Sunrise, Black Creek Valley
The sun popped up over my front yard this morning, and I had the right lens, for once! A 70-200mm.
I hope that one day some politician asks us "what is it we want to be?" rather than "what do we want?" and "how much will it cost?"
In the Corporate Nation, our Wal-Mart world, that is not likely to happen soon. We no longer want to sacrifice one dollar to anything but corporate profits and economies, and I believe we will pay for that short-sightedness again and again. So we are saving banks and gutting libraries, and I shudder to think what future historians will say of us.
Libraries are important to me for lots of reasons. They have always been seen as a benchmark of civilization and culture. Because they are the most democratic and egalitarian institutions in our history.
This becomes personal. My childhood was an unrelenting nightmare. I disliked and feared my parents, schools, most other kids and teachers and they returned the favor. My family was a horror. I had no friends or interests. I cried myself to sleep at night, a bed wetter into adolescence. I don't write this by way of complaint – I am both lucky and happy – but as an explanation and a wish to be honest.
My first library encounter came after weeks of being hunted and chased after school by some neighborhood kids who didn't like my kind, on any level.
In that time, that sort of thing was not considered the problem of parents or schools. I was on my own, a notion of identity that clings with me today. After hiding in bushes, cemeteries, riding on busses to nowhere, I walked and walked one rainy day until came across the Hope Street Branch of the Providence Public Library.
It was a quiet, musty, red-brick sort of place with stacks and stacks of wooden catalogues and books, and substantial women keeping an eye on things. What a messy and snot-nosed sight I must have been. I walked in with a bloody nose and a torn jacket, and Miss McCarthy fixed me with a withering gaze, pulled her handkerchief out of her sleeve, handed it to me, and showed me to the bathroom, suggesting "young man, you may want to clean yourself up."
When I came out, she gave me a cookie and a library card and handed me some books, seating me by a warm radiator while I cleaned myself up, dried the tears and started reading Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Hardy Boys. We came to love one another, my feelings for her warmer than for my own mother.
It was a miracle, and I could hardly believe it. I was welcome there, and was safe and happy there. It was the first time I ever felt comfortable with myself. My mind and soul came alive in there. It was a doorway to another world. The somewhat prim staff made sure I was quiet, clean, well-behaved, and followed the rules. So I did. If I battled my teachers on every possible front, I did everything Miss McCarthy asked without question or complaint. A small enough price to pay for acceptance, peace, safety and food for my frightened and hungry mind.
Miss McCarthy seemed to live in the Hope Street Branch, and if she had any other life, she never mentioned it. Nor did she once ask me a thing about mine. I could not imagine her in the context of anywhere else. She guided me into this dazzling new world of stories and ideas, got some stories out of me, instructed me on proper catalogue use, one of the few things I learned at that age. She pried some stories out of me, told me I would be a writer. She was the first person who simply accepted my odd self for who I was. She said I would be a writer in a way that left no question about it, so I never questioned it. It simply entered my consciousness as something that would be.
I grew strong in there, got some time and space to gather myself and breathe. Whenever I came into the library, which was as often as I could, a pile of new books would be waiting for me – providing I had returned the others promptly and in good condition. Woe to me if there was a smudge on one.
The thing is, that loving old bat, grim except for a twinkle in her eyes, which she always allowed me to see, saved my life. I see her ghosts, spirits and successors in every library I walk into.
Today, I am lucky to be returning to libraries on my book tour, the circle becoming complete, my understanding of my own life richer. A powerful connection, or re-connection. It brings back a flood of feelings. Libraries are points of light, for me and for so many of the people I see in them. Places of ideas, safety, growth and encouragement, benchmarks of community and our own ideas of civilization. They are the best of us. When I walk into the Woodford, Ky., or the South Hadley, Mass., Library, I see the City On The Hill, the best and most generous part of the American Idea. Thanks to these good people who love what they do in a world that is sometimes thankless and grinding. They have every right to squawk and moan. How come they don't?
And if we continue to eat our own culture, to cannibalize these special places, what of the many other snot-nosed and bloody oddballs looking for a place to be safe and get their hopes and imaginations stirred? Where will they go? On Facebook?
And if any politician ever asks me what I want, one of the things at the top of my list would be for us to cherish and protect these places, and to see in their fate a mirror of our own lives and aspirations as a people. Because that is how we will be judged, and ought to be.
Tonight: The conversation continues for "Rose In A Storm," Framingham, Mass., Barnes & Noble, 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, the Concord Authors Breakfast Program, 8 a.m., the Concord Inn, Concord, Mass. Ticket required for admission.