Friday, January 23, 2015

- Remembering: A life in books

When I posted the picture of popcorn and hot chocolate yesterday, I commented to Don that it reminded me of the so-called grad school food groups that could be found in the vending machines between  classes. That got me thinking ...

It isn't surprising I ended up studying librarianship, since I was a "weird little girl and a strange teenager" (as kindred-spirit-in-print Anna Quindlen described herself in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake). Preferring books to playing outside, each summer I would set myself the task of reading an epic tome ... Moby Dick, War and Peace and the King James version of the Bible come to mind ... not always to the end (in truth I got lost early on in the biblical begats), but I could always console myself with yet another reading of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings ...which I did countless times.

A recently acquired hardcover edition of  The Lord of the Rings,
plus my original Hobbit and Fellowship in paperback.
Note the hand carving on the bookshelves ... more about that later.

Fortunately, after heading to college I was lucky in love and later, as a young mother, I landed a part-time paraprofessional job at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library with full-time family health benefits. Good luck finding a deal like that these days! Better yet, when I decided to make a career of librarianship, CWF paid my tuition to the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. My degree work started in 1988, with Meliss still in diapers and Meg about to enter Kindergarten.

Many of the classes were taught by adjunct instructors at Old Dominion University in Norfolk and the University of Richmond, both about an hour from Williamsburg. Because most of us (adjuncts included) were working stiffs, CUA offered the classes every other Saturday from 9-4 ... two weeks worth of instruction packed into 6-hour marathon lectures with an hour for lunch, followed by two weeks of studying and writing papers ... seven times a semester. On those endless Saturdays, I would buy Classic Cokes and candy bars, bags of chips and nut bars ... trying to make it through without falling asleep.

Out of necessity, I learned the gentle art of how to write a paper in one night ... no matter if it was a five-page precis or a twenty-page research piece. This was before home computers were ubiquitous, so using my work computer figured in to the routine. On the assigned night, while Don watched the girls at home, I headed over to Second Street after work, invariably ordering a spinach salad with ranch dressing, a pint of Bass ale, decaf coffee and dessert. Between bites, I would sketch out the bare bones of the paper on a legal pad, having already done whatever research and/or reading was necessary. By the time I returned to the office (most) everyone would be gone so I could write uninterrupted until the requisite paper was done. Limping home at one or two in the morning, then getting up early the next day to head off to work wasn't uncommon. But it worked, earning me a 4.0 GPA ... a far cry from my undergraduate record at William and Mary where I had avoided like the plague any course that required papers.

CUA did require that three courses be taken on-site in DC. The best was a two-week Institute on Federal Library Resources taught by Frank Kurt Cylke, the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (which was in a very sketchy part of town, making for some quick hoofing). Wheeling around town in a full-size van packed with students, Mr. Cylke would regale us with stories that could only appeal to librarians, but which we tried to discourage as he had an unnerving habit of turning around to deliver punchlines while the van was threading through rush hour traffic.

We went to the Library of Congress (how ironic that this is a link to a Wikipedia article) where we pored over the rarest of rare books, saw huge stacks of cataloging in progress, and learned how the Congressional Research Service provided unbiased background papers to ensure informed voting by the members of Congress (hard to believe, right?) ... we marched through miles of concrete corridors to get to the Pentagon Library (which was moved after 9-11) ...  marveled at the map collections at the United States Geological Survey ... and here I pause, trying to recollect the other libraries, but what I remember instead is the side trip we made to a cooperative studio which specialized in the production of one-of-a-kind art books. Amazing stuff.

It took four years, from 1988-1992, to finish the requisite 36 credits for my Master's degree ... twelve courses leading to a piece of paper that opened up new "earning opportunities." The truth is, I alternately loved and hated librarianship. Always did I love paging through a new book, helping a researcher to a "Found it!" moment, or learning something new myself that I never would have thought of looking up on my own. But supervision and management? Ugh, what soul-sucking work that was. Work that left my introverted self drained to the point where each year I had less and less energy for my own creativity on my own time. And so, when the opportunity to retire presented itself, I ran at it with open arms ... never looking back.

These days I have three public library cards and regularly haunt BookPeople and the Half Price Book stores in Austin and San Marcos (where I recently found a discounted copy of Suzanne Tourtillott's Making and Keeping Creative Journals recommended by Mo and more serendipitously happened upon The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy that Grace is reading right now).

No surprise then that one of the first things Don and I did when we bought our current abode was to have (more) bookshelves made. We found our way via By the Bridge Antiques to a gifted artisan named Robert Briones. I'm not sure if this link is to father or son, but on the day the two of them came to our house to plan the bookshelves, we bought this bench from Robert, Jr. out of the back of their pickup.


Then, after sketching out what we wanted, Robert, Sr. went back to Elgin and proceeded to craft the bookshelves of our dreams using scrap wood and metal, leftover paint and a great imagination ...

Each shelf has boards at the back and cunning metal rods
on the side to prevent books from spilling off

After all, if you can't have too many books, then it follows that you can't have too many bookshelves ... which is why we got two ... one for either side of our fireplace cum kiva ...

The shelves get progressively deeper and taller from top to bottom ...
a librarian's dream (note the large 3-ring binder at the lower left)

These days, between books and stitches, cooking and cactus-whacking, great kids and grandkids, I am well-contented.  Quoting Anna Quindlen again, "I have the feeling I may be cut out to be an old woman."