. There is a sweat stained baseball cap from a beer festival. Short ceramic candlestick holders and half burned candles. Another hank of phone cord.

There are more ringing memories. As she was moving from her home of forty years, my mother sent two packages of photos and records from my youth that include a hand made report card in which I earned hand-made A’s in subjects no school ever taught and a photo of the Varsity Swim Team with a dour me in a letter sweater. Other things. Almost twenty years ago, I set aside a bag of Philadelphia Inquirers containing my father’s obituary. A windup nun that shoots sparks as she walks patrols the corner of a now empty box.

These will all make the move, except, this time, I will reopen each box when I settle into my next home. I will spend time going through some of the boxes with my daughter, just to share strange pictures of her father and family, odd toys, and other remnants of my goofier life. Other boxes I will map out—actually going back over notes and essays.

And then, of course, there are the dozens of notebooks containing scraps of thought, dreams of beginnings of stories, hints of recipes, names collected and noted in lectures. As I was packing, I noticed a phone number on an otherwise blank page. There is no name, no feathery reference, just a number. Some mysteries will remain mysteries, and they will travel with me, just as surely as certainty will.

First morning home

Shi Hui runs out of her bedroom, and immediately charges into a chorus of “Mao! Mao! Mao!” Which, of course, means “Cat! Cat! Cat!” She runs after them holding a doll, which she uses to make furtive petting motions in their general vicinities. Our deaf cat is especially able to manage her affection, but the two youngest cats run away. Shi Hui gestures toward them, “Mao!” She commands. They are unbowed.

Finally, after breakfast, my wife unboxes a set of older Barbie dolls. Concentration and quiet happens. It’s time for laundry and mail and a thousand other chores as we settle back into our lives at home.