Signature Memory Quilt: Notes, Ideas, and Thoughts on a Retirement Gift

This month, one of my favorite library coworkers is retiring. I decided I needed to make a quilt for her as a retirement gift. I wanted it to be a sort of memento to represent all of her years at the library, personalized by as many coworkers as possible. At first I thought of gathering favorite quotes from coworkers about books, reading, libraries, friendship, memories. I imagined formatting them all in Photoshop and then having them printed on cotton and…it seemed that would be lovely but overwhelming, and coupled with the fact that this coincided with me transitioning to working full time and, yeah. I abandoned that idea.

Instead I started with this sketch:

Signature memory quilt sketch

So, my basic idea was a center panel of books, with rows of book spines, some of them of printed fabric, some of them signed by coworkers.

And here's how it ended up turning out:

Signature memory quilt front

I cut a bunch of 7.5" x 2.5" strips. I was working with a vague idea of how it might all actually come together, so I estimated I would need 50 6"x7.5 squares, (2 printed strips surrounding one white one with the signature(s) of coworkers). I ended up needing way more, which I added to the sides of the center panel. I think I ended up with 75 signed strips.

I made the books in the center panel using the Book Nerd pattern from Angela Pingel.  It is a paper piecing pattern and these blocks were super fun to put together. I changed the pattern by enlarging it overall and then making the books wider. For these books, I tried to pick fabrics that both represented things my friend loves (the ocean, sewing, books, travel) and fit into the general scrappy-pastel color scheme. The fabric with images from Utah was a last-minute discovery from Joann and I was so happy to find it! (Even though I don’t, I confess, often use fabric from Joann, as the last time I did the result was a dye-bleed disaster.) I meant to make two rows of five books but the addition of the spines on the side meant I just had room for three.

When I finally got everything ready and put it together, I did have to take away some of the colored strips to have space for all of the signature strips. I was planning on the quilt being 60" wide but it ended up at 64" (ish), which is close enough. It took some scootching and some of the spines are trimmed down, but I think that’s OK because of course all book spines aren’t the same width.

One of my friends who also quilts, and who also used to work with us at the library, made the five appliqued squares: two plants, a lamp, a cup of tea, and a framed picture. That kind of square is NOT my forte so I was so happy to have her addition. I think they were the perfect finishing touch to bring everything together.

A few process tips for making a signature memory quilt:

  • Prewash the plain cotton you want people to sign. This will help the ink saturate the fabric more deeply.
  • Use a high-quality cotton. I used Kona Snow for mine. Avoid fabric that has much obvious texture as it will make the writing bumpy—the smoother the better!
  • Use NEW markers. I used Micron Pigma pens because I have two quilts my mother-in-law made for my boys, and she signed them with these markers. Dozens and dozens of washes later, her signature is still there. You might have some lying around, especially if you do other crafts, but get new ones for the quilt. They write so much easier and darker when they are new.
  • Heat set every block before you sew them all together. The heat will also help set the ink.

I backed the quilt with this fabric. Isn’t it perfect!!! (Another confession, I might’ve made the whole quilt simply because I wanted to use THAT fabric for a friend who loves books as much as I do.)

Signature memory quilt back

It’s called Book Shelves, by Caitlin Wallace Rowland/Dear Stella and of this writing it’s still available. I got mine at Hawthorne Fabrics. 

The quilting was done by Sew Shabby quilting. I was worried about this part because I thought the words people had written would be covered by the quilting. She arranged it perfectly, though, so you could still read all of the words. She has a lovely wool batting so I had her use that. It’s light and fluffy and I love it!

This was the first time I’ve made a memory quilt like this. Some things I learned:

  1. I was pretty terrified when I washed it that the signatures and notes would fade away, but most of them were OK. I had a variety of pen thicknesses, but if I do another quilt like this I will only have .5 and .8 pens. The thinner ones did get a bit harder to read when I washed it. I also learned that fine-tipped Sharpies are OK for this kind of project.
  2. I had the 6 x 7.5 squares already sewn together, so the left and right seam allowances were already taken care of. Even though I told people to write at least ¼" from the top and bottom, a few people bumped into the seam allowances. Next time I’ll draw pencil lines on all of the signature strips to help out with that. Also, I had a spare piece of the white cloth for people to practice writing with the pens, which I think helped. Writing on fabric is not like writing on paper!
  3. I wanted to collect signatures and notes from coworkers who don’t work at the library anymore, as well as current ones. This was a lot of mailing, worrying about mail, and one that didn’t get back in time. I definitely did NOT allow enough time and it was a little bit stressful in the end to make sure it was finished by the time of the retirement party. But, it was really fun to see and communicate with people who I hadn’t in awhile.
  4. I was surprised at how many people were very reluctant to write anything more than their name. I tried to just give them space so I wasn’t reading over their shoulder when they wrote. I also told them it was SO not a big deal if they messed up. That’s what seam rippers are for! I also encouraged them to not worry about their handwriting. As long as it is legible, it is great!

I got to give the quilt to my friend last Tuesday. I think she loved it and I hope it helps her remember how loved and valued she was at the library. And how much she will be missed.

(And, I have to say: I’m pretty proud of myself for getting an entire quilt finished while I was also working full time and recuperating from surgery. I can do difficult things!)


Ten Things I Loved about Being a Reference Librarian: A List

Today marks my last day working as a Reference Librarian. Monday will find me full-time in the library’s Programming department, where I am excited to learn new skills, interact with new coworkers, and have new experiences.

But before I leave Reference, I just want to write this list:

TEN THINGS I LOVED ABOUT REFERENCE LIBRARIANSHIP

  1. Talking to patrons about books. In more than 14 years, I never got over the thrill of a stranger asking me for a book recommendation and the feeling of helping them find just the right thing. Over the years I have had so many great conversations about books, literature, genres, poetry, the publishing industry, ebooks vs. print books, audiobook narrators, recipe books, self-help books, graphic novels. How books can change your life. If it’s OK to not finish a books. The book that made me want to throw it across the room. What kinds of books teenagers should read. Why books aren’t rated and why I don’t think that should change. Recently, book banning and censorship. Someone’s favorite book from the third grade. That I got paid to talk to people about books is just astounding.
  2. Seeing people’s reaction to the library’s art. We have an amazing collection and people respond to it. My favorite is a sculpture called “Incoming.” Some children are terrified of it,
    Incoming sculpture at the orem public library
    One view of the sculpture.

    some find it fascinating. Some just giggle because he’s naked. Children’s responses were my favorite, but I also loved talking to adults about it. Often they would say “Oh, it’s The Thinker!” No, we definitely don’t have a Rodin in our library. This piece is about war and it is a companion of mine. I do tell it hello most days I’m in the library.
    Incoming sculpture at Orem Public Library
    The view of the statue from my desk. Amazing how the color of the stone shifts!
  3. A patron who loves poetry as much as I do, or one who WANTS to learn about it. A patron who discovered Margaret Atwood because of The Handmaid’s Tale and wonders if I could tell her what to read next. One who hopes we might have quilting books? Someone in awesome Dr. Martens who notices my flower ones and then we spend twenty minutes talking about boots. Someone who just happens to ask me (I don’t work in media for a reason!) if the library has an alternative music CDs. These very personal connections are the best.
  4. Library stories. I’ve shared a bunch on my Facebook feed over the years. My favorite might be the time a little girl came into the fiction section, took a big, appreciative sniff, spun around in her dress, and said “Oh I LOVE the liberry. It is my very favorite berry.” (The child who warned her brother that librarians in basements are actually witches is another good one.) Not every shift had a story but a lot of them did and I loved getting to experience them.
  5. Favorite patrons. I don’t know if there’s a rule somewhere that states you can’t have favorite patrons, but I don’t care. I do. I got to see one of my favorites, a patron who is in her 80s but seems more like early 60s, always put together and very intelligent about books, this week. She’d been ill with COVID and I was so happy to see her back again. I think other, more loquacious and outgoing librarians than me have a bigger fan base, but I have six or seven patrons who I’ve developed a lovely library friendship with.
  6. Developing our library’s book group collection. This was something I inherited pretty quickly after I started working here. First I just managed the reservations and then I started doing the collection development (meaning I decided which books to buy). This assignment worked with my strengths so closely. It gave me an opportunity to interact with patrons in other ways (many of my favorite patrons are book group users), to use my writing skills (I also created the discussion guides), and to look at books from a unique perspective. I fought really hard to be allowed to keep this collection when I switched departments but I lost that battle, and I’m still very upset about it.
  7. Walking with books. This might seem silly. But I loved that I got to just walk up and down shelves loaded with books. To be among books. Surrounded by them. Reading isn’t just sort of a little hobby I have. It’s integral to my very identity, and so I don’t love books just as mechanisms for getting to a story, but for the books themselves. The covers, the smell, the heft, the type. The spines all lined up on a shelf.
  8. Quiet shifts at the desk. People always say “Oh, you work at the library! It must be so peaceful there.” Truth is, it is often the very opposite of peaceful. I have had patrons scream at me, tell me I’m stupid and worthless, shout across the floor to get my attention. Couples have arguments in the stacks, people talk loudly on their cell phones. They cough and sneeze, snore and, yes, fart. (I pretend not to notice.) Often there’s a phone ringing and a patron who needs help printing and another one who wants to complain about taxes or inflation or what a disappointment Joe Biden is. (Sorry, you picked the wrong librarian for that conversation.) All at the same time. So my introvert self deeply appreciates the quiet shifts when the library is slow and I can work on whatever projects I had, in peace, surrounded by books.
  9. A display shelf. This is another thing I will desperately miss, my staff favorites display. This is where I put four or five of my favorite books, making sure to rotate through everything that I loved. Not everyone wants to ask a librarian for recommendations and this was a way to connect with people who didn’t want to talk. I loved that I could influence what people decide to read without ever even talking to them. Since my tastes lean eclectic and unusual, it felt like being a champion for the books that likely wouldn’t get checked out much. A way to kind of pay it forward for my favorite authors and the work they do. Plus, a couple of times patrons in the wild recognized me: “Hey! I know you from your library shelf! I read [insert random title here] because it was on your shelf and I loved it!” (I generally do NOT love being recognized by patrons while not in the library, especially the problematic ones, but that interaction is OK.)
  10. “Always put the most important thing last” is a basic tenant of good writing, so this one is number ten: My coworkers. Not all of them have been my friend or mentor, but the majority of them have. There is just something about working with book people when you, yourself, are a book person. I mean. Two librarians talking about books together? It can get gloriously intensely booknerdy. Plus, when you love books you look at the world in a different light. Many of my coworkers have been, to borrow Anne Shirley’s words, kindred spirits. They were the best part of a job that held a lot of goodness.

Here’s to the ending of one chapter and the start of another in my career as a librarian!


A Librarian's Thoughts on Book Banning

I am highly offended by the books of Anita Stansfield, who is an author who writes Mormon fiction. Having read about several of her books, and listened to other readers talk about them, and read one myself, I find her work problematic. It encourages a false perspective on how following the rules of the LDS church will eventually lead to a miraculous intervention that saves the day and thus encourages destructive magical thinking. I want to protect all readers from that thought process, and so I am suggesting that her books be banned from all libraries in Utah, where the population is particularly likely to think in this way.

For added measure, perhaps we could burn the books while we're at it. 

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I try to stay on top of knowing about the recent bout of book banning, library meddling,  ridiculously-long (and actually out-of-date) lists of books politicians think shouldn’t be in libraries, and actual book burnings.  

This feels important to me as a librarian, a former educator, and a person with a child still in the public education system.

More, it feels important to me as an educated, functional human being in a society increasingly threated by right-wing wackadoodles.

As a librarian in a conservative area, I come across people objecting to books often. I once had a patron proudly return (as in, made a point to personally hand it to me) a book club book where she’d blacked out the three swear words she found in the first chapter. She hadn’t finished the book, of course—too many swear words, obviously, for her book club to read—but thought she’d done a service for the community. (The book in question? Blessings by Anna Quindlen. Ah, yes, Anna Quindlen. Such an offensive writer.) I have had patrons tell me our shelves are full of smut (ie: romance novels). Patrons object to one of our statues on a regular basis (not as often as people confuse it with Rodin’s The Thinker, but still.) Last year one of the city council members objected to our Pride display; my favorite was his thought that “graphic novels” were, like, books with sexually graphic scenes. 

I’m not unfamiliar with the arguments and issues of the more conservative-minded people in our communities.

The problem is, this demographic almost always misunderstands the point of libraries in the first place.

Yes, libraries are funded by public tax dollars. They are a service that our community has long held a valuable one, worth the money and infrastructure.

But they don’t exist just for one group of people. They exist for the community. And communities (even those as homogenous as Utah County) have a variety of people. Races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientation. Even down to the microscopic level of individual reading tastes: communities are not full of photocopied people, exactly the same.

The problem is that whatever group is the majority tends to think that everyone thinks like them.

An example. A few weeks ago, I had a patron call and ask me to recommend “a few good books.” Being a professional librarian, I understand that everyone’s definition of “good” when it comes to books is different. So I asked her “what do you mean by ‘good’?”

She got very flustered. I asked a few more questions and it turns out, for her a “good” book is one that doesn’t have any sex, swearing, or violence. I proceeded to give her a few suggestions, but before I could get very far, she cut me off.

“I’m surprised you would ask me what ‘good’ means,” she said. “They teach us about goodness in church every week.”

That is the perfect story to illustrate the thought process of a person who thinks it’s necessary to only have the stories of white, cishet, Christian  perspectives on library shelves. It is thinking based on so many assumptions, the biggest one being that everyone thinks, believes, and acts the way she does, because she is the standard of normalcy and goodness.

Anything else is abnormal and thus shameful, and so not worthy of reading about.

And so I started this blog post with a writer that many people in Utah County love. I chose her work on purpose: to illustrate how ridiculous book banning is, how it is centered in one individual's opinion rather than the community at large. I actually do despise her work. As a reader who values intellectual honesty, curiosity for other ways of living, and beautiful writing, I am not going to read Anita Stansfield’s work. (One was enough.) And I do think it creates a harmful image of religion leading one to a God who dispenses blessings based on righteousness—insert your obedience, grab your sweet, sweet blessing!—which I haven’t found to be true in my experiences.

However, I would never suggest that we shouldn’t have her books on our library shelves. This is because as adult human beings, we each get to choose what we read (or watch or listen to). We all need different things from books: every book has its reader just as every reader has her book.

But the conservative thought pattern cannot seem to allow for that. In the book-banning perspective, there is only one way to think, to believe, to act, or to be in the world. And instead of simply just being like that (which is a fine choice if that’s what they want) themselves, they want to make sure everyone else is exactly the same as them.

“But Amy!” you might be saying. “That’s fine for public libraries. School libraries shouldn’t have books with LGBTQ stories in them!”

To which I answer: “Why?”

Age-level-appropriate books on all subjects should be available to public-school children of all ages. This is because, as with “adult” society, there is a wide range of types of children. Should parents discuss such issues at home? Absolutely. Do all of them? Absolutely not. And policing morality isn’t even the point. The point is that even children should see themselves represented on library shelves, and, as with society in general, there are kids who come from all sorts of backgrounds.

And I also believe that children should be encouraged to understand that the world is wide. They have only experienced a miniscule portion of it, but books help them understand that there is so much more. 

The interesting thing in all of this? Most people who object to books, or get on the “let’s ban this” bandwagon (and there are so many, many wagons these days), haven’t even read the books in question. Do you honestly think that Texas State Representative Matt Krause has read all of the 850 books on his list?   Of course not.

So here I am. A librarian, a liberal thinker, a person who loves books and art and music. A bibliophile who cherishes beauty in artistic expression but who also believes that art should portray the ugliness and horror of humanity, too, and that we as readers shouldn’t turn away from it. A reader whose definition of a “good” book is both wide and deep but doesn’t allow for shoddiness of craft or of thinking.

What am I to do in the face of so much narrow-minded thinking?

Sign petitions. Make noise on social media. (Write blog posts no one will read!) Make sure the collections I am responsible for at work have a wide variety of choices for all readers. Hope that when I ask “well, what’s ‘good’ to you?” it might sometime be a spark that lights the darkness.

Keep reading, keep talking, keep sharing books and poems and ideas.

Keep writing politicians.

“We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel wrote. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

It might not change much but I will continue using my voice to remind the world that all readers deserve representation on all library shelves everywhere.


Why We Need Black History Month

A kind-of fuzzy, surprisingly clear-in-spots library memory from my childhood:

I’m holding a book that is about Black children. I don’t remember the title or what the story was or what happened that lead to this conversation. Just my hand holding the book and me saying to a librarian “I don’t think I’m supposed to read this” and her telling me (after maybe some questions on her part about why I didn’t think I could check it out? That’s also fuzzy and incomplete) “No, white people can absolutely read books about Black people. You check that out and read it.”

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I grew up in a small town in Utah County that was on the outskirts of the bigger towns that were still pretty small; my community was very, very white. I didn’t have a Black student in the same grade as me until I was a sophomore in high school, and when he transferred in everyone buzzed about how great our basketball team would be now. As I was not in the same social circles as athletes I never met him. (Honestly, I don’t even know if he actually played basketball.) At the grocery store, at school, at gymnastics and dance classes, at church, just walking down the street: I never saw a Black person except on TV.

I remember that my parents watched the TV mini series Roots but wouldn’t let me in the room while it was on (I was four).

I remember learning about slavery and the Civil War, that slavery was bad and the 14th Amendment was good and Abraham Lincoln was a hero.

Maybe I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in high school, but I don’t remember it specifically.

I remember many of the reading assignments I had as I grew up. I remember reading and discussing “Design” by Robert Frost and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson and Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck and Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury.

I was never assigned to read a book by a Black writer.

Even in my own personal reading (which was prolific) I read books about white people doing white-people things.

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It wasn’t until college that I began reading books by Black writers, and that seems accidental. I discovered Toni Morrison because her novel Sula was assigned in one of my Women’s Lit classes. Phillis Wheatley in an early American Lit course. Zora Neal Hurston because I took a couple of folklore classes; Maya Angelou in Contemporary Lit (although she wasn’t in the assigned anthology but mentioned as a sort of throw-away, fluffy writer). I found Audre Lorde through Critical Theory and James Baldwin in a course on essay writing, Langston Hughes in poetry writing. The Harlem Renaissance was briefly mentioned in some class or other.

Did I ever take an entire course that focused on Black writers?

I did not. I highly doubt that at BYU in the 1990s such a course even existed.

And yet: I loved all of these writers. Their work taught me, in ways that seemed elemental and gut-deep, how narrow my understanding about the world was. I knew my tiny little bit of Utah white culture and there were a billion other ways that people lived and experienced the world that I had never imagined. The horrors and struggles of it, but also the joy.  

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “The Mothers”

Audre Lorde’s poem “Never to Dream of Spiders”
and “Stations”
and “From the House of Yemanja”

Lucille Clifton’s poem “wishes for sons”

June Jordan’s poem “Poem about My Rights”

But there was so much to learn in those years of studying, and so many white male professors. I learned about feminism because that was what I wanted to know best, but intersectionality? Kimberle Crenshaw wasn’t a person I discovered on my own, or bell hooks. My literary theory textbooks didn’t contain any Black writers’ ideas, on feminism or anything else.

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I was in my late twenties before I met and made friends with African American women online.

In my 30s before I even knew an African American person in real life.

In my 40s before I became actual, tell-you-my-secrets friends with an African American person who lived and worked in my community.

This isn’t because I didn’t want to know Black people. It is because my life is small, and my social circle even smaller. I moved into my house in 1993 and never left, and I mostly keep to myself so I just have very few friends in general. And it’s because I live in Utah County still, which: yes, OK, it is far more diverse now. (I dare say many people here do not see this as a positive, but I do.) But it’s still mostly white, and I remain bad at making friends.

(I am deeply ashamed at all of this.)

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These have been my thoughts as I have worked on a display for the library of books for Black History Month. As I put it together, I had an imaginary interaction with a patron, one that is based on interactions that I have actually had, and might actually have again, and surely will be had by someone. The patron sees the display and, instead of picking up a book, reading the cover copy, and maybe checking it out, he stops whatever librarian is close to say something like “isn’t this discrimination against white people?” or “shouldn’t you just feature the best books instead of only books by Black people?” or (always in a joking tone) “Hey! When is white history month?”

One of my librarian truths is that I value diversity. I try to make sure my collections have the best books by writers from everywhere, not just America. When I put books on my staff display shelf, they aren’t all about white people doing white things. This doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It’s just my individual approach. It’s important to me not because I want to be politically correct but because that is also my reading philosophy: I read so I can be exposed to experiences and perspectives other than my own.

Since I can remember, I have prided myself for being “not racist.” For me, the realization that Black writing (and art and music and sculpture and all of it) exists and is worth my attention was so slow in coming. So gradual. I didn’t learn these stories, these perspectives, in my earliest formative years, and yet I have never understood treating people different because they aren’t white. It also took me a long time to understand that saying “I’m not racist” because I don’t think people of color  are less than me doesn’t absolve me from the impacts of racism.

I thought that reading books by Black people, trying to understand their experiences through their words, was enough.

Of course, it isn’t.

The truth is, my grandmother, who I loved with all of my heart, said some pretty racist things.

The truth is my family line includes planation owners and thus slavery. My ancestors owned other people.

The truth is, my fumbling attempts to “not be racist” make no difference to the world at large.

The truth is I have received benefits in my life because I am a white person.

The fact that I love some Black writers’ work changes none of this.

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But it is also one of the tools I have. I will continue this work: reading authors whose lives are different from mine. Trying to understand their real struggles. Trying to vote in ways that help them. Sharing their work. Protesting book banning. Listening.

And I confess: I do find a little bit of hope in this. Are there still small white bibliophiles like I was as a child, who think that only Black people read books about Black people? Well, probably. But there are fewer at least.

And there are so many books published now. Black writers win awards (far fewer than white men, of course, but at least it does happen now) and have successful writing careers and are guests on Trevor Noah.

They aren’t a shadowy group of “Black writers” but individuals whose work has impacted my life: Claudia Rankine, Roxanne Gay, Jesmyn West, Jacqueline Woodson, N. K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Tracy K. Smith, Aja Monet.

We have so far to go. So far. But we are more aware and at least, at least there is discussion.

At least there are lists of books. You can use one as a book mark to remind yourself that Black people’s stories are just as important as white people’s. Just as worthy of your time.

There are posters in school libraries.

There is Black History Month.

There are librarians like that long-ago one who told me I could read a book about someone who looked different from me.

There are librarians like me, who continue today to say the same thing to as many people as we can.

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And thus I return, over and over, to one of my core beliefs, surprised again by how myriad its truth is:

It is with books we change the world.


Friday Library Stories

Fridays are my long days at the library, and yesterday I worked an extra hour. That really shouldn't feel that difficult but man, nine hours felt long even in a space I love.
 
As the day progressed, though, I found myself paying attention to the good vibes I was feeling. Someone thanked me sincerely for helping him print his document. A cute little girl in a black Friends t-shirt waved at me and said "I love the liberry!" The morning light through the east windows was perfect.
 
Despite it being a long day, it was also full of lovely little moments, so I thought I'd jot them down.
 
I helped a patron who needed some copies. He had one of those open and energetic vibes, and he told me several stories about his life adventures. He looked nothing like them, but reminded me so much of my dad and his brothers. They were always ready with a story to tell, and told it with the assumption that A---you knew exactly who they were talking about and B---they were the most interesting stories ever. (Quiet often they were!) And they could always talk about art. This gentleman had that same spunk & spirit &  innate storytelling vibe. I enjoyed his stories and I enjoyed feeling that connection to my dad.
 
I helped another patron find a book in Spanish...in Spanish! My Spanish is definitely not the greatest but when I manage to help someone in the language they understand best it makes me feel accomplished and somehow more...welcoming, I guess.
 
Our library tarantula, Libby, is a little bit anti-social and spends a lot of time in her burrow. She was out today though (I think she likes Fridays because when I see her out it is almost always on a Friday). Whenever she's actually out, if there are kids downstairs I'll let them know. One little girl was looking in the terrarium while her mom used the computer, so I walked over to point her out. When she spotted her—a little bit behind a leaf—she grabbed my hand and squeezed because, as she said, "I've never gotten to actually really see her in real life yet!" So cute!
 
An old family friend—she has known me since I was four—came into the library today and we had a really lovely chat. She told me that she always checks my staff displays and takes home at least one. A few months ago she took The Awakening and she told me it gave her so much to think about in relation to her decisions within the church. As I feel like every LDS woman in Utah County should read it simply for that reason, this made me feel super validated. Also I just really love it when people tell me they like my suggestions!
 
Another patron this afternoon asked me what the name of the statue by the reference desk is, so I told her  the name ("Incoming") and the story of the piece. In another life I'd like to be a museum docent, please. Preferably in Italy. I love talking about art (even if my knowledge is limited) because I LOVE art!
 
I survived my long day by just paying attention to the little good moments!

The Shushing Librarian Archetype is a Myth

A page putting books on the shelf. The creak of a cart wheel. Two patrons in the cookbook section, laughing quietly. Another walking towards the art section, a thin stream of music coming from her headphones. One patron types rapidly on the computer behind me, another hesitantly at the catalog. The buzz of someone's cell phone quickly silenced, the slam of an office door, the ding of the elevator as its doors open.
 
When I tell someone I work at a library, I am often met with a similar response: "Oh, it must be so lovely to work somewhere so quiet." (There is also the assumption that librarians just sit around reading books, which would be lovely but, alas, no.) The shushing librarian is an archetype, that, once studied or actually lived, falls apart quickly. We try to keep the noise levels manageable, and often the library is quiet, but not really.
April 2021 library
 
The library is a place filled with books and formed by the shapes needed to house them, but it really is a place of stories.
 
I didn't really expect this when I started working as a librarian nearly twelve years ago. I didn't understand how bartender-ish it can be, working as a librarian. How people tell you their stories, or small parts of them, either overtly through their requests for help finding books or directly, by just starting to talk to you.
 
It's also a place where stories happen. In interactions between patrons and librarians, between patrons and other patrons. Sometimes between librarians. People come to a library needing something. A book, a computer, some free wi-fi. An escape from their husband or kids or mother or annoyingly loud neighbor. Sometimes, they just need a place to sit out of the rain. To be a person who needs something can be a vulnerable position to be in, and that is often where the stories happen.
 
Just thought today I would share a few I took part in.
 
Even though the library where I work has been open for almost the entirety of the pandemic (we were closed for about seven or eight weeks but then opened with varying levels of modification), there is always someone angry or annoyed by what we aren't doing. Right now, we are open for our normal hours, and we have started putting back some of the furniture. No comfy chairs, but there are chairs at the study desks. The study rooms are not open and probably won't be for some time yet.
 
I had a patron this morning come to my desk and demand a study room. "I need a room right now, and the wireless password." I took a breath before responding because I could guess, by his body language and voice tone, how this would go. I explained that the study rooms are not open yet, but he could use one of the laptop bars if he wanted. He pushed back and insisted: "your colleague on the other side told me I could have a room, so I want a room." I apologized and he walked away, muttering.
 
He walked back across the bridge that connects our two wings. He shouted at the librarian at that desk. She called me and I said the same thing: tell him the rooms are not open. (I also said "I'm sorry he's being such a jerk" but quietly, so he didn't hear me). Then he stormed back across the bridge toward my desk. I looked right at him, daring him to catch my eye. He didn't, but he walked by and muttered something that included "pandemic" and "fucking ridiculous."
 
And I'm just now SO looking forward to working next week, when the statewide mask mandate will be lifted but not in city buildings. It took a pandemic to teach me that some people really are asses. 
 
❦❦❦
 
Downstairs, I helped an older woman. She needed to save and then email the Word doc she'd been writing, but wasn't sure how to on our system. She very apologetically asked me for help. I always try not to read the documents a patron has created. It's none of my business and they can have their privacy, but it's impossible not to see a few words. Her document, which she explained was a letter to her brother, included the words "funeral," "mom," "inheritance" and "lawyer."
 
I helped her save and then showed her how to attach the document in her email, then left her to write whatever else she needed to. When she was done, she came over to thank me for helping her. It's never required to thank your librarian, but honestly it is awfully nice when someone does. She told me her document was "a very important one during a hard time for our family" and then got a little teary but didn't actually cry, and I just said "you're welcome, you enjoy the beautiful day" and she smiled at me with her eyes. 
 
Two different people. Each needing something. But how they each approached the experience was totally different. The woman's heartfelt "thank you" contrasted with the angry man's swearing...that is the realness of the librarian experience, not sitting behind a desk in a cardigan and bun, shushing people. It is talking about books, sometimes. Often it is talking about printing or other basic computer skills. But always it is about interaction. Not all of them are positive, but I am grateful for the ones that are. 

Library Experiences in a COVID World

If you’ve read my blog for very long, follow me on Instagram, or know me in person, you know I believe that books can save your life. I believe in the power of the written word to help a reader find her way, of story to educate, console, and transform, of metaphor to enlighten. I believe libraries are an important part of our society; like museums, they feed our cultural heart.

But I also understand the reality of our current situation, the fact that we are living in a pandemic.

On Friday night I had a…conversation? not really an argument, per se, because I did not lose my temper, but it was definitely a discussion. Let’s call it a debate. On Friday night I had a debate with a library patron that brought these two concepts into conflict.

The library where I work was one of the first libraries to open in Utah, and so, since Utah seems to have opened earlier than many other states, perhaps one of the first to open in the nation. We started with highly modified procedures and have gradually, over the months, relaxed the constrictions. Two weeks ago, we moved to being open for our normal hours. But we still require masks; we ask patrons to limit their visit to an hour, and there isn’t any furniture set out. You can’t linger in comfortable chairs, reading the newspaper. We want patrons to use the library to access materials—books, printers, the internet—and then go home. The library as a social gathering place is a concept for a non-pandemic world.

This particular patron was not happy with me when I told him about the lack of furniture and the one-hour time limit. Specifically, he wanted to sit somewhere comfortable and use his laptop. When I told him we weren’t set up for that, he grumbled that the library was “ridiculously Draconian.” I smiled politely and he wandered off.

Two hours later, I switched desks to the basement floor, where our computer lab is. Said gentleman was sitting in front of one of the computers, using his laptop. Mind you, this was two hours after I’d told him about our one-hour time limit. The other librarian had reminded him of the hour limit, but he pushed back.

I waited for another half hour, and when he still had made no progress toward leaving—and when there were other patrons in the area—I calmly told him that we are limiting the time for being in the library to an hour, and as he had been there for almost three, he needed to wrap it up. He again grumbled and rolled his eyes, and he snapped at me that he was “almost done.”

I said “OK, thank you,” and went back to my desk.

Ten minutes later, this patron walked over to my desk. He said “can I ask you a question?” and I said, “that is what I am here for.” I knew that of course he wasn’t going to ask me for a book recommendation (I mean, why would you ask a librarian sitting in the fiction area for a book recommendation? Clearly what happened was even better), but I never imagined what would happen next.

Twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes of debating whether or not the library’s restrictions are necessary. He brought up so many Fox News talking points. I calmly refuted them, but inside I was fuming. Fuming. He insulted me several times, but more than that, I feel like he took a hammer to my belief in humanity. After my shift, when I’d closed up the library and was driving home, I felt the response in my body, as if all the negative emotions were objects bumping around in my circulatory system.

I’m aware that blogging about this incident doesn’t change it. It doesn’t change his opinions (talking about it face to face didn’t change his opinions). It also might stir things up at work that might otherwise remain unstirred. But writing and sharing has become a method for processing for me. Those feelings are still here, jostling around my body, and maybe writing about them will help. Here is a list of his objections and my responses:

“Why is the library being so Draconian?”
He must’ve said “Draconian” fifty times. He claimed other libraries in the county allow you to do whatever you want. (This is not true.) And he kept pushing that there was a secret reason for all our limitations, a secret that I knew because I’m in the “upper echelon of librarians.” (If he only knew how ridiculous that statement is.)

Finally I just said, “sir, I seriously do not know a secret reason. Why don’t you tell me what you mean?” and he said “the secret is that the library is afraid. They are basing all of their decisions on fear.”

Yes. We don’t want our patrons to get sick. We don’t want our coworkers to get sick either. If taking safety precautions as recommended by scientists, while simultaneously being the most accessible library in perhaps the whole state is making decisions out of fear, then, OK. That’s the secret.

(I did not say these thoughts. They are highly sarcastic and even with my iron-willed control of my emotions I could not have responded politely to that point.)

“Why does the library think it’s so special?”
His point here was that grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and schools are open during the pandemic. Why shouldn’t libraries also be open?

I love libraries. They have been my saving grace on many occasions.

But libraries are not literal health care. They can’t stop you from dying from a heart attack.

Books can feed your soul, but they are not literal food. They cannot give you calories you need to sustain your body.

Libraries and education work closely together. Students need access to a library. Currently, at our library, they have access. They can check out books and use a computer. Also, I think the way our society is treating teachers is downright shameful.

Finally, he doesn’t see the irony in standing in a library shouting at a librarian about “fair access”? You are in a library. You’ve been here for three hours. What more do you want?

“Why do you think you’re so special?”
“The grocery store employees are risking their lives and you’re sitting there behind your sneeze guard in a mask doing nothing. Why should they risk their lives but you don’t have to? Isn’t it a little bit cowardly?”

Seriously…this random dude called me a coward. He knows nothing about me. He doesn’t know what small and large courageous things I’ve done. Truth is: I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want the lingering effects that COVID can have. I don’t want two weeks of feeling horrible. I don’t want my family members to have it, either.

I’m not a coward. I am a rational person who listens to the people I know who have experienced the illness, as well as the reports of doctors and scientists.

I’m also a person who is out in public taking care of patrons. Taking care of that patron arguing with me. How am I making myself “special”?

“I mean, it’s not like you have any risk factors. You’re young, you’ll be fine.”
He doesn’t know I have restricted lung function after having whooping cough.

He doesn’t know I have a husband and a child with heart issues.

Also he clearly doesn’t know that sometimes people get sick and even die without risk factors.

(I told him this, very politely. He looked abashed. Then he got in my face about sending my kid to school if he has risk factors. WHAT.)

“Oh, so doctors can risk their lives, but you can’t?”
Well, I chose to not become a doctor. I’m not medically certified. I didn’t go to school for eight or ten years like doctors do. I also don’t make a doctor’s salary. Whilst standing by my “libraries are important” belief, I also believe that libraries are far less important than doctors.

When I told him this, he said “well, you’re far less educated than a doctor. You probably don’t even have a Bachelor’s degree.”

Actually, I have two, but thanks for making my point for me. Yes: I know I don’t matter to society as much as doctors. That is exactly my point. They deserve to make more money than I do. But that also comes with personal risk.

“Besides, it’s not like this is as scary as everyone thinks. More people die from the flu. It will all go away after the election.”
(Please imagine me sitting in my tall chair behind the library desk, in my orange cardigan. Please imagine how high my eyebrow shot up. Please imagine the internal swearing that was happening inside my head.)

Well, I guess the doctors, nurses, grocery store employees, and teachers aren’t putting their lives at risk then, are they?

The worst thing, somehow, is at the end of this debate, he thanked me. He actually thanked me for having “an intelligent conversation” with him. I don’t know why that felt awful, but it did. Maybe because as a library employee I have to walk a fine line: I have to defend myself, but I also can’t be blunt and say what I really think. Maybe because I found it fairly surreal to be supporting restrictions that, in all honesty, I find to be not restrictive enough.

Or maybe just because I know I didn’t change his thought process one bit.

But I do feel better, having written this. If nothing else, I can stop having imaginary conversations with this guy in my head. Having written, I can now move on.

One of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, said “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future." I wonder...how much of this idea did that patron understand? He wasn't objecting to the library restrictions because he was worried about how it might impact anyone other than himself. He feels entitled to sit at the library for hours on end with his laptop, but it didn't matter at all to him that others actually have access to books; what mattered was that he couldn't have it exactly the way he wanted it.

And here's the irony in this whole situation. He didn't say this, but the conclusion I drew from his words is that he considers the library, and thus by association me and all other librarians, as being selfish. Thinking only about themselves instead of what their patrons might need, considering their own fears more important than his right to a comfortable place to sit.

And I, quite frankly, consider him to be selfish, thinking that his rights are more important than other people's health.

I didn't tell him that, of course. I did strive to remain professional during this interaction. But now that it is past and I am trying to process the experience, that is what I come back to. I don't want to believe that Americans have allowed our independent spirits to morph into selfishness. I want to believe in the good of humanity.

But that interaction left me much less able to hold on to my belief.


There is No Cure for Knowledge: Part 2

[This is a two-part blog post. You can read the first part HERE.]

“Yes, but it’s just an English degree. What can you do with that except teach high school?”

“It’s not like you had to work as hard as your sister did in school. Science degrees are way harder than English degrees.”

“Degrees in the humanities are worthless.”

“Oh no, if you were an English teacher you must be judging my grammar!”

“If you want to get a Master’s degree you should do it in something more practical than writing. Do you know how few people are actually successful writers?”

“Books are for prisoners.”

“Wait, you work at the library? I thought all libraries were closed because people just read digital books now.”

“The publication industry is dying. Why do you care so much about writing a book?”

“We don’t need librarians anymore because we have the Internet!”

“I don’t read fiction because it’s a waste of time to read made-up stories.”

“I don’t have the time to read very much now in terms of the books.”

All of these statements are things people have said to me in real life, except for the last one which comes from our esteemed president, whose dislike for and discomfort with books is evident on so many levels.

It’s not like I need my friends and family, not to mention doctors and that runner I talked with once on a race bus, to educate me on the futile uselessness of my interests. The world does that already. I mean…just consider my career. I can work as a librarian only because my husband’s job can support us. If I had to support a family on my own, even working full time, I couldn’t do it on my own as a librarian. This isn’t because I work for a miserly city with unfair pay policies but because society doesn’t deem librarians worthy of a sustainable wage. (As with teachers and social workers and police officers, of course, but everyone knows that. No one pays attention to the librarians.)

That random runner on the race bus was right: publication is a hard industry to be successful in, and the vast majority of people who manage to land an actual, printed book don’t make much money on it. (Six-figure advances make the news, of course, and there are outliers like King or Rowling or Grisham or Patterson, but many, many writers don’t make sustainable wages.) This is partly because society values quickness, a 20-minute video game, a sitcom, a 100-minute movie. Books take time, effort, and concentration to enjoy (which, apparently, only prisoners have).

Or, think of it like this: I bet you could tell me who starred in the last movie you watched, but likely you have no idea of who wrote the movie. You know—the person who created the world of the story. That person rarely gets noticed (except for in the credits), while the actors seem to make the movie.

Books, reading, valuing a well-written sentence or cleverly constructed paragraph, the meanings and use of words, novels, essays, poetry—oh, God, don’t even get me started on the average American adult’s lack of interest in poetry. These things matter deeply to me, but to the world in general they are kind of pointless.

But I think they are essential. Essential.

Especially right now.

I have to tell one more story to make my point. A few weeks before the news erupted with the pandemic, I bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen for more than a year at Costco. He is a trump supporter, but we have always managed to keep our conversations civil and respectful—he has done enough damage, I don’t want to allow him the destruction of friendships on top of it all.

So as this friend shared his opinion of the impeachment trial, I mostly just listened. But when he said “I don’t always agree with the way he handles stuff because his style is pretty outrageous, but I think he’s done great things,” I had to disagree.

I think it does matter how the president acts. Whatever the issue, whatever party you support, the president sets the tone for the country. So the current resident of the white house, with his mania and inanity, his relentless, misspelled tweets, his pandering to dictators, his unintelligence and his unfathomable speaking patterns, his disdain for reading—that influences everyone. “What if he could accomplish the ‘great things’ without acting like he does, though?” I asked my friend. “Wouldn’t the country be better?” [Please note that I did not ask about these supposed “great things” because really…I cannot think of one good thing he’s done in his tenure, but I do know that a friend bringing up things like Supreme Court judges and immigration issues would likely raise my ire higher than I could contain.]

This question gave him a pause. “I haven’t ever thought of it like that,” he said.

I haven’t ever thought of it like that.

Sure: I can tell you when to use every day versus everyday. I can usually think of a little snippet of a poem to go with nearly every situation I find myself in (I don’t often share these, though). I can talk literary theory with the best of them. I can discuss the way the feminist movement influences and is influenced by the sphere of literature. All of those skills and pieces of knowledge I’ve gained over a lifetime of loving and interacting with books, history, art, music, criticism, newspapers, literary magazines, university courses and professors and assignments—all of it is valuable to me.

But what I treasure the most is the ability to think about things in different ways. To know that my perspective is not the only one, my way of being in the world is not the only right choice but just one choice in a myriad of them. When I read something and I think I haven’t ever thought of it like that, I get excited. I ask myself why I haven’t thought in that way, what it says about my thought processes and how this new thought might change me. If I don’t know, I figure it out.

One individual human lifetime is small. So small. We get our years and our places and then we are gone. But with books, we can know larger parts of humanity than just our own. With knowledge we can see how we have changed and how we haven’t, how to do better and just how large our potential is (for both creation and destruction). I know just enough to know that I don’t know very much…you can read your whole life but still have a whole world left to discover. Just this spring, I read Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, where I learned about something I had never heard of, the Tulsa race riots and burning of Black Wall Street. And then our country erupted in protests, and a political rally was scheduled in Oklahoma, and suddenly people were talking about that moment in history. “Why didn’t we learn about that in history class?” people asked.

The why is because of systemic racism, but it is also about you. If you decided to stop learning about history, culture, science, ideas, philosophy and everything else simply because you graduated from high school or college, the problem is now in your hands. If you have decided that your way of looking at things is the best way, or the only way, the problem isn’t with your tenth-grade history teacher, but with your own lack of progress.

So as the United States starts to change (hopefully), what I keep coming back to is how the lack of imagination stifles progress. Reading lets you see that there are many worlds, and that many of them have more potential than the one we have created right now. It teaches you that the world has not always been the way it is now, and that there are many other experiences beside your own.

We are living in a country that is led by a man who is, I believe, corrupt to his very core. There are enough obvious examples, but for me, it boils down to this:

He doesn’t read.

He doesn’t see the value in the written word, be it a novel or a biography or a political treatise or even the daily reports. This means he is incapable of seeing from any other perspective than his own. He is a small man who lacks imagination, and thus knowledge, empathy, and self-awareness.

But it isn’t only the president. It is, as my family and friends and podiatrist and the runner on the bus have told me, deeply held within the nation. Books are a luxury, books are only for people with too much time on their hands, books are a waste of time, books are just stories. Basketball players and actresses and Instagram influencers matter, fluff and noise and nonsense deserve our attention.

Our country is beset by a huge variety of issues and problems, so the solutions will not be simple. But I believe at the very core of each solution lies knowledge, critical thinking, history, imagination, intelligence, empathy. All of the things, in other words, you get from the seemingly-useless humanity degrees. From books.

None of us should ever find ourselves at the end of our searches for knowledge and truth. These help us to see our place in the world, to realize both how small our lives are and how enormous our possibilities become when we understand that one way of seeing things is too narrow.

We must all cultivate the skill of altruism.


The Secret Truths about Being a Librarian

My sister Becky and I were talking a few days ago about my job. She wondered if I ever just wander the library stacks, picking out books at random, just because I’m just there, all the time, at the library​.

And here is the truth about being a librarian: You lose some of the magic of libraries when you work at one.

Feb 2020 book stack

Not all of it. I still sometimes have to pinch myself when I realize: I WORK AT A LIBRARY! I get to order books and take care of books and help people find books and talk to people about books.

Being a librarian is, I've decided, a calling more than it is a job. And many librarians are kindred spirits.

But when you love books and then you become a librarian, even though you gain many things, you lose some things, too.

When books are your job, it becomes impossible to separate reading from your work. (Because librarianship is a calling, remember?) Even when you just want to read a book, there is a part of you thinking about that book’s place in the library. Who might you recommend it to? What book list would you put it on? How could you tell more readers about it?

When you work in a library you can't smell the library smell anymore. 

And because I have a to-be-read list that is unimaginably long, I never wander the stacks just looking to see what I might find. I no longer read books serendipitously.

Sometimes, if it's slow at a reference desk and I'm at the end of my librarian patience, I might wander over to the stacks, pull out a book I love, and then read a few pages.

But a TBR this long isn't going to make itself. (Nor are any of the one million tasks librarians do going to do themselves.)

Here's another thing, though. When you work at a library, you see so many books. You discover books while you’re working on your collection. You read book reviews and book websites so you can stay on top of what people are reading. You learn as much as you can about as many different kinds of books as possible, because there’s no way to read every book (nor do I want to), but you do want to help every patron find the book they need or the one they will love.

So all that reading about and researching books? Means as a librarian (a person who already loves books and reading) you fall in love with so many books. And I don’t know if this is true of all librarians, but for me, I want to take them all home. (Even though I know I cannot possibly read everything I want to read.)

I got my current library card in July of 1992 and since then I've checked out almost 8500 items.

I REALLY wish I would've noticed how many I'd checked out when I started working here in 2008, but I bet that two-thirds of those check outs have happened in the past twelve years. Maybe even three-fourths.

Of course, not all of those items are books. I check out a lot of movies and CDs, too. But it’s mostly books.

But here’s another truth about being a librarian: sometimes I get tired.

Really, “frustrated” or “annoyed” might be better words. In some ways it is sort of a stressor: knowing what all of the new and hot books are, and the feeling of wanting to read them (again, not all of them, because I still have my own tastes) and join in on the online/social media conversations. So I bring home more and more books, or my hold list grows longer and longer, and I read two or three books a month and then take the rest back.

(And that’s not even considering the books I buy!)

It is illogical, bringing books I never finish back and forth from the library. Just because I love them. Just because I want to read them. Just because everyone else is reading and talking about them and I want to be included in that conversation.

Dark tower 1
Last week, I was talking to Nathan, who is wanting to read more. I gave him some recommendations and then he asked me about The Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

“I read the first three books in that series and loved them,” I texted him. “But I didn’t finish them.”

My dad and I read the first three books together. I mean…we had our own copies (I think I still have mine), but we read them at the same time and would talk about them. He was delighted by the series and his enthusiasm made reading them even better. He especially liked the lobstrosities and sometimes he’d just say “ded a chek?” to me out of the blue.

After the third book in the series, The Wastelands, King took a break from the series. This break coincided with my wedding, working on my degree, and becoming a mom. My dad picked up the fourth book but I didn’t—I felt like I wanted to read other things then. (OH how I wish I had just read those with him, too.)

I told Nathan that at this point, I haven’t finished the series because it makes me sad to read them without my dad. His response?

“Maybe you can read them with me this go around.”

(He is a good kid.)

Dark tower 3The next day, I put all of the books I had checked out, except two, onto my TBR list (I keep mine on an app called Libib) and then returned them. I suspended all of my book holds (I have 43 on my list, shhhh, don’t judge) and gave myself stern instruction to not add any more. (I have since added more…but only three.)

I set myself a goal: when I finish the two books I am reading right now, I’m going to read The Dark Tower series. I’m going to clean out the cupboard where I think my copies of the first three books are, and buy the rest, and then read them. And talk to Nathan about reading them.

I’ll still pay attention to new releases and hot books and what everyone else on bookstagram is reading.

But I really want to take control back in some way. To not have my reading controlled by what comes on hold for me, or what everyone else is talking about.

Books are about story, of course. About going somewhere in your imagination, about becoming friends with created beings. But they are also about relationships. With the story and the characters, yes, but also with the other people who read them. And they are about making connections with yourself, too—understanding something, or sometimes just something as pleasant as a sentence that makes you feel less invisible in this world.

I want to reconnect, somehow, to that primal love of reading I had when I was reading The Dark Tower series with my dad. Before I learned about literary theory and critical thinking and textual evaluation. I want to be able to read outside of being a librarian, but just as myself.

Reading them with Nathan seems like just the thing.

Dark tower 2


Thoughts on Critical Thinking

“Can you see if you have this book?” a patron asked me one night last week.

Obviously I get asked that question often, but this interaction is lingering in my memory.

“Sure,” I said. “What are you looking for?”

She asked for the sequel to Rachel Hollis’s self-help book.

As I looked up the title and put her on the hold list (16 other people were waiting to read it that night), I listened to her gush about how Girl, Wash Your Face had changed her life, and how excited she was to put what she’d learned into action, and how certain she was that the sequel would be even more helpful.

And then she asked me the question I was hoping she wouldn’t. “Have you read it? Didn’t you just love it?”

I told her I had read some of it, but didn’t finish it, and tried to leave it at that, but she insisted. “You’ve got to check it out again!” she said. “It will change your life. I can’t believe everyone’s not reading it!”

She left the reference desk feeling happy, even if she did have to wait, partly because I'm a professional librarian. I knew that telling a Rachel-Hollis fangirl how I really feel about those books would’ve been a disaster. Pointing out the flaws in the book to her would've only annoyed her, because if she can't see them herself then it's just my opinion.

To be fair, I only read the first chapter of the first book. I didn’t continue for two reasons: 1. The writing tone. I couldn’t spend hours and hours with that chirpy, upbeat, faux-hood writing style. 2. The message itself. I went to a couple of Amway meetings in my 20s. That was enough. The focus on getting and spending—the expensive bags, the second house in Hawaii, the trendy shoes—is not how I choose to focus my efforts in my life. Her message is that the lies we tell ourselves hold us back, which is true, but I think “having expensive possessions brings happiness” is also a lie. I realized with that first chapter that I have no interest in getting coached by a person whose basic values are vastly different from mine, who earned her expensive purses through party planning, who actively self identifies as a “lifestyle influencer.”

But I didn’t share any of that with the library patron that night, not because I don’t feel passionately about it, but because I have come to understand that not many people are able to read critically. (I also understand that for many readers, this isn’t the point of reading.)

By “critically” I don’t mean “in a way that expresses disproval.” I mean the second definition, “analysis of the merits and faults of a work of art, literature, movie, or music.”

Merits and faults.

One of the reasons I love reading, and continue to read, is critical thinking. It is one of the things I loved about teaching: having a group of people to interact with in a discussion about a book, an essay, a poem. I like reading for story, of course, and to get to know characters and to enter a setting. But I also like thinking about (and writing about and, if we’re ever at a meal together, talking about) what the story means, how the characters make mistakes, the way the book influences and changes me. Not in a get-more-expensive-purses kind of way, but in a understand-something-difficult-about-the-world kind of way.

In essence, that is why I can’t bring myself to read books like Rachel Hollis’s: because they are obliviously lacking critical viewpoints. They are unable to allow for differences in life experiences, desires, and opportunities. They assume that everyone wants a Hollywood kind of life.

But Hollis’s books aren’t even the reason I sat down to write this today. They are just an example of why critical thinking is important to me.

Because I feel like it is time to bring some of those critical thinking skills to my own life, not just to the books I read.

As I wrote in my last post, I am trying to experience this autumn season with intent. I want to feel things and to experience them, rather than only looking as if through a window. “Looking as if through a window”: this is how I feel I have been living my life for many years. It has to do with the choices I’ve made, the people in my life and their choices, the ways I have chosen to wall myself off. It is about how I feel like I always have to acknowledge: yes I know I am different from you. It comes from seeing my differences and feeling ashamed of them, wondering why I don’t fit in, instead of being able to be who I am.

I want to be who I am.

The God’s honest truth is that I haven’t been really, honestly happy in…I’m not sure how long. I love my people but I keep bumping up against the reality that my life doesn’t feel like the life I need. And when I write something like that, I am flooded with doubt. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to be selfish. I love my children and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I love my husband. But there are flaws here. And I am realizing: life is short. Life is so, so short. I’m nearing fifty and I still haven’t done many of the things I intended on doing.

And of course I can just continue here. I can keep on with my average life. I can do it until I die.

But deep down, I want change. I am craving change. I am wanting to be more than the quiet, stunted person I’ve made myself into, the one pretending. It isn’t only about church anymore. It is about everything. Maybe it is because I am at the end of my years of mothering. I still get to have an influence on Kaleb for a few more years, and I am learning how (thank goodness) being a mother doesn’t ever, in a sense, really end. But the hardest years of daily care are past, and now, for the first time since I was 23, I can ask myself: what do I want?

What shape do I want the rest of my life to take?

I can’t find the answer in a self-help book. I can’t even find the answer in the fiction and poetry I love.

I can only find the answer by myself, and that is both liberating and terrifying. I know what I want, but I don’t know how to get it within the current shape of my life. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don't want to burn it all down. But I am also starting to realize that I can matter, too. Is that selfish?

Here I am: a frumpy woman with stiff knees, nearing 50. What have I done with my life? What will I do with the life I have left? I suppose everyone faces and answers that question every day of their lives. I have answered it so far in part by doing what other people told me I should do. Which is like reading a book and loving it only because the story was good, rather than for the wrestle with new thoughts it caused. And I’ve been doing that for too long.

It is time to wrestle.