The original items have been with me a long time. When I graduated from college and moved into my first apartment, my parents took me to Ikea and bought me two full-sized bookcases (and a bed, but that's long since gone the way of all particle board), which remained my homes' most distinguishing feature for years. Initially I labored to fill their shelves. Later, in another studio apartment in another state, my expanding book collection testified to my status as a grad student. I bought two matching half-sized bookcases, wedging one in front of a radiator because I was out of wall space. That's also how my filing cabinet--a previous birthday splurge, which I guess means I've always been old--wound up next to the fridge.
Eventually the lot of us moved to yet another studio apartment, the former living room of a formerly grand Harlem brownstone. An elaborate Victorian fireplace sat in the center of the longest wall and my four bookshelves fit perfectly to either side. Around this time I ran out of space and started shelving books horizontally. Then I got my first job and the bookshelves and I moved upstate--and the acquisition of a campus office helped relieve their burden. Once again they fit perfectly along my living room's longest wall, and from the street below I could look up and see nothing but books. It was pretty much exactly what I'd fantasized about at twenty-two.
Even a space alien could tell you this apartment belonged to a grad student
By the time we bought our first house those Ikea shelves no longer seemed nice enough to serve as our display bookcases, so we bought others, and I squeezed the old ones into my tiny home office. Now, in another house in a third state, the original four fit comfortably enough that I need new ones to fill out the room. They aren't the handsomest things, but they're big and sturdy and unobtrusive, and every time I plunk down on the floor to reorganize my bookshelves or sort my files I remember all the other times I've done the same and how consequential it felt.
I still love my books; there's a reason they're the focal point of our living room and that we removed the enormous bracket the previous owners had installed for a flat-screen t.v. And I still have an evangelical conviction that life is better when all papers are filed away tidily and ready to be retrieved at an instant's notice. But if those things remain bound up with my sense of self, they're no longer a pledge to the future--a willing of that self in to being--in the way they once were. Every new book used to feel like a statement about myself, and I can still see the angle of the late-afternoon sunlight in that first apartment as I sat on the edge of my bed and inscribed my name inside each volume, just as I remember staying up until 2 a.m. with folders and tabs strewn across my grad school apartment as I imposed order upon the miscellaneous papers that until then I'd been hauling around in file boxes and milk crates.
I don't wish to go back to a time when everything signified so very deeply, but I enjoy thinking about how continuous this self is with my younger one.
What I'll enjoy much less is moving all this crap the next time around.