The hottest day of the year so far and what am I doing? Sunbathing? Gardening? No… I’m building bookshelves and unpacking dusty boxes. They say that you can’t take it with you, but that applies to a more distant removal… a mere downsizing means that you can. At least some of it. Especially if it has pages and a spine.
I did re-home or dispose of a good many books when I moved. I really did. To those who pointed out that I have too many books… I must finally admit that they were right, although not in the way they meant it. I do not…in fact, I believe it is impossible to have too many books. The problem arises when what you lack is bookshelves in which to house them. And walls that have space for more shelves.
For the past few days I and my trusty screwdriver have been tackling the MDF forest. I am currently taking a breather from lugging boxes of books…and looking for the buried-somewhere-I-wouldn’t-lose-it tape measure to see if I can squeeze at least one more bookcase in somewhere.
There is, however, a growing pile of empty boxes on my bedroom floor and several rapidly filling bookcases are finally looking lived-in. Or lived through… which is probably closer to the truth. The books are not just books… they are a reference library, a playground, an adventure… they are a spiritual quest and repository of knowledge… and tucked between their pages are memories.
Many of those memories go back a very long way, to the people who first owned the books. My grandparents’ names are inscribed in copperplate within the covers of many of them. My own is inscribed in a childish hand in those I wait to read to my grandchildren, as I read them to my sons. All of the pages hold memories of the emotions and realisations experienced as I lived an adventure of imagination and learning.
And some of them hold other things, more tangible. Like the photo that fell from between the pages of a children’s story that has my very first ‘love letter’ on the back. Okay, we were ten or eleven… but he sent it because we would miss each other while he was on holiday… and signed it, ‘Love, Neil’…. and my heart felt that first feminine flutter of a daughter of Eve.
He will be middle aged… getting old, just like me. Looking at that handsome young face, though, it did not occur to me to wonder where he is now and what he looks like. I remembered only the tenderness and excitement… the silly things like walking past his door and hoping he would see me… and the thrill of that first letter from Ingoldmells. None of that was in the photograph… just a boy on a beach, but the tide of memory came rolling in.
It was then that I realised that you can ‘take it with you’… and we do.
All the books I have ever read have left their mark, just as all the people I have met have done. Every experience, every word, every lesson. Some have passed through my life with the lightest of touches, barely ruffling the surface of memory, leaving neither footprint nor scar. Others have buried themselves deep and secure in the fastness of my heart and soul.
I realised too why the physical books still matter. Their presence is their trigger. Every day as I pass them, the names on the spines, author and title, nudge memory into action and what I have learned from them, the adventures they have taken me on, the joy I have experienced through them is all brought back closer to the surface. They remind me of who I am, who I was and how I hope to grow. I do not need them… I enjoy them. They do not define me… but they have helped to shape me and, as I revisit the memories in their pages, will continue to do so.
Everything we experience leaves a trace in memory. We dismiss the majority of what we see and do as it lacks emotional importance and it is filed away so carelessly that memory will seldom retrieve it. Other things stay in the surface of the mind… the things that mark or matter, the times of intense emotion or revelation. Even those need a trigger before we recall them. Age, illness and injury make the memories appear to fade… I don’t think that they do, it is our access to them that becomes more difficult or even impossible. But what each of these moments and people have truly given us, that stays with us, changing us as we grow , gradually becoming part of who we are. Whether we dismiss something…or someone… as being of no importance, or embrace the gift we are given in full consciousness… nothing is lost or wasted. Least of all Love.