The lead weight has been attached to the back of my head for weeks. For hours at a time, it grips my head – a sinister reminder that the contents of my head are encased in little more than a pumpkin shell.
I’ve tried pills. And dark rooms. I’ve tried exercise. And self massage. But today came the invitation to take the stacks and stacks and stacks of books that live in that internal space and let them go – to offer them up to the sky.
Choose one book. One page. One sentence. One word. Download it to memory. And release the rest.
As I did this, I thought of the used bookstores of my 20s. So many bookstores, all over Seattle. My mind especially settled on the one up on 23rd Street near the deli, where I once bought my dad a pastrami sandwich with a side of matzoh ball soup – a totally exotic dish to our Iowan Protestant palettes. The store was in an old house with many tiny rooms and homemade shelves cobbled out of pine boards. And cats – lots of them. The first time I went there, within days of arriving in what would be my home city for the next decade, I thought I’d found the most perfect place – a musty labyrinth of sans serif vowels, of linked narratives and murky memories.
But really I was beginning to stack the contents inside of me. Stack the words. Stack the Ideas. The Theories. The lists and the expectations. All were starting to reside in me in a crazy, stacked pattern that looked like that old house. My childhood was officially over. The stacking of adulthood had begun.
I was in graduate school for English, so books were totemic to me. When my friend Mark–who dropped out of our program just before his dissertation but after he’d sold a product idea directly to Bill Gates–gave away most of his books, I found it to be a clear sign that he’d definitely lost it. The most precious of belongings and he was giving them away?!
Now I see that he was releasing himself from their hold –from the expectation to know them and remember them, from the heaviness of so many of their authors’ hearts, from the false belief that reading so much makes one better. Better than what? Better than whom?
In my mind palace today, I took one pile at a time and imagined which book I might keep. I was delighted by the volumes that I remembered, books that hadn’t occurred to me in years. A gardening book from Maine, an art book from Paris, The Tao of Pooh, and Adrienne Rich, whose lines I printed on an index card and, for years, moved from journal to journal: “Every act of becoming conscious / (it says here in this book) / is an unnatural act.” Those words, much like Didion’s, made me feel smart at times when it would have been just as easy to feel kind of on the brink of crazy.
After I spent a moment with each of these books, I let them go. They just floated away without hesitation or regret, like birds released to the sky – still in this world and yet, to me, gone.
The metal plate has softened so thoroughly as to have morphed into sheets that whisper in the wind. Sheets that humbly cover the expanse between my ears, between the crown of the head and nape of the neck. A space that has been so full of the books, the papers, the dates, the appointments, the immunizations, the plumber, the lawn mower, the power cords, the bills, the uncut fingernails, the forgotten coffee date … the endless endless endless stacks.
There are things we could do now, she says. There are assignments I could give you. But instead, just allow.
Notice the grass growing and allow. Notice the person who emails to make an appointment, and allow the non-response. Notice the emptying dog food container, and allow yourself to go buy more but slowly, without care.
Allow. A small word. A word I haven’t actually given much thought to. But there it is. My assignment. A simple welcome mat to Presence.