When I was younger I was enchanted with the idea of having a personal library. I would frequent used book stores, hunting for the perfect prize for my collection. I amassed several bookcases of tomes, mostly novels, and was content to whittle the hours away reading and writing.
University slowed my pleasure-reading habits to a crawl, as there was always something else to be doing that was seemingly more important. While my reading faltered, my book collecting did not. I picked up books here and there, convinced I would read them later. My shelves grew, and dust collected.
I gradually became cognizant of the fact that I was becoming more in love with possessing books than reading them. I would read the occasional story and set it proudly on the shelf like a trophy. My bookshelves were not just furniture; they were an extension of myself, my tastes and interests displayed for the world to see.
Then I moved away and left my books behind.
And somehow, strangely enough, I began to read again. I found the English section in the public library, and a small international library with books in hundreds of languages. In the cold winter months, I had a break from classes and more time on my hands than usual. The words kept me company and I flipped through story after story.
I discovered Hemingway, which is quite possibly the start of a long, literary love affair. I’ve read two of his books and am starting a third, all of them borrowed. None will sit on my shelf at the end of the day as a physical reminder of what I’ve read.
But I own them. Not in the sense of property, but I own these stories because they have moved me and stayed with me even though weeks have passed since I closed the covers. In reading them once, I’ve placed them forever where age and mildew cannot touch their pages.
And now I realize I would rather own few books and read many instead of owning many books and reading few.
The sickness of ownership extends far beyond books. When I was in Santa Cruz, California, I walked along the famous West Cliff Drive. Stunning ocean views and multi-million dollar houses. People pay big to own their little view of the beach. And while I may not have access to that view every day like the West Cliff-ites, there is a path that wends its way along the street where anyone can look out over the water. I love the Pacific and I love Santa Cruz. I have a piece of it, not in deed or on paper, but as a part of me.
I am surprised at North American culture’s obsession about ownership, as if owning something is a prerequisite to enjoying it. If something is not our private property, the sharing somehow sullies the wonder of the object in question. The problem is that the focus is shifted and we no longer care about what we are owning so long as it is ours.
But there is a freedom in letting something pass through our fingers. Because who can take away what we don’t really have? Or perhaps more accurately, we have hidden what we love, cached it away in a secret place where it remains and where no one can take it away.
This year has been a process of losing all my repères, my landmarks, my points of reference. God has been stripping away everything I used to depend on so that all that remains is Himself. And I am beginning to realize afresh and all over again that His presence is the only constant in my life.
The truth is when I feel adrift, He is unchanging. My emotional state has no impact on His holiness. And His presence is something that can never be taken away from me. It is through this lens that I realize I am richest through what I do not actually own. And what I cannot possess paradoxically becomes mine in a way that is not physical, but no less real; always there, ever-present, and packed safely away in the things we carry.