Today, as I left work, I slipped half a dozen books into my bag.
And when I was waiting for the subway that would take me home, I realized that this was the first time, in over a year, that I was beginning to take books home from my cubicle again.
* * *
You know what my cubicle looks like.
There are two stacks of books outside my cube, leaning against its outer wall, because there’s no room for those books on the inside. In my actual assigned workspace (versus the part of outer hallway which I’ve claimed as my own), I have several rows and stacks of books, wherever they fit, but also, both my cabinets are stuffed with books, and this is because I began to get a little embarrassed over just how many books I had. So I cleaned out my cabinets of office supplies and made them into book-receptacles. The cabinets were an attempt to pull about a hundred books out of sight – to make things appear more reasonable.
On average I think I have nearly two hundred books stashed into my tiny office workspace.
While it is easy for us to accumulate books (since we work in a skyscraper office where free books are in abundance on various floors), there can be a certain embarrassment if you’re the one who stands out as, say, especially prone to bookish magpie tendencies. It feels like being that person who reaches into the free-candy bowl and, instead of taking a single chocolate bar like everyone else, grabs half a dozen while everyone else stares.
So, I would carry my books home. Often on a daily basis. My cubicle became a temporary landing pad for stacks of books, and I would cart them home, and it began to turn my apartment into something like an episode of Librarian Hoarders: Where Will They Strike Next?
(In case you think I’m exaggerating, keep in mind that you haven’t seen my apartment when it was at its most Librarian Hoarder – I sold hundreds of the books to a used bookstore when moving last year. It turned out that there were only so many boxes of books that I was willing to pack up and carry.)
And then, a year ago, I stopped doing this.
The books in my cube began to accumulate. But I let them, because I knew that I would be moving soon, and I knew I already had more books than I wanted at home as it was, and it just seemed so pointless to carry home dozens of books each week for the sole purpose of packing them up in boxes a few months later. I figured that I’d start carrying books home again after the move.
That didn’t happen, because shortly after moving in I realized I would probably need to move again at the end of the lease. And it just seemed pointless, again, so I let my growing stash accumulate at my cubicle, and indeed it accumulated and accumulated.
And now I am beginning to bring them home again. I realized it’s at least in part because of that conversation we had yesterday, and also today. And also, at least in part because of that dream I had last night. I told you a little about it. It all just felt a bit like suddenly waking up and realizing I’d forgotten something important.
* * *
At work, you and I are watching the slow disintegration of a nearly-a-century-old establishment within the book industry – the sort of name, in books, which commands attention; which seemed like it would last forever (even if all evidence indicated that it was in serious danger of extinction and/or obsolescence– as indeed turned out to be the case).
When I volunteered at a library, I shelved this establishment’s books on a daily basis, because people were checking them out and returning them constantly.
The library had half a bookcase alone dedicated entirely to this one establishment’s “product”.
And now half their employees are gone. And the other half are looking for other jobs, or vanishing abruptly (sometimes voluntary, sometimes not), and there is this weird sense of desperation that has spread to the rest of the floor, to the rest of us, over the past five months.
I think that it is that sense of desperation which explains how a casual four-person office chat about our suddenly limited vacation schedule could mutate so quickly into an anxious whispered conference on how, despite all appearances, there is no security in our jobs after all. And how we can literally be told to pack our desks and be out the door by noon, with no warning.
You and I have seen it happen in the past five months, over and over, and there are just so many empty offices and cubicles on our floor these days.
And that led to me absentmindedly slipping half a dozen books into my bag, without really thinking about what I was doing, and only noticing this sudden resumption of my old habit once I was ten minutes out the door, peering down the subway platform to see if the E train was arriving yet or not.
* * *
It’s not that these conversations (and our suddenly anxious work environment, and that dream that I had last night) activated a fight-or-flight response, or anything as temporary as that.
It’s more like, I’d become complacent without realizing it. I’d forgotten something that I was very aware of during my first year at the job, and which I still consciously knew, but had unconsciously stopped attending to: that my desk and my cubicle are on loan to me from the company.
Nothing about it is actually mine. It is a place set aside for me to do my work – nothing more.
If the people up top decide to crunch their numbers, scratch their heads over the budget, and suddenly ask me to leave: well, then I’ll probably be able to take what I can carry and not much else. I don’t know if it will be worth the effort, and sheer embarrassment, of trying to box up some two hundred books, very frantically – or, as happened a few months back to someone I knew, require a coworker to do it for them while they wait outside the building, because their work I.D. has stopped functioning due to their termination and they cannot enter the building any longer.
The reason I clutch at my books so insistently is because I’ve found that some of these haphazardly-grabbed books end up changing my life. And yes, some of the things that I grab for free at work and decide to read turn out to be merely whimsical or topical or ultimately inconsequential to me. But there are also instances – at least a few times a year – where I grabbed a book because it looked interesting and worth a look, and the first few pages intrigued me, and I would never have encountered it otherwise – and then I read it, and it changed my life. It entered my mental vocabulary.
The thought of losing those chances, those opportunities and experiences I would never otherwise encounter – well, so here I stand again, just like I did when I first moved to New York. Waiting for the E train with a pile of books in my bag: pulling them home with me.
It’s so stupid that I forgot that the cubicle is not my personal storage space. It’s amazing to me that I became so complacent, because non-complacency is so much a part of my family history. It’s such a part of my upbringing – always make sure your passport and papers are in order, in case you need to flee the country on short notice! Always have a suitcase ready, because you never know! Always have extra batteries for your flashlights, always have cans of food in the kitchen – but most importantly always have flexibility of movement. Have cash on hand, have your papers in order, have shoes with solid and comfortable soles.
These lessons are why my grandparents and my parents survived, and why I am alive in the first place.
Even my sister—living the American dream as she is, with a house and two kids and a well-paying job at a hospital (the things that we think of as the most secure and reliable of root systems)—even she renews her passport regularly, and speaks to me about it.
“It’s so that, you know, if we suddenly need to pack up and flee… You know.” I do.
It is a sort of rootlessness where you have learned to distrust the soil.
I don’t care how paranoid this sounds to most Americans. Your families are still alive, okay. I have no family medical history because everyone was killed.
* * *
There’s another sort of rootlessness, which is (I think) more familiar to our various peers. It is largely generational. Many of us aren’t making families – not yet. And we’re not buying houses – not yet, and perhaps not ever. We’re deeply uncertain about long-term investments, because there’s this strong sense that it may all unravel at any moments – environmentally, politically, economically.
There’s also the rootlessness of – for example – not having a childhood home to return to. (The house I grew up in doesn’t even exist anymore, and I think that is a pretty common thing these days.) I suppose that, on a specifically personal level, I did also spend seven years of my young adult life in a very transitory state – pretty much, from the moment I left my childhood home at sixteen, up till I graduated college and got the job where I work today. And, by the time I was in college, the transitory state had settled into a rhythm of sleeping in a different bed every three months (or every week, during the summers), and living out of suitcases and storage boxes indefinitely.
Moving to this job in New York, and having my own apartment, with my own bed, with my own kitchen, and being able to unpack with finality at last, and spread out across an entire space that I could call my own, without needing to pack it all up again in twelve weeks or less: it was just… I don’t know how to describe it properly. It was really crazy.
Still, I kept all my papers in a safe and clearly-marked box. If I needed to drop it all, I knew immediately how to reduce the extravagance of owning stuff to a single-suitcase model. I knew what I would take and what I would leave. I could make it out the door without glancing backwards – in the event of a fire, for example.
Or something like a fire, but longer lasting. You know. Family history being what it is.
* * *
I told you a little bit about the dream that I had last night. It was one of those dreams that bleed into your waking reality – so that when I met eyes with our office-mate Annabelle (not her real name) the next morning, I very nearly resumed the conversation we’d been having in my dream, and then caught myself at the last minute.
In the dream, everyone who worked at the dissolving nearly-a-century-old establishment (and also pretty much everyone at our work) was dispersing to various planets. You could see them in the sky, like daytime moons, except their coloring was more similar to Jupiter. Lots of beautiful spirals and whorls, and the sky had a sunset feeling to it. People were gradually boarding rocket ships, in the way that groupies might board buses – messily, with toothbrushes in hand. Sometimes taking days to get ready.
In the dream, Annabelle said, “We’re going to start fresh on another planet. There seems to be more of a market for that sort of thing there. They’re having a lot of success with other books like ours. I think there’s a lot of opportunity.” She was leaving her house behind, and someone was going to look after her dog, and all she was taking with her was this bag on her back, and a lumpy sort of wheeled suitcase with a pot and pan attached.
I wanted to know, would she be gone very long?
And, see, in real life, she normally has a somewhat anxious expression, but in the dream her usual look was changed by a wild-eyed exuberance that I’ve never seen before, and she answered, “I hope so, I really do.”
And I woke up all groggy and disoriented from this vivid dream; and I rushed to work; and that dream and its sensations stayed so strong in my consciousness that, like I said, I almost picked up the thread of the dream-conversation during the morning’s status meeting, and I’m really glad I managed to hold my tongue.
That sudden bittersweet fondness for these people whom I don’t know very well – seeing their faces in the windows of rockets rising out of the atmosphere. That sense, of a planet emptying out: just trees and oceans and mountains, and me. All the rest of the people who had lived there for ages boarding various rockets, and sailing to stranger and more alien unknowns.
I dreamed of rootlessness, and woke up to find myself commuting home with half a dozen books in my bag. Unconsciously renewing the habit of carrying them home so that, at a moment’s notice, I guess, I can stuff the best ones in a bag over my shoulder and leave for the next planet over without glancing back even once.
It’s a silly thing. I know it’s a silly thing. I wanted to write a letter this month about a Diana Wynne Jones book, but then I wrote this silly thing instead.
It’s a silly personal thing, but here it is. It is what I wanted to write, today.