A Time for Casting Away

February 26, 2007

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.


Amy L. Wink is an adjunct professor at Austin Community College. She is currently working on her third book, a collection of personal essays.

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