On the shelves of my soul

Our Nomadic lifestyle has made us resistant to nostalgia. When we heard the news, we looked at each other and decided we were grateful for being together, safe and well. Things can be replaced, we said.

Our latest move had been unplanned, the result of circumstance and a timely email. Our efforts to renew residency in the sunny spot we had become fond of had failed and we needed to rethink our options. Just then an email arrived to inform us that space had opened up in a desired school back home.
We grabbed some essentials, unsure of what to pack, unsure of length of stay – and flew back to a city I call home but where my boys were strangers. We said it was a temporary solution until matters elsewhere were sorted. Settling into a temporary existence, we got on with what we had taken with us, life necessities and a selection of our books. All the rest, the family household, all inclusive, pots and pans, books and memorabilia, furnishings and photo albums, were all packed in boxes placed in a warehouse until our future would make sense again.
A few months later the warehouse burned down.

Pots and pans, books and memorabilia, furnishings and photo albums, up in flames, gone forever.

We don’t dwell on the loss much. At least not out loud. I know the boys regret the loss of their bikes but don’t think much about games or old toys left behind. They said soberly it must hurt us parents more, as they had not yet attached much emotion to stuff saved over the years. And they’re probably right. We don’t start putting value in keepsakes until we realise the passing of time.
When we scroll through pictures on the phone though, and see the pieces that made our home in many different houses, there is a palpable sense of loss in the air. Not the loss of the particular pieces themselves -a sofa with pillows, table and stuff, the usual – but loss of the familiar, of continuity in a life of frequent change.

Occasionally I feel a twitch in my heart as I recall something lost, something from childhood – mine or the boys’ – or something else irreplaceable. Mostly the feeling passes quickly and I am grateful to retain the memory even without a material trigger.
To be honest, in some ways I had gotten used to being without much of the stuff for long stretches of time. In between moves it was packed away and stored until shipped somewhere new. A few times the household stayed in boxes while we tasted life far away with no point in shipping all the stuff. Things like a framed portrait of the grandmother I never knew, wearing a necklace I was given at birth. A photograph of my beloved dog enlarged into a huge black and white poster, a birthday gift from my brother in my teens. An antique silver tray. A box of old letters and postcards. And books, so many books. But still, I always knew they were there, waiting to be rediscovered once the boxes were opened again.
Now they will stay stored away on the shelves of my soul forever.

There are things I mourn more than others. Photographs of course, irreplaceable as time moves forward and the children grow up. But also the box of essays I wrote in school. Essays that our teacher, a renowned author in our small circles, said showed much promise of a future in journalism. Now those essays are up in smoke just like any dreams I had of following the advice. Up in smoke together with the framed Arabic calligraphy we bought in Granada, which I was proudly able to decode as saying “ He who is secure in himself, will be safe in the face of all creation”. Burned, like the backgammon set from Naxos, with painted landmarks of the island, well worn by use. Memories of travels as a couple in love, pre-family.

And books. So many books. My maternal grandmother’s bound volumes of Tolstoy’s full output in Swedish translation. My phenomenal aunt’s old bible, pages loose from use, not out of religious devotion but for academic research. Her comments, blasphemously strewn in the margins in her cursive extravagant handwriting. Her ex-libris marked books on Biblical stories, Sumerian mythology and Middle-East history that I inherited. And so many more.

In my nomadic life, I have gotten rid of a lot of books over the years. To be accurate, not so much a question of getting rid of, but more a necessary relinquishing of. When every square-foot matters, every packed box is counted, you do your best to minimise.
Before every move I would sit in front of my shelves caressing my books. I’d listen to their whispers, about memories of shared moments, and promises of pleasure by those still unread. It’s an emotional ritual, as we all know that by the end of it, some of us have to say goodby. There’d be some comfort in the knowledge that our separation meant they could bring joy to someone else, tempted by their pretty covers or intriguing titles while browsing the charity shop where we said our farewells.
Somehow, even after the most stone-hearted sessions, the number of boxes heavy with books ended up the curse of the movers. Somehow, there’d still be plenty to go up on the shelves in the new home. Somehow, even after a renewed promise to faithfully finish those unread words before adding more, I’d stray, lured by pretty covers and intriguing titles to fill up the shelves again.
But those I have let go of, I do not forget. They have their place on the shelves of my soul.
And now they have the company of the ones lost in the ashes.

Now I haunt the bookshops, trailing my hand over the spines, longingly looking for familiar titles. When I encounter them, it is like meeting old lovers, and I cannot help picking them up, sweeping a hand over their backs, murmuring a word of endearment. I am tempted for a moment to take them home with me again. But invariably other, unfamiliar books will catch my attention with their promise of exciting moments to come. Slowly the piles on my shelves rise like a phoenix again.