Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
The past year has narrowed the scope of what is and isn’t possible. During the pandemic we’ve all had to cancel or postpone travel plans, convert social visits to a computer-generated version of reality, and learn to subsist on home cooking or take-out. At midnight on December 31st, 2020 dissolved into 2021 without bringing much change. Health experts urge us to remain cloistered in our own pods for the foreseeable future. In the circumstances, it was hard for me to muster a list of healthy New Year’s resolutions.
Drinking less is out of the question. Wine is one of the few things I look forward to at the end of the day. The other two are pizza and chocolate, so screw any notion of dieting. Having recently had knee replacement surgery, I can’t take up kickboxing or distance running. The piano has been out of tune since God knows when and the only other “improving” sort of resolution that came to mind was decluttering. People write about the joy of shedding unneeded possessions, how it boosts productivity, reduces stress, and lifts the spirits.
I started in the bedroom closet. It’s been months since I needed anything that came off a hanger. Near the back a sad little cluster of dresses surprised me. I tried to recall the last time I’d had occasion to wear a dress. I tried to imagine the next time. If there were a next time, would any of these long disused outfits reach around my expanding middle? The answer did not reduce stress or spark joy.
A better place to begin downsizing might be the library where books spill out of cases onto the floor and lay jumbled in teetering piles. I surveyed the case with the shelf that collapsed last year under the weight of the People’s Almanac, a multi-volume compendium of little known and fascinating facts. I browsed a few pages of Volume 1. Mata Hari charged her lovers $7500 a night? Wow. And a whole section on the billions of dollars in lost and buried treasure right here in the U.S.A. Set that one aside to read later. Volume 2 contains accounts of several sensational murder cases. Maybe some good plot ideas in there. Better save that one, too. William Roughhead’s The Murderer’s Companion is definitely a keeper. Also, The Annotated Mother Goose and the 1959 edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.
Behind Birds Every Child Should Know, I found a dog-eared copy of Topper, the hilarious novel about a pair of madcap ghosts named George and Marion Kerby that gave rise to a movie and TV series. Another keeper, definitely worth rereading. My decluttering resolution, like so many resolutions of New Years Past, was going nowhere fast. Then what to my wondering eye should appear but “Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books,” a/k/a The Harvard Classics. Published in 1909 and 1910, these fifty-one volumes were intended to provide a liberal education to anyone who read them diligently for fifteen minutes every day.
Diligence has never been my strong suit. Maybe if I’d begun in 1910, I’d be up to speed. But after a certain age, the philosophy of Epictetus and the Confessions of St. Augustine can’t compete with a juicy murder mystery or Bill Buford’s fabulous new book (Dirt) about cooking and eating in France. I should have sold Dr. Eliot’s classics on eBay back when so many TV talking heads were scrambling for impressive Zoom backgrounds. Oh, well. Into the box they go. Two whole shelves empty. I run a Swiffer across the dust left behind and feel the stress leaving my body.
I’m on a roll now, feeling ruthless and productive. More boxes! Project Gutenberg has no doubt made Mother Goose and Brewer’s Dictionary available free online. Toss them. And looky over there in the corner. One, two, three, four pristine hardcover copies of my first novel – last seen at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe ten years ago and lugged home in a suitcase full of free pre-release books and promotional swag from other authors. Remembering how that initial story developed and came into being still elicits a frisson of pride and nostalgia. But holding onto extra copies of one’s own books is a vanity best outgrown. So. If anyone would like a copy of Dinah’s debut in the wilds of Australia, leave a comment – and perhaps a bit of advice on the Zen of decluttering. I’m afraid to discover what lurks in the attic.