Several years ago, on Christmas Eve, my family home caught fire. At the time, I was working for Outward Bound, moving from one basecamp to the next and was home for the Christmas Holiday. Many of my belongings were lost or damaged, and what remained had to be professionally cleaned, then stored until over a year later when the house was repaired. I felt both annoyed and liberated by the fire. Annoyed at the time I had to spend replacing the basic essentials…toothbrush, sleeping bag, warm clothes, and a journal. I guess it didn’t take all that long. And liberated at having only what I needed. I was free from “stuff” cluttering my life. Moving stuff, repairing stuff, cleaning stuff, insuring stuff, storing stuff, looking at stuff. You get the picture.
Then came the process of identifying damaged items and “working with” the insurance adjuster to determine the value of each item. It was difficult valuing family photo albums or childhood paintings by the cost of the film, or the frame. $3.75 for a whole book of memories. $6.00 for a work of my childhood art, with a nostalgic value of much much more.
When it was time to look at my bedroom, I was blown away by how differently my room looked. It was black from ceiling to floor. The insurance adjuster didn’t waste any time. “What books do you want to keep?” She asked. I had hundreds of books. Books I read as a child, novels, reference books, photo albums, textbooks, and journals. “All of them.” She explained I couldn’t keep all of them, as its more costly to clean books than to replace them. Then she suggested I choose ten. Ten! I had hundreds of books in my room, with inscriptions in the cover, notes in the margins, worn pages from reading them over and over. And so, I chose three photo albums, four journals, a blank journal that I thought was too special to write in but I had kept for years already, a book of poetry, and the only book I knew that was no longer in print. The rest were left in a pile to be disposed of, not even worthy of donating to a thrift store.
Before my family and I drove to my grandparents on Christmas Eve, my mother gave me one blackened, smoke covered gift that was under the tree. It was a novel. For the next few days, I couldn’t put it down. It became my refuge from the memory of the fire, the fear that my family was trapped inside, the do-gooders that were bringing us second hand clothes and cheese baskets, and the crying and fighting that my family would continue through the holidays. When I finished reading it I realized that I had no bookshelf to put it on, no collection to add it too, and no real good reason for keeping it.
I registered the opportunity that the fire was presenting me with, and decided to give the book away. With the blank journal that I thought was too special to write in, I noted the date, title, and author of the book. And so, I began my book list and my journey toward a simpler life.