After almost two decades of living in L.A., I headed south to Orange County. I hauled all of my mismatched, meager belongings into an unfamiliar apartment. Moving to a town where I knew not one other human was more daunting and startling than I anticipated. Plus, I executed all of this with a mewling newborn strapped to my chest. How does one find home in these circumstances?
I arrived in Orange County with no new job to start and without a car. Yet having moved countless times, traversing from one coast to the other, I knew that I could always find home within the pages of a book. So every day, I crammed the stroller with baby, snacks, drinks, and toys, and we walked. Everywhere. On the main drag of the town, a steep trek up from the ocean, I reached my destination—San Clemente Public Library. From the grassy knoll on the corner, when the wind blows just right, you can hear echos of sea lions barking.
Books are my jam. Cracking a book open guarantees embarking on an exciting journey. A book is an invitation to escape, an opportunity to learn, to laugh, to cry, and sometimes, all of the above. I appreciate how a book feels; its mass and solidity. Not only solid in actual weight, but also in the author’s choice of words and how they are strung together to create meaning. The scent of musty paper wafts up as I bury my nose in the pages. When I happen upon past checkout slips, I imagine what those patrons were like. I wonder about their thoughts as they read the same words my eyes pass over now. At moments like this, reading becomes an individual and a communal experience.
This sense of genuine community is what my son, Milo, and I experienced right away at the San Clemente library. Though I was the new kid in town, I never felt like it here. The librarians were eternally patient when Milo was a fidgeting toddler during storytime. They were concerned enough to lock down the building when that same toddler went missing. They were amused when he hid up high on a bookshelf and tolerant when we checked out every single book on spiders, dinosaurs, and the military over and over. We culled one of our first babysitters from the library staff. It was from within these walls that we built a hodgepodge family in our new town. And on our stroller rides home, we had fewer snacks but were fully laden with books, friendships, and memories.
I can trace my bond with libraries to the 1970s. My parents’ turbulent marriage ended when I was 10. My mom donned Elton John-esque pantsuits, got a job as a librarian, and returned to college. As she hunkered down to study, the Wellesley College library assumed the role of nanny for my little brother and me. We built forts with the couch cushions and holed up inside, reading quietly. Hence, libraries became a soothing constant in a childhood that often felt precarious.
From a very early age, I had a book propped in front of my face. Assuming this position enhances every aspect of my life. When I’m reading, my mind is in a constant state of expansion. To quote the ever-wise Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” For me, imagining a life without libraries is akin to a puzzle missing the corner piece. Incomplete.
This long-term relationship I developed with libraries was instrumental in helping me raise my son. All through his elementary years of schooling, I volunteered as “library mom” for his classroom. Being in the mix with all the books and helping kids select the ones they wanted to borrow was beyond fulfilling. Once a week, I would go in and read aloud to a raucous horde of children. As I read, their eyes got wider and voices lower. I witnessed them experiencing the power and possibility of words. When they filed back to class, I stayed in the quiet solitude and put books back in their places.
When it was my turn to return to college—first at Saddleback, then UC Irvine—the librarians literally held my hand for every step. I have zero trust in my scholastic abilities. I’m severely tech challenged, so my anxiety is astronomical. From the beginning, I did every homework assignment at the library. I typed every paper there. I learned how to cut and paste. How to print what I typed. How to attach something to an email. No question I asked was too dumb or juvenile. The staff treated me with only patience and kindness. This helped me realize that learning is a process regardless of a person’s age or aptitude. As my confidence slowly increased, they gently nudged me out of the nest to fly on my own.
A few years ago, the San Clemente library became involved in a countywide campaign to increase use of public libraries. “You guys are loyal, fun, and nonstereotypical library patrons,” senior branch manager Pam Chesney-Algar said to me. “We’d love to take a picture of you reading to Milo to hang at our checkout desk?”
Done. As a result, everywhere we walked, people would ask, “Hey, isn’t your picture hanging on the wall at the library?” We’re still remembered from that poster, and we still swell with pride when recognized.
I feel fortunate that all of these opportunities are funneled into one building, under one roof, and that age, race, social, or financial status has no bearing on being accepted. I provide a California address and BAM! I belong. During this age of advanced technology, when many of us are held hostage by our phones, a library remains one spot where there’s still human contact and a verbal exchange of ideas.
I celebrate the existence of libraries daily but even more so in February because it’s National Library Lovers month. I will always be a loyal patron. I know my 10-digit library card number by heart; it’s memorized, just like my address and phone number. If this fact qualifies me as a geeky bookworm, I’ll proudly own that moniker.