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It Can Be Tough Letting Go of an Old College Friend

September 22, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

I'm dismantling my office, something I had put off as long as I could. This is the part of retirement I've chosen to walk into backward. Although I retired officially on July 1, I was allowed to keep my office over the summer. Now, time has run out; someone else needs this space for the start of a new academic year.

I'm delighted and relieved to let go of the teaching part of my life. So why, then, have I clung to the office until the last possible instant? I think about that a lot as I sift through the accumulation of 21 years of letters, papers, clippings and scribblings stockpiled in the crannies of this office, mostly against a day when I would theoretically get them out and reread them and perhaps see them in new perspective.

That day never came, of course, and now I must either throw them away or find new crannies in my office at home to repeat this process. There's a kind of immortality involved, I suppose: a comfortable assumption that there is plenty of time up ahead to do that. So I'm not being nearly as cavalier as I should about throwing things away.

But it wasn't dread of this process that caused me to put it off. Rather it was the physical act of releasing this office, of cutting an umbilical that has sustained me within the comfortable womb of this university. For more than two decades, this office has been my retreat, the only place in the world that was solely mine, inviolate. Its eccentricities of style and decor, its smell and its feel were mine alone. My wife has told me she never felt comfortable here. She must have sensed that while overtly deploring that sentiment, I probably subconsciously applauded it.

This office I must leave today has served a multitude of purposes for me: work, therapy, solitude, privacy. It satisfied the need I think every human being feels to have a place of one's own, without apology or equivocation. Now I must find out how important that really is--and if it needs to be duplicated somehow.

Will the pictures on my wall play as well somewhere else? The original artwork from my first Saturday Evening Post short story? The montage of snapshots of people near and dear to me? A photograph of Aspen, Colo., with its trees in full fall dress? The picture of my father with a reproduction of the story I wrote about him soon after he died? A photograph of John F. Kennedy walking alone on the beach? A bumper sticker my oldest daughter had made for me that reads: "Beware--Self-Styled Liberal," a tag laid on me in a newspaper editorial critical of a magazine piece I'd written about Orange County?

Will I ever take the time to graze in the bulging box of letters from former students, many of them detailing successes in the Real World and expressing thanks for tools I'd helped them discover?

I linger over the pewter cup a student gave me, engraved with "World's Greatest Literary Agent," and a wonderful typewritten message saying simply, "From you I have learned skills I will employ throughout my entire career," mounted in a tiny wooden frame only a few inches square.

There are playbills from 40 years of theatergoing and 12 bound versions of a book I've yet to write properly, and TV tapes of the Hollywood luminaries who came to UC Irvine to participate in a class I taught on the contemporary motion picture, and piles of periodicals in which I have articles, and boxes of letters too precious to destroy.

No time to sort through them now. If I do it too hastily, I might throw away something and regret it later. Better to box them up and take them home and sort through them next week. Or next month. Or next year.

I hear singing outside and go to the window to look. In the plaza directly below my office are several dozen young women in lovely summer frocks. A sign tells me that this is a sorority rush party. The pledges are standing in a semicircle, singing and swaying to their own music. The sound comes faintly through my window, sweet and soft. It occurs to me that I won't have any of these students in class.

I load my boxes and carry them to my car. Three trips, then the office is barren of my presence. Just an office, with empty walls and empty drawers.

The singers are still at it outside. I watch them for a moment, then close the door behind me.

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