Since moving back to Toronto in 2017 I’ve been thinking very carefully about the things that I own and why I own them. I don’t mean in a Marie Kondo sort of way,1 although space is definitely a driving force, but more in terms of how the things I own help me understand myself. My interest in this way of understanding stems in part from my first reading, as an undergraduate, of Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone, the book that introduced me to the concept of “personal mythology.” Our personal mythologies are the stories, symbols, and events that make up our understanding of our lives and selves. Those stories, symbols, and events are often—though not always—real people and objects in our lives, and events that actually happened to us. Our personal myths are what help us making meaning and see structure in our lives.2
It should be no surprise to anyone that books play a big part in my personal mythology, and not just specific volumes, but books and bookishness more generally. Despite my father being quite religious,3 I don’t have much in the way of religion. I am fascinated by ritual and ceremony, and I like the power of narrative to explain and change the world, but I don’t believe in any particular story the way my father does. Except my own. The symbols and stories I have assembled to explain the shape of my life are extremely powerful to me, even, or perhaps especially, as I reflect on how my understanding of them has changed over time. Books play a number of roles within my personal mythology, but most importantly they are tools for introspection and reflection, for sounding my personal depths and perhaps doing a bit of dredging in the shallows.
So what are bookmarks?
In a very literal sense, they mark your place. If you see reading solely as diversion or entertainment4 then it won’t go any farther than that. If you see books as tools, they way I do, then they don’t just mark your place in the narrative of a book, they can mark your place in the work of introspection, in your understanding of the narrative of your life. As you progress through that work they can be warning buoys, they can be mile markers, or they can be anchors.
Let me tell you about my bookmarks.
I don’t recall what I used prior to the year 2000. Most likely I used library due date cards, the free bookmarks from stores, or those fancy ones with tassels and feathers that bookish people get as gifts at Christmas. In the year 2000 my girlfriend at the time came to visit me at university, and I took a Polaroid of her sitting on my dorm room bed. That was my primary bookmark until we split up in March of 2005. It’s no leap to see why that bookmark had emotional significance for me, but it helps to understand that up to that point I hadn’t defined myself or the phases of my life through school or jobs or sports or whatever else; the primary narrative I told about myself, and the way I looked back and defined different eras and phases in my life, was based on who my partner was and what was happening in our relationship. That photo marked a place in the narrative of my life, and when I moved on from that place I put it aside.
My next bookmark was an invitation to my undergraduate convocation ceremony. A little bit bigger than a business card and of slightly heavier stock, it’s the perfect size for a bookmark. My breakup with the girl from the Polaroid happened within a few days of my dropping out of graduate school; it was a time of considerable change. Shifting to the invitation as a bookmark came from a shift in how I saw myself and where I could still see value in my life. After going through the breakup and dropping out of school, I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished much with the previous six years. I felt like I had just lost everything. I felt worthless. My undergraduate degree was the one thing—maybe the only thing—that I could point to in the first twenty-six years of my life and call an accomplishment. I had two of those invitations,5 and when the first one became too worn out keep using, I switched to the second. I was years rebuilding my life; it was long period of failures and betrayals and heartbreak, and while the upswing started in early 2013, it’s only in the last, say, sixteen months that I’ve felt comfortable saying that I’ve mostly achieved that rebuilding. Moving beyond the place in my life where a university degree was the only thing I could feel proud of was the work of more than a decade. I still use that one, but it’s no longer my primary bookmark.
On September 10, 2018, my mother went into the hospital for day surgery in Kitchener. She came out of surgery in rough shape, as we knew she would, and the doctors keep her for observation. Her pain was normal, they said, but her pre-existing conditions meant it would be more difficult to manage outside the hospital for the first few days. I went home to Toronto believing my mother was on the mend. Sometime around 2:00 a.m. the night I got home I received a phone call telling me that she had been transferred to the ICU and that I needed to come back. I was told her floor number, her room and bed numbers, and a privacy code to present if I needed to call in for updates on her condition. There was nothing else handy so I scrawled the information in pencil on the back of one of my own business cards. On September 13, 2018, my mother died. She never woke up after being admitted to the ICU. That business card has been my bookmark ever since. Whatever narrative I’m in now, whatever work I have to do on understanding myself, on understanding the structure of my life, that card now marks the place where I’m stuck in the narrative, and it marks where the work needs to be done.