Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Big Dig

I was on an archeological dig Saturday morning in our basement.

The prospect of an extended weekend may have given me the energy for a task that had been on my mind for several weeks. Or maybe it was the afterglow of a satisfying celebration of Valentine’s Day. Whatever the reason, on a sunny Saturday morning I was approaching a row of boxes in our dark basement.

Inside these boxes I expected to find mainly books that Marc and I had stored there during the past couple of years. I had frankly lost track of how long ago we had first packed some of the boxes. Most had gotten down to the basement during the summer of 2006. Renovations that had initially called for re-carpeting the upstairs master bedroom led to sanding and refinishing the hardwood floors throughout our second floor.

Emptying rooms for the sanders had meant emptying book shelves. Emptier rooms with a new satin finish on the floors discouraged us from carrying back upstairs anything that was not immediately essential. Months passed without any books returning from basement retirement, and we must have gone with the common wisdom that whatever we had lived without for over a year might be something we need never see again.

Except, I discovered this morning, what we had lived without all those months was me.

I don’t mean to overstate the reaction I had to opening the first boxes and finding the books on Italy that used to line one of the shelves in our bedroom. It’s just that the books surprised me by their utter familiarity. For years I had woken up to them, for years I would go to bed able to survey them on the top shelf of the bookcase on my side of the bed. They were a record of three trips to Italy in the past decade. They were evidence that I had made those trips, planned them, returned from them, fed on them for months and years later.

With some of the books I had spent as much time reading and taking notes before the trips as I did during and after the vacations. There had been the delight of planning with multiple guide books open before me, Frommer's and AAA and Rick Steves and DK. In the boxes in the basement there were also Italian phrase books from whose lists of food names Marc and I had ordered our meals in Rome and Florence and Venice.

I found the program book and libretto of a 1997 Teatro di Roma production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Taming of the Shrew, which Marc and I had attended in the Teatro Argentino near our hotel. Not guidebooks per se but guiding books in planning and later recalling our Italian adventures, Henry James’s Italian Hours and Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark lay among the other volumes in the basement boxes. Purchases made in Italy itself included multicolor guides to the mosaics and artwork in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, the Venetian basilica of SS. John and Paul, the Roman basilica of Santa Prassede.

One of the trips to Rome had been scheduled to coincide with the 1998 canonization of German mystic Edith Stein. Also in the basement boxes were my collection of writings by her and about her, volumes that used to stand together on the second shelf in our bedroom bookcase. Other spiritual writers used to be represented on nearby shelves; Karl Rahner and Thomas Merton had been particularly formative for me in my twenties. Coming out of a different vein of spiritual writing were the American Seasons series by naturalist Edwin Way Teale; all four volumes with their variously colored bindings had leaned against other books in that bookcase.

Some time back I bookmarked a website sponsored by La Gondola Circolo Fotografico. An exhibit entitled Venezia, frammenti della memoria had gathered online vintage photographs of Venice. The scenes depicted in the photographers’ images had borne testimony to the Italian charism of being willing to live among the visible signs of its people’s past. Living among the objects of one’s personal past is no negligible achievement either, and re-discovering the books this weekend prompted me to carry at least one box back upstairs from the basement.

I will try to find place for these volumes, as I will try to find place for the John whose present and past and future had once played around them.

Other worthwhile projects and challenges have clearly claimed my attention and energy over recent years.

Has no one, though, missed that other John as much as I have?

Photo from "Venezia, frammenti della memoria" at La Gondola Circolo Fotografico


H.A. Page said...

You wrote: Except, I discovered this morning, what we had lived without all those months was me.

When we fall into books and they shape us and mold us, they are integral to ourselves. How poetic how you wrote about this!!!

Donald said...

Thanks for getting what I was trying to say about books' power to carry us and even re-create us at times. They can be quiet there on the shelf, but they wield authority over how we understand and explain who we have become.