Emptying Our S(h)elves

I am hoping you had a great weekend, since we did not.

A “stager” visited us earlier in the week — a woman who’s very smart, no-nonsense.  She rummaged through our house and took copious notes on what we needed to do to spiff up the place before we put it on the market.

I could have sworn we were prepared for this, in our own hopelessly disorganized way.  Hadn’t we already painted, refinished the floors, cleaned out our side yard and planted buffalo grass, given away roomfuls to Goodwill, removed family photos from the walls?  Weren’t we already pared down?  Ha.

Our first monumental task was to get rid of many of our books.  Which is what my husband and I did this weekend — both in preparation to put our house on the market and to move into a smaller place.

Books.  We spent our weekend pulling down handfuls, armfuls of books.  It was like seeing a slide show of our interior lives over the past 40 years.  There were the zeitgeist books like My Mother, Myself, Open Marriage.  The feminist collection, including Backlash, Against Her Will.  My husband’s Japanese novel period, my own Russian literature tomes.  Books that haven’t aged well (Tom Robbins’ oeuvre), books that have gotten better with time (anything by Alice Munro).  The college books.  Books I happily discarded since I’d only pretended to like them (most of James Joyce’s novels, Tom Robbins again, Henry James).  My husband, who never liked Dickens or anything by the Bronte sisters, cheerfully pronounced their paperbacks to be too yellowed and dry to keep.

The books spilled onto the floors and every available horizontal surface.  They obscured the hardwood floors.

It was funny what we kept: books we’d loved and would never part with (Confederacy of Dunces, Hunter S. Thompson’s insane, but screamingly funny books, some of Larry McMurtry’s best, Bel Canto, Enemy Women, anything by Alice Munro); some great biographies on Lincoln and Truman; books friends had written; books we’d written ourselves; our own yearbooks, our kids’ yearbooks, my parents’ yearbooks; Texas-themed books.

After our weekly walk on Sunday, I insisted my friend Betsy come over to browse through what we were giving away.  She left with a good 30 or 40 books, being as big a sucker as I am for a good read.

Our son swooped in and deposited a couple of carfuls of books at Goodwill (about 1,500 or so, we estimated).  We’re looking now at more streamlined bookshelves and much we still have to address.

What we’re really addressing, though, whether we say it aloud or not, is that we are at a very different time in our lives.  Once, we were acquisitive and more profligate.  Now, we are training ourselves to lighten our belongings.

Look around at the emptier shelves and you’d swear it’s about books.  But we both know something deeper is happening.  We’re learning to let go.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Check out one of my favorite posts about seeing my good friend one last time

25 comments… add one
  • You should get a Thank You note from your kids when you finish– you’ve lightened their load.  Less for them to go through and clear out when you kick the bucket (or book).  And you will have plenty of room for your Kindle.  With about a million titles thus far, anything published before 1923 is free.  Ahem, that includes Dickens and the Bronte girls.

  • What a beautiful post, Ruth. I’ve always had a hard time parting with books that are important to me. Which, of course, most of them are.

  • Ditto what Winston said. My mother died in 2006, my father in Jan. 2009 and we’re still dealing with their books–most of which are in terrible condition.

  • Cindy A Link

    My mother-in-law raised eight kids and once had a house bursting with belongings.  She died last month at 89 after a bout with Alzheimer’s. All we had left of her things were her clothes and several large boxes of photos.  It was so wonderful to go through the happy family photos and remember her before Alzheimer’s ravaged her mind. 

    Keep the photos, Ruth. 

  • It sounds like it was quite a task! A long time I ago, I stopped owning books. We just didn’t have room. I have one bookcase in my office and that’s it. Books are so accessible now that if I ever needed something I had already read I could easily get it at the library or through Amazon – or even one of the many used book sites. So I decided to just let go of my books. I sell or donate them when I’m done. And they’re still “my” books.

  • Books are always the hardest things for me to let go. Moving overseas I took only a handful.
    I do wonder why everyone loves Confederacy of Dunces but me though. I thought it was depressing. Of course, it has been a good 20 years since I read it, so maybe I should try again.

  • Well, you’re better than I am. We moved recently and I just couldn’t bear to part with most of my books. I tossed out a handful but the rest I carted around the country with the thought, “I know I’ll read this one again.” But it’s more than that.
    Ironically, Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One I just can’t seem to part with even though it’s a cheap paperback.

  • Ruth,
    I’ve begun doing similar work with CDs and lps. It is interesting what memories they bring back — and what in the world to do with some of them. As you point out, there are those that are hard to let go, too, in that middle ground between definitely keep and no need to.

  • We live a pretty lean existence when it comes to stuff, but I can see how this process is about so much more. I hope you can find a sense of fun/excitement amid the feelings of loss.

  • Hi Ruth,
    Are you living in NYC still? Selling the Austin house to move to…??

  • Rachel Dickinson Link

    Heck of a post, Ruth.
    I think my plan to downsize
    involves a lit match.

  • Arghhhh….getting rid of books must be so hard. I know it would be for me. 1500 books carted away by your son?  Somehow I know you’re serious about the number…..wow.
    I hope they all find good (new) homes.

  • I love how you manage to communicate something so powerful at the end, with a few lines.

  • “But we both know something deeper is happening.  We’re learning to let go.”

    Yes, I understand. Went through shelves in my study a few months ago. Only have about six other shelves to tackle. So many children’s books and many from all my years I can’t part with. Carted 84 to Goodwill and kept another 50 for sale on Amazon. Seems when I pack them in tissue paper and send to someone who wants them, makes its easier to know they will have a new home. Silly, perhaps, but a start.

  • We had to “share” many of our books when we moved two years ago, and I have to admit, my collection seems to be growing again. But I do immediately pass on the good ones rather than save them these days.
    And you are totally opening up space for something new and exciting to enter your lives.

  • Great post. I actually shared this one on my FB page and from the comments and shares it was clear others def relate as well!

  • I am hoping your brave example will provide encouragement to my spouse who so needs to lighten his load!

  • Craig Link

    In 2001 the local transit system decided my house was right in the way of their light rail so with their slight push I was forced to lighten my load. I had over 3500 record albums that I thought were integral to my living.Well, they weren’t. I gave all the albums to two youngsters and since then I much more enjoy giving away stuff than possessing it.
    You’ll feel energized Ruth.

  • I like to see shelves full of books.  Sometimes they must be culled, because otherwise there would be no room for the people who might like to read them.  And besides, it’s fun to buy new books.  If I were buying a house I think I would like one that was accustomed to housing lots of books.

  • I think books are one of the hardest items to let go of, tho. Well, the only thing that would be harder would be a photo album.

  • Goodwill is lucky to have that collection. How could your husband NOT like Dickens though?!! (I’m a huge Dickens fan.) That must have been hard. I’ve been trying to downsize our book collection and it’s not easy. I keep reminding myself that anything I want to read I can GET FROM THE LIBRARY!

  • This is one of the reasons I can’t do what you’re doing…downsize. Not yet, anyway, although the day is coming. I need to do it and want to do it, but it is so, so hard not only to part with things you’ve had for so long, but moving to the next phase of life.

  • Ruth,  see Sheryl’s comment above.
    Take a cue from your readers comments.  As you undergo all the changes to reach the next phase of life, think about including this plan.  Write all about the experiences.  The Baby Boomer generation is a huge one.  There will be a market seeking books about just HOW to to make those changes and think through each element as shared by someone with personal experience who could soften the bumps and jars.  You have the gift of combining seriousness with humor.  Everyone who would read of your “next phase” experience would undoubtedly feel they had a friend along as they endure moving up to their own next phase.  Just Do It!
    I love the double meaning of your title for this post.  Emptying Our S(h)elves could well serve as  an overall title for the whole book.

  • Ah things.  I sold my house a little over a year ago when I began my gypsy life as a full-time house sitter.  Much as I’d been feeling choked by all my treasures for awhile, when it was time to divest myself of them I couldn’t do it.  I hired some estate sale people to come in and take care of everything.  I went and stayed with a friend and didn’t come back until the house was empty and everything was gone.  It was tough walking through that empty house but it was worth it.  Shortly thereafter I felt lighter and more free than I had in years.  If I ever have a house again it will be a little tiny one.

  • Learning to let go is an invaluable exercise, regardless of what age or stage you’re at in life. It’s just so hard for most of us to do.
    I’ve moved 7 times in 12 years –it’s even hard for me to believe–and one of the benefits is you realize that you can’t (and don’t need) to bring it all with you. I live in a tiny place now, there’s no room for my bookshelves, which  I keep in the garage. So once I read something I love and think others will too, I simply pass it on into the world.

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