09 October 2016

Unpacking Your Life

Packing for a move isn't a positive action: the verb seems wrong given the result, or at least the initial result. You're unpacking the space you live in and packing what it contained into what amounts to temporary space. Think about that for a moment. Placing things into boxes to be moved or stored is only half--if that--of what it means to pack. Packing is about sudden displacement, the rawness of shift, the sharp edges of transition, transience, and impermanence. It's like watching the block you live on suddenly change all at once: seeing the corner store turn into a Starbucks overnight and waking up to new neighbors who have repainted all the houses and buildings. It's about uprooting yourself and the precarious, frail hope that you'll be able to be replanted somewhere else...and that the soil there won't reject you.

I'm thinking about that after having just carefully stacked dozens of books--and there remain plenty more--on top of each other in various Tetris-like configurations in boxes. Some are books I've had for a long time. Others were meant to be discarded, but kept because of the notes I've made or the far-off fantasy that I'll wake up one night and realize that I can only be comforted if I read the essays of T.S. Eliot or that I'll suddenly feel some inexplicable urge to read Coriolanus again. Some of them I keep for vanity's sake: I imagine guests coming over to some imaginary, tastefully understated apartment and examining my bookshelves, nodding approvingly at my intellect and wide-ranging interests while I feign humility, secretly reveling in my piles of social capital. That's never actually happened, mind you, but the thought crosses my mind and that's why I pack C.S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy and The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld next to poetry anthologies and The Writing Life. Did I mention I've packed a copy of Flaubert's A Sentimental Education? Insurance.

It's more than that, though. I keep my books as a reminder of who I am and who I used to be: or, at the very least, of who I have imagined and imagine myself to be. I'll probably never re-read some of them, but I remember what they meant when I opened them and felt the surge of recognition that comes when an author's dead hand reaches out with some dead cliché that you've never heard and you capitalize it as Truth. I'm not mocking that: I'm not that cynical. Those are great moments, maybe the best moments, in reading. Those are moments that count.

Bookshelves don't just hold books. Don't worry. I'm not going to hit you with some asshole metaphor about the magic of memory. Bookshelves hold stuff that doesn't really fit anywhere else. In my case, that stuff includes an engraved Zippo, some marrow spoons made of whalebone, various snuffboxes, piles of letters from friends, a book ribbon from a rare edition of Harry Crosby, a Yugoslavian bayonet that still smells of cosmoline, and two cacti named Fred and George. For a while, when I fancied myself an aspiring lit professor (because tweed, that's why) I imagined that these things would end up in a tenured office with a window, where curious students of the future would gaze admiringly on things from a world that would seem exotic to them. My nephew was fascinated by a replica deck prism I had, so I gave it to him. I had a young cousin fascinated by a lucite skull that sat on my dresser for many years so I gave it to her. By then, you see, those things didn't mean much to me. They were souvenirs from travels: things packed and unpacked many times over that filled up corners of bookshelves or watched me drink coffee or stumble in drunk. I would like to think that they'll move around a bit more, but even that desire is probably just my refracted desire to be seen through things. That's not something I mock either: I think that has value. What we say--or don't say--to ourselves and the people we allow into our sanctum sanctorum through the objects we surround ourselves with is important.

I don't think myself especially unique in that regard. We place things--position them, adjust them--in our homes where we can see them or where people can see them...or where we can keep them from sight, conceal them from the world. I'm not talking about sex toys or anything so uninteresting. I'm talking about the the things people disavow, deny, renounce to themselves...yet keep, if at a distance. I have my share of those things, too. Journals from my 16 year old self that I find hideously embarrassing, but cannot bring myself to destroy because of some sympathy, some affection for the person I was. There are single pictures of people whom I have all but forgotten, people whom I have destroyed all other trace of. I run across them sometimes and I wonder what all the fuss was, why all the bother, why all the drama. I admit that sometimes those pictures are spared because I like the way look in them. Other times, I think it's because I like having control of that tiny specter of memory, caged up in a photo album, stripped of its power to wound or even evoke. I wonder if other people have the same kinds of pictures of me. It always frightens me a little when I consciously shift things into that category: when I put them into boxes that I never reopen, when I pack them away for good. The horror increases when I admit to myself that the reason they exist in the first place is because they once anchored some piece of affection, just as some things anchor pieces of affection even now. Would it be better to cast off our what we think of as our relics of indifference, set them free? Would we feel any more free? I don't know. I never think about those things except when I move and sometimes not even then.

The changing of personal space when you pack is disconcerting. I now have a nearly-bare bookshelf, kept cheery with pictures of my girlfriend and I and all but blocked in by boxes. Sometime this week, I'll pack up the stuff on this desk and begin throwing away papers that I don't need anymore. It'll be a mess for awhile here--tape and cardboard and boxes and newspaper--and then, suddenly, it will all be bare except for the Columbia-owned furniture, whose hospital greens and blues have, over time and acclimation, become rather comforting to me, much as I hated them at first. My couch will no longer be my couch. The table will be naked without my lamp. The shades will be allowed to go all the way up for the first time in two and half years. The space will be just that: space. In all likelihood I will never hear my key slip into this lock and latch the door again. Some of this essay is rehearsal for the inevitable. The strangest drama in life is the one that takes place when the curtain opens on a bare stage and the actor turns his back to it and exits. I don't know if anyone ever gets used to it.

Somewhere in Los Angeles, there is a space that my books and I will occupy. There's a wall where a bookshelf or two will stand. There's a spot of ceiling I'll look up at and windows that I will watch the dawn and the dusk through. There's a new cashier who I'll make small-talk with and, more than likely, a bartender or two who will eventually know me by name and drink. There are people who I will call acquaintances and, if I am very lucky, friends. I don't find any comfort in that, not just yet. There's only rawness and worry and loneliness and excitement and longing and suddenness and love and other things that I will pack and unpack.