Messages in my bookshelf

This above all — to thine own self be true.

I am going through my books. A lifetime of books, I want to say, although this is not quite true. My adult books, I guess — though that sounds like something it’s not! — largely from college and beyond, though there are a few childhood ones that have traveled all the way to my grown-up shelf. During one of my mother’s clean-outs, she mailed a couple of former favorites, out of nostalgia, or because it was easier for her to give them to me than give them away: Richard Scarry’s Big Book of Activities, which I loved as a very small child, and The Animals on Maple Hill Farm, which she and I read together many times, mutually appreciating the simple story and the colorful drawings of cows, chickens, and sheep.

I forgot I had them, along with lots of others I bought and that were gifted to me. I’m trying to make space and get rid of things I don’t use or need or that carry real significance. But where is that line? I find it hard to get rid of a cheap mystery paperback that my dad gave me, even though I didn’t finish it the first time, and know there won’t be a second. Same with the photo book, Weird Texas, the only present my little cousin ever gave me. Though I’ve satisfied the level at which I am a comfortable gardener, it’s hard to part with the half dozen plant books tucked between the poetry collections and nonfiction tales I know I’ll turn to again and again. I hardly ever crack the spine on novels these days, but I want to keep looking at All the Light I Cannot See and The Lacuna, because I remember the enjoyment of their stories when I see their titles.

Nice when, amidst this excavation, a few are easy (read: unemotional) to put into the give-away box: old, outdated books on finance and marketing, doubles I accidentally purchased, memoirs that tried, but didn’t quite work. But this stack is small. I find it hard to part with books.

Lots are incredibly comforting and inspiring to see again, like visiting old friends: Sharon Olds poems I studied as an undergrad. A Gift from the Sea, a little hardback full of nature wisdom that I pulled from my grandmother’s shelf after she died. Her initials H.A.V. are written in her beautiful script at the top of the opening page. Books on adventure, dog training, mental illness, the craft of writing. One about Alaska, reminding me I still want to get there someday. This is a collection of a personal history — part accidental, part carefully curated, part simply messy.

But one stands out among all of them, and I discover it late, after handling hundreds of books: a slim, tan, canvas-covered one, without lettering on the spine. I pull it out quizzically, and see the silver title debossed on the front: Romeo and Juliet. Wait, is this…? I think, and I open the cover. Inside, in blue ink, is an inscription, as if written by the author himself to me:

This above all — to thine own self be true.
Best wishes, William Shakespeare

I recognize the handwriting immediately, as if I’d seen it yesterday, though it’s likely been decades since I opened this book. My drama teacher in middle school, Mr. Kuliga, gave this 1972 edition (that smells deliciously like an old library) to me when I “graduated” from eighth grade.

Mustachioed, tall, and sturdy-framed, Mr. Kuliga was tough and kind, equal parts terrifying and reassuring in the classroom, pushing me and my friends (hard) to practice monologues we would deliver in front of strangers from other schools at tournaments. We felt utterly naked and were surely gawky, but winning his approval (along with garish gilt trophies of theater masks) gave our 13-year-old selves confidence we couldn’t have mustered otherwise. Mr. Kuliga attended my (terrifying) audition to a fine arts high school for acting, wrapping his enormous arms around me when I was accepted, saying, “Of course you were.”

When, as a sophomore, I decided to switch to the fine arts department, I always wondered if he would have felt betrayed somehow, after all the work he put into me to be an actress. Then I moved to creative writing in college, and, occasionally, Mr. Kuliga would be in the back of my mind. I auditioned for exactly one play then, and when I didn’t get the part, I never looked back. When I worried, irrationally, about whether my early mentor would have approved of my path, I remembered this small line he wrote for me, that he pressed into my young hand, and realized I was doing the one thing he asked of me.

I wish he knew how much it meant to re-discover his message right now. Perhaps he always imagined that it would find me again exactly when I needed it.

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