In the autumn of 2017, I fell into myself. A collapse was inevitable. I had sought myself—and a home—all over the globe and in others for far too long. Humbly returning to my center with a flag of defeat dragging behind me like a party streamer after a summer storm, I sat for days in a borrowed meditation chair; I held a book in my hands again. The book was not going anywhere, and neither was I. Books become my final refuge just as they had always been my original home. Welcoming me to peruse their pages and discover their hidden mysteries, now they opened their pages to my tired heart. Offering rejuvenation, recreation, and assurances that all would be well after a good night’s sleep. But also, adventures, even love stories—these with happy endings.
My love of books is likely congenital. My father has over one ton of books. This is a known fact because we moved across the country after I finished high school and packed them into hundreds of brown cardboard boxes and loaded them onto three pallets to be weighed. I managed to avoid the book-bug, however, stave it off for years. My desire for mobility and freedom to roam about the cabin of the world was stronger. Yes, there were books that I dragged around time zones with me like that one on Constantine and the church’s history, but I never found a way to read amidst the busyness of travel. So much time and energy go into finding a place to rest while traveling. I took to reading on my small iPhone, but books deserve so much more than that. They have a dignity that can’t be appropriately acknowledged on the small screen.
I dated men who reenacted the ritual of book collecting, and as I caressed their books, I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t own them… or did I? In reality, I yearned for a place to call my own so that I could decorate it in that most classic of design styles: Literary-chic. My bookshelves would be brimming with reflections of my fabulous inner and outer journeys. I could almost taste the lure of that solid, familiar, tangible, haptic tome. Something to return to—a book to keep me company where these loves had failed.
Eventually, the digital glow of the screen gave way to the painful habit of swiping left, right, and center, and I decided it was time: Time to introduce radical minimalism and delete the apps, the lists, the endlessness of clicks and likes and comments and matches that promised happily ever after. Once that constant oozing light was stilled, the quiet was deafening. Like Roadrunner right at that moment after he’s zoomed straight off the cliff—only when he realizes there is no ground beneath him—does gravity take hold. I landed on that chair in Pittsburgh, in a neighborhood called Friendship, licking the wounds of my past and then my finger to turn a page. The stillness, at first threatening, gave way to healing.
I had finally been forced to let go of that pernicious FOMO of my generation and pause for a spell. I could barely handle getting out of bed in the morning. I rested for hours staring out the window, watching the seasons change. In childhood, I’d spent countless hours reading under the covers at night with a flashlight, necessitating my need for glasses by the fifth grade. I’d lie sideways on the living room couch for an entire Saturday, reading the likes of Judy Blume, Madeleine L’Engle, and Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children—women who wrote about the simultaneous terror and awesomeness of adventurous children in the scary world of adults. A book opens doors to a world that even an airplane ride to a far-off land cannot access.
My own wrinkle in time, my “recalibration period,” as I now refer to it, showed me how inseparable the comfort of home is from book-reading. In that year of breakdown, in a city also known as Littsburgh (for its lively literary scene), I slowly regained the ability to venture more than just a few blocks from my dwelling. I graduated to taking the bus, then a car, and finally a plane again. But home was my literary meditation chair. I finished the four-pound book about Constantine the Great. Despite my burnout, I was sure that even if I stayed in one place and called it home for a time, I would still be free again.
Throughout my tumultuous peripatetic pre-Pittsburgh life across five continents, I learned to let go of many homes I briefly occupied and thus learned to let go of books too. Trying to keep that famous philosophy in mind that attachment is the cause of all suffering, when the time is right, I sell a book, or give it away and move on to the next. But I have always kept just a few boxes in someone’s attic or basement of what I considered the seed of my future bookshelf. I treat books kindly and with care, but I never forget that the physical things we own are there to serve us, and not the other way around.
I have been attached to so much in my life. The hope of a budding romance dashed; the promise of a new job or fresh start in a new place. The endless searching for that dream realized. This process of learning to find the balance between opening the book or experience and letting it affect me, and then letting it go again is what I do. I don’t always do it well, but it is where I feel most at home.
It is certainly easier to read ensconced in a designated comfy chair with your books easily available on nearby shelves, but it is unlikely that I will ever have a home with a huge library like the one I grew up with. My nomadism is a hard habit to break. I quit drinking, smoking, and a few other luxuries, but this ability to just pack up and go is one addiction I’ve yet to make peace with. The good news is that I can still bring a book on my now much less frequent trips. Recently, I broke down and finally bought a Reader, but I prefer to lug those hard and softcovers around with me. Just in case. Just for good measure. Just to bring some home with me, wherever I wander.
BIO: Bettina Hindes is a Berlin-based writer, translator and editor. She is a multilingual Army veteran and is currently working towards her MFA in Creative Nonfiction.
Photos by Bettina Hindes.