Friday, June 15, 2012

Letting Go

An old friend of mine was blogging about moving and needing to discard or pare down her and her fiance's large book collection. I particularly connected with this part:

I tend to hold on to books far longer than I really should. And this habit is suffused with a persistent feeling of somedaySomedayI’ll get around to reading that one. Someday I’ll need that one for some research.Someday I’ll want to look at something I once scribbled into the margin of that one. I don’t need that one now, and I can’t really foresee ever needing it in the future, but, well, someday I might. 
It can get really overwhelming when you need to get rid of, to downsize, to “rightsize”: you need to make the collection transportable, but you also need to make it reflect what you can realistically do. In some cases, this is easy...not only do I have to be realistic about what is possible in my life, but I must also keep from fooling myself into overestimating my current or future interest in some particular topic, or mis(under)estimating any reason to keep or discard a particular volume.

My family has always been into books, so I know I get it from there, but Abbot and Mama Yid are also particularly into stuff, in some cases, more than is healthy. Mrs. Yid's family moved every few years so they got very good at both not having tons of emotional attachment to objects as well as just being more practiced at getting rid of things. For my parents, especially Mama Yid, one of the main draws of buying a home was finally having enough room for all their crap. (Yes, my parents are a walking George Carlin routine.) So growing up, I never had to cull. I never had to decide what to get rid of and what to keep. I could keep everything. As I got older, there were some things I decided I just plain didn't want and did, eventually, toss, but if something had value for Mama Yid, Lord help you if you junked it or gave it away. "I can't believe you're throwing away this half-broken toy I got you when you were five! Don't you remember how I carried it back rubber-banded to my forearm from Brooklyn?" No, in fact, I do not, as I was not there.

Now I can understand that for her, it's part of wanting to hang on to memories of trips, vacations, special occasions, and Deacon's and my childhoods, but I'll never forget her angrily pulling items from a trashcan while yelling, "If you don't want them, I'll keep them!" and then promptly putting them back in my closet.

So, yes, my challenge has been to mediate between my mother's packrat tendencies and my wife's "clean sweep" philosophy. One elegant solution I came up with happened this past weekend.

Years ago, when I was trying to consolidate all of the things I had left in my parents' house, I decided to finally go through all of my books. This was after I had gone to college, graduated, come back to live with them, and was now moving out again. Since I knew I was going into elementary education, I was a little reluctant to get rid of childrens' books from my childhood. The most obvious ones did get donated-- used coloring books, old football stat books from the 80s, that sort of thing. But, in addition to the 20-odd boxes of Judaica, history and comics stacked up in one spare room, I came up with about 10 boxes of "kid lit", which I stacked as far out of the way as possible in the garage. And they've been sitting there for the last 4 years.

So last weekend, I realized that since next year I'll be working with middle schoolers, who will likely be entirely unimpressed with my epic collection of Garfield, Goosebumps, or Encyclopedia Brown books, that I was going to give them away to my 2nd graders. I spent most of an afternoon shlepping boxes, dividing books into donations for the thrift store, ones I would take to school, and ones I wanted to keep for myself or future mini-Yids. I am pleased to report that of the 10 boxes, I only kept 3. The rest I packed up in the car and took back to the present apartment (Mrs. Yid was just thrilled, given that we are in the middle of moving and what we really need more than anything is more boxes cluttering up the living room). That night I carefully packed the books for my students into our laundry cart, and the next morning I left early to make sure I would have enough time to carefully push the thing to school without it collapsing on me (it really was quite full).

When the kids came in and saw all the books laid out, it was like they thought it was Christmas. Almost all of them took some (I must have brought between 150 and 200 books; by the end of two days, I had four left, which I donated to the school library's "free bin"), and a few took 20 or 30. Though I had worried I would become emotional at giving my books away, I found that I had completely separated my childhood memories and feelings from the actual objects-- and instead, the more I saw how excited the kids were with the books, the more I wanted to encourage them to read them. "I know you like science, how about this?" "Who likes mysteries, check this out?" "There's a whole series for this one, if you like it, take a few more!" (I told one kid, "You like science and comics, right? Well this Gary Larson guy did a whole books series combining the two!" He replied, "I didn't know you could do that!")

Each of them asked me over and over, "Are these mine to keep?" Every time, I answered, "They're yours. Enjoy them."

Afterwards, some parents emailed me thanking me for being so generous. One said it was a beautiful going-away gift for her daughter. Another said it was very touching for me to be giving my kids a piece of my childhood.

I said I was happy the books would be going to good homes. And that's true. But there's a slightly selfish aspect to it, as well. Giving things away to the thrift store or strangers isn't usually very exciting. But knowing exactly which kids were getting my books, that was totally different. Personal, and very sweet. I'm glad they'll enjoy them, and I'm glad I'll be helping them even after I'm no longer their teacher. But deep down, I think part of me is hoping that when they read them, they may think of me.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting your point about the directed donation of these books to the children, that you seemed to appreciate the act more when you knew the recipient. The Rambam's "hierarchy" of charity suggests that it is better when neither the recipient nor the giver knows the other party. But I think in this case you demonstrated how beautiful it can be when you do know: it lets you turn a simple act of "getting rid of" into a meaningful gift.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

That's right; I seem to recall the Rambam (or maybe it was a commentary on him) proposing that the ideal form of charity might be some sort of drop-box where people could anonymously donate and then others receive. I thought it was a quite sophisticated idea for the period.

But yes, I do think that there's something to be said for turning a mere discarding into a purposeful gift.