Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Who's On Your Shelf?
Well today I had one of those moments when you realize that your words really do have an impact, on someone other than the 7 year old you're screaming at to put on her goddamn boots and get out to the bus stop...but I digress. The kind of impact that is so jarring in its simple unfolding that you instantly feel like the whole world should be listening harder to everything that comes out of your mouth waiting for another one of these gems that could really make their lives better too...digression. Again. Sorry.
Here's the backstory...
More than 5 years ago, when I was just starting my business I went to meet with some new clients. This dear couple met me on their doorstep early on a Sunday morning. I had been hired for them by their daughter to help them transition from their stately, old home in the shadow of the college where they had been faculty for over half of their lives, to a tiny 2 bedroom condominium just over the river. There were hundreds of decisions to be made about how to relocate so many of their things. They were glad to see me and the pair of them were singularly focused on the same goal; To get to their new place with none but the most important treasures from their lives and to make a new space for this new time in their lives. In a way, this made it easier. We dispatched with furniture, hired a dealer to handle cases and cases of vinyls, sent multiple china tea sets to auction and brought their children in to become the new owners of favorite childhood treasures. It was all going so well...until we got to the books. There were So. Many. Books. I cannot even begin to describe the extent of the librarious collection this scholarly pair had amassed during a combined total of nearly 100 years of teaching and learning. They still owned every single book they had ever owned.
I focused on their willingness to part with things and their intention of, collecting for the move, only the most special things...but we didn't even know where to begin. "How many should we take," this dear woman asked of me. It was almost shocking to have her putting the fate of her memories in my hands. I was truly overwhelmed by the need to devise some sort of logic to the decision making process for the books. It was so much easier with the furniture. We knew how big the walls were and what would fit, went. What was too big or too many...was sold. Dishes too...we figured out how much space was in the dining room hutch and the kitchen cabinets and they saved enough to fill those spaces. The rest...were sold.
But how do you number the books? And then it hit me. The books to keep should not be measured by number, they should be measured by feet. Linear feet. How much space do they take up? How many shelves will you need to hold your favorites? So that's where we started. We figured out how much space there was, and started sorting. In the beginning it was quick...there were so many that were easy to cast aside. But then we went through the novels that inspired her to become a writer and the texts that guided his lectures for 50 years. Wrenching. Difficult, to say the least.
We had the most wonderful conversations about what to keep and what to leave behind. They really listened to me as I guided them through this unimaginable transition and I continued to be in awe of how these two PhD's could possibly learn anything from me. He, ever practical, and not having any intention to stop acquiring books, posed the question one afternoon, elbow deep in dusty tomes, "So what will we do with the ones we keep when we buy a new book?" And she replied, "We'll just have to take another look at what's on our shelf and see if there's any room. And if there isn't. Something will have to go."
Long story? Yep. Worth it? Yep. Here's why...
I was early for my yoga class tonight. In the corner of the little sitting area outside the studio there is a lending library of books that have been donated by students for the use of others. I have made use of this tiny collection many times and was delighted tonight as I stared, crook necked at the spines of well loved books on everything from meditation to making homemade pasta, to find a novel I had been wanting to read. My fingers plucked the tattered copy off the shelf and as I opened the cover to remove the tiny card for check out I noticed that this volume's original owner had written her name in the cover. Long before it became part of the yoga studio's lending library it had belonged to that wonderful lady who had been my client more than 5 years ago.
"So what will we do with the ones we keep when we buy a new book?" "We'll just have to take another look at what's on our shelf and see if there's any room. And if there isn't. Something will have to go."
She did it back then. And she is still doing it now. Partly because I told her to. But she was only able to be told this because she was ready to listen. It was truly amazing for me though. To know that she listened. And did differently. And is still doing differently. And the next time I greet her in the aisle at the co-op I won't say a word about the book. I'll just give her a hug like I always do while we scoop rice out of the bulk bins and fondle the local produce. And I'll ask her if they're still loving their new place, which really isn't so new anymore. And she'll tell me they love it, and that it's just the right amount of space for them and that she's doing such a good job of keeping everything organized. But that's what they all say...when they see me in public. My clients.
But she'll tell me. And I'll believe her. Because I held her book in my hands today.
To be continued...