I live in a vertical city, where all of the stacking – of working spaces and living spaces and sleeping arrangements - extends to such objects we think we’ve outgrown, though really who knows where we’re growing? Tastes change, and different people arrive, and different circumstances. So we pile and we hedge, and keep piling, while slowly some keepsakes become inaccessible beneath all of the subsequent layers of history - then finally they’re good as forgotten.
These disinclinations – to sort, to prioritize, to decide – all become probably stronger when you have been living for any length of time with the delusion than you are always right on the verge of moving – because “we just can’t go on living this way” – so why not just wait till that inevitable reckoning? My home is therefore looming on every perimeter with piles that seem even dependent on one another for equilibrium: if you dismantle one tower, then maybe another will come toppling down on top of you, or maybe you won’t quit dismantling. It’s archaeological that way – daunting and tempting, a little wistful, but also a reminder of our relentless, and often regrettable, desire to evolve.
I thought about this recently rereading Owen, by Kevin Henkes, in which a mouse and his family are confronted with the reality of the first day of school, where Owen will definitely need to be separated from his favorite comfort item, a ratty, irreplaceable blanket. Doubly unwelcome is their nosy old neighbor, Mrs. Tweezers, who is always ready with an admonishment about growing up – “Can’t be a baby forever,” she suggests – and vinegar tricks and other tricks that never work. Owen remains firm in his convictions, and resourceful; I never quite believed the deception his mother cooked up in the end.
For that, and because there were already several Henkes classics filling up the pixels here, I did not initially include it in this selection, but now I see – or perhaps have a greater appreciation for – this terribly dramatic struggle that often amounts to imperfect solutions. That my reluctance from several years ago – even outrage! – has mellowed to something like acceptance, may be in keeping with the times (the fruits of compromise have never looked more promising than doing nothing), or it might just be age, or it may simply be that having visited the bottom of those piles a couple of times recently, I am tougher, more hardened to change.
Some people wear this kind of pragmatism more comfortably than others; it’s not always the easiest case to make. In Eric Carle’s A House for Hermit Crab, the eponymous crustacean trolls around for things to decorate his shell and carry with him on his journey across the ocean floor – anemones and corals and urchins, and even lantern fish to guide him through an otherwise impenetrable forest of sea grass – until inevitably he grows out of his shell (a rental, after all), and hands over the keys to a young up-and-comer who doesn’t have to decorate a thing. The first time I first read it, I remember thinking what a waste that all was – cycle of nature or not – but today? I’d be lying if I did not admit to still imagining that hermit crab turning back around and politely reclaiming his keepsakes as soon as the cover closes behind him. It’s a beautiful cover too, and the pictures of creatures in these pages are also sufficiently gorgeous and mysterious and hypnotic that you might not remark on the lesson.
Things fall away, by choice or by verdict, by knowing or forgetting, still books about families uprooting, and best friends left behind, have never struck me as potentially so vexing as blankies being reduced to mere handkerchiefs, or favorite, lucky pebbles cast into a river. In I Like Where I Am a boy frets about the movers showing up, and all of his things getting put into boxes – “Spy Stuff,” “Secret Stuff,” as well as his various rock collections: shiny or lava or skipping – but everything turns out fine on the other end, and I think that’s about right, or anyway it’s a daring little voice in a sometimes lackadaisical chorus on the subject. Because we are always on the move: to new schools and new neighborhoods, new friends and new jobs, new passions and selves, though perhaps the least we can ask is to be able to occasionally find our way back.