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Books, Barnacles

What is he scribbling on the page?
Is there snow in it, or fire?

Is it the beginning of a poem?
Is it a love note?

- Mary Oliver

This is the story of how I finally tackled my burgeoning emotional tar pit of a book hoarding problem. My first experience letting go was after a house fire burned my entire collection of childhood books and I lost an old beloved book of hand-watercolored illustrated French fairytales. Out of the six shelves of books hoarded from childhood - the Nancy Drews, the fables, the adventure stories - I deeply grieved only that one book of fairy tales. Just hefting its substantial weight and touching the yellowed pages and stained fabric hardcover once brought joy. My second traumatic experience letting go was between college and graduate school. A faculty member kindly offered to store my college books in his basement in Virginia as I began new work in DC. After settling into an apartment, I went back for my books and found the boxes destroyed by summer humidity, the books molding and ruined.

Recently I posted a review on a little book about organizing and decluttering by the Japanese writer Marie Kondo, "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing." Kondo's ideas and principles (The KonMari Method) are quite different from the advice we usually hear about decluttering - toss if you haven't used/worn in a year, toss if used once, store and reconsider, etc. Marie writes, "My criterion for deciding to keep an item is that we should feel a thrill of joy when we touch it."

Plates, shoes, notebooks, coats? Umbrellas, books, electric cords? Yes. All of it.

Kondo's theory is that if you love something, you use it or emotionally connect to it, and therefore it belongs in your life. I moved and traveled - my limit was twenty boxes of books, no more - but then a nice stretch of settling in meant books began to seriously collect. I read voraciously and the space these books occupied lined the walls of my study, and then the downstairs. There were craft books on writing, thesaurus editions, the classics, new anthologies, bestsellers, rare finds, research tomes. To be honest, they weren't all great, or beloved, or important. But they sat in my house gathering dust.

Enter Marie Kondo. Her entire section on sorting through books seemed written for me. She addresses common fixations: keeping notes from seminars years in the past, books in collections of which only one book matters to you, books for things a person might need to learn, know, look up. Atlases, gift books, college texts. The Internet has become a reference library at our fingertips, yet we hang onto illustrated workout guides, home repair manuals, travel guides. All right, Marie. I see your point. But handle every book? Ask myself, Do I love it? Does it bring me joy?

Success is ninety percent dependent on our mind set.
- "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up," by Marie Kondo

The night this week I tackled my book shelves began as a perfect storm. I was staring at a stack of books on the floor when I realized I had not read any of the books in the stack. Ouch. What a waste. Moments later, I received a painful and discouraging email. Curling up inside, I drifted to my usual way of handling chaos or preparing for change - I began to shift furniture. I attempted to shelve the entire book stack.

No go. There was not one free inch of space.

Fine. Peeved and full of pent up frustration, I sat down on the floor and picked up the top book in the stack in front of me. I looked at it, opened the pages, thought about whether I had even wanted to read it or still intended to. Yes, keep. No, toss. I put the book in the toss pile. From stacks to shelves I picked up each book. Did I remember it? Want to reread it? Love it? Was it given to me by somebody, did I secretly never intend to read it but thought it an impressive shelf title? There were a whole lot of "Look how well read/on trend/diverse/interesting I am" sorts of unwanted books.

The giveaway piles gathered on the kitchen counter began to grow. I found myself keeping the one Edward Abbey book of essays my first husband had loved because he'd read it rafting the Grand Canyon on the Colorado: the other four could go. The topical nonfiction books I had read but would never read again, the new novel I bought on the basis of a good review but couldn't make myself finish...those, too, could go. The mountain climbing adventure book I knew I would reread, that stayed. My poetry, love love love. The old paperbacks of Bellow, Gardner, Updike, Steinbeck, Lessing, Drabble, Stegner. Stay. The political biographies? Churchill stays, Bush goes. Science, art? Einstein stays, Hepburn stays, Pollock stays, Sagan goes. Once my husband poked his head into the family room (I had finished the shelves in my office and moved on to the main floor shelves). He said not a word and ducked out again.

I handled each book, looked it in the heart, and decided right then to love it or leave it. When I was done with The Great Purge, I had 10 boxes of books for giveaway, and space on every alphabetized shelf for continued reading.

Every book I see is a good one, something I love. Whether new or tattered, timely or classic, each book is one I have a strong connection to. And the stack by the bed of yet-to-read books are books I actually WANT to read. The guilt is gone, the unwanted have moved on to new homes, my shelves reflect me.

Marie Kondo was right. Decluttering is a tactile process. We know and cherish objects through simple touch. When we surround ourselves with those things we feel connected to, we feel better in our lives.
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Ostia Antica, Italy

For whom and to whom in the shadow
does my gradual guitar resound,
being born in the salt of my being
like the fish in the salt of the sea?

- from "Songs," Residence on Earth, Pablo Neruda

I was born on the 22nd of September. Today is the 22nd of July - the day my first husband, Ken, passed away...and birthday of my second husband, Greg. Reverberations pass through our lives - touched by this one number, 22.

A strange and mysterious, sad and joyful tumbler of emotions accompanies every July 22nd for me. I am twinned in both my past and my present on this one, extraordinary day. Acknowledging loss while acknowledging joy, aware of what is missing and what is found. Greg was aware of the synchronicity of these dates before I was. We had just met; Greg had read THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE and he texted me that day, wishing me peace and comfort, as he knew my son and I were out at Ken's gravesite. Greg never told me that day it was also his birthday, which speaks to his sensitivity and respect for Ken's place in my life, although later it caused me some remorse as his birthday should have been something to celebrate. If only I'd known. Would I have believed it? Would the shared dates have shaken me?

Since our marriage, Greg and I, as well as my children, dance in the complex realities of this date. We've embraced it as uniquely ours. The anniversary of Ken's death is etched on July 22nd, Greg came into life on July 22nd, the 22nd day is the day of my birthday in the fall...it seemed natural that going forward we would chose the 22nd day of any month as our choice for important events and decisions. We married on the 22nd of April. My daughter schedules major exams for this date (she is taking one today), and my son releases new music projects whenever he can on the 22nd.

How fitting that last night my beloved Ken was spoken of in the course of a writing workshop I taught at Auntie's Books on memoir - and I came home that same night to share and celebrate the class with my dear Greg. Today, Greg's birthday, is full of joy. We celebrate the doorway that opened between our lives and loves, and the powerful synchronicity that is for us, the number 22.
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Come to Order

Human judgment can be divided into two broad types: intuitive and rational. When it comes to selecting what to discard, it is actually our rational judgment that causes trouble. Although intuitively we know that an object has no attraction for us, our reason raises all kinds of arguments for not discarding it, such as "I might need it later" or "It's a waste to get rid of it." These thoughts spin round and round in our mind, making it impossible to let go.

I am not claiming it is wrong to hesitate. The inability to decide demonstrates a certain degree of attachment to a particular object. Nor can all decisions be made on intuition alone. But this is precisely why we need to consider each object with care and not be distracted by thoughts of being wasteful.

To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.

- "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Declutttering and Organizing," by Marie Kondo

This small book (it is quite compact) has now sold over two million copies, a #1 New York Times Bestseller. What that says to me is that Americans are buried in stuff, desperate for guidance, hungry for personal organization, and stymied by the conflicting messages of "keep" or "toss." As I am an organized type by nature, even as a child my toys and books were boxed or alphabetized, I initially read this book out of curiosity. But half way through I realized I was learning, finally, how to really make decisions about the things I own without falling sway to the usual tired aphorisms such as "Waste not, want not," or "You might need/fit into/get back into this someday," and the ultimate trump card - "But I plowed so much money into that!"

Arranged into fun and cogent sections, with titles such as -
You can't tidy if you've never learned how
Storage experts are hoarders
Selection criteria, does it spark joy?
If you're mad at your family, your room may be the cause
Komono (miscellaneous items): keep things because you love them - not "just because"
Don't underestimate the "noise" of written information
An attachment to the past or anxiety about the future

- Kondo's book explains the deeper principles behind why we keep things, how best to organize them, ways to treasure them (proper storage), and finally, how to live firmly in the present in our day-to-day relationship with things.

I found my personal Waterloo in Kondo's section regarding books (apparently common enough to require its own section). While not so tenacious I finish books I do not like, or hang onto books I'm not sure I'll ever read (and have felt that way about for more than a year), I do keep the majority of books I buy. I consciously curate my book choices, in terms of personal esteem for the work, or with an eye toward collection completion (for example all the works by a favorite author, not just the few I enjoy). I collect print, not e-books (I like the physical beauty of books, and dip into pages at random), so the storage requirements for my books are impressive. Kondo suggests we consider things we own in multiples (e.g. sports equipment, clothes, books, music, toys, etc.) in terms of the pleasure they provide. This nudged me to rethink my approach. Unless I am investing in a complete collection for its future resale value, what is the personal value to me of the complete set? If, say, only one of three books by a certain author brings me genuine pleasure maybe I should let go of the others. The result would be fewer books taking valuable space, and of those books, having the ones I love.

I recommend you take a look at this spunky, practical little book. It is terrific. Kondo genuinely understands the complicated relationships humans have with things. The feelings tied up in objects - the obligation we feel to retain family heirlooms (my husband an I are currently discussing a certain unusable - to us - wood Norwegian cradle), the guilt over past purchasing mistakes (my sister bemoans the trend in jeggings), fear of an uncertain future, and its twin, an intrinsic appreciation of the value in a buck, and that perennially hopeful assessment that borders on wishful thinking (sure I'll be a size 4, go camping/river rafting/repelling again).

Kondo respects the true joy an object can provide. The principles of decluterring are not just to lighten the load (although that has undeniable merit), but to absolutely love and appreciate what we choose to keep in our lives. Now, today.

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In A Given Day

by Jack Ridl

Trying to know what to do is difficult
enough, let alone knowing what to do

anyway. I could take that at least two ways,
maybe more. For example, I could take a walk,

even a long walk and I would expect to walk
through the woods or a field or a park or downtown.

But what if i take a walk and instead just kept
the walk to myself, kept it here amid all the indecision

about where to take that walk? I might pop open a Coke,
kick off my hiking boots, put on a smoking jacket,

and pile up some Jane Austen and some Henry James,
just pile them up. And then maybe I'd talk with you

even though you are no longer here. It could be like that,
or maybe it is like that. And at night the sky would be full

of the same stars as the night before last. At least it seems that way.

Jack Ridl, midwesterner, poet and professor, dedicated this poem to John Bartlby. But what he means us to know at the end of our reading is expressed in the last three lines. A man misses his friend. And this sudden, shattering absence measures, for our poet, the width and depth of the gulf between the tenuous temporal and the fixed eternal. Our poet glances upward. Stars. In their infinite lives, so much longer than our own, they fill the night, evidence of continuum. Today like yesterday - is it not full? But he feels the difference, our poet. A light has dimmed and changed the sky.


Ridl's poem begins in the physical. In the body of the poet and what he will do with himself. The living, and the no longer living. Failed by the futility of action, unable to find release in the movement of his muscles and breath, the poet moves into the hypothetical, the wondering, the hungering, the intimate. Again he returns to what is physical as he seeks comfort in the presence of what still is. Stars. Stars that remain the same, yet that some, now, do not see. Is it still as it always is? "It could be like that,/or maybe it is like that."

We know absence. We know loss. Take a walk. Or not. Boots on, or not. Books...or not. Thinking about the thing and internalizing the thing that thought signifies. Where do we go with vastness? An endless night? How does the heart embrace space too big for words?

What are you supposed to do anyway?
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The Good Life

My children at the beach with our dog, Scooter

by Mark Strand

You stand at the window.
There is a glass cloud in the shape of a heart.
There are the wind's sighs that are like caves in your speech.
You are the ghost in the tree outside.

The street is quiet.
The weather, like tomorrow, like your life,
is partially here, partially up in the air.
There is nothing you can do.

The good life gives no warning.
It weathers the climates of despair
and appears, on foot, unrecognized, offering nothing,
and you are there.

We stand in the tracks of tangled footpaths among dreams, ambitions, regrets, loss. At every vantage, we take in the long view. There is something about our hearts that needs the wideness of the unknown, the promise of discovery around the next bend. Mark Strand's line, "like tomorrow, like your life,/is partially here, partially up in the air," reminds us we exist in becoming - in shift between hard realties and bright imaginings. Partially here, partially up in the air.

In a week marked by deep suffering and wordless pain for our own communities and others around the world, of shocked disbelief, and moral agony, I find unexpected comfort in these lines of Strand's last stanza:

The good life gives no warning.
It weathers the climates of despair

The ability of life to rebound, for wounds to heal and the human journey to continue - mindful of events that have occurred - moves me. I don't know if someday the world will end on a high note or a whimper, but life continues to seek what is good. We must rise. The celebration of The Fourth of July blesses the founding anniversary of our nation, symbolized in part by family gatherings and communal celebrations. In the wake of all that has been tragic and awful, let us lift one another, step forward, and stand strong in community.

The following is from my very first post, July of 2010:

Welcome summer! Collect your flip flops, grab your beach bag and throw in a basket of great books to indulge in. These are the slow days of simmering heat and sun. The pastimes of childhood call. Riding barefoot on a bicycle, playing cards clothes-pinned to the spokes of the wheel, ratta-tatta-tat down the block for an ice cream. Hot afternoons at the city pool, sleepovers under the stars, lemonade stands in red Flyer wagons. The boom of thunder and the salted tar smell of cool rain as it hits a hot street. The vacation trip to the beach. Crammed in the family station wagon packed to the gills, counting state license plates...

Life is forever "partially up in the air." Choose faith. Choose joy. Choose optimism. Find time for yourself and those you love.

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