Mine forever

Now that spring is a safe half-year away, I can look back at May with equanimity. For some people, May means spring cleaning, households upended in those drape-shaking, shutter-dusting, groping-for-marbles-and-hair- pins-under-the-refrigerator frenzies. For others it means loam and lime, weeding and seeding -- a general celebration of the lush and the living.

For us, alas, May has always meant moving. Some years it's from upstairs to downstairs in a simple shifting of bookshelves and nightstands. Some years it's a wholesale musical bedrooms where the youngest gets the study and my wife and I trade with the oldest. This year, however, it was the full-dress packers-and-van intercontinental leap.

The downstairs, when the move ambushed us, was in decent shape -- a cupboard or two in a disarray of tattered piano music, frisbees, and puzzle parts, perhaps, but nothing unmanageable. Even that desk upstairs where the stapler never was but where we finally found the trunk key to the last car-but- one -- even that, by dint of some hard-headed wastebasketing, came into line.

It was the attic, though, that made even my strongest resolutions quail. Whenever I thought about it, the temperature outside mysteriously climbed into the low nineties, and whatever relics from a past grandeur I had tucked away there spent another day kilning themselves into further obscurity.

But at last, one cool morning, I could find no honorable excuse for putting it off any longer. So, fortified with equal doses of resignation and iced ginger ale, I plunged in, settled down on the planks under a single naked bulb among the rafters, and began opening boxes, surrounding myself, literally, with remembrances of things past.

Some weren't worth saving: other people's paperbacks, a broken typewriter, a marble pen holder without pen. I remember an archaeologist friend telling me of the thrill of excavating prehistoric rubbish heaps: not only what we save, it seems, but what we throw away tells who we are. Then there were the usefuls: books, unshelved, for lack of space, paintings unhung for want of harmony with their surroundings, a pretty good tarpaulin, some rope.

The real challenge was the middle ground -- the long-kept items that refused to declare themselves one way or the other. These were the things -- on that unpropitious Tuesday morning -- that needed decisions, decisions far more weighty than I had wanted to make.

For I had come upon a pile of lecture notes left over from college days. There they were, bound up in brown spiral notebooks looking like they used to look when, at a far too early nine-twenty on other Tuesday mornings, years ago, I would snatch them from the oak dormitory desk and scramble off to class.There they were, lovingly filled with scrawls actually neater than they appeared, impassively chatting about the second law of thermodynamics, the relation of Donatello to Michelangelo, the great vowel shift. There they were, underlined here and there in red, dates circled, margins illumined with once marvelous insights or (depending on that day's lecture) doodlings of sailboats.

I pored over them. They were like something left over from dreaming, part of a life I could only imagine having lived. It was their facts, I realized, that were astounding. "Did I once know all that?" I asked myself in awe. Surely I had. Yet if the facts had faded, the mood was still uncannily crisp: not only of early winter evenings with street-lamps half- hidden in the low branches of campus trees, but of more -- of a way of thinking and responding and assessing, a habit of mind long cherished and never forgotten. It was a habit, I saw, passed down to me through generations of learners. And it had remained steadily bright, while what we called facts altered around it, transient accuracies rising and setting on the intellectual horizon.

And it was there, in that attic, that I decided -- in the end, it was without reluctance -- to throw the notebooks away. For it struck me that what mattered most in the education they represented was not at all the facts. What mattered was the stance -- the way of looking at the world, the capacity to compose a coherent experience out of the disparate whisperings of the universe to which those facts had borne witness. That part of education I could never have noted down. But that, above all, was what most mattered in those classrooms.

The notebooks themselves? They were the flesh, not the spirit. What I threw away was only the encumbrance of an imperfectly remembered past. What I saved -- such is the paradox of learning -- was the ability to throw away those old dependencies on once- known facts.

What I saved, at last, was the capacity to move away, to travel with less baggage, to trust in ways of thought that could never be taken away

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