Since my winter has turned dreary and damp, I have spent too many hours inside, unable to escape my home as the weather kept me dormant. Though I am glad this El Nino rain ends our lengthy drought and spring promises blooms that we’ve missed the last few years, I find myself forced to confront the interior spaces I inhabit. Trapped with my things, I am overcome with a desire for Zen minimalism, a spare, clean uncluttered space to breathe, to think. This is not my true nature speaking, and the other voice that rises against the minimalist inclination points out that I very much like my things -- even as I recognize the need to open my space by emptying it. It is a moment of convergence, triggered by the cold rain and the captivity of late winter days without the sun. I must act to clear my space to satisfy this strengthening need, but I must also act with clarity to appease the collector’s conscience of my nature.
I have been through periods of uncollecting before, particularly before and after a move during the journeyman visiting professor days immediately following graduate school. I unloaded quite a lot of paper when confronted with the expense of moving the weight, recognizing that I never really did go back and review those teaching materials that I had saved because it seemed like a good idea. I unloaded furniture when I moved myself back to Austin after leaving my last visiting professor position, knowing what would and wouldn’t fit into my altering circumstances and determining what I no longer needed to lift. In the years since that move, I have remained physically stationary, but the direction of my life has shifted from my original course and I have let go of things that seemed to no longer be necessary for the future into which I am moving. I have successfully donated many housewares, furniture and clothing with little trouble to my conscience as I opened the space around me. I once cleared my closet applying the premise that if I could remember a negative experience associated with a piece of clothing, the object had to go. That was a very satisfying experience, almost as satisfying as shredding the rejection letters of a six-year job search.
Of course, those are things it is easy to part with, and I have been moved at other times to uncollect things less easy to part with. I have even passed on cherished things to others I know will cherish them similarly, in the same way I have received another’s collected items when they needed to let them go. In every instance, I have stopped off my dispersals at the point I can no longer bear the leaving, at the moment when clearing becomes loss, when cleaning ceases to seem a gleaming virtue and instead becomes hard and cruel labor. Always at this close, I think I have reach the end of what I can let go; I have come to the point where loss begins and "ruth" returns.
So, in this winter, I faced a difficult decision, what to remove now? I was down to my essential desires. I found my answer when I moved two small bookcases from one room to another. One bookcase was collapsing, so I needed to find a new place for what seemed a small number of books, but in the unloading they multiplied, it seemed, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by books, with no place to put them. In that moment, I voiced my decision to my most bibliophilic friend in an e-mail, announcing “No More Books.” She was aghast -- her own house is punctuated with stacks of books -- but supportive. Another long-time friend remarked, “there is a time for gathering books together, and a time for casting books away.”
These books that triggered my declaration were not the books I could get rid of, my childhood’s books that I loved, and the antique books by women writers whose names were not yet known in the antique malls where I found them. These were books I meant to keep. The books I had to eliminate were sitting in my study: the collection I’d been building since I entered graduate school in 1987, the collection of academic books I built during my dissertation writing, the collection of books I had used in my academic work, the collection of books I had used in my teaching. The collection which had defined a life I was no longer moving toward. It was a collection of “what if’s” I no longer needed to ask, begun when my future looked quite different from the present it had become.
In grad school, I had found great comfort in building the collection, buying books cheaply at the Half-Price Books in College Station, the perfect afternoon for a collector of slender means. I’d hauled home books from conferences, where the tantalizing book exhibits never failed to reveal something I would never see in my own bookstores at home. In my first university office, these books provided validation that I was not alone in my field, though my department considered me a dangerous anomaly. The collection provided my students everywhere with a variety of ideas they’d never encountered, and I was asked more than once in hushed and reverent tones, “have you read all those books?” It was with a great sense of accomplishment that I answered, proudly, yes. I remembered my similar wonder on entering my own professors’ book-lined offices. But I no longer had a university office in which to stow the collection, nor needed as many books to prepare for teaching. My new offices are shared, and my book selections are standard adoptions.
I have reduced this collection gradually over the last few years. After one ending, I handed a large number to the gender studies program of the university I was leaving, happy to offer the books to a home that craved what I no longer needed. It was an excellent casting off, releasing ballast before my going. On my return to Austin, I made somewhat regular pilgrimages to our local Half-Price Books, considering the happiness some shopper might feel on seeing a prize on the shelf, the thrill I knew from my own experiences doing the same hopeful browsing. I’d always been able to choose the books I kept in relation to my work. But having just finished a project I’d used as a determining factor in my previous cullings, I was now bound to release some long held volumes, and also finally let go of the career I no longer pursued. In this casting away, I would be casting off again. Now, I had to be even more ruthless, and decide what I truly loved for the new future. Like learning to say “no”, after feeling the freedom rising, there’s no returning. I had begun the casting off.
It is hard to say now what I let go of, which means the selections were correct. Eventually, I took about seven bags of books to Half-Price Books, where a sign announced cheerfully “3 feet of books for $17.99.” I think I gained eight feet of space. I made about $45.
I still own too many books, but I’d reached that point of loss, where I began to retrieve books from bags prepared for sale, not yet able to let go. I kept the poetry. I kept a few dear novels -- Austen, Forster, Glasgow, James, Morrison, Tan, Woolf. I kept my gardening books, and my favorite books on writing. I kept books by my friends, my mentors, and my teachers, and of course, I kept the gifts. It is still a fine collection, shaped more carefully by these essential details. I am sure I will eventually ease my edict of “no more books,” but for now I am enjoying the space, the clarity, and the inevitable lift that comes from dropping ballast.