After another Nor’easter dumped a foot of snow on my parents’ house and knocked out the power, my nephew Barry (“Bernardo”) goes down in the basement to assess the situation.
Simplifying and minimizing, it’s a never-ending process when you’re trying to live in a 29-foot school bus. So much stuff collected in the past. I rescued my baseball card collection and vinyl records and grandmother’s steamer trunk from down there a few weeks ago and am pretty sure any old photos and tools and stereo speakers were off the floor–
“There’s all these wet books down here,” Bernardo calls out.
Ahh, the books. Kitty and I were going through which select ones we’d keep. Maybe a hundred? A work in progress, we started putting them in–
“They were in a cardboard box on the floor.”
Damn. We both have boxes and boxes of books, or had, our love of reading, of Walden and transcendentalism and road tales helped bring us together in the woods of Topanga. And there were our early draft picks, floating an inch above my parents’ concrete basement floor. There’s Pirsig’s soaked Zen and the Art or Motorcycle Maintenance suffering from a decided lack of “Quality”. There’s a pulp fiction novel, Blackmailer, with an inverted, half-naked brunette vixen on the cover (a friend of Kitty’s was the model) getting pulpier by the minute. There are sodden representations of Orwell and Joyce, Keroac and Fitzgerald, Gatsby’s sad blue eyes crying tangible tears for Daisy submerged in Hatfield Pennsylvania.
I sift through the wet collection …. and then, fuck, my favorite book. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the paperback given to me by brother before I moved to California, after tragedy, to start a new life. Dave Eggers raises his kid brother after his parents die young. It’s creative and horrifying and hilarious and dark as shit, and it reinforced everything inside me that said write. Write a memoir, deal with your shit however you have to, maybe walk across the country or convert an old school bus into a cabin on wheels. Write about it. Life is truth. Death is truth. There’s a chance to be creative and humorous and poignant in any experience. I remember reading Staggering Genius in San Francisco on my way to Southern California. I couldn’t put it down, the only book I’ve read twice in a row. And there it is, the absurd back jacket with “Mistakes we knew we were making” and a disturbing sketch of a baby with a mannish face saying “Already my hands are wondering: What? What? What?” facing up toward me, drowning before my eyes. What? indeed.
But that’s life, isn’t it? To everything a season. I’d left my beloved book in a tattered cardboard box on my parents’ basement floor, a floor I knew had flooded before. It was just a few weeks, but there I left it, leaving it to fate along with Thoreau and Henry Miller and The Dangerous Book for Men. Maybe its time had come and gone and I didn’t even realize. Maybe I wanted snow melt to wash them all away, mistakes I knew I was making. With a heavy heart I head out to drive some strangers around for Uber.
At the end of the night, I check my car for the inevitable water bottle, lipstick or lighter. Instead, there is a black plastic bag under the passenger seat, with a just purchased hardback edition of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm. Its simple, spooky illustrations attract me and imbue a childlike wonder wanting to be revisited.
It strikes me then that A Heartbreaking Work had died of natural causes, literally. The books heading to the trash heap, they’ve all been read, they’ve all inspired and entertained and fulfilled their purpose. Their time had open and closed, they’d been stored. We keep everything truly vital close at hand, within reach, the rest can be left to the ages. Here’s a new classic, something I’ve never read, and I’m betting there are some lessons between the flawless jackets that I’ll carry with me to the next chapter.
Even writing this, I’ve let all those old books go. It’s not a defeat, just turning the page. We only have so much room on our internal bookshelves. We can stack it with everything we know, for the world to see, and eventually shrug, or we can make room for the unexpected, the new, the beautiful opportunities left beneath our seat when we were busy holding onto our past.
What do you have stored? What might you let go?