I have a complicated relationship with the United States Postal Service. The story begins back in Boston last June, when I realized delaying packing up my belongings would not in fact delay my departure from college. In a stunning rush of procrastination-fueled urgency, I compressed the sprawling last four years of my life into a few sturdy suitcases and valiant duffle bags. My books, however, stood stoic on a familiar shelf I couldn’t bring myself to start to clear.
My mom suggested I take advantage of Media Mail, a lower cost USPS shipping option for books, to spare us the drama of transporting every item in my collection across the country after Commencement. I packaged up the companions that had been only arms-reach away whenever I needed them during the highs and lows of college into a box, wrapped it several times around with packaging tape, and printed my address on the top, feeling a little like my books were leaving home rather than heading towards it.
Here’s the part where the USPS lets me down—my books never made it back to me. The enormous orange textbook I had held onto since first beginning my EMT training, El Alquimista, which kept me company on the way to my Mitchell interview, and two dozen other books that reminded me so specifically of certain people, places, and times in college, hang somewhere in limbo between Boston and Iowa. Specifically, they are likely buried under other missing mail at the USPS Mail Recovery Center, which, half a year later, has yet to locate a single book.
Life goes on. Over the summer, I embraced the magic of the weightless, impossible to lose e-book, and I moved to Ireland in August with luggage several pounds lighter than anticipated. When I wandered into my first Irish bookstore in Kinsale, I lingered over a set of two short stories by Samuel Beckett, recognizing the Irish author as the source of the oft-quoted lines “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I impulsively exchanged a few Euro for my first Irish book.
It’s a tiny tome. Flipping through it now, I’m reminded of my initial reluctance to accumulate items in Ireland, knowing that as much as I’d like to stay forever, I’ll be reliving that last-minute moving out experience at the end of my Mitchell year. One semester later, my collection has already grown to nearly a dozen books. I’m always looking for a metaphor, and rebuilding my bookshelf in Ireland reminds me that permanence of residence isn’t a prerequisite for making my life here big.
I visited Belfast in November with two friends, one of whom spontaneously gifted me a memoir titled I Am, I Am, I Am, written by Northern Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell, after we spent a morning perusing local bookstores. O’Farrell ended her winding personal narrative of seventeen brushes with death with an epilogue comparing memoir to the Japanese art of kintsugi.
Memoir, she points out, is the literary analogue of this practice of fusing broken ceramics back together with gold lacquer. The end result is more than a simple reconstitution of what once was.
I don’t think you need to wait until the end of your life, or until you’re ready to write a memoir, to thread your life with gold. If what holds you together makes you more than the sum of your parts, if your gaps are filled with gold, the past doesn’t wear you down—it builds you up.