Refuge

canstockphoto10595770I’d forgotten what it was like to lose myself in a book and not the news. Admittedly the books I’m losing myself in lately have been Orwell’s 1984 and Gene Sharp’s The Methods of Nonviolent Action. But I’d forgotten about what grounds me.

Last month, I did a clearing out of my books, donating or selling a third of my collection. As I looked at each book, it was like looking through a photo album. Remember when…

Long wooden steps led down to the back alley from our apartment. I rarely walked down them at night. There was a tavern below us and usually there would be one or two men taking leaks on the brick wall by the back door. During the day, from the the time I was 5 years old until I was 12, when we moved away, I could walk down the alley, cross the street and there, in a gray, square building with wide steps and heavy wood doors was the public library. There were three floors. The top floor had the children’s books.

canstockphoto22317573The heavily waxed wood floors would creak with every step and occasionally fluorescent lights would flicker, but this was my sanctuary. No matter how bad it got at home, people here had to be quiet, with only the flip-flip-flip of catalog cards, the rustle of turning pages.

There was an area with kids’ chairs and tables and sometimes I’d read there, but more often than not, I’d be on my haunches in some back corner reading a book. The librarian helped me learn how to use the card catalog. Whenever I went onto the 1st and 2nd floors to look at grownup and reference books, I felt like I was a reading rebel.

I checked out as many books as I could carry. I’d drag home Ed Emberly books to learn how to draw animals and joke books to try and make my mother laugh. I loved the Childhood of Famous American series, reading about Annie Oakley, Harriet Tubman and Will Rogers. My favorite heroes were Nellie Bly and Abraham Lincoln.

canstockphoto8060578I’d owned only a few books as a kid. My mother lent me her copy of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men. It was a book my great-grandmother gave my mother while she stayed a summer in England. I read that book over and over. When she let me have it for keeps (well into adulthood), I had to have it rebound, so yellowed and fragile its binding and pages.

I had some newer books that my grandparents gave to me at birthdays and holidays. My grandfather worked for a bookseller, visiting libraries all over the Midwest, so there were random books – African Folk Tales, Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes and Mark Twain. My other grandfather, who I’d met once in my lifetime, came from Alaska with a book about the Eskimos called The Reindeer Trail. He gave that to me along with some homemade molasses cookies that looked like glossy, hardened lava wrapped in tinfoil.

I’ve been struggling these days to be attentive to self-care when so much is happening beyond the walls of my study. Depression and anxiety are wearing me down. So instead of reaching for booze, or what I crave most when I’m anxious – a pack of cigarettes and caffeinated coffee, I reach for a book.

As I watch the parade of old white men signing and grinning, the news dominated by smirks and back patting, I realize that in truth, they’ve always seemed like aliens to me. That they do not represent me. In every reincarnation, I’m still only a peasant – my life changed on a whim by forces beyond my control. I call and write and am civically engaged, but it often feels like spitting in the wind.

canstockphoto3140121Every once in a while, I’ll be doing a mundane task, like folding laundry and it strikes me that those men in power have likely never done that. Of course, I’ve never kissed a million asses, either or misunderstood the word ethics. Worlds apart. In most of those worlds, I don’t count. Only power and avarice are recognized. Reality deems that despite all the destructive things being done in the name of power, my life still relies on the vicissitudes of the common moment.

Whatever happens, I will still be caring for my family, making sure my daughter gets an education, volunteering in my community (although whether it’s tutoring or smuggling will depend on the times), trying to make sure we all stay healthy and strong – even if it’s so bad that we’re treating our own water supply and whispering to each other the real news of the day.

canstockphoto5738584No matter what happens, my days carry a sameness. I pet the cats. I water and care for an indoor garden I’ve grown of roses and lavender. I laugh with my daughter. I hug my husband close and remind myself of the realness of my life and not what I read in the news. I type and write until my hands ache. The delicate balance of loving what I have in my world now, while not putting blinders on to the dangers that will soon infect us all.

canstockphoto10170102Refuge. A place to make it all stop, if only for a few moments. We need it now more than ever. So I open a book and walk with Orwell’s Winston. His world is more bereft of joy than mine. And it’s a schadenfreude about which I have to feel no guilt. It just might be us in the future, but that time is not yet now. The sun is out today and Pete, our one-eared tomcat, stretches out at my feet, on a warm spot of carpet. Turning the page makes the loudest sound in the room and it comforts me.

21 Comments on “Refuge

  1. I loved going to the library as a child. We had a public one, old and creaky like the one you describe. And it is there that I got my first taste of IDEAS. I need to follow your lead and get back to escaping into a good book. I wonder if Trump and his gang even know that you can read a book for pleasure. And learn something new.

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  2. The first part of your post reminded me of the Carnegie Library in my hometown, Xenia, Ohio. My mother gave me two choices of where to go after school — the library or the YMCA. I usually chose the library because there’s nothing like getting lost in a book. As for your civic duty, your efforts are still important. I don’t think the forced-down-our-throat changes are sustainable, but incremental change is. A friend of mine, who definitely is far-far left, says we need to stay focused and not be distracted by all the crap. Within that focus is our daily life, over which we have some control.

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    • I think if we don’t stop frequently and remind ourselves what we’re fighting for, it’s easy to get thrown off course or burnout. And the crap – all the stupid Tweets and the inflammatory nonsense is just a smokescreen for the real things happening behind the scenes. I’m exhausted, so recouping my energy and finding some peace is the only way I’m in it for the long haul.

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  3. I really don’t have the words to express my response to how and what you write. All I know is that I feel that I have found a deep dark secret code to something. And that’s good. I am so glad to have found your blog.

    I, too, have been wondering about those near-future days when we will need to find new ways of surviving – including fresh drinking water, relaying reliable messages, grinding flour. So, to that end, I’m trying, in spite of the fact that I am not a joiner, to take part in community ventures. Including volunteering at the library.

    Keep writing. Take respite. And please, write some more.

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    • Thanks, Maggie – that’s uplifting to read. I am trying to pull myself back from constant depression. Sometimes being in the moment, with the things and people we love, is better fuel than constant burning anger. As for writing, I can’t seem to stop these days. It is, in a way, how I’m working through stages of grief so that I can move on to the pragmatic business of fighting for what I believe to be right. And I think your approach is positive – our connections to each other will make a difference, no matter what the outcome.

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  4. I love being able to look at a book and remember when or where I read it. And I especially love knowing that all the cracks and dents in my favorites were made with love and many rereadings. Which is perhaps why I love used bookstores too

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    • Every once in a while, I’ll buy a book from a used bookstore and find a receipt or a note left in it or notations in the margins. It makes me wonder about the former reader and their story. These days, I’m sticking with the library, trying not to end up having my house look like a used bookstore!

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      • I know what you mean. I’ve been too broke to buy much lately. But there’s one used book store near my office that donates their profits to the local inner city public schools so I don’t feel too bad about spending a little there

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      • I bought a copy of Brideshead Revisited once in a used bookstore. It had the most romantic dedication inside, you just knew it was written from the heart. Every time I read it I wonder about the woman who inspired it and why she ended up letting the book go.

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  5. I need my refuge. Since I got back from the Women’s March in DC, which I was fortunate to attend, my husband has been out of town. My nightly snuggle in the crook of his arm as we drink a glass (or two) of wine while digesting the daily events has been replaced by mentally freaking out over what kind of world I’m living in, and having no access to a pause or reset button. I’ve struggled with insomnia and bouts of anxiety for the last couple of weeks. I’ve gone to demonstrations to be surrounded by like-minded people, but the nights are when everything once again becomes severely bleak. Even my sleep is filled with anxious dreams that leave me more spent than refreshed. I’m hoping that his return in a week will bring a return to some semblance of normal. Who knows? I’m just fearful that the anxiety and insomnia is my new normal. :-/

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    • I could easily write the same thing about the anxiety and insomnia I’ve been experiencing, so I’ll share where I’m trying to land these days. If all hell is truly breaking loose, then I need to be well-rested and grounded to face it. Anxiety does nothing except drain us.
      Taking care of ourselves is an act of resistance. Sleeping well, eating well, exercising, feeding our souls with knowledge and compassion – these are the acts of strong, defiant people. I really want to be that, instead of the lifeless, wrung-out dishrag I’ve begun to feel like. Every act of self-care is a giant “screw you” to those who want us worn down and compliant and silent. So sleep like you mean it, sister – I’m with you!

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  6. America hasn’t really known suffering on its soil the way many other nations have – and our population has become so “Balkanized” that you can forget seeing the nation pull together in the event something TRULY BAD starts to happen -ultimately I’ve learned that my faith is best directed elsewhere than the Federal Govt …..liked the Orwell reference though. I’m starting to do book recommendations and excerpts on my site now (this is part of that “lighter approach we briefly discussed last week, M) — I have a copy of his selection of essays “All Art is Propaganda”….he writes on a wide variety of topics but the 2 or 3 essays in there that focus on the importance of language and how it plays into literature, politics and guides our behavior are HIGHLY recommended — have a nice night!

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    • I agree. I get tired of waiting for something awful to happen for us to get ourselves sorted as a unified entity.
      There are a couple of books on my reading list regarding language and rhetoric: “The Language War” by Robin Tolmach Lakoff and “Thank You for Arguing” by Jay Heinrichs. Language is really something to key in these days, when lying and spin are so blatant. I just put a library hold on that Orwell collection of essays – thanks for bringing that up.

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  7. I just got Orwell’s 1984 on my Kindle last week. I had a paper copy earlier in Swedish but gave it to the library of the Swedish School in D.C. when we downsized and moved here. Now paperbacks and hardcovers are out of print as this book suddenly has new relevance. Have a great week.

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  8. What a lovely reflection, summed up so nicely here:
    “No matter what happens, my days carry a sameness …The delicate balance of loving what I have in my world now, while not putting blinders on to the dangers that will soon infect us all…..” Thank you for the imagery and a poetic definition of sanity.

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  9. “The delicate balance of loving what I have in my world now, while not putting blinders on to the dangers that will soon infect us all.”

    This is the challenge of the day, indeed.

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