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August 2012

Treasured mentors

Last Sunday, I had at least one thousand books adorning the shelves of my den. I can’t be sure how many were there because I gave up counting when I hit eight hundred. I don’t know why I started counting the books in the first place, or why eight hundred was the number that made recognize the absurdity of what I was doing.

At six hundred titles, I began to realize how difficult the process of purging a lifetime book collection was becoming. I still managed to keep at it for another two hundred more titles before I stopped. About one hundred of them made it to the dining room table for sorting before, overwhelmed, I abandoned the project.

I’ve looked at—ignored, really—those books on the table every evening this week. I also refused to acknowledge the more than seven hundred remaining books on the shelves behind my desk. I knew ignoring them would not make the task disappear. Still, I hoped that I would be able to come up with some rational approach to sorting out the books to keep, and those to eliminate from my collection. After a week of considering options, I arrived at the conclusion that a rational person would not have more than one thousand books in the first place. I am clearly not rational when it comes to books.

I began pulling the books from the shelves today. I sorted and separated them—several boxes to the church yard sale later this month and most of the rest to the public library for the annual book sale. Among my collection were paperback copies of A Brave New World, required reading in 12th grade, and All the Kings Men, from a college English class. Death of A Salesman, Mass Appeal, and American Century were among the many scripts from plays in which I had performed or directed. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Og Mandino’s Secrets For Success And Happiness, both given to me by my dad when I was in high school and, of course, countless quote books, were also on my shelves.

There were novels and biographies, too. John Grisham, Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard, Thomas Wolfe, John Irving, and David McCullough took much of the space in that section. My collection of business books outnumbered them all with complete sets of Tom Peters and Seth Godin, alongside the best works of Peter Drucker, John P.  Kotter, Phillip Kotler, and Zig Ziglar. There were hundreds of others, which had served as a reference throughout my career, and all were sitting quietly with hopes of being used once more.

It occurred to me as I paged through the books that my difficulty in parting with them was not about the possibility of needing those future references, or even the remote desire to read them another time. Instead, it was about what the books represented in my life. Each one had helped to stoke my imagination, shape my thinking, or give me the courage to become the person I am today. They were not simply books. They had become, in some small and perhaps sad way, treasured mentors and companions in my life. For seven years, very few of them served any purpose other than to take up space on my shelves.

I realized then I could not begin the next chapter of my life until I acknowledged I had learned all these books could teach me. Once I did this, letting go was easy and boxing the sorted books went much more quickly. I even made a second pass and eliminated more from my “keep” pile.

When I finished, I had kept only about two hundred books. Among these were all of my autographed copies, the Elmore Leonard novels I do like to re-read, my Lincoln collection, and the complete set of Tom Peters books. I kept the books with a particular meaning to me, such as Secrets for Success and Happiness and The Power of Positive Thinking. I also kept the dozen or so books purchased this year, but not read. I even kept the writing reference books, although most of those will likely find new homes later this year.

This was a hard thing for me to do, letting go of such excellent teachers. Passing them on was easier knowing they still had life and others could learn from them, too. Growing up means passing on what we’ve learned. I only passed on the books today, but I hope I pass on a little of what I’ve learned from them, every day.

Mortgaging castles

Yesterday I was reminded my body has an expiration date. I know I will die someday, but the dreamer who drives my soul doesn’t like to think of such things. The statistician in charge of my brain, on the other hand, does expiration mitigation calculations thousands of times per day. I just don’t like the reminders from the outside world.

While I remain hopeful for at least fifty-one more years of life, I recognize living to be 100 with a sound mind and body is an unlikely possibility, especially since both are already questionable. Despite the fact I aggressively manage my health, there are hundreds of non-health related reasons that could end my life well before my planned expiration date. This is troubling to me because I still have things to do, people to see, places to go, and trouble to cause. I don’t want to run out of time before I’ve accomplished it all.

My arrival at middle age a few years ago came with a piece of baggage labeled, “oppressive sense of mortality.” The luggage is scuffed, tattered, and covered with stickers from travels around the world. Its hinges are worn from the constant opening and closing. Bungee cords hook together over latches that no longer have the strength to hold the baggage closed. It’s ugly, this baggage, and still I’m compelled to look inside for whatever answers it might hold.

I’ve learned from my far too frequent peeks inside that my first twenty-four years of life were for learning the basics for living, and my last twenty-five years were for creating a life. The baggage shows my future, too, swirling amongst all of my hopes, dreams, and plans—those I’ve accomplished and those I now wonder if I ever will accomplish— without a clear direction or any certainty of duration.

Perhaps the most important thing the baggage has shown me is while the past is clear, the future is always uncertain. I’m reminded that although I am not now, who I will become, I am also no longer who I once was—the big dreamer with a lifetime of opportunities. The luxury of time is no longer on my side.

I still dream the big dreams and I still have things to do, people to see, places to go, and of course, trouble to cause. I’ve just realized the dreams I had then—the dreams of a young man—are no longer the dreams I need, or frankly want. The seconds of life are far more precious now and I don’t want to waste them on aspirations I know are completely unrealistic or unattainable.

I have many unfinished castles in the sky today. The construction stopped some time ago and the workers have gone home for good. What remains of those castles was mortgaged to pay for the daily happiness I get from living more of my life in the moment and much less of it with my head in the clouds.

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