I’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.
The 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.
I’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.
Every 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.
No 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.
Refuge. 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.