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.
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.
As I think is true of many people, my Christmas lights philosophy comes straight from my father. It doesn’t matter if the lights are one color or multicolored or even if they match. What matters is that there should be a lot of them. My dad’s theory is that if it isn’t potentially visible from space, it’s not Christmas. I can’t say whether the transmission of this philosophy is nature or nurture, but it feels closely related to other things my dad passed on to me, like a love of heat and fires and some goddamn decent water pressure.
Something my dad tried to pass on to me that didn’t stick is tree identification. When I was a kid, my dad ordered hundreds of saplings through the mail every year, mostly evergreens, that he lovingly planted and cared for through the spring and summer. Sometimes I’d go out with him while he was planting, and he’d talk to me about how you could tell the difference between one tree and the next, but none of it stayed with me even beyond the conversation. At the time, I just liked being outdoors and seeing what my dad was up to, since there were always good odds he might be talked into starting a bonfire. And so now every year when I go get my Christmas tree, I look at the labeled rows thinking that what I want is a nice tree, but I am unable to articulate what a nice tree is.
Since I moved to the city, I get my trees from the Boy Scout lot at the end of my street. I get my friend Jason to come help carry it and set it up, and it’s become an annual test of strength for him. Last year, he attempted to carry the tree upstairs by himself and wound up sinking to the floor like an elevator on the landing, shouting, “I can’t move!” That was a funny story I liked to tell that irritated him for a few months, but then the other night when he was walking down the road with this year’s tree slung over his shoulder, he laughed about it, “Remember how I got stuck under the tree on your stairs last year?”
Time always changes a story.
This year, our friend Kevin came to help, as did Jason’s wife Amy, as we were combining this venture with a night out. Jason and Amy had been spatting, which I believe is another important part of the Christmas tree process–a little tension among loved ones in the air–and we were all talking about everything but Christmas trees on our walk over to the lot. We were the only customers there when we arrived, and so a Boy Scout came straight up to us and asked if he could help. I am not by nature a person who asks for help ever, but I have been working on changing this thing about myself, and so I said, “Yes, I need a tree. Do you have a favorite tree here?”
The Boy Scout was maybe 12 and was stymied by this question for a moment. Then he said, “I like these ones,” and he took me to a row of trees whose name (sorry, Dad!) I can’t remember, but the first tree I saw was the one I wound up bringing home.
I strung the tree up with lights this morning, about eight strands in a bunch of colors and shapes. I feel like it could use another string or two, and I was thinking maybe I could make an effort to get lights that match, but the truth is that the 12-year-old picked out a nice tree for me, and it is bright and peaceful here in my living room. So much of the holiday season causes me anxiety, but there is something satisfying about bringing a tree indoors and filling it with light and color. My hands are sticky with sap I can’t scrub off, I have a cup of tea, and my cats are nearby snoring. I’ll read and bake cookies this afternoon until it’s time to go out for a concert at the church next to the Boy Scout lot, and then it will be more reading with the cats by the light of the tree.
Some days I feel like what I have here is everything I’ll ever need.
On our recent trip to Maine, Tammy and I took pictures of each other, like this time, when I caught Tammy doing this:
And she caught me doing this:
This illustrates a bit of the difference between Tammy and I. Tammy is having a nice time there in her picture. In mine, you will note that my one hand is gripping the rock because I am in a place where I should not be standing, so much as taking a picture.
I was on more solid ground here:
Taking this picture:
That was the day we got split up and lost in the woods for a couple hours. The above two photos happened before we got lost. We didn’t take many pictures after we got lost, because we were trying to find our way. I had to stop and take this picture, though, because wherever you go, there you are:
When my husband realized he was dying, he insisted on taking pictures.
From the time I was a little girl, I’d been someone who collected snapshots in albums, but I’d lost the habit in those final few years of Brian’s illness. I was so tired, and we were so often in hospitals. I began to question the worth of almost everything that felt frivolous as my twenties wore on, like photos and decorations and even cake.
A few months before he died, though, Brian realized that death has its power and that people do whatever a dying person asks them to do. For the first time since I’d known him, Brian got assertive. He told me to take pictures, and he told people to get in the frame and smile, and we did what he said. I didn’t understand why Brian wanted this. We used 35mm film back then, and he knew he was never going to see those photos.
Ten years later, I think I understand.
I woke with the certain knowledge that Brian was dead that morning that seems so long ago. I had been sleeping on the couch, and he was in his hospital bed an arm’s length away. I called to him and went to him and shook him, but he was gone.
I’d had weeks, months, years to prepare for this, but I realize now how young I was, only 30, and how hard I’d clung to the idea that while I knew that life could be unfair, it couldn’t be this unfair, not really. I was shocked to find that I didn’t end when Brian did.
I could tell you about screaming and sobbing and falling to the floor. Those things happened, a blur. What I remember most clearly is settling into stillness, alone in the house, how I sat there a long while before I forced myself to get up, to go to the phone, and to call for help–not for Brian, for a change, but for me.
It was almost a year before I got it together enough to get that film developed. All that time, though–even through those first few months I can’t remember–I kept taking pictures, and now I have ten years’ worth of albums. I get them out sometimes and look at them when I’m feeling sad. Photos are moments, of course–edited, staged, chosen. They don’t tell the whole story, but when I look back, I see that through the years I fought grief, depression, and despair, I was also happy. There I am with my godson Lucas, in picture after picture smiling. There’s the arrival and growth of my godson Maxwell. There are holidays and hikes and vacations.
And then there are the photos from the months when Brian was dying: Brian, me, family, friends. Everyone smiling. Brian recognized this beauty for what it was and wanted to document it, for someone if not for himself. Maybe for me. The people who were there those couple months keep showing up in my albums after Brian disappeared. I have the last photo of him, of him and his dad at a baseball game about two weeks before the end. That was the last time Brian left the house, too. He wanted to go to the baseball game, he told me, and he wanted to see the progress of the construction on the new YMCA, and then he wanted to stay home until he died.
“Bring the camera,” he said.
Brian was so loved. I never knew anyone who didn’t love him, but even if that weren’t true, no one should die like that, of cancer, so young. The biggest grief Brian ever knew was his own life slipping away. He didn’t get to live long enough to learn about the kind of grief I went through, the kind that slowly, slowly taught me how to live again, differently, better.
“You’ll be okay,” Brian said to me not long before he died. “You always land on your feet.”
He had no idea what he was talking about, and also he was right. I still have to work to not get lost in knowing that I don’t deserve this amazing life I have any more than Brian deserved his death, but I am alive, and I am grateful to be alive. Every day. So grateful.
I’ve been spending more time with my godson Lucas this summer because between work and life and other things, I wasn’t seeing him as much this last school year. And I missed him. He’s fourteen now–both bigger and stronger than me–and I hit that moment when I began to fear that maybe I didn’t know him anymore.
I still know my godson, though I’ve found there’s more to learn about him.
I remember when he was in fourth grade and read his first book I hadn’t: that is when he realized that there were books in the world I hadn’t read. Now there are all sorts of things he’s consumed that I haven’t, and he’s been sharing some with me–music, stories, movies. We’ve always bonded over these things, and it’s fascinating to see how that has grown and changed and become more an exchange than an adult teaching a child. It’s awesome, though sometimes surprising–in a Oh he knows about that now? kind of way. And of course he does. He knows a lot of that. We haven’t been raising an idiot, and I love how comfortable he is talking about things a lot of kids–a lot of adults–aren’t. He challenges my comfort level sometimes, in a good way. He always has.
This last week, I was on vacation on the coast of Maine with Lucas and his family, so we got a more-than-usual amount of time together. I taught him how to make a cake and buttercream frosting and brownies, and about how it is right and good to lick off the beaters when you’re done using them. We talked about Robot Chicken, which he’s just discovered, and he got me listening to the Arctic Monkeys. Together, the bunch of us watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Lucas’s favorite movie right now, and, wow, what a great movie. There’s a scene that is just so beautiful early in the film where the main character, Charlie, is leaning against the wall alone at a school dance watching two other characters, including the girl he’s crushing on, dancing to “Come On Eileen.” Charlie watches and watches and finally forces himself to walk toward them–such a risk!–and they take him into their dancing. Who doesn’t know that moment when you see the thing you want and are afraid to move toward it? I feel that all the time, still, and so often people don’t try, and you just know watching it that this difficult thing this teenager is doing is going to be the thing that saves him.
And it does.
I want to be that person who walks toward what I want, and I want my beautiful godson to be that kind of a person, too, but it’s hard when you’re living life instead of living inside a movie where things are bound to make some kind of sense in the end.
I think often of the first time I met Lucas. I was 25 but already broken in a lot of ways and wondering how I was going to handle having another person in my life, but I fell in love with him immediately when I saw him. He was a little jaundiced, so they had him under a light with what seemed to me an inordinately large IV needle stuck in his tiny foot. I wanted to cry and then I got mad and started to read his charts and try to figure out how we could get him out of there, though I calmed down when I realized he was sleeping and calm and happy as he could be.
I guess it’s typical for people to think about who a baby might grow up to be, but I never thought about that with Lucas. I just thought about how much I was looking forward to sharing things with him, the things I loved best in the world because those seemed to me to be the only things that could possibly be good enough to match the wonder of his new human being. That has proven to be true, but I’ve shared life with him, too, some of the harder things–the death of my husband, his father’s illness a couple years ago, the myriad ways the world does not live up to our expectations. If you asked me all those years ago, I could never have told you anything accurate about what my life or his life looks like now, except that I would have said he’d still be one of my favorite people on this earth.
And he is.
This morning when I went for a run, I found a dry(ish) creek bed up the road from our (temporary) beach house and decided to run on that, which led me to this:
Someone must have gone through a lot of effort to get that there, as the area is heavily wooded. If you were much taller than me, you’d probably be running into branches as you went along, though clearly that wasn’t a problem for me.
It wasn’t a problem for the mosquitoes, either, who also seemed fond of the dry(ish) creek bed. They seemed fond of me as well. It would be just my luck to contract malaria in Maine.
My cat Ella has a bladder infection. Learning this was a multi-day, messy business that involved two trips to the vet during which Ella made me feel like I was what was wrong with her and that ended with prescriptions for two pills I have to give her “at bedtime,” according to the bottles. I am not sure what bedtime even is for a cat, particularly an elderly arthritic cat like Ella. All the time is her bedtime, so I decided to interpret these instructions as my bedtime–although what that has meant is that right before I go to bed, I make my sweet cat hate me.
My other cat, Benny, who is not very sweet, is also not very bright. When I’ve had to give him pills, I just put them in his food bowl, and he eats them, because one of the few things Benny has internalized in his twelve years is that he should eat the things in the food bowl.
Ella, on the other hand, is fooled by nothing. Through the years, I’ve tried disguising pills in countless ways she shuns, and now we’ve settled into a routine where I cradle her in one arm while using the other to open her mouth and pop the pill straight down her throat. I have gotten better at this, and Ella has correspondingly gotten better at giving me the most disappointed look after I’ve given her a pill, like How could you? She puts her ears back and her pupils get all wide and she even stops purring, which is notable since that cat even purrs when she’s sleeping. I have to hold her there for a while, too, because if she can, she’ll try to keep the pill in the back of her throat until she can go spit it out behind the couch.
I admire her determination, but I also want my sweet cat to stay with me for a while longer. Years longer. At this point, I’m not sure she feels the same way. Amy and Arthur were here for TV night earlier, and I think she would have been happy to go home with them, though she probably would have felt differently when she got to their house and saw their cats. Ella’s sitting next to me now, though, and purring. She will again a few minutes after we do the pill routine.
She doesn’t know we have another appointment with the vet on Friday.
“For me, I took the exact right path. The cranky, independent one. And I’ve never looked back on it with anything but joy.”
-Betty Fussell in “Still Blazing Trails” by Melissa Clark, NYT, August 6, 2014
I recently reread this Horn Book article about Mother Goose rhymes, which has gotten me all into reading nursery rhymes again, because apparently I didn’t have enough reading to do. Every time I revisit Mother Goose, I am surprised. For instance, somehow I’d missed this one all my life:
Come under my hat,
And I’ll give you a slice of bacon,
And when I bake,
I’ll give you a cake
If I am not mistaken.
Bacon, cake, and bats all in one rhyme, and somehow I managed to go almost two decades without ever making it into a felt board or using it in a storytime. That’s criminal.
Also new to me is this one, which clearly is the inspiration for “I Saw a Bunny Go Hop, Hop, Hop”:
Once I saw a little bird
Come hop, hop, hop,
So I cried, “Little bird,
Will you stop, stop, stop?”
I was going to the window
To say, “How do you do?”
But he shook his little tail,
And far away he flew.
I want to do a storytime right now so I can use this rhyme and we can all shake our tail feathers, because that would be hilarious. And fun.
Also, this version of this rhyme is completely new to me:
The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine,
I drew thee to my Valentine.
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And fortune said it should be you.
I had no idea “Roses are red, violets are blue” came out of Mother Goose. I’ve always thought of that rhyme as silly, and I know I’m growing soft in my old age, but this version is downright sweet.
Even though I love being a library director, it’s clear I’m not giving up children’s librarianing any time soon.
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