Boxes and Bookshelves
EACH TIME I CHANGE HOMES — and this happens often — I find myself elbow-deep in cardboard boxes from the last move: possessions I brought along and figured I needed, but that were entirely forgotten. A hoop earring, say, that ended up in my bed in university, and whose owner I haven’t seen in years. Or piles of letters — the handwritten sort, with penmanship that conjures the author immediately while evoking who I was then, who we were to each other.
I can’t keep schlepping this stuff around. But I’m avoiding the question. Because selecting just one object unnerves me. It feels risky, as if I were fusing myself to something that I could lose. For years, whenever I’ve sensed myself becoming attached to a possession, I’ve imagined it shattered, or stolen, or gone forever. I must never become subject to an object. I’ll care only for people. Everything else, I should be prepared to lose.
Yet the question keeps pestering me. So I scour my home in London, seeking what I value above all else. There’s a pottery cereal bowl of which I’m dearly fond. My late grandfather Bob made it, and its texture and weight bring alive his twitchy smile, the smell of his house on Hornby Island. Or that jar on my living room bookshelf that I kept when clearing out my sister’s apartment. She died too young; that is so painful still. Or my photographs, prints from pre-digital times — images that are kept on nobody’s cloud, only in dusty albums down the hall. Or a handprint in dried clay on the ledge before me, the pudgy right palm of my son, when he was even littler than today.
Yes, I’ve vowed to attach myself only to people, never to things. But the two keep getting confused. I linger over an orphaned steak knife in the kitchen. Once, I drunkenly halved an avocado with it and inadvertently jabbed the blade into my hand. I lived alone in Paris then, trying to become a novelist, trying to stop smoking, trying not to go mad from solitude. When I moved out of that rented apartment, I stole the knife; that period of my life had proved so important, the scar in my palm wasn’t souvenir enough.
What about my collection of books, ranged around every room of my home? I’ve not even mentioned them. But books are the first things I pack, the first I unpack. Each of my volumes is merely a mass-produced sheaf of papers, yet I feel a pang if a book hits the ground. These specific copies are the intersection of strangers’ careful striving and a previous version of myself. In part, these books made me. I couldn’t stand to lose them. That’s a lie. I’d manage; I’d get on fine.
How peculiar that we’re always ascribing life force to our lifeless stuff. As if it were too disturbing to admit we’re in this alone. Yet even the very last possession, your body, isn’t yours forever. Long before that goes, the memory is already dissolving. So we clutch on via things.
Within a couple of years, I’ll move again. I’ll open those cardboard boxes, resuscitate my castaway possessions, which I never need but dread to lose. I’ll find packing tape, seal those boxes anew, ship everything to my next destination.
A prized possession isn’t the past you managed to save. It’s the token of what’s already gone. Tom Rachman is the bestselling author of The Imperfectionists and The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. His latest novel, The Italian Teacher, is out this spring.