I got a piece of mail today from the school where my dad went to college. It was a colorful tri-fold request for donations to support the campus library. On the outside was a drawing of a darkened library and the words “No one would die if the library didn’t exist.”
On the inside was a drawing of the same library lit up and bustling with activity and the words “but we wouldn’t truly live.”
I get the point and I agree with the second part – even though libraries don’t save lives the way, say, hospitals do, they’re essential to our vitality.
But I took the first part as sort of a query. Is it true that no one would die if libraries didn’t exist? And I don’t just mean in that colloquial “I would die if I couldn’t go to the library ” kind of way. I certainly can’t imagine my life without the library, but that isn’t what I’m getting at.
I think it’s probably easier than we might think to trace the actual survival of actual people to their own or others’ access to libraries. Some of the connections may be distant – a person who will one day hold the power to start or stop wars begins by finding a book in a library that inspires him to read or to learn more about something that in turn inspires further learning or inquiry and investigation or just plain empowers him to believe that he has the ability and resources to make an important contribution. Other connections may be more direct. People in tremendous despair have been saved by specific particular books that let them know they are not alone in their plight or that map a way out they wouldn’t otherwise have known existed. And then there’s that libraries are often used by those who are homeless to keep warm during the day. By itself that’s probably not enough to keep a person alive, but it may go a long way toward it.
This may be an especially sore subject for me this week, as a faithful listener to The Writer’s Almanac, which ended last Wednesday and whose archives were removed from the web when Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media severed its ties with Garrison Keillor’s media companies after allegations of sexual misconduct. Along with the obvious importance of taking such allegations seriously, there are legal and financial reasons that under the circumstances the show could not continue to be broadcast and had its archive removed. I mention it here not to comment on that situation but because the archive of the show is a library of its own, of history, poetry, and connection among writers and thinkers. As with the libraries, we could say that no one will die because it’s gone, but we don’t know that. We don’t know what strength and power a handful of words or a well-timed resonant historical note or a library or a book from that library can have. We just don’t know.
For awhile several years ago I was really interested in solar-powered electricity, and one of the things you hear a lot about in that realm is phantom load. A phantom load is anything that’s quietly drawing electricity even when it’s not really doing anything noticeable like shedding light or heating something up. Stovetop clocks, power strip lights, wireless routers are examples. These little loads don’t use much power, but when you can only draw power from the small solar panel array on your roof (as opposed to from the electrical grid), you keep more careful track of what you’re using.
I don’t have solar power at my house but from time to time I still think about phantom loads. The other night I was walking through the dark upstairs hall and the little light on a hard-wired smoke detector caught my eye. “Phantom load,” I said out loud to the detector, and into my memory popped a line I once heard about being kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. (The original language, from the Scottish preacher Ian Maclaren, seems to have been “be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”) That in turn reminded me of something the writer Anne Lamott has said about how you shouldn’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. We don’t know what goes on for other people, nor they for us.
All such wisdom seems especially apt now that we all have such ready access to curated feeds of others’ lives (in other words, their outsides). Meanwhile, everyone’s carrying their own phantom loads – burdens that are invisible to the naked or careless eye, sapping energy all the live long day. And there’s a way in which the smaller ones can take a greater overall toll thanks to their invisibility. When I think of my time as a classroom teacher, I know that when I’d hear that a student had lost a family member or was dealing with a severe illness, I’d take particular care with the child. But if one of my students was struggling with something less worthy of mention, like a chronically contentious relationship with a sibling, or stomach pain from an undiagnosed food allergy, a proclivity for nightmares (or all three), I usually wouldn’t hear about it and the child’s internal battle would carry on without acknowledgment or support.
It’s hard to imagine we could get much done if we tried to suss out every load carried by every person in every circumstance, never mind try to address them all. But if there were some way we could even just acknowledge that the loads are there, especially for young children who often feel as though they are the only ones struggling (and thus get the idea that something must be wrong with or defective about them), I think that could be worth a lot.
I thought a lot today about contempt – what it is exactly and what can be done to dissipate it. It seems to have a big impact on the relationships which contain it and in turn the impact of those relationships on others and on what’s possible for humans attempting collaboration of any kind.
What I think of as contempt is not quite what the dictionary says – a despising or a plain lack of respect – although the definition mentions the words scorn and disdain which hint at what I think of it as. I think of contempt as that steady current of negativity that runs between many pairs or groups of people, flavoring interactions with a note of malice.
This kind of contempt runs quieter but not independent of some of the more visible and widely discussed conditions between humans, but I wonder if it sets the tone for some of the more terrible things we do to each other. It seems to exist not only between the likes of actual warring factions but in families where love is unquestionably present – between spouses and between parents and children, between siblings, between in-laws. What’s interesting to me about it is that because it’s subtle, it’s easier to leave alone, to overlook in our efforts to get along better and improve our relationships with one another.
Anyway, it’s a big beastly thing, contempt, and I’ll be thinking and probably writing about it more soon. But for starters, ever since it came to my attention at a family gathering the other day, I’ve been watching for times when, finding myself wielding it, I could opt to lay it down.
Something about the water quality where I live combined with the age or variety of the toilet that came with the house creates persistent water stains on the inside of the bowl. This drives me a little nuts. I don’t like using chemical cleaners, because they’re lousy for the world’s water, and also I get nasty headaches from strong smells.
Last week I broke down and bought a bottle of bowl cleaner anyway, figuring maybe if I could get the stains off once I could then keep them off with but less effort and toxicity. I turned on the exhaust fan, covered my nose with a scarf, squirted the awful stuff up under the lip of the bowl, and proceeded with the scrubbing instructions.
When I was done, I left it alone for a bit while I retreated to fresh air, and then returned to assess. I knew the bowl was cleaner than it had been, because I’d seen the water turn scummy as I’d scrubbed, but the stains prevailed. I sighed with a measure of disappointment and said out loud to no one: “Well, it is cleaner, but it doesn’t look any cleaner.”
At which point I noticed that my true mission had not been to get the toilet as clean as I could, but rather to get it to look as clean as I could. This was by no means the first time I have caught myself getting swept up in the work of getting things to look a particular way such that I stray from what I claim to care about (and even what I do actually care about). Apparently I needed reminding.
What the toilet pointed out has much bigger implications and cautionary content for other areas of life more weighty. Where else, I wondered, am I striving to get something to look the way I’d like it to at the expense of the actual condition of the thing? It’s one thing to care about how something looks, which I find I often do, and plenty of the time it’s probably harmless. But when it’s displacing or replacing the concern for how things actually are… that calls for some reassessing.
The other day, one of the teenagers I know was talking about one of her teachers and how on certain days he plays music from one of his favorite albums during part of class. She said “He plays it in every class he hosts that day.”
When she’d finished telling the story I asked her about her choice of verb, because of course “host” isn’t what you’d expect in this context, but it hadn’t seemed like an accident. She said “Yeah, I’m not sure why I said it that way, but it seemed like what I meant.”
We had other things to talk about so I didn’t dwell on it. I just wanted to know if she’d chosen the word more or less on purpose. From the sound of it, in that particular teacher’s class, this student feels more like a guest than a… subject, the way many do in many classes.
A small thing, except not at all.
I’d love to try to learn to ride this thing…
To see more from Xavi Bou’s Ornitographies, a chronophotography project of shapes generated by birds in flight, visit his website here and click “The Project.” If you’re like me and it doesn’t occur to you right away to scroll sideways, my recommendation is to scroll sideways.
I have moved on to (back to?) Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s earlier book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and am enchanted by a section she called “What my friends were confused by as children.” (This section is preceded by an account of the things she, Amy, was confused by as a child.) Here’s one: I thought the basement of department stores would fill up with steps from the escalator pushing them down all day. And another: I thought that when my parents were little the world was in black and white because all the pictures of them were black and white.
The anecdotes are funny and cute, but I also want to believe that Amy was pointing out that being a child requires a flexibility of thinking that being an adult doesn’t really. When existence demands of you that you go around figuring things out all the time, just in order to make some initial semblance of sense of it all, it keeps you in better contemplative and creative shape than when existence doesn’t require it (ie in adulthood when you’ve got reality All Figured Out).