“The Shadows Will Be Behind You If You Walk Into the Light”

The walls of our new library are intricate. I know this because I read the contracts and looked at the drawings and week by week by week over the last year have watched the steel, the insulation, the water barrier, the concrete blocks, the bricks, and the web of cables, wires, and ducts come together to be capped by drywall and paint. Each square foot of our library involved the work and thought of more people than I can count or name. And they’re still working, adding cabinets, shelves, wallpaper, tile–defining spaces, creating functionality and beauty.

All buildings come together this way, but until now I’ve spent my life existing in them with so little awareness. When I look around our new library as it approaches the end of construction, I see people in the things. Tim’s the sidewalk in front of the entrance; Jen’s the logo out front; Erin’s the display case; Sharon’s the fireplace. I see the day I walked in and the tiler excitedly showed me the floor tile that had just arrived. I see the day the construction manager gave me a brick I lugged back to my office and displayed like a trophy. The people, the moments, are everywhere I look.

The architect of our library loves light. I don’t know if Pete has always loved libraries, but I can see he loves them now. I see Pete in the windows and skylights and LED fixtures that say we see you, you are welcome, square your shoulders, look up.

This is what I love about libraries. Every book on our shelves contains multitudes–writers, editors, publishers, printers, readers. These people bring their hearts and minds together to create something more powerful than any of them could accomplish on their own, something with the power to make a life better. And a life that becomes better makes another life better. And another. And another. No one can say where that ends.

In a few months, we’ll be opening our beautiful new space. The public will arrive, and our library will live and breathe and evolve along with the rest of us, the way all libraries are meant to, and we’ll add more stories to those walls.

On the Bright Side, I Think I Can Add “Wildlife Removal” to My Resume

Around 2:00 this morning, something woke me up. Middle-of-the-night logic decided my sleep had been disturbed by an animal on the fire escape, and so I got up and closed the window. None of this made sense, of course. What I’d heard was a whisper of sound–I’m a comically light sleeper–and even a chipmunk on the fire escape makes a holy racket you can hear two streets over. Also, why did I think I needed to shut the window? To protect myself from a squirrel? It’s true that every once in a while I see a raccoon out there, and I wouldn’t put it past a raccoon to tear out the window screen so it could come in and murder me, but raccoons make WAY more noise because they’re huge and don’t care about anything, so I also knew it wasn’t a raccoon.

Still, like an idiot, I closed the window and got back in bed, which is when I noticed the bat flying around.

I get a bat in my apartment about once a year, and I already had my one bat of the year a couple months ago, which my cat Benny quite helpfully killed and then deposited on my bed for my inspection while I was trying to sleep, so this second bat really seemed unfair, a feeling I expressed by throwing the covers over my head to hide from everything that was happening.

I honestly thought about going back to sleep all covered up like that–I was so tired–hoping that somehow reality would become different by morning, but, no, I realized I needed to get up and deal with the bat. So I arranged my comforter over my head grim reaper style, opened the window, opened the screen, went into the hall, closed my bedroom door, and laid down on the floor since I figured I should probably wait 20 minutes or so before going back in to see if the bat had found its way out the window.

And there was Benny in the hall, curled up right outside my door, looking at me all irritated like I was just really out of line with my intrusion into the hallway. I don’t know why this is, but sometimes when bats get in the apartment, Benny’s like a puma, and other times, he acts like nothing odd is happening at all. This was one of his nothing’s-going-on-leave-me-alone times.

So I petted him, which he seemed to think was okay. I don’t really want him killing bats. I don’t want the bats killed at all–I don’t want them in the apartment, but I also think they’re adorable. I always feel badly about the ones that don’t make it out alive.

It’s possible I fell asleep on the floor in the hall for a while.

When I got up, the bat seemed to be gone, but I always feel worried it’s only hiding out when I haven’t seen it fly out the window myself. That happened one time, too. All you can do is wait, though, so I closed the window, went back to bed, jumped about a foot every time I heard even a slight creak–which is constant in a house that has existed for over 100 years–and finally fell back asleep about fifteen minutes before my alarm went off. 4am logic, which is slightly better than 2am logic, decided to skip the gym and sleep a couple extra hours.

If another bat comes this year, it’s Benny’s turn again.

Quotable Wednesday

“Most grown-up behavior, when you come right down to it, is decidedly second-class. People don’t drive their cars as well, or wash their ears as well, or eat as well, or even play the harmonica as well as they would if they had sense. This is not to say people are terrible and should be replaced by machines; people are excellent and admirable creatures; efficiency isn’t everything.”
-John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

I believe what John’s really trying to say there is that my notebook and desk situations are fine.

In Which I Try Digital To Do Lists and Bullet Journaling, but Eventually Go Back to My Trusted and Familiar Multiple Random Notebook System

I was looking at old posts trying to figure out what I was up to here before I abandoned my blog, and check out this post where I was all cute thinking I was going to change my life using digital to do lists and reminders. Oh, the naïveté. I can’t remember exactly what made me abandon Wunderlist, but probably what happened is that I kept writing in my notebooks and eventually forgot the app existed. This basically also describes my relationship with Twitter, although, to be fair, I remember Twitter every few months or so when I feel like I have to promote something or get some crazy idea like that I’m going to teach people better writing practices in 140 character bursts.

I don’t know. This is just the kind of thing I do sometimes.

Over the last couple years, I’ve been taking a stab at becoming someone who keeps organized notebooks and doesn’t just write in whichever of my dozen or so active notebooks happens to be handy, but that’s not been working, either. I so admire someone like David Sedaris, who has a meticulous and organized way of keeping his notes and diaries and who actually saves his notebooks instead of periodically shredding or burning them when they don’t seem useful anymore or contain something horrifying. I’ve also been listening to the Tim Ferriss Show (I was skeptical when one of my coworkers told me to add this to my podcast queue, but I enjoy it), and half the people he interviews describe how they have shelves of the same size and color bespoke notebooks, which they’ve been using to archive the details of every conversation and experience they’ve had since birth. Of course, a lot of these people also do things like run ultramarathons or ride the 1928 Tour de France route on a bike without gears, so they do a lot of things I don’t do.

I did dabble in bullet journaling somewhat successfully during my Notebook Organization Period, but that’s broken down over the last few months as well. I think the beginning of the end was when I got a peek at the bullet journal the librarian at The Strong National Museum of Play keeps, which is illustrated so beautifully that it should be published as a coffee table book, while mine looks more like it was put together by a deranged person on an acid trip.

Lately I’ve gone back to my multiple-notebook home, where I am clearly happiest. I have a few Field Notes assigned to specific subjects, which Field Notes are good for, although they’re equally good for random notes. Something I often do with notebooks is start them thinking they’re going to be devoted to one particular topic, but then they evolve into lists, overheard conversations, ideas, and doodles. Just last week, I started a new notebook that I decided was going to be devoted to my daily to do list at home, and that’s where I wound up starting this and a few other entries I intend to post here, which was on none of my to do lists.

A lot of other writers do this, too, I know–they just don’t talk about it much, as it isn’t a system that seems recommendable. Marc Maron talks about cryptic notes on found bits of paper being part of his process, and the way Meg Cabot has Mia including class notes and grocery lists in her notebooks in The Princess Diaries series (which I’ve been relistening to over the last few months–I love those books so much) makes me think Cabot does this as well. I think my problem has been not trusting that the methods that have helped me generate all my best ideas and write a book are good enough for being the administrator of a sizable organization, which, when I write it, seems silly. Maybe other people should be wondering why they don’t have a pile of raggedy notebooks on their kitchen table and a few more in their work bag. Maybe I have something figured out and should stop worrying about it. Organization and efficiency are a priority in some endeavors, but not most of them.

Like my ongoing love-hate relationship with caffeine, I imagine this is not the end of this story.

Quotable Friday

“Consulting a dozen or so recently published punctuation guides, I can report that they contain minor disagreements on virtually all aspects of the above and that their only genuine consistency is in using Keats’s poems as the prime example. Strange, but true. They just can’t leave Keats alone. ‘It is Keats’ poems (NOT Keats’s),’ they thunder. Or alternatively: ‘It is Keats’s poems (NOT Keats’).’ Well, poor old Keats, you can’t help thinking. No wonder he developed that cough.”
-Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots and Leaves 

Personally, I always use Jesus as an example when I try to teach about this, because it’s apt and also because once you bring Jesus into the equation–even when he probably wouldn’t have had an opinion on the matter–it lends the lesson a little more authority.

Also everyone knows it’s Jesus’s and Keats’s. Come on.

Renewal: Part 2 in a Potentially Ongoing Series

Now I’ve updated my bio, schedule, and speaking topics, since those were all crazy out-of-date. I also finally figured out how to update my social media sidebar, which I’ve been trying to do for two days, except it still won’t let me add Instagram. Instagram is the American Express of social media platforms–it doesn’t feel like it has to play nicely with third party software, but people keep using it anyway because there are things you can do with it that you just can’t do with the other platforms.

Maybe tomorrow or the next day, I’ll write about something interesting, by which I mean my new obsession with making frozen custard.

Renewal

I just updated my domain and the software here and deleted spam comments for the first time in I don’t know how long. I can’t remember passwords for accounts I made two days ago, but somehow I manage to remember this one. WATAT will be celebrating 13 years of existence at the end of the year–maybe it’s time to rethink what I’m doing (or not doing) in this space.

It strikes me that my first-ever post (“Hi world! I don’t know what I’m doing!”) remains valid.

The Cost of a Book

We had a regular patron at the library who was for a long time living with her cats in her car. She was friendly and open about it, so we all knew. When staff members started bringing the situation up to me, asking if there was something we should do, I kept saying we should stay out of it. She hadn’t asked for our help, so we should leave her alone. She did want a library card, though–a stickier issue, since she didn’t have an address, and we aren’t supposed to issue cards to people who don’t have addresses. The woman was accepting, though, and got in the habit of coming in during the day and reading a book in the library. When she left, she’d ask us to set aside her book at the desk so she could pick it back up when she came in the next day. I guess she’d been doing this a couple weeks before I met her myself, when she asked me to set aside the novel she was reading. Instead of doing that, though, I checked the book out on my own card and gave it to her to take out overnight. I told her she could keep it as long as she needed to.

I am not proud of myself for doing this. After almost 20 years of librarianship, I had to take some time to consider whether a $20 book was worth more than this woman’s comfort. I have long nights sometimes here in my lovely apartment, where I am safe, secure, and comfortable. I can’t imagine the length of a night trying to sleep in your car when you have no idea when you might ever get to sleep somewhere else.

I know little of this woman’s life, but the facts I know were that for many months, she was a model citizen of the library. She came in every day, used our facilities well, was a pleasure to talk to, and did not cause trouble, other than her homelessness made people uncomfortable. However uncomfortable her situation might have made her, every time I talked to her, she was smiling and cheerful. Other staff members figured out how I’d checked a book out to this woman on my card, and so some of them were checking books out to her on our internal hold shelf card. I’d heard that someone brought in food for her pets, and I heard about it when she found out she had lung cancer.

One of my colleagues also came and let me know when she died. I’ve continued looking for her in the library since I got the news, like maybe this was a clerical error or I got confused about reality. I go straight to denial when someone dies.

Anyway, somehow this woman managed to get a surgery scheduled to deal with her cancer–whatever else was true of her, she had pluck–and she died of complications from the surgery. She was maybe in her 60s and probably not in the best shape for major surgery after months of living in her car. I am proud that our library was a source of comfort and safety to her in the last months of her life rather than a source of additional turmoil, but I remain troubled. We talk in libraries about this or that thing we need to do to remain relevant, but there is such power in the basic act of offering someone the stories and information they need. There is hope in that. People find comfort, understanding, and paths forward–and it is so important that they have the opportunity to find their own paths forward. I believe everyone deserves the basics–food, shelter, health care, respect–but I also know that people have to seek and struggle and work to feel okay about themselves and the world.

Still, even knowing all that, it took me two weeks to really see this woman, internalize her situation, and make a choice that felt radical even though it should be exactly what we do, no question. I surround myself with books and podcasts. I love reading and listening to other people’s stories, but how many stories have I missed that were standing right in front of me? How many projects did I get so involved in that I failed to notice my opportunity to help a human being I could look in the eye? I am guilty of being too much in my head sometimes and not seeing the truth in front of me. Much as I am in this business to help people–and I am, wholeheartedly–sometimes I see people as problems to be solved when I should be slowing down and paying a lot more attention to what is actually happening.

Also, this woman was everything I am afraid of, which is part of why I had such trouble seeing her in the first place. I wonder how often this happens, too.

I don’t have a pithy uplifting conclusion here. This woman lived in her car for a long time, she got cancer, and she died. This world is full of terrible things. I give people stories.

Countdown to Caldecott: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

I first encountered 1943 Caldecott Medal winner The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton via the Disney cartoon short adaptation that I loved when I was a child. This was in the days before VCRs, even, so I had to be grateful whenever I managed to catch the short on TV, and it was never often enough. The story’s essential distrust of human nature spoke to 5-year-old me, and I think this interest is what grew and flourished into a lifelong love of dystopias, post-apocalyptic scenarios, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

But I digress.

I had no idea that my beloved cartoon was based on a book until I finally stumbled across a copy when I was a preteen, and I keenly felt the years I’d been robbed of not knowing of the book’s existence. I’ve been making up for lost time rereading and recommending it to people ever since. The endpapers tell the whole story with its rows of images of the house slowly fading and growing unhappier as time goes by and horses, trees, and fields are replaced by trucks, skyscrapers, and telephone wire. I saw a great exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum some years ago that delved into Burton’s experience as a print maker and fabric artist and how her work with patterns in those areas impacted her illustration, and I see that in these endpapers as well as in the book itself. Repeated images are part of every page, and Burton employs sweeping curved lines and shapes throughout. This provides a sense of constancy and reassurance as the book moves into its hard edge. One of my favorite illustrations is the first full spread, which shows the pink house on a hill covered in rows of daisies with a series of suns arcing overhead from left to right in a wash of gold, showing time passing. I love how cheeky that sun is, too, winking and flirting with the audience. Everything speaks to contentment and happiness here, even the house itself with her (it’s identified in the text as female) window eyes happy and porch steps gently smiling. The next several spreads talk about night and show the seasons passing; we see the house in the exact same spot while the world changes around her.

Then the city starts moving in with its houses and cars and pollution. As the houses become buildings and then skyscrapers, Burton’s predominantly blue and green images grow more and more black and the little house fades, her window eyes and porch steps becoming sadder and sadder.

The way Burton anthropomorphizes this house is genius. It is the subtlest of strokes that give this house life and emotion, and this is a hard thing to pull off without becoming silly. Much as I still love that Disney adaptation (you can view it here), its images of the house are less subtle and affecting. The cartoon house doesn’t really look like a house, and its hard to take its emotions seriously. In the book, this house always looks like a house, and what that poor house goes through is heartbreaking for a few pages. Thank goodness it comes out okay in the end, and Burton gives us a lovely spread that echoes the beginning. The little house once again in her place–the seasons, sun, flowers, greens, and blues all doing cameos.

I went to the Carle way back when to see that Virginia Lee Burton exhibit specifically so I could see original pieces from this book, and wow. Just wow. I stared and stared and wanted to steal them, though they are in bad shape and probably best left in the hands of preservationists.

I will always love this book.

30 days until Caldecott Day!