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A Really Hard Job

I don’t mind working–even working hard. Growing up, I was expected to work. Mother gave me various household chores, such as taking out the garbage after supper and throwing it onto the compost pile. And she made us kids make our beds every morning and keep our rooms clean. If we didn’t, she gave us KP duty–cleaning up the supper table and washing the dishes and pots and pans for a week.

And Daddy, a self-employed brick mason, made my brother and me go to work with him from the time we were old enough to get into trouble at home. We carried brick, mixed mortar, built (and tore down) scaffolding, and whatever else Daddy told us to do. If we didn’t have anything to do, he always found something. It was all dirty and usually hard. And in the summertime, it made us sweat. I hated to sweat. I still don’t enjoy sweating.

Some jobs like those are hard, but a few jobs are really hard! Take, for instance, a job that I had to do earlier this week. I boxed up a bunch of books, loaded them into my old Mazda B2000 pickup, and hauled them to the local Goodwill store.

Anyone who is the least bit acquainted with me knows that I love books, both reading and collecting them. Over the years, I’ve saved my various college textbooks (even one of my favorite high school history textbooks); collected a large number of books that were payment for my writing reviews of them; and bought even more through book clubs, in bookstores, online, and at yard sales. And they were on a wide variety of subjects: history, writing and editing, marketing, trains and railroading, Bible study, Christian living, education, marriage and parenting, and a host of miscellaneous topics. The problem was that I never got rid of any of them.

I first began to realize that perhaps–just maybe–I had a few too many books when we moved from Tennessee to South Carolina. First, my aching back told me as I was loading all those boxes into the U-Haul truck. Then, just before entering South Carolina, I happened to pull through a North Carolina weigh station. (I didn’t know if I, driving a moving van, was even required to stop at weigh stations, but I did so just to be on the safe side.)

The officer came from the building, looked at the weight limit posted on the side of the truck, climbed onto the passenger-side running board, and said, “Do you realize that you’re several hundred pounds over your weight limit?”

“Oh no!” I moaned. “It must be all those books!”

After I had explained to the officer that we were moving and that I hoped never to move again–through North Carolina or any other state–he warned me to be more careful and let me go on my way. That incident told me something about how many books I had.

The next omen was when we began organizing our “stuff” in our new house. I quickly realized that I didn’t have enough shelf space for all my books. My home office in Tennessee had one entire wall that was a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcase. We had a similar built-in bookcase upstairs in the family room. Since it was a built-in, I had to leave it behind. And the moving truck had been so full that I didn’t have room for a smaller bookcase and had had to leave it behind. So when we got to our new house in South Carolina, I had to go out and buy four new, large bookcases.

But even that was not enough shelf space. I divided the books between “must haves” and “probably won’t need right away” books. The former went on the shelves in my office; the latter stayed in boxes and went into the attic above the garage. I had cut a hole in the garage ceiling, installed a ladder, and laid rough flooring across the joists, thereby creating some extra storage space. By the time I got all of my extra books and my wife’s educational materials up there, little room was left.

After my four daughters were married and living on their own, we invited each of them to the attic the next time they visited and asked them to take anything that was theirs. Anything they didn’t want, they could take with them to sell in a yard sale–or we would donate it to Goodwill. Dolls, favorite stuffed animals, craft items, trophies and other awards, and a few miscellaneous items disappeared.

When the last of the daughters made her pilgrimage to the attic for her stuff, she took her husband with her to help her decide what to keep or discard. Being a building contractor, he naturally was interested in examining the garage’s ceiling joists and the webbing of the trusses. When he saw how many boxes of books were in the attic, he let out a low whistle of surprise.

“You know, you have ‘way too much weight up here,” he said to me. “These joists weren’t designed to carry such a load. You need to get some of this weight out of here and put it somewhere else.”

“What you need to do is to organize it!” my daughter bluntly interjected. “Mom, let’s go through all these boxes. I’ll get out what’s mine, and then we’ll see what we can get rid of. Here, Dad, put these boxes in the truck; we’ve already gone through them, and you don’t need any of these books!”

As she scooted the boxes toward me, I opened the lids and peered inside.

“Hey, I can’t get rid of these,” I protested. “These are my college lit books!”

“You don’t need them,” my wife declared. “Load them into the truck!”

I looked into another box. “I have to keep this,” I said, holding up an old commentary. “The youth group gave this to me when I went away to college.”

“Well, you can keep that one, but you need to get rid of the rest of the books in that box. You’ll never use them,” my daughter said.

After a brief but futile attempt to argue my way out of their trap, I succumbed to the inevitable. Soon, the bed of the truck was full. We made two trips to Goodwill that afternoon. I cried inside.

It stayed that way for several years. But then my writing required that I consult a particular reference book, and I had to dig through all of the boxes left in the attic to find it. Moving all the boxes around stirred up dust, triggering my allergies and making me sneeze. And the awkward lifting of heavy boxes among the trusses caused my tender back to complain painfully. Nothing was where it should have been in the pre-labeled boxes because the girls had dug through them in search of their stuff, and books from one box ended up scattered among the other boxes. I had to rummage through numerous boxes every time I needed to find another reference book. That got old fast.

Earlier this week, realizing how cluttered my office had gotten, I determined to clean and reorganize it.

“What you need to do,” my wife declared with her hands on her hips and a look of determination, “is to get rid of all these books!”

“No! Not my books!” I cried. “I might need them!”

Before the complete sentence was out of my mouth, she continued. “When was the last time you used any of these books? Have you used any of them in the last five years? Ten years?”

“Well,” I demurred, “I’ve used some of them.” She walked from the office unconvinced, and I could see the handwriting on the wall–again. No need to argue with reason. Besides, I knew that she was right.

So one day, while she was at work, I gritted my teeth and got busy. I climbed into the attic above the garage and went through the boxes of books that remained there. I cried inside as I took book after book from one box, examined each of them, and made a fateful decision: to keep or not to keep. I was brutal. I carried four boxes down the ladder to load into the old truck; only two boxes remained.

Then I climbed the stairs to my office and addressed the shelves on one end of the room, where rows of books were stacked in front of other rows of books, and most of the shelves had books stacked horizontally on top of those double rows. I was on a roll, and the pain subsided. (Or had I just become so numbed by sorrow that I no longer felt the pain?) I carried six boxes downstairs to be loaded into the truck. I later added three more boxes of historical journals and train magazines. The shelves are still full but not so crowded.

I haven’t started on the book cases on the other side of the office, the ones that contain the biographies, histories, commentaries, and other Bible-study books. My knees still hurt from ascending and descending the attic ladder and the stairs with those heavy boxes. My heart aches from condemning my beloved books to the donation pile. And there will be still more books to move another day. I have no fear of running out of books.

I just hope that my daughters and my wife don’t suddenly get the idea of cleaning up the myriad books I’ve stored on my Kindle!

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