Old Inspiration

Moving is a process that really has no end.  I suppose if working folks took a few weeks of staycation and really concentrated, getting everything unpacked might be a possibility.  Although our move was nearly two years ago it didn’t happen that way, and the self-isolation of the pandemic has led to only more time drains, not fewer.  We still have boxes waiting to be unpacked, and, of course, like many people we store memories in boxes.  Life is an accumulation of things that aren’t valuable but somehow aren’t disposable either.  While putting some things away in my study after work recently I spied something that has been in storage probably since I graduated from college.  I stopped and stared at it because even glimpsing it took me back instantly to my childhood.  What was it?  A devotional card.

The memory it prompted was sad, in a way.  We didn’t have much money when I was growing up (some things never change), so what we could afford was inexpensive stuff.  My faith, rather than being the optimistic, happy kind of fundamentalism, was rather the fearful, wrath of God kind.  I was a scared little boy.  Phobias ran deep and wide.  I bought cards like this to assure me that things weren’t so bad.  This particular card has three reassuring verses from the Bible, all taken out of context, on the back.  Seeing the card reminded me of the several others I once had.  Our homelife wasn’t peaceful, and I often had to retreat to where I could look at my devotional cards for reassurance.  At college I started to grow optimistic only to have my career prove that I was right at the beginning—life is scary and insecure.

I picked up the card.  I put it on my desk.  My mother had returned it to me, I recalled, when she moved into the trailer park.  A box of my stuff had been left at home (unfortunately not the box with all the 1970s baseball cards I had as a kid).  And two or three of the devotional cards had been tucked into it.  When she gave me the box I didn’t have time to sort through it.  The vacation time was all used up by driving all the way there and back, and so it got loaded on the truck with everything else, the flotsam and jetsam of a childhood spent being afraid.  This card was only one of several, and if I’m honest I’ll admit that it has reopened a box that may have been left by Pandora.

Rock Solid

Old interests don’t die so much as they become sublimated.  As a child I picked up a cheap “gem display” in a small cardboard box at a yard sale, probably for a quarter.  A couple of the samples were missing, and those that remained were tiny, but I was fascinated that rocks came in such varieties, especially since the ones I tended to find on my own were all shades of gray.  Science education wasn’t especially great in my small town, and besides, I had a massive interest in not going to Hell, so religious study took precedence over my predilections toward scientific studies.  Still, as a child and later, I read a lot about science and I never doubted that it could teach us about the natural world.  Years later I rediscovered my love of rocks.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I bought a rock hammer.  I began hounding.

One of the first truisms you learn about life is that movers don’t like heavy things.  Seems that if you are in the business of helping people move (for money, no less), you might be stoic about such matters.  But I have yet to move and not have the guys complain about all those boxes of books.  Well, the rock collection is even heavier.  I discreetly marked the boxes “heavy collection,” hoping nobody’d say “What you got in here, rocks?”  Because, well, yes.  I like rocks.  While in Wisconsin the collection grew—we lived in a house at Nashotah, and we had space.  I had a rock tumbler going in the basement.  We attended rock and gem shows.  Then we moved three times in three years.  I became embarrassed of my petrine peccadillo.

On my way out the door yesterday, I spied a fossil I’d picked up in Ithaca.  Immediately my old inclination to rocks returned.  I don’t know why I bought so many books on geology and seriously considered changing professions after my academic position fell apart.  Perhaps in a life so unstable rocks seemed solid, reliable.  Or maybe it was nostalgia for my young days when a cheap white box of neatly labeled specimens provided hours of transfixed wonder.  I still pick up interesting rocks, and even go to places where collecting is permitted.  This whole world under our feet is full of surprises and an interesting stone can send me into a reverie that is, if I’m honest, as spiritual as it is scientific.  

Capital Idea

Capitalism encourages a kind of racketeering among businesses, in my experience.  Take the case of utility companies after a move.  To date I have received well over a thousand dollars in bills for services not rendered.  These bills were from utility companies claiming that I owed them final amounts for bills that had been paid in full, on time, for over twelve years.  I should, it seems, be able to bill them for my time on the telephone setting their records straight.  The “final bill” is a racket.  And it is deployed just after a customer, formerly a “valued customer,” has entered into new financial obligations—moving is not cheap!  Most of these bills are for multiple hundreds of dollars for services, that when I used them, were generally billed at a mere fraction of that amount.

Corporations, according to the law, are people.  And like people, they are exceptionally greedy.  Just yesterday I received a bill from a heating oil company—which shall remain nameless for the moment—stating that I owed a multi-hundred dollar final balance.  I had notified them in April that we would be moving and that I had paid their final bill and no more deliveries should be made.  None were.  Fully five months later I receive a “final bill” politely reminding of an outstanding balance.  For what?  Heating oil delivered in July?  Have I suddenly switched hemispheres or is this some kind of racket?

Come to think of it, while unpacking I came across a budget book.  My accounting is pretty much in the range of horseshoes and hand-grenades—I know the regular bills and can guess how much they are likely to be.  I’ve got other things on my mind besides money.  The budget book had never been used.  Budgets, to my understanding, project a stable world.  That’s not like the capitalist world.  When we bought the budget book, some 30 years ago, could we have projected monthly expenses for the privileges of using an internet that at that time didn’t even exist?  Capitalism is creative in finding new things to make you pay for, even if they are only virtually real.  Like heating oil that was never pumped off the truck.  It’s always your word against theirs, and corporations are bullies, being bigger than regular people.  So I sit here with a blank budget book and a stack of “final bills” for things never delivered.  And I think to myself, what a crooked world.

Childhood’s End?

Writers are agents against chaos.  Those of you who read this blog frequently know that chaos has been one of my themes lately.  Moving, which is a process that takes months and months of time, is pure chaos.  Whenever I settle down to write, yet another moving-related task comes to me—this box needs to be unpacked, that gap in the fence must be mended, where did I put the toolbox?  Mundane things.  Writers like to think the world conforms, somehow, to their inner lives.  In reality, things are far more complex than that and don’t seem to be getting any easier.  Starting to learn about house ownership is something best left for the young, I suspect.  Every question (where should we put the television?) leads to a daisy-chain of other issues (but first we need to move that hutch, but it’s too heavy for either of us to lift, etc.).

In ancient times water symbolized chaos.  Before we left on vacation, the main issue was to get all boxes off the floor in the garage.  We haven’t had time to move them safely inside yet, what with planning for vacation and all, so plastic became the order of the day.  We do need, however, to get things inside eventually.  A slow process for two middle-aged people with full-time jobs, even without jet lag.  Writing feels like a luxury item, for what is most required is time—time to move things to their proper places.  Time to figure out what those proper places are.  Time to go to work again.

Had we thought this through, we might’ve used vacation this year to unpack.  We bought our plane tickets, however, before we bought the house.  This latter transaction is one of chaos embodied.  Who knew, for example, that the grass had to be cut so often?  That all roofs leak?  That chaos is constant, and not intermittent?  In biblical times, one of the signs of God’s greatness was the ability of the Almighty to hold chaos in constant check.  The waters were always lurking, looking for any opening—except when you need rain and it just won’t come.  Sitting here writing feels like the giddy irresponsibility of childhood where there’s so much to get done and so little time in which to do it.  And neighbors don’t appreciate the lawn being mowed before the sun is properly out of bed.  The renter pays a price for living with, for at least some stretches of time, chaos-free maintenance.  The home-owner quickly learns that any time left over for writing feels like being irresponsible, and a little bit divine.

Prelude to Chaos

Liquids are the enemy.  Don’t let the cuteness of this little guy fool you—there’s collusion here.  For as well as creating life, and being necessary to sustain it, water destroys.  Creator, annihilator.  We moved during a time when neither of us had vacation and we told the over-tired movers that it was okay to put our boxes in the garage.  We planned to move them soon, but, you know, work.  Then the rains came.  Not just sprinkles, but downpours.  The garage isn’t water-tight.  Boxes were soaked.  Many books were damaged.  This wasn’t a flood that can be claimed on insurance, it was simply rain pooling where people usually park their (normally waterproof) cars.  In their place sat our books.

We both worked the day after the rains.  When we discovered the damage the next evening, it looked manageable.  I had to work the next day, of course, and a few breaks sufficed to get the many, many boxes of damaged books out into the sun.  It was carnage.  We don’t have much in the way of material goods; we spend a bit of money on books, however.  Now they’ve become the victims laid out on this altar of home ownership which, at the time, seemed like a good idea.  We needed a house for our books.  We needed time to move them from the garage to the house.  Yes, old friend Morpheus, “Time is always against us.”  

Job sat upon his ash-heap and pondered why he’d paid the movers so much only to have his moved goods destroyed.  And in a manner in which insurance assessors are trained to point to the fine print.  Those who store their goods in the garage reap the wrath of liquid.  You see, when water reaches cardboard, or paper, the wood pulp sucks it up.  Carefully dried, the paper remembers the compelling nature of water.  Too little, and you die.  Too much, and you die.  No wonder the ancients thought that water was a deity.  It claims all—tries to get in through your roof.  Lays insouciantly on your basement floor.  And the garage—yes, who thought of the garage when the immediate concern was to shut the windows to keep Leviathan out of the house?  I spent weeks carefully packing those books against shipping damage.  Used up my vacation days doing so.  Chaos has claimed them.  I would weep, but that would be collusion with the enemy, even if nobody sees.

Not Quite Eschatology

Realized eschatology, if you’ll pardon my French, is a term that describes the “already/not yet” aspect of the “end of the world.”  In other words, some theologians suggest that the eschaton—the end—has elements of both the present and the future in it.  The term came back to me yesterday as we returned to our old apartment to take care of things the movers left behind.  (And “left behind,” I realize, isn’t really a biblical eschatological concept at all.)  Joined by our daughter, I felt a bit resentful of her time being taken from our new home to spend in the old.  I felt an almost adulterous desire to leave the old and cleave to the new—hadn’t we already paid, and overpaid, for that apartment many times over?  The house, on the other hand, is new (to us) and still requires much attention.

As we organized the remaining items, broke down boxes we didn’t use this time around, and waited for the Got Junk guys to arrive and haul it away, I noticed our daughter gazing wistfully at the empty space that had once had our imprint all over it.  It dawned on me that she’d spent her teenage years here—after the Nashotah House debacle, this was the place she’d lived the longest.  This empty apartment was, for her, home.  I began to feel insensitive about my earlier anxiety to leave.  We all live between at least two worlds—our pasts make us who we are in the present.  The world of our teenage years is fraught with emotion and memory.  The world looked so different at that time, as I sometimes forget.

Moving is one of the most stressful situations human beings encounter.  We have a love/hate relationship with our past.  To me the apartment represented a place we occupied out of a kind of desperation.  Five states to the west, we had to move to New Jersey with little money and tons of boxes—one of them Pandora’s, with hope nestled inside.  We told ourselves the apartment was temporary—maybe a year—only until we could buy a house.  Twelve months turned into a decade, then more, with each year accreting memories in every crack and corner.  Part of us will always be in that apartment, for every place people have lived before is haunted.  On our way back to our new home at the end of the day, we were each lost in our thoughts.  Perhaps not so much realized eschatology as experienced reality, we’d spent a day in a present that will never fully arrive.

Awakening

Waking up for the first time in our new place, I felt a strange relief.   I hadn’t realized how much you feel owned when you have a landlord.  Slipping out of the bed while it’s still dark, vague shapes that eventually resolve into unpacked boxes lurk in the shadows.  They mean me no harm.  I go downstairs.  Downstairs!  Without revealing too much personal information here, I can say that I’ve always believed in sleeping upstairs.  In our several apartments my wife and I have lived on one floor.  Going to sleep meant walking down the hall into another room.  It lacked proper transition.  When we looked at houses it took some time before I could put my finger on it—we needed a two-story house.  You go “up to bed” for a reason.

The thing about writing is that it’s an activity of habit.  Not aware of the location of light switches yet, I shuffle slowly through my own personal towers of Babel.  Find the coffee maker.  Where do I go to write?  Not wanting to wake my wife, I decide it should be downstairs.  There’s the study, with its desk.  Seems pretty obvious.  Mug in hand, with no lights on, instinct drives me back to my usual chair in the living room.  Habits are seldom planned.  They happen.  I’ve become used to writing electronically, but as I wanted badly to explain to the movers, I grew up writing on paper.  Writers are readers and there are two things you don’t throw away—books and your old writings.  Carpenters don’t ditch saws and hammers just because they’re heavy and numerous.  There’s a kind of religious devotion here.

Don’t worry, I’ll soon be back to my more abstract topics on this blog.  Religion and all that.  Right now I’m in a transition and I’m wondering that if that means I’m now officially grown up.  If so, does that mean abandoning my childhood dream of being a writer and facing the fact that all these boxes were moved in vain?  Not having food in our new place, our first day we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch.  The locals were talking.  Their concerns?  Lawn care and propane.  Everyday things.  Clean-cut and suntanned, they can tell at a glance that I’m a stranger with my unkempt hair and prophetic beard.  Is my writing fantasy just childhood gone to seed?  No.  Books and writings are my identity.  The movers may have mixed them in with saucepans and power tools, but I know at a glance which boxes contain books.  Soon they will be in every room of this house.  That will make anywhere feel like home, even if I can’t find the lights.  

Net Worth

Net worth—a strange concept for human beings—is calculated on the basis of how much cash you’re “worth.”  While on that lonely task of sorting through the attic, I came across many boxes of books for which we didn’t have room in our apartment.  Our guests, who’ve been few, feel obligated to comment on how many books we have, as if it’s an infirmity to be delicately broached.  Or for which something might be prescribed.  I grew up believing that what we call “net worth” should be assessed in how much a person knows.  Knowledge, not money, in my fantasy moments, would drive the world forward.  Books are cheap (generally, but you don’t want to know what I’ve paid for some of these volumes when I really needed them!) and don’t retain resale value, except perhaps in the textbook market.  They’re considered a throwaway commodity.

Although I didn’t read it, a recent bestseller claimed you could find happiness by removing clutter, and high on the priority list of things to ditch was books.  Will you ever read that again?  For me the question is rather, will I ever need to look something up in there again?  Surprisingly often the answer is yes.  Considering the fact that books are knowledge, they’re a remarkably good bargain for the price.  Regardless of clutter.  Perhaps that’s a kind of wisdom itself.  Books are heavy, though, especially in any numbers.  Weight means something.  What they contain has the potential of being priceless, even though it’s available to anyone else with a copy.

I used to watch Antiques Roadshow, back in the days when you could still get television reception with just an antenna.   You always felt bad for the poor hopeful who’d brought an old book, dreaming of riches.  Apart from handwritten manuscripts, books are mass produced, almost by definition.  The printing press, after all, was designed to produce multiple copies.  Sure, if you go back far enough, or you have a tome rare enough, you might get a nice price for it.  Everyone I saw on the Roadshow left with their disappointment worn obviously on their faces.  You’re better off buying a vase.  That’s only if your bottom line is your net worth, though.  If you want to strive for what’s really important in life, I’d go for the book almost every time.  Of course, while up there moving those boxes around I began to wonder about the net worth of a good back brace as well.

The Moved Unmover

To say it was an easy move would be a lie.  I write this on a beautiful, cool, clear July morning.  Only I can’t even calculate the last time I slept.  Not new house syndrome, but that move!  Our personal account manager at International Van Lines was supposed to call us between 4 and 6 p.m. on Friday to confirm the time of the move.  She would also tell us how much money was needed, in cash, by the movers.  In cash?  She’d taken my deposit by credit card; why couldn’t the balance be paid that way?  She was supposed to call to clarify.  I suspect my tone makes it sufficiently clear that she didn’t.  I went to bed not knowing if we would be moved or not—I only reread her email after packing the last box (or so I thought) at 7 p.m.  The IVL offices were closed.

I awoke at 3:30 to an email saying they would be there between 9 and 11 a.m.  And they would be wanting an uncomfortably large amount of cash.  My wife went to get it, and three guys and a truck arrived at 9:15.  I could see their faces blanche at the walkthrough.  They’d been told it would be a ten-hour job.  It turned out to be seventeen.  Nothing makes you feel a cad quite like being thought a snake-oil salesman.  Our bill of lading was just a bit short of reality.  Packing the truck wasn’t finished until 9 p.m.  Unpacking until 2:30 a.m.  Our three guys were joined by two more for the unpacking.  Most everything went into the garage because, well, no stairs.

Twice during the day the amount of cash needed was upped by a significant amount.  This was one of those “we’re in it now” situations.  We paid what was requested.  The internet guy was arriving potentially by 8 a.m. this morning.  Who can sleep knowing the alarm is set for four hours from now?  And our labeling scheme was so arcane that, well, most everything ended up in the garage.  The movers themselves?  Absolutely fantastic!  I’m sure they’ll be talking about this move for months to come.  

Looking outside, the yard wants mowing.  The internet guy is coming.  Who needs sleep when my life of telecommuting begins tomorrow?  The good news is it took only half an hour and one trip to the garage to find the coffee filters.  I’m looking out at a beautiful, crisp morning.  Over an Everest of boxes.  But you won’t know any of this until the internet guy gets here.  Somehow I sense we just accomplished something quite extraordinary.

Moving Day

So, it’s moving day.  Amid all the packing and sorting—outside the regular 9 to 5—I realized that this was the first move I’ve made outside the constraints of academia.  Well, maybe not strictly so, but I left Nashotah House in the summer, and I was unemployed when I moved to New Jersey to start in the publishing world, so there was no office work involved.  The move without changing a job is a tricky thing.  And exhausting.

I didn’t write about the process early on, in case it didn’t happen.  Buying a house is an exercise fraught with peril and it can collapse at several junctures over the three-or-so months it takes to finalize things.  Then there’s the move itself.  Back in January I found myself setting books aside that I thought I might not need again in the next few months.  We started hauling boxes down from the attic to pack those books in February and March.  We finally made an offer on a house in May, and now, seven months after the process began, we’re ready to move.  Or so I tell myself.

Our last move didn’t go exactly as planned.  Like Bartleby and Loki, we were moving from Wisconsin to New Jersey, perhaps seeking our destiny.  Who knows—maybe undoing the universe?  We hired Two Men and a Truck to move us.  My brother in New Jersey said he’d meet the truck since it was going to take us a little longer to get there.  On arrival day, no truck.  We called the company to find that the said Two Men had actually abandoned said Truck in a parking lot in Chicago.  Although embarrassed, the big Two Men upstairs made no offer of a discount on the move, even if it cost my brother an extra day of work.  We’re hoping for better things this time around.

International Van Lines didn’t call the night before, like they said they would.  After a somewhat restless night (should I stay or should I go?) my usual 3 a.m. internal alarm kicked in.  An email, like a thief in the middle of the night, told us when to expect the big guys and their vehicle.  Moving is kind of like prophecy in that regard.  In any case, for those accustomed to early posts, there will be a delay tomorrow since the internet people are finishing the virtual move around 11 a.m.  Church time on Sunday.  If we pull this move off, I might have to admit there are miracles after all.

Extra Baggage

So, I’m packing.  Have been, on and off, since January.  One of the most dreaded moments of packing is the closets.  You know how in horror movies the villain often hides in closets?  We have no danger of that.  Any monster foolish enough to try it would be suffocated under tons of stuff.  Some houses may have walk-in closets, but I am inclined to call a mining company whenever I need to find anything in ours.  Our closets have led full lives.  It’s almost 100 degrees outside and I’m excavating.  We’re at that stage of “absolutely need to keep?” instead of “do we want this?”  Then I came upon it.  The layer of SBL tote bags.  Like a paleontologist of ancient academia.

If you’ve been a member of the Society of Biblical Literature you know what I mean.  Every year the Society wants you to realize value for your money, and they give you a tote-bag to help you haul home the books you’re going to buy.  Long-time attendees know to pack an empty suitcase inside their regular one just to accommodate the books.  (That could also account for about ninety percent of my packing—we have more books than a small town public library.)  But it’s not the books that are the problem today, it’s the bags.  I’ve been attending SBL since 1991.  Do the math.  I seem to recall that they didn’t do tote bags back in Kansas City, but soon after they became part of the agenda.  And I have an impressive pile of them in my closet.

Too small for groceries—especially in the early editions, back when we could meet in smaller venues—and too impractical for anything other than books, they multiply in our closets.  What professor doesn’t have his or her iconic briefcase already?  Reduce, reuse, recycle they say.  At least half of my totes have never been reused.  Zippers?  Who thought of that?  Pulling handfuls out of the closet, I marvel at their colors.  I can’t remember everyone walking around with a red bag—what year was that?  (San Francisco, 2011.)  The black leather edition—remember that one?  (SBL, n.d.)  The bags aren’t really useful for packing, on a movers’ scale.  You can imagine the burly guys outside their truck scratching their heads at this impractical conveyance.  Like so much else in life they’ve become mere souvenirs.  From the French word for something like “remembrance,” souvenirs are meant to take us back to the place in vivid detail.  I fear that many past meetings have run together into a blend of biblical arcana.  I’m sure that’s just me.  Still, I’m responsible for this new discovery.  I’d I’ll need shortly to decide whether these totes go into the museum or back into the landfill that moving inevitably creates in a throw-away world.