It was a road trip, and the unknown destination where’d we end up was to be our new home. No real plan. We were leaving Portland and seeing where we find ourselves at the end of it.
The first step in this exercise of trust and expansion was to make ourselves a bit more nimble, able to move with the flow and ready to take up any opportunity that may present itself. So, only what can fit into the Subaru. Maybe a few things we leave behind and can pick up later. But not much. If we’re going to practice trusting, we need to practice letting go to allow that trust to do its thing.
Thus, the elimination process began, and I knew Lauren would expect me to put at least a portion of my eight boxes of books on the line. I moved to Oregon for grad school in 2009 with maybe two boxes, but, after a Masters in Literature, and a disposition for ever-diverging interests, the collection had grown a bit.
Parting with my books seemed an act of shedding identity, accumulated parcels of myself in hardback and paperback. I would never be able to remember everything contained in those books, but they would always be there to reference—a step to the bookshelf or a walk out to the garage and a rummage through a box or two, and voilà: the flooding in of an earlier self, peering forth through inked underlines, marginalia, and past thoughts soon forgotten.
Some books, the very first time I opened them, had that precise piercing quality—Virginia Woolf, bell hooks, Walter Benjamin, Charles Dickens, Don DeLillo, Noam Chomsky, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver. They immediately took residence in my sense of identity, not like an addition, but like a remembrance. Certain authors have a way of shining a flashlight onto the darkened areas of ourselves, revealing a space that had always been there but was obscured until just the right articulation of thought and word brought it to light. And, because of these authors, we feel it can never be darkened again. Their writings echo like a soliloquy, like conversations with ourselves.
Other books of mine were amassed with the impersonality of a scholar. They were fortifications of intellectual preparedness. Some were possible and eventual resources for the classroom. Others were maybe important subjects, unopened but knowingly respected, lingering on my bookshelf as statements of worldliness and encyclopedic breadth, waiting to be cracked and perused if the interest arose, like Schopenhauer or Proust or a history of bohemian Paris. Many books like these had a feeling of acquaintance, imparted merely by their consistent presence amongst the others—the kind of books I could judge from their covers and reputations and felt I knew intimately if only from their hallowed, reliable place on my bookshelf.
Other unopened copies occupied a different worn and familiar groove in my psyche. That part of the psyche that registers inclinations of a future self possibly to emerge, the part that yearns to expand and to grow and to develop along a certain imaginable course. The books that I wanted to read, could see myself reading, and, in a way, felt that I somehow already had, that only the constraints of linear Time had stopped me from knowing this part of myself inevitably present. Many of those books were as much me as the books I had read numerous times over the last few years.
All these books, no matter what category they fell into, existed like a defense against Time, a safety of recurrence or maybe a cushioned avenue along its forward march. Letting go of my book collection would be an opening to the vulnerability of the present and a movement into the future without the existential safety-net I had so passionately pieced together.
And that’s what this road trip was all about, right? Letting go of where we came from and moving forward in an uncharted, purposely vulnerable way? Just to see how things would end up if we just sort of let them end up?
So, I grit my teeth and mercilessly dismantled my collection down to what I considered the bare essentials, the books that, at that particular moment in time, seemed to be the most essentially me.
But that wasn’t true. I’m more bare than that. Even when we try to let go of control, we can’t help but parse out little bits of safety for ourselves.
I slimmed it down to three boxes, including DVDs, but it was still too much when we came back to Portland a couple months later to pick up the rest of our things. I would have to mail my books and DVDs down to our new house in Ojai, CA.
When they finally arrived at the post office, the original packaging was thoroughly ripped and tattered and re-taped. All three boxes had come apart and only about two thirds of what I had mailed made it to Ojai. I was devastated, going through boxes book by book, trying to recall what pieces of myself I expected to be there but couldn’t find. It’s strange to look for an emptiness, and lonely once you’ve realized you’ve found it.
I didn’t spring for the insurance, so locating the missing items was a test of wills: mine against the implacable bureaucracy of the U. S. Postal Service. I lost. None of the at least 50 missing books and DVDs would be coming back to me.
Months later, I still notice the absence of what was once a reliable comfort: when I have a new idea I want to research and remember how I used to own a book that would’ve been a good starting point; when I recall an old art house film, now out of print, that would’ve suited my mood perfectly, so I could’ve just tuned out, eased in, and immersed myself in the once familiar feeling of the film projection.
Lauren and I left behind many treasured habits like these in Portland. We left behind the secure and the well-loved in order to invite experiences we couldn’t foresee, both in terms of spaces and in ways of being. Nearly every day in Ojai, we’re asked to shed a layer of former comfort so to take a hold of something new. We’re asked to accommodate a new atmosphere, a new context, and to move through it in unfamiliar ways: new home, new jobs, new friends, a new take on relationship.
Nothing has been truly lost. Some things are missed, for sure, but there have been no absences that we haven’t been able to repurpose as new openings, as spaces for invitation.
The same can be said of my bookshelf. As my current interests mature, I see new titles lining up side-by-side, the color palette evolving and taking on new shades of personality in our little cabin living room. Empty spaces encouraging fresh perspective.
When I walk through a used bookstore now, there’s this tug between the old and the new: here’s a copy of a book that I adored but decided to sell or that maybe didn’t make it in the shipment from Portland to Ojai. Do I reclaim this part of myself? Or do I feel content in this moment without it? Still self-sufficiently me despite my loss and cherished memory?
Often I choose the latter and find comfort that the old can be retrieved almost any time down the line. I don’t need to grasp for it right now. If my future brings me back to that book, then so be it, but I don’t need to weigh myself down, waiting for that future to arrive, clinging to my past in anticipation.
Our move to Ojai—or wherever it was we were to end up—was an exercise in trust. We’ve learned that trust isn’t a white-knuckle grip on what we choose to let go of and what we choose to retain. Trust occurs when we lose something of ourselves without losing our sense of self.
In my book collection, I had amassed a context for experiencing my sense of self, but it was a context just as impermanent as any other. The Self I’ve known and will continue to develop is a fluid process. It can’t be pinned down to any particular context or any particular Table of Contents. It is still many books yet to be read and many, even, yet to be written.