What happens when you clean your bookshelf

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Months before I made the dreaded move from Prague back to the United States, my mom called to tell me she was redoing my room. “Spring Cleaning,” she called it.

“It’ll be all ready for you when you get home,” she said. And as the weeks dripped by, each one revealing to me something else I knew I would miss terribly when I left, Mom would give me an update. “I bought new sheets for your bed! Aubrey’s agreed to give you the bottom bunk. We’re cleaning out the garage so you can set up an office down there. We found you a bookshelf for your things when you come home.”

Coming home is a lot less glamorous that people will let you believe. Firstly, there is no dramatic soundtrack playing when you step off the airplane. It’s just you and the white-noise of a tired airport. Exhaustion takes you by the hand and holds it tightly as you wait for your suitcases to make their way around the luggage carriage. And by the time you’re pulled safely into a car that is speeding you home, towards family and pizza and a warm bed with new sheets, you can’t feel your own face, let alone make sense of any emotion that has the audacity to interrupt your desire to sleep.

After a slice of real pizza with real crust and real pepperonis, Mom and assorted family members walked me through the house, showing me the additions to the bathroom (including but not limited to a curtain rod that works and a new cup for our toothbrushes), changes to the bedroom I share with my youngest sister (they were all very excited about the bookshelf they got for me), and the cleaned-out corner of the garage where someone had already hung up several pictures for me. Eventually, the Call of the Pizza became too great and they all meandered back downstairs, leaving me to unpack a few things from my suitcase onto my new bookshelf before flopping into bed.

It’s been five months exactly since I came home. It doesn’t feel that long. Life, in truest form, dropped me off in the middle of a rushing current that took me around the country and back and then deposited me into a full schedule of work and school and family.

After that first week, when I had time to carefully place precious mementoes from my two years in Prague onto various golden-brown shelves, life reached out a hand and started shoving odds and ends into the free spaces. Receipts, bottle caps, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, books I haven’t read, gifts from friends, make-up and enough bobby pins to rebuild the Brooklyn Bridge – they all found their way onto my bookshelf.

Five months of apathy took over.

So this week I cleaned it out. It needed to be done and in wave of Prague-sickness, I figured it would be the most productive thing to do with my afternoon.

The top shelf is mostly make-up and jewelry, not that I own much of either. Frankly, if society allowed women to show up to Life without all the war paint and bangles, I wouldn’t own any. But I was surprised, as I untangled necklaces and earrings, how many of the little gems in my pink box were gifts from friends and students in Prague. The week I left Prague is still a haze, but I vaguely recall sorting through my collection of jewelry and giving most of it away (I be-gifted most of my belongings to friends before I left on account of airport weight limits). All this must have made the cut because they are more than belongings, they are tokens of affections that once were mine.

I dusted off the frame of the year-end school picture of all my fellow teachers, wonderful Czech women who adopted this little lost American and taught her how to teach English and take coffee (with chocolate. You always take coffee with chocolate).

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The next shelf down was half trash, half Czech CDs and ornaments I collected in Prague. None of the CDs play on US machines and I definitely cried for a solid twenty minutes when I found that out in July. It’s amazing, though, how much trash can build up when you’re not paying attention. When did I fall back into the habit of letting life run me? When did I become careless with where I put my things? When did my actions lose intention and how do I get it back? There should not be trash on this book shelf.

There is only one shelf which actually has books and it was the easiest to straighten up. One half is comprised of my Czech literature. They’re books I’m not sure I’ll ever finish because Harry Potter is a lot harder to read in a second language than one might originally assume. The other half has all my journals and notebooks. Every memory I recorded in Europe fits on six inches of bookshelf.

Three shelves down, two to go. I looked at the bottom one, my paper dungeon, and realized that some things are too far gone to change. Besides, where else am I going to throw papers that have ambiguous purpose and questionable sentimental value?

So that just left one.

I hate this shelf because it has all my pieces of Europe. Every stupid collector’s spoon that I bought in every stupid souvenir shop in every stupid city I went to.  A pile of homemade hot pads from a Czech friend. An extremely creepy rabbit that I bought from a student at our Christmas market my first year in Prague. And a stack of letters.

I never counted how many I got, but I knew I couldn’t leave them behind. How could I? Those were the voices of people from home who cared enough about me to take the time to write me a physical letter, buy a stamp and drop it in our much underused mail system without any promise of getting one in return. They just did it.

In those letters I found comfort and flavors of a world that felt very far away. When Prague got lonely, and it would from time to time, almost on cue, a note would appear in my mailbox with a scrawling American address and a red, white and blue stamp.

It always amazed me how much closer I felt to people through letters. They didn’t even always write about anything they considered “significant” – just the daily routine of existing in their corner of the world.

So when I came home late one night this week to find a letter waiting on my pillow with a Prague address, my heart surged up into my throat.

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Carefully, I unfolded the crinkly white pages and reveled in the inky heart someone had poured onto that page, entrusted in an envelope, and sent to me. In beautiful dips and curves of a silky-black ink, she chatted about her summer and its adventures. She asked me questions and puzzled over how different things had become since I left. And there I was again, in that letter, sitting next to her in a coffee shop talking about life. It was as if the grand ocean and the insurmountable distance between our two paths in life disappeared completely. And when the letter was done, it was like saying goodbye and catching our separate buses back home.

Except that I’m a lot farther away now than I was then.

I folded the letter back up, wiping away tears (and no one should be surprised to know that I was absolutely gushing), and added it to the dozens of letters I received from people I missed while I was in Prague.

Now I have people I miss while in San Diego.

It will take me a good month and a half to find the time (and the emotional energy) to sit down and write out a response. I’ll think about what I want to say, and what I wish I could say but can’t, and it will be a long time before those words make it to paper.

But for now, I want to share with whoever may be reading this what I learned from that letter, and from cleaning out my bookshelf. It’s something I’ve been needing to be reminded of.

There is no end to the capacity of the human heart to love and be loved. And if we use our souls as vessels to carry genuine care and affection for those who wind up in our lives, it is likely they will be put through the mill. But how beautiful it is to cradle our aching hearts on the floor, swaying gently to the realization that friendship is not limited by time and space, nor are we creatures made of glass which break and cannot be put back together again.

It has taken a long time for me to realize this, but my mom is an incredibly brave, admirably selfless woman. I left home for two years and she supported me, encouraged me and sent me an appreciatively large amount care packages. She is a woman who knows how it feels to set free a piece of your heart and trust that someday it will come back.

Leave it to me to make cleaning up my bookshelf an existential adventure in self-discovery. But everyone has to get their kicks somewhere.

My lesson has been learned, though. I promise to keep my bookshelf cleaner. I promise to keep writing letters. I promise to treasure the precious people in my life. And I promise, no matter where we are or where we end up, I will find a way to redeem the love that has been invested in me by so many people in so many places.

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