Piles

Piles and stacks, neat or unruly, can be treasures.

Life is messy. My life is a mess. I’m one of those people who define ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ If I put my favorite pen in a drawer, I will forget not only which drawer, but that I put the pen in any drawer. I will lose forty-five minutes tomorrow searching for that pen.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

More than once I’ve purchased the same book twice because I couldn’t see my first copy. Ebooks are a nightmare for me in this regard.

As a novelist, reading is part of my practice. Reading fills the creative well, it informs my craft. I need to read widely, beyond the genres I write in, and I need to read deeply—three or four books on the same subject or in similar styles and genres. As you can imagine, I have a pretty big TBR pile. It’s not just my To Be Read pile, but my Too Big, Really pile.

But that’s not my only pile.

I have a stack of notebooks spanning years of writing. There’s at an entire novel written in longhand across a few of those notebooks.

But we are told to remove the clutter from our lives. To spark joy by removing it. But what if the clutter you’ve surrounded yourself with is your joy? I say, recognize that fact and embrace it.

Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash

My father was a builder of piles; wood piles. Growing up in New Hampshire we heated the house in the winter with wood only. My father turned on the oil furnace just enough to keep the cellar pipes from freezing when it was twenty below. Using that much wood meant lots of woodpiles.

My father started in the spring as soon as he could walk into the woods free of deep snow or mud. He always negotiated a tree stand on someone’s property and offered to take only the dead and dying trees. He was adamant about not cutting living trees for two reasons. He loved trees and the forest; and he loved the animals that lived in and under them. The self-serving reason not to cut living trees is that the dead trees were almost stove-ready and didn’t need a long drying season. The wood can be cut and piled straight away.

Dying trees still need some drying, so we had piles spread around the property stacked between living trees all summer.

The wood had to be split. The physique I once had (which has never been terribly impressive) was due mainly to the amount of wood I split with a maul and axe. 

What my father understood, and I have only recently come to appreciate, is the need to see our efforts piled up. My notebooks represent visual verification of the work I accomplished, just as measuring the number of cords of wood piled.

But sometimes our piles get too messy. Things are not as orderly as even a haphazard pile of books. My father died at the start of summer. That year’s wood was greener than most years. Someone had given my father newly cut logs that couldn’t be sold. Free wood. An entire winter or more without paying for heat was a gift beyond measure for my parents. He spent the spring cutting the logs into stove length pieces. He refused to use a chainsaw. He didn’t trust himself with such a tool. He cut ten cord from log to stove length. And that’s the state he left it when he left us. An unruly pile of wood that needed splitting, stacking, and drying, then hauling into the barn in the fall.

I spent the summer splitting and stacking. My piles were not as sturdy or even as the ones my father built, but I cut it all and it dried. Splitting my father’s wood was my meditation, my way of honoring his work. And in the fall, before I put the wood away for my mother to use in her first widowed winter, I could measure with my eyes the work my father and I had done. 

A leaning tower of manuscripts written, or of books to read, is a measure of creativity accomplished or waiting to be experienced. Piles, neat or unruly, can be treasures. Such piles are not litter to be swept away, leaving a bare table or floor.