Saturday, August 11, 2012

In Praise of Public Libraries

Today I made two huge steps into adulthood: I bought my first car and I got my first public library card since I was a small child and had to have my mother co-sign for me.

I found myself in the library completely by accident. When I went to that Kafka-esque place of nearly eternal torment, the DMV, to register my car after I bought it (more on that escapade shortly), the tired-eyed woman behind the counter informed me that my license only has my PO box, not my physical address, and I would need proof of physical address to register the car.

The problem is, of course, that I'm basically a gypsy and there is little or no proof of my physically having lived anywhere in the last four years. There is the occasional myth here and there, the odd grocery list, I'm sure, laying in odd corners, a pair of shoes, perhaps, or loose change in the corner of a musty closet which marks my stays in the various homes and hostels which have welcomed me, but you can't give any of that to the DMV. I myself have taken away only a few used books, a keychain with a smiley face, and a sketchbook I accidently pilfered from one of the Boonzaaijer children last summer (sorry, Nathaniel).

So with the immanent threat of the DMV closing up shop, I scampered around Christiansburg looking for any available public computer for which to scour the internet for electronic bank statements or some other legitimate proof of address. The search led, of course, to the public library--which I circled about 4 times before finding it because I'm a ridiculously incompetent navigator. I think the scads of giggling and chanting middle school girls waving signs for their car wash distracted me.

I hadn't been in a library since, well, paying my fines right before graduation, I guess. Those of you who know me know that I love libraries. I spent far more time in the library at college than any other place, including my dorm room. It was my social network, my sanctuary, my romance. But public libraries are a different matter than collegiate ones. Before I started public and then private school, beginning in 8th grade, our public library in Greenville was the only place my mother let me ride my bike by myself, and I think I read everything worth reading in the juvenile section, and a lot that wasn't.  I discovered Redwall there, Avi, Lloyd Alexander. Don't get me wrong: my loyalties lie with Hillsdale's Mossey Library all the way, but there's something not quite right about the college library. It's the same thing that's just not quite right about college in general: everyone's the same age. There aren't any fat little 10 year old chatting it up with the pretty librarian about some magical literature series, the next edition of which isn't coming out till October--an eternity! There aren't literary retired women on outings with each other perusing the nonfiction section in silence. You can't get a "Friends of the Library" totebag (which I'm planning on buying as soon as I settle down somewhere). In your average college library, Little girls don't guiltily discover sex via the copy of Cosmo shoved in the corner of the magazine rack and then get bored and move on to better things like man-eating freshwater fish and alien abductions. They don't host lunch book circles because students bring in coffee and sandwhiches anyway.

In other words, as lovely as the university library is, I realized today that it lacks that beautiful superfluity of a public library.  Without the university library, there is not university. It is a bulwark, a cornerstone of its institution. You walk in and you can feel a solemn necessity easy mistaken for florescent lighting tugging at your corneas.

Contrast this with the public library: it is a center of it's community's culture, and the beautiful thing about culture is that it's completely unnecessary. No one will starve to death without a public library; stock markets will not crumble; the grocery store will stay in business. Like opera or sculpture, it represents something essential to the human spirit--more essential, perhaps, than the necessities themselves, but it isn't actually necessary. And therein lies its glory. You walk into the public library and there you find a microcosm of the community: young mothers, little children, high school students on Facebook, old men with the morning paper. Everyone together in this warmly hushed silence that you just won't find anywhere else. The public library just about all we have left in America as far as a public commons founded on leisure rather than consumerism.

I walked out with Natasha Trethewey's new collection of poetry (she's the current poet laureate), a really fun and badly written book on the history of numbers, and the film No Country for Old Men. As I drove off in my beige '99 Camry, I felt a kind of peace and excitement for adult life. It's easy for me to look back on college as a kind of golden age of my intellectual life. I had friends there who knew more than I do about just about everything, and I read so that I could talk to them about ideas. We spoke each other's language in terms of personalism, poetry, and eudaimonia. We'd see each other weeping blood at 1 am and then again over breakfast the next day. We drank bourbon and continued to talk homework on the weekends because we loved it so much. And now that's over.

But the library lives on, I remembered today, and I find that comforting. In fact, I think my new relationship with the library will be much more healthy in this new adult phase of my life. I used to joke that Mossey Library was like a bad boyfriend whom I couldn't leave. Now I can resume the childhood friendship founded on love rather than necessity. I can read because I love it, not because I need to, and I like that feeling. That's the joy of this blog, too--rediscovering how much fun writing can be, that I really do love it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Outside the Drum Circle & Looking In

"Why is there an animal pelt in the trash," Kim asked me as we set up labeled paper bags and washed yesterday's tomatoes on Tuesday morning for distribution. Everyone else was out in the fields, picking over whatever was left of our lettuce after last week's massacre by our nefarious neighborhood deer. Soon we would be sorting through bushels of patty pan squashes, little yellow cucumbers--the last of those vines rotted with blight, baskets of crisp chard, washing the mud off the beets which seemed to have grown to massive sizes in a matter of hours.

For now, however, the three suspicious goat pelts stuffed in the CSA trash occupied our attention.

"I think Nii'Anung repaired his drums," I replied. "There are two with new, damp stretched skins in the greenhouse." They made the place smell more like a slaughterhouse or a tannery than a nursery.

I went to my first drum circle on accident. I knew that Polly and Nii'Anung (for those of you who are new to the blog, they are one of the two couples who live here on the farm, and they run the CSA portion of the business) hosts them on Friday nights with a few musical friends, but it was Saturday that night and I wasn't expecting percussion as I ambled down to her house at the far end of the driveway one evening to give her a message. This was before I got my cell phone back--I was without it for the first month here.

They're usually pretty shy; they play for fun, not for performance, but they invited me to stay and I ate this intriguing beet salad one of the women, a Russian, had made and settled on the couch to watch.

Since then, I've been back a few times. I usually bring fresh bread for my potluck offering and after dinner I melt in the dim background of the house and let them play. One night they tried to teach me dance, but my complete inability to stay upright while hopping on one foot and doing the shimmy axed that idea. Maybe I'll try it again.

Some people might find African drumming monotonous--there's certainly little of the central melody, climactic structure, and harmony within which we live and breath and have our musical being in the West. It's a different language. For me, there's something of it of the heartbeat, the bird's song, the hummingbird's thrum. Both Chesterton and Fr. Capon speak of God giving the sun an encore every morning, applauding the seasons through their perpetual cycle: "That was great, let's do it again." Chesterton particularly points out that the pursuit of novelty marks age; children always want to play the same game of peakaboo. I know my favorite books as a child were worn through at the spine and my parents had memorized them long before I grew tired of them and moved on to other things.

If you distilled down the rhythm of the world, damped down the tones and kept the pulses, I think you would hear the beat of an African drum song. It isn't my language, I can't follow it or appreciate the laughter into which those Friday night songs often dissolve because someone started on the wrong beat.  But it does make me hear the world differently when I leave. I pay more attention to the texture of the crickets straining over the cicadas and the frogs chiming in.

You can get lost in the visions melody strings up, but at least to my untrained ears, the drumbeat calls you to here and now. I suppose we recognize that in the West by using percussion for the soldier's march, the judge's gavel, and the orchestra's climax which knocks us out of our wandering minds and into the present. The drumbeat at the circle makes the whole room an instrument--the percussive crush of couch against my shoulder, the thud of the oak-board floor against my heel.

But hold the ecstasy, or rather hold me in it because I am standing outside. I'm not inside the circle; I don't know this music. I can only speak in charmed ignorance.

I found myself there at Polly's last Friday night because I couldn't stand the thought of being along another hour. So yes, I love my little hilltop kingdom, but let me tell you something: it's really hard. It's really hard being alone with myself. It was tolerable for the first two months, but now I'm terribly lonely because I'm always looking in from the outside.

They say here in Floyd County that if your family hasn't been here three generations, you're not from Floyd. Sometimes I feel this way about all the world--that I've never been anywhere long enough to know anything or anyone. I'm a continent away from where I grew up and far south of my collegiate home of the last four years which I also left just as it was becoming home. You have to stick around to know anything, to be from anywhere, and I've never stuck around. I'm not from here.

I'm not from here, and I'm tired of living temporary lives with people I'll never really know. It's exhausting, always investing in a new place and knowing I'll never be there long enough to really reap or sow. I'm not part of the drum circle, even though I'm more than welcome to watch and try a few beats.

But really, I'm not outside, of course. I'm an alien, but aren't we all? I'm watching now because watching is a part of learning to play. The apprentice is part of the farm, too. This is my pilgrimage, the next step of the past twenty-two years. And every evening that I'm alone I think back on the communities which I've been so blessed to call home, if only for a while: St. Andrew's Academy, Hillsdale, my family, of course. I'm a stranger in a strange land, but I've had some great camp sites--this one, too. Maybe some day I'll learn how to stick around long enough to grumble about the summers getting warmer, to forget when the neighbors moved in, and to harvest the orchard I plant, but this is training for that time which paradoxically for me means learning to live well now, with myself and with other people, rather than always looking ahead for some future fulfillment.
"Contemplative waiting is consenting to be where we really are ... People recoil from it because they don't want to be present to themselves. Such waiting causes a deep existential loneliness to surface, a feeling of being disconnected from oneself and God. At the depths there is fear, fear of the dark chaos within ourselves."--a monk of Thomas Merton's monestary, from Sue Monk Kidd's When the Heart Waits (courtesy of Marieke van der Vaart)