Laid to Rest

I’m not the biggest fan of Halloween in practice: I don’t like spending a ton of money on costumes, miniatures of candies I don’t usually eat make it suddenly easy to eat all the candy, and parties happen right around the time Boston begins to get cold, making me not want to take small odysseys on public transit to friends’ apartments in the “faraway lands” of T Stops outside of the hubbiest part of The Hub (anywhere outside of Boston proper).

Halloween also reminds me of how much of a dork I was in college — Chinese quizzes were always the Friday morning after “Princetonween” (you’d think with all that brainpower, there would be a better name for this Halloween celebration), so I ended up being lame and not going out on one of the better Thursday nights my college had to offer.

What I do like about Halloween, in theory, is how costumes allow you to express a shred of who you really are, some part of you that maybe you can’t show on the everyday. I wrote about this idea a few years ago (it was a good post) and got to thinking about the concept again: the identities we try on, the pieces of them that we keep, the parts that we wear for others to see and the parts we keep concealed.

Outside of Halloween costume choice, there are a few favorite ways I gain a glimpse into others’ identities: what apps they have on their phone and how they use them, along with how they organize the apps and screens on their phone (for this reason, Phone Swap is the most interesting piece of content on Snapchat and a phenomenal premise for a dating show — so good it’s moved onto a network station); how their furnish and care for their personal spaces and items (work desks, apartments); how they pack their purses or backpacks (throwing everything in or with everything in a particular place, carrying one bag or many); how they order their coffee or tea in the morning — or don’t order coffee or tea in the morning and reach for the Red Bull instead.

You know almost everything you need to know about people and how they live their lives by these simple, everyday tells.

In my case, the window into my soul is my bookshelf. It only takes one glance at it to know everything you need to know about me. It provides the most comprehensive timeline of my identity and its changes for the last decade: I was the engineer-turned-linguist, the comp lit kid, the China scholar, the gluten-free baker/food industry entrepreneur, the literary and unlikely MBA, the podcaster, the product manager, the amateur martial artist. All along, I was the obsessive self-improver, lover of Ray Bradbury, Sailor Moon and Alan Moore, and writer.

All the more reason why it was a huge deal for me to part with more than half of my bookshelf over the weekend. Part of this decision was motivated by the practical implications of moving in a few months, either within or outside of Boston. The greater part was motivated by the desire to shed the old stories associated with those books.

It felt appropriate enough, the morning after watching the newest installation in the ‘Halloween’ slasher film franchise, to go about slashing my bookshelf.

That didn’t make it any less painful.

Remembering nothing else about the film, I felt like that character in the first installation of ‘Saw,’ where the man has to saw his own foot off in order to escape the room in which he’s trapped. Putting books into piles and preparing them for imminent death (even if by donation) was an exercise in self-amputation. I’m well aware of how dramatic that sounds, but getting rid of these books wasn’t quite so easy as ‘KonMari-ing’ and simply bidding adieu to the items that don’t “spark joy.” It was a visceral thing — choosing which parts of myself on the shelf I could cut off, bag up, and throw away.

Still, it was a more painful thing to keep looking at the shelves and do nothing about them other than be haunted by the dreams I’d had for myself when I first bought and intended to read those books, drowned by the guilt at the sunk cost of acquiring books I’d barely opened more than once, and strangled by the longing for the way my life looked (cities, jobs, relationships) when the book first came into or reappeared in my life.

Much like when I slashed a turdlike piece of furniture to pieces in May of 2015, I was ready to do away with the ghosts in the forms of those books and slash through the piles.

I’m not a huge Taylor Swift fan, but the moment reminded me of the music video for ‘Look What You Made Me Do.” The whole video has a spooky Halloween-y vibe, beginning with Taylor Swift as a zombie coming up from the grave, but it’s the final frames of the video that are most poignant to me: Taylor Swift’s previous versions of herself are gathered in one space, talking to and mocking each other, while the elusive “New Taylor” or “Real Taylor” stands confidently above them, on top of a wing of an airplane in the background. Earlier in the song, she says, “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now…because she’s dead,” acknowledging that all the old Taylors are a part of who she is (they’re in all her old songs that made her the famous pop star she is today) but those are the songs of the past. In that final frame, it’s clear that she’s ready to ascend and to fly forward in her life without allowing the past versions of herself — and their baggage — onto the plane.

Loading the bulging, unwieldy garbage bags of books into the trunk of my boyfriend’s car made me feel like a character on a network TV crime show, a teen drama, or on an episode of Dexter. It was a “body bag” of sorts, after all, and if you were to do an autopsy, you’d find the cause of death: “Erica’s past, killed by Erica’s present and future.”

There are still plenty of books in my apartment. If you hadn’t seen what the shelves looked like before, you would have said that this downsizing exercise hadn’t made a dent in my collection. It’s a start, though.

Every item on the shelf that remains still has a reason for being there.

There are the books that give me perspective, like Zoom and El Aleph.

There are books that are pure fun with a little bit of edge and food for thought: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and more than a few volumes of manga.

There are the books of poetry that remind me of beauty in the world and the magic that words can work to render it, collections from Pablo Neruda, W.S. Merwin and Mary Oliver.

There are books that anchor me in my sense of purpose as a writer, like Fahrenheit 451 and American Pastoral, of which I own multiple copies, including signed first editions.

There are a few books intended to bring me sadness, to torture me a little with the past until I can find the courage to write down the stories associated with them. I won’t list those here lest I spoil the essays in queue.

Then there is the one “book” I wrote (my college thesis), and I hope it’ll be the first of many rather than the only.

In clearing away more than half of those books, I cleared away the physical artifacts of stories I choose to leave behind. Even though it’s only been a few days since I did this, now that those books are gone, I can hardly remember what I gave up. It gives me faith that, easily as putting a book in a donation bin, I can part ways with stories that have clung to me for years and beliefs that have held me down despite having surpassed their useful life long ago.

With the end of this year and the advent of the new year, I intend to reflect deeply and get to the very core of who I am, cutting out all the unnecessary fluff and clutter that’s preventing me from focusing on the things that matter most. If I got a new job tomorrow, I want to be ready to run at a moment’s notice without too many physical things (and the emotions they hold) keeping me in a state of inertia.

If there is one thing I want to be for Halloween this year, it’s to be kind of person who doesn’t look back. This is where it starts. I don’t want that costume to be a one-day thing.

I want to achieve total clarity in my sense of self, and act in line with it. Slowly but surely, I intend for the essence who I am — at my very best — to be reflected accurately in that bookshelf. And if I can do it in that bookshelf, maybe the rest of my life can follow.

One of three shelves, before the slash. RIP

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Quitter of the corporate grind in favor of the open road, a writing career, and a whole lot of jiu-jitsu. Currently writing from San Diego.

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Erica Zendell

Quitter of the corporate grind in favor of the open road, a writing career, and a whole lot of jiu-jitsu. Currently writing from San Diego.