The Books We Keep on a Shelf

When we moved into this house, we had more books than shelves to keep them on. We donated boxes, gave away the duplicates. Some are still in boxes – one in the dining room in the corner that we never see when we sit down to eat and one in the basement flung among the kids’ mess.

My husband is a saver of important things for a living, an archivist. His books run the way of history and political conflict and resurrection and standing up for what you believe.

I am the poet among us, and so my books are the ones with carefully scripted lines and line breaks that matter, essays about cooking and parenting and being in the world, noticing the tall trees, walking accompanied by a sunrise. I have books on how to write and of famous writers’ best work and of little-known translations from lands I love.

This morning, as I prepare for the Writing + Yoga Retreat I will lead in a few weeks Up North, I looked to my shelf of favorites right behind where I sit, the books I chose to comfort me in my work at home, to inspire my path, and realized how many I haven’t read, or how long it’s been since I read them anyway.

House as a Mirror of Self beside The Great Work of Your Life. The Literary Journalists from college, a favorite, at the end of the shelf, and in the middle, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning which I always intended to, but have not yet done so, read. The Wisdom of Compassion and Awakeninga Buddhist book, beside Sex and Real Estate (haven’t read, always wanted to).

Further down the shelf, Daily Breadpoems by Mark Kaminsky, next to Why We Pray * What We Praynext to Music Over Manhattana children’s book that I use to illustrate the power of a few words to say a lot.

There is Inner Knowing and 50 Hikes in Michigan and on the shelf above, the really prized titles, The Stones Remembera powerful book of Israeli poems. Today, I demoted a book to the shelf below it because it wasn’t really as powerful as I guess I thought it was during the unpacking.

When we moved in, the weather outside was bitter-cold, with record low temperatures keeping the kids out of school for days on end. In our turtlenecks and sweaters, we opened boxes and rediscovered long-loved books that had sat on shelves in our old houses for so many years we hadn’t noticed.

Isn’t that the metaphor of moving? Everything you collect and save and store for all the times you’ll revisit it, because it means so much to you, gets nary a glance until you pack up and move. Deciding what stays and what goes.

So much went to the garbage man, left at the curb for carting away, at the old house. We purged and shed before we moved and yet once we arrived in the new house and there were two copies of some big fat history book that my husband didn’t realize he’d brought to the new house and we had to decide anew where to give at least one of them, if not both.

Here, I’ve arranged the books carefully on shelves according to importance. In my office, the built-ins on both sides of the window seat hold poetry and books on the craft of writing and essays and Jewish books and books on meditation, on meaning, on prayer.

Further down the room are books about places and people, novels. In the family room are the children’s books, the best ones, like the Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys and favorites from our childhoods, too.

The trendy kids’  books shipped to the basement, to a tall bookshelf there where the kids can pull them off and put them back. Trends are fleeting; I didn’t think they deserved prime bookshelf real estate.

It is such an illusion, these things we keep and hold on to for some undisclosed future moment. This morning, I am so glad I have the books to page through and decide which inspiration will accompany us north to a weekend of writing and yoga and soul-opening.

But I am startled, at the same time, by how many important books I’ve acquired and never read. Never even glanced at the pages, at the words someone poured their heart and soul into writing. At the meanings between the words.

Is that we’re running so fast and so hard, we don’t have time to page through an open book? Is it that we’re so mired in the moments and requirements of this life that we don’t have enough time to ponder the meaning behind it?

I don’t know if I have the answers this cool, bright Sunday morning. What I know is we have the gift of an extra day this weekend (everyone kept thinking yesterday was Sunday), waking to a gift of a morning, with birds bright and cheerful outside open windows and blankets extra soft as the alarm beeps loud.

The girls have risen early to go to the basement to exercise. (A first.) One boy is trying to go back to sleep and another is cuddled up on the couch with Sponge Bob. Dan is asleep. I am in my favorite time of the day.

Last night, as we ate dinner outside in the wonderful night air, Dan mentioned that a baby cardinal, born this spring, is almost ready to take flight. He pointed to a branch where the bright red bird was hovering and mentioned how he’s plumped up and is almost mature enough to go out on his own. Time flies. I hadn’t even known he was residing among us.

Whatever else happens, there is this. The awakening. The discovery. The early morning brightness when all is possible and everything matters.

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