“But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”
— Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use”
You confront the back bedroom, the one next to yours, where you have stuffed books and prompts for the writing groups for the past four years, since the niece who occupied the room moved out with her boyfriend. They have a house in Lincoln now, a whole house, and you can’t imagine fitting her entire life into a 10×20-foot bedroom in a house built in 1922. Actually, her room (you still think of it as Lauren’s room) was built as part of the addition in the 1950s when the original owners decided two bedrooms and one bathroom were not enough. They reconfigured the house into a three-bedroom, two-bath, which you have just refinanced and cannot believe how much it is allegedly worth.
It’s still not enough space to hold all your stuff, and therein lies the challenge.
Because now you have someone else coming to occupy Lauren’s room, so now you think of it as April’s room. (It has also served as Andy’s room and Richard’s room and Rebecca’s room, good short-term housemates all.) You have 10 days remaining before April’s bed arrives and with it two of her friends to set it up. She will turn up a few days after that. You have spent much of the last two months daydreaming about how you’ll move out two-thirds of the books and all the prompts and even clear off ten whole bookshelves for April—and don’t forget you’ve got to do something with the stuff in half the closet.
You took an initial stab at the books a couple of months ago—the ones in towers, once organized in a system you can no longer remember, the ones stacked atop the shelves that you swear have reproduced when you were not looking. Which ones must you keep? Which ones might you need? After that initial burst, inertia took over. Overwhelm took up residence in that room and throughout the house. It was all too much.
But because April arrives in June, after several days away at the coast, sleeping and breathing in more clean air than your lungs have known in months, you tackle The Room, which has somehow taken on capital letters.
And you have made progress, going through all the books in the house because it turns out that the whole organism is a puzzle—you find one book on a famous journalist and because the journalism books are in your office, you have to find room on that series of floor-to-ceiling shelves. But to do that means you have to look critically at those books. Do you really need “An Editor on the Comstock Lode”? No, you do not, so it is consigned to an ever-growing pile of sturdy boxes marked “donate” that once held reams of copy paper or into smaller bankers’ boxes, which you can lift, even full of books.
Here’s the thing that’s been hanging in your mind like a dusty cobweb for months: How do you decide what stays and what goes? And where does the stuff that’s to go… go? Is it all donated to the Friends of the Library Book Den? Is it put into boxes and stored? If so, where? You have a basement of boxed books you sent down there when Lauren came to live with you. You have not seen their spines or touched their pages in a good five years. You can argue that if you haven’t looked at them in that long, they could all be given away, and that would be fine.
But, some bit of your conscience argues, that would be like sending an animal you’ve lived with for years to the pound. Even if you don’t like him very much, he’s been around a long time. He is not easily disposed of.
So you make an executive decision not to go into the basement at all. You will deal with the books that live on shelves, stacked atop bookcases, on smaller tables, the jumbled towers of books. You will figure things out from here, you decide grimly.
The writing prompts, you tell yourself, are easy. They’re in large purple plastic tubs, and they can be moved to the loft where you hold your writing groups. Except for the prompts that aren’t in the purple plastic tubs, the ones scattered among the books. Those will need to be collected and put… somewhere.
Once again it comes to you that things have gotten a little out of hand.
Half of your king-size bed in the next room has stacks of books on it, too. So does the long dresser—covered with stacks of books and one long row of them pushed against the wall. Various cats have peed on some of these books over the years for reasons you cannot fathom, and you have sighed, retrieved them, sprayed them with anti-pee-cat spray, let them dry and put them back. Still, you pull them out, and every so often you feel the grit of dried cat urine on one of them, and your blood pressure rises, and you apologize to Mary Oliver or Billy Collins or whichever poet has taken the brunt of a long-dead kitty’s annoyance. Out loud, you say, “I’m so sorry, Mary,” or “That damn cat did it again, Billy.”
And once again you wonder how the book situation has crept up on you.
It’s not as if you don’t give away books. You do. All the time. But clearly you bring in more books than you send out, which has led to this unfortunate predicament. (You swear the poetry books are mating in the night—they multiply like flies in there. How else to explain four copies of the same anthology that once published one of your poems?)
Then, an unexpected savior appears in the form of the college boyfriend who blows into town to continue the massive job of cleaning out his parents’ small house in a nearby suburb. You have periodically helped him with this major project over the past year after his mother’s death. He shows up every couple of months, you drive him out to the rural area that at its best can be described as “the sticks,” and you proceed to go through room by room of the house of a woman who had, you swear, more Catholic books and saint statuary than the Vatican. And Beanie Babies. Thousands of them—literally. You come home and convince yourself that your house is under far better control, but you are grateful to his late mother for distracting you from the task at your house. You, the non-Catholic, add to your life two of her statues—one of a bowed-head Mary with sculpted gown that hangs gracefully to her feet; the other a gowned angel, head bowed, reading a book. She feels like your angel.
The college boyfriend declares on this visit that this is it—everything goes this time. The house must be cleaned up once and for all to put on the market. As is. And then he drops a big piece of news at your feet like a dog with a ball.
“I’m getting a storage unit,” he proclaims one afternoon as you schlepp stuff out to the rented Dumpster at his parents’ house. “In your neighborhood.”
This intrigues you. He originally intended to give away or donate or dump everything. You ask where, how much it costs, where do you get a lock, how often can you go in and out, whom do you talk to, and what does it cost again? He explains it all to you, tells you about Linda, the site manager who has run the place for 23 years, and you feel as if you were just thrown a ring buoy as you bob around in choppy water. It’s not exactly a rescue, but it helps you float.
So the next day you call Linda as you look at the computer and see that the storage place is exactly 1.8 miles from your house. You mention the college boyfriend. You tell her that he said she had a 5x10x10 space on the second floor—unheated, unairconditioned, unlighted, too, it turns out—and could you see it? Sure, she says, come on by, and you arrange a time to see her the next day.
This turns out to be the last day of the month, which is perfect—that’s when people come and go. She’s got a couple of options for you, $97 a month, and ignoring the math about what that adds up to annually, you decide that renting 50 square feet of space that soars 10 feet high—a big closet, really—makes sense. You’ll take it, you tell her, and she shows you how to work the lock (you’re not very good with locks) and where the big cart lives and where the elevators are so you can move in your boxes with some ease.
And as you sign the papers for the smallest piece of property you’ve ever rented, something rises in your heart because you know you will be back the next day with your boxes of keepers.
You stay up till 3 a.m. going through books. Somewhere around midnight it occurs to you that you have for years gone about this process all wrong. With the clarity of a deadline looming, you realize that the question you must ask about each book is not, will I need it, or have I read it? You should be asking yourself (and you feel very Oprah about this), Does it bring me joy? There’s a book about that, right? Do I own it? When I hold each book, do I feel that I need to have it near me? Does it add something kind or meaningful to my life? Do I consider this book a close friend? You decide that if you’re ambivalent about it or have no feeling about the book, it can go. It doesn’t need to be stored. But if you feel strongly about it, want to hug it, then it needs to stay on a shelf near you. If you feel less strongly but still fondly about a book—your old Girl Scout and synchronized swimming manuals, for example—you sideline it for storage.
Something shifts inside you, and in the middle of the night you fairly quickly fill five boxes of give-away books and a dozen more boxes for storage, wishing those numbers were reversed. But still. And by 3 a.m., back aching, eyes fuzzy, you see evidence of progress. Shelves are emptier; stacks are smaller. You can see great swaths of space on the 10 shelves you’ve set aside for April.
You realize that you can let go of those two long shelves of old vinyl records—except, of course, for the Carpenters, Herman’s Hermits, Dan Fogelberg and Bread LPs. Those were your very first albums; they are old friends. They bring joy and meaning to your life. Even if you don’t have a turntable to play them on. They can live in your office down the hall.
You glance at the clock, take some aspirin for the aches and sleep for about six hours, then rise and begin schlepping book boxes to your Honda, which is not large, but will hold a good 15 boxes if you stack them correctly. You stack them correctly, and by 10 a.m. you are at the gate with your new gate code on a business card, punching in numbers and asterisk and pound sign into a keypad. You locate the cart for schlepping. You remember where to park the car, load the cart with half the boxes (you have only so much oomph in your arms, after all), punch the elevator button and head to the third floor.
You struggle to open the little lock, which opens with a key, not a combination, but it’s a tricky arrangement, and it takes a bit of jiggling to convince it to give way. It does, and you open your storage space—B455—and there is your 5x10x10 plywood-lined closet awaiting your boxes.
You find yourself smiling as you load in the first boxes, empowered in an I-am-woman kind of way, happy to have cleared some space in your house and in your mind. You have bought yourself time and space, and how often do people get to do that? You realize that you do not want to pay rent on a closet forever, but for now this solves a problem. You can see yourself bringing the boxes up from the basement and going through them, making similar toss-and-keep decisions. You resolve to do so soon. You decide to ask April, the newly minted MFA poet, to help you, though you suspect that she hangs on to a few extra books, too.
Done for now, you even get the lock to close without too much fussing. I can do this, you think, and that stretches your smile even wider.
Tomorrow, you decide, you will take the donate boxes to the Friends of the Library Book Den. On the drive over you will thank those books out loud for their place in your life, leave them with good cheer in the hands of kind volunteers, people who also love books, and drive away a little less burdened, having made space in your life for a someone you love who needs a safe place to land, who will do so in less than a fortnight, there in a room full of your closest friends.
(Thanks to Kelly Cunningham for suggesting the title for this piece.)