Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Library Lover

A book I was reading late one night mentions a woman in a library. Suddenly, I’m transported decades back to the small, historic New England town library where I spent much of my childhood. I grew up there, in the town, yes, but perhaps even more so in that library where I spent so many hours browsing and reading, and whose bounty I brought home to transport me to worlds far away.

At the back of the upper floor were the main adult stacks. Every letter of the alphabet beckoned with a thrill. On the first aisle to the right, I pulled down every book by Pearl Buck, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Erle Stanley Gardner. On the first aisle to the left I found Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and on the second aisle the riches of the travel books, which also exposed me to adventurous women, from Emily Hahn to Cornelia Otis Skinner. Back to the left was the Dag Hammarskj√∂ld book on the UN.  Far to the right rear was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I shared with my father a love of Robert Ludlum books back when Bourne was a character in a book, not a film series with Matt Damon. I traveled back to the Hawaii of centuries ago and crossed a Mideast desert in a caravan with James Michener. All of these and many volumes more shaped my future adult sensibilities.

Will the places the Internet can take young people ever replace the vast worlds inside that small public library?

At the middle of the stacks on the back wall was that much loved (by me, at least), mammoth precursor to the PC, the mighty card catalog. Drawer after drawer of index cards on thousands of books, the card catalog was the key that unlocked the great treasures of the library. 

At the circulation desk an assortment of women with eyeglasses, hair in buns, cardigans over their shoulders, played keepers of the gate. Despite their stern demeanor if you were a library patron imprudent enough to raise your voice in that sacred space, they also were my heroes.

My mind jumps back further still to the lower floor of the library. To the left, the young children’s room, where the magic of The Secret Garden, Mary Poppins, Caddie Woodlawn and all the Oz books captivated me, and the We Were There books were my earliest entrees into history. The picture book section enchanted me even after I was older, with Babar the Elephant, The Lonely Doll, The Five Chinese Brothers (not at all politically correct now) and another whose title escapes me but I remember in a fond blur, involving a truck full of turnips.

In time, I moved out to the older children’s and teen’s room, where the furniture got taller and the books expanded my world even further, and I discovered the wilderness with White Fang and my keenness for mysteries with Nancy Drew.

I used to want to become a librarian, but realized that what I would have loved—helping people find a book they or their children would love or needed—has become a more hands-off exercise involving database searches, less so a friendly face at the information desk who would pore over the shelves with you, touching volumes reverently before pulling one or two off triumphantly to hand to you. I suppose today’s library is more democratic, as there really is no more gatekeeper, but I miss those days nonetheless.

I am saddened by the fact that my son is not a library lover like his mother. Yes, I took him to the library from the time he was an infant: we took out stacks of books and attended story times, and I read to him and he read to me for years. And it isn’t that he doesn’t love to read. But for research, instead of going to the library he goes to the Internet, and his college library—rarely frequented-- is a place for quiet study rather than the glory of books. For pleasure reading, he goes to the bookstore or orders online. Perhaps when he has children of his own he will rediscover and remember his youthful enchantment with the library as a place where you can not only find what you’re looking for, but stumble upon surprise after surprise.

The town I live in now has a huge new library, a massive atrium soaring up to the second floor. I miss the cozier feeling of a smaller library, though I’m sure the employees are happy to have the larger, updated space. It’s the closest library to me, but I often go instead to one further away where I can still park near the door and lug a heavy bag of books to return or to take home and devour, where the ceilings are lower and the furniture older, but the feeling of magic is somehow still more present.

I yearn to go back to my childhood library but fear I would be disappointed. I just went to the library’s website, though, and found this mission statement: “To enrich the community by connecting people to the world of ideas, information and imagination in order to support their work, education, personal growth and enjoyment.” Perhaps I would still be right at home there after all.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Alive in the Artisphere

Once again my blog is saved from gloom and doom.  This post was going to be about what a rotten time of it so many of us seem to be having these days, how tough life has become, the grave troubles of the world…So I picked myself up from my navel gazing and went out to remind myself of the beauty that flourishes alongside the blues.

I went to an art opening.  Arlington, Virginia is home to the new Artisphere, a series of lively multi-function arts spaces in the old Newseum building in Rosslyn.  After treating ourselves to dim sum beforehand at China Garden, my friend and I rolled across the street to the weekend-long open house.  The building was bustling with performances and visual arts.  I wasn’t blown away by the latter but the former made my trek to the other side of the river well worth it. 

As I browsed one exhibit, I noticed people gravitating to a lobby area.  Lemming-like, I joined them, to see across the atrium a group of a half dozen dancers performing on a staircase.  I was mesmerized by the beauty of the tightly spaced, measured movements, the elegance of every perfect leg extension, the gauzy skirts over the women’s leotards and the muscles on the male danseurs.  I almost wept with the loveliness of it.  Bowen McCauley Dance Troupe is stunning.  Encore! Encore!

Not long after wrenching myself from my viewing perch after the dancers departed, I roamed into the ballroom to await a performance from Joe Falero and DC Latin Jazz All Stars.  Lo and behold, as more people came in and joined me sitting on a bench built into a wall opposite the stage, several of the dancers who’d just performed ended up sitting next to me, so I was able to tell them how much I appreciated their performance.

From the quiet grace of the modern dancers we now spun into the excitement of music that digs inside the audience and stirs the spirit.  As the band hit the ground running, a couple moved onto the dance floor who we pegged for pros, instructors.  It was bliss watching them move, the woman a dead ringer for Judith Jamison, a white leotard sharp against her chocolate skin and a bright Caribbean-looking skirt that swung sexily as she did, the man a ham and a half but a skilled one, clearly enjoying himself mightily; their pleasure at each step and swing was infectious. As the musicians hit the high notes with salsa, mambo, bolero, cha-cha, with each number more and more people ventured out to move to the music, until for one salsa there were on the floor parents with babies in their arms, a man in a wheelchair rolling happily around, a woman with a gimme cap and fanny pack setting the floor on fire, a couple obviously freshly graduated from dance lessons, and they all looked awesome.  For all of them, and all of us swaying in our seats uncontrollably, it was pure art elevating the spirit.

It didn’t matter what anyone was wearing.  Dance shoes shared space with loafers, work boots, sandals.  Long flowy skirts that moved with lithe bodies shared space with blue jeans on plump bottoms and khakis on scrawny legs.  Two little girls, emboldened by their Mom dancing happily alone on the floor among all the couples, pranced out onto the floor, grabbed her and danced together.   It doesn’t matter if you’re short, tall, fat, thin, lumpy, sleek, everyone is beautiful when the music infuses you and pulls you up on your feet, and you move under its thrall. Each beat better than the last, bongo, congas, sax, and more, Latin flavor fabulousness--Joe Falero & DC Latin Jazz All Stars, thank you!

I came to heal, and heal I did, heal we all did.  On a gorgeous autumn day in an industrial space just over the Key Bridge from Georgetown, in a little urban jungle,  we filled our hearts and souls with music, and dance, and life was—life is--good.