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.

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