Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Books and the Boots

I just sized down to a smaller house. It’s a good thing—a decision, a life plan. The house I was in was too large and too expensive, and I found a smaller one that I could actually own and not rent. All good.

But along with the excitement of a new place came the thing that I’ve done a jillion times but have never mastered: moving. I always think I travel light; I don’t have that much stuff. And then I spend a couple of weeks touching every single thing I own. By about day 2, I can’t believe how much crap I’ve accumulated. If I have to look through another box of mason jars or user’s manuals or letters from the 1980s, I might actually puke.

This time, the move was largely about books—namely, getting rid of them. Unlike the poet Thomas Lux, who once said that his ambition is to have 10,000 books by the time he dies, I think it’s possible to own too many books. These days, I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t actually read much. Since I’ve become an editor and have to read all day, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for reading when I get home. My shelves are filled with books that I haven’t read or didn’t finish. I also have a lot of reference books, but that’s a habit that I’m glad to have. I think it’s good for a writer to have a copy of Royce’s Sailing Illustrated and The Atlas of American History close at hand.

So there I was a few weeks ago, going through my bookshelves and closets, packing the “keeper” stuff in banker’s boxes and tossing the “get rid of” items in big, unwieldy boxes destined for Goodwill. I loaded up one Goodwill box with about 15 horse books, along with an old velvet hard hat and three pairs of riding boots. Now I was really making progress—vestiges of my childhood were sloughing away like unwanted pounds. I’d been carrying those horse books around since the 1970s—picture books like Horse Fever and Clear Round! and Steeplechasing. I’d finally started to realize that I owned these books, but I didn’t use them, and that wasn’t right. Their intended purpose—to be read and looked at by 12-year-olds—wasn’t being fulfilled. I pictured some little girl finding them at Goodwill and going gaga over them. Or maybe her mother or grandmother would buy them for her, as my mother and grandmother did for me. They’d make some kid happy. So it was easy—into the Goodwill box they went.

But the riding boots didn’t go quite so easily. One pair was only about 10 years old, and I’d spent more than $100 on them—beautiful black knee-high field books with lace-up ankles—but they didn’t fit over my calves anymore. (I kept thinking, what fat person gave me these calves?) Another pair were my “good” cowboy boots, ornately carved in beautiful chestnut leather, that I’d nearly worn holes in when I worked at a riding stable years ago. I couldn’t even get my feet in them, they were so small. And then there were the hardest of all to part with: my beautiful brown, calf-high English jumping boots that I bought about 25 years ago, that also didn’t fit anymore. I’d bought them when I took up riding again—jumping, in particular—with a vengeance in my 20s. So many of my dreams and ambitions were embodied in those satin-smooth boots—the Olympics and the U.S. Equestrian Team; of training show jumpers and owning a ranch. I’d wanted so badly to be worthy of those boots.

I sat and looked at them for a long time, at the worn spots where the stirrups had rubbed the finish thin, and the faint bubbles of horse sweat from years past. The thing that really stung was that those dreams all went unrealized. I could never quite figure out how to make a life with horses. One thing I did figure out was that it took a lot of money. Having even one horse takes a lot of dough; having a sick one, as I did when I was a teenager, can be life-changingly expensive. My family wasn’t rich, and I found out that a catastrophic horse injury or illness can pretty much bankrupt you and force you to sell your horse. I don’t know if I could go through that heartbreak again, that guilt. I have never really come to terms with it. And that hard lesson was all wrapped up in those boots.

But I kept coming back to the fact that those beautiful jumping boots didn’t fit anymore. I knew I should pass them along to someone who would take good care of them, make good use of them. But that’s a bloody uncertain thing, sending your ambitions and visions along to another person. I steeled myself and lifted the box of boots and horse books, getting ready to take it out to the car—and I just couldn’t do it. I put it back down. Physically, it weighed maybe 10 pounds. Emotionally, it might as well have been an aircraft carrier. I had to just leave it there. I busied myself with other rooms, other closets and bookshelves. A few hours later, I went back and looked through that box—and it was transformed back into just books and a hard hat and some riding boots that some kid would be thrilled to have. Then it was easier—out to the car with it, a short drive to Goodwill, a quick handover to the nice guy at the loading dock. It was just a box with beautiful brown boots lying there, dreaming and remembering.


  1. Amy -- a lovely post. Letting the past stay in the past is one of the most difficult things we have to do in life. I hope you're enjoying your new digs. dc

  2. You write prose most excellently, I have to say, though I still prefer your free verse poetry.