free books

in all those many days and weeks and months and years of feeling tethered to my telephone, of certainty that bosses were peeking in my office window, taking notes, counting up the sentences i typed per week, awarding or withholding little gold paper stars…

in all the many days and weeks and months and years of bumping down the train tracks, past the el stops where passengers stumbled on, took their seats beside me, sometimes smelling like old fish wrap, sometimes all but vibrating with the hip-hop thumping in their ears and spilling down their tattooed necks, the flow of expletives sky-diving straight to my ears, where i’d spend the ride now listening in (so much for a morning’s meditation)….

in all those many, many moments, i’d not often dawdled, lost in reverie about how, once freed from paycheck certitude, i’d define my liberation in trips to the library, that many-storied treasure trove of circuitous discovery, endless possibility, mindful gorging, and, well, free books.

but so it is, and so it quickly did become.

i was severed from my old life, my newspaper life, for all of 17 hours when i found myself, on a drizzly february saturday morning, strolling straight for what i still call the card catalog, although it’s now a box with keyboard, and you type the title that you’re searching for, or the author, or you spin the roulette wheel and type odd keywords, just to see what might pop up.

once i found the dewey decimals of the book i had in mind, i began my hunt: i descended to the underground of my little village book house, and i played follow the numbers till i got to the proper shelf.

i don’t know about you, but for me, searching for those itty-bitty aforementioned digits is a supreme exercise in attention deficit disorder. and i am mad, crazy mad, for the whole distracted round-about.

oh, look, i think, as i scan the spines, there’s a tome i’ve long meant to read, and here it is standing ever-so-politely, having waited years perhaps for one greedy paw to yank it off the shelf, tuck it to the bosom, haul it home. where, if all goes according to literary plan, its pages will be turned, its story unspooled yet one more time.

i tell you that first trip to the shelves invigorated the whole of me, right down to my once-enslaved soul. i swear i heard a chain link snap. i was free. i was wholly entitled to indulge in any book i wanted, any time. all for the cost of slipping out my library card from the too-tight slot where it lives inside my wallet.

you would have thought i’d downed a dram of revitalizer tonic, the way the pink rosied up my cheeks, the way the boing electrified what had been my sorry shuffle.¬†i strolled out of that library, three or four books tucked tautly under my arms, and i headed home. i had a window seat, and plenty of pages to occupy me for the day.

apparently, it’s addictive, whatever that revitalizing tonic is. i can’t seem to keep away.

why, i’ve become a regular at the check-out desk. so much so, that they now call me by name, and we have marvy conversations about the books, the demise of civilization, the librarian’s surprise 60th birthday fete, complete with mouthwatering description of the teeny carrot cake she baked for her toddler grandson, who wouldn’t be allowed up past bedtime when the big cake was being ignited and sliced into so many slivers.

i tell you the key to civil discourse just might be rediscovered — before it dies its undeserving death — at the faux-maple desk where the due dates get stamped on all the borrowings.

what’s most delicious about this new-found library-bound freedom is that every time the scene’s replayed i feel the same hallelujah chorus rise up from deep inside. it has come to epitomize the full-throttle glory of living by choice instead of whatever was the old way, the these-hours-are-not-mine way, when my time, it seemed, belonged to someone else.

and there is something eternally bracing about realizing, with every pore, that each and every hour is a blessing, is a choice, is a miracle, and that it is our holiest calling to make each one matter.

now, of course, there are dirty clothes to be tossed in the rub-a-dub machine, and there are freezers to be filled with meatballs, bread and broccoli, and there are last night’s pots to scrub.

but if, in the course of any given day, we can put our hands together, make like a bowl with our palms and our fingers pressed tight, if we can sink that fleshy ladle into blessed waters that just might quench us, fill us up in all our parched-dry places, well then don’t we anoint the day, make it all the more sacred,¬†because we live with the knowing that we don’t get two spins around this game board, and today’s the day to be embroidered with the best french knots you know?

and so it is, quite simply, with my increasingly-trod path to the free-book stall.

it’s a super-charged trip, under a mile door-to-door-to-door, that takes my heart, my soul, my whole imagination to places i’ve not been in a long, long while.

and it’s as straightforward as this: my desk nowadays is littered with scraps of paper, on which i scribble titles, authors, books i want to read, books someone’s deemed essential, or books that merely feed my latest fancy.

i tuck the scraps on that little hollow on the dashboard, where long ago, the ashtray was. and then, when i remember, when i’m out motoring on some humdrum course, and i glance down and see my scribble, i start to feel the deep-down tingle: i’m on my own time now, and there is always time to turn toward the three-story temple to ideas big and little.

i slip the old wagon into park, and i feel the spring that resuscitates my step. it’s a bit of abracadabra when the big glass doors slide open, swoop me right in without having to knock or ring the bell. it’s a house that’s mostly open (the shelves do nap at night), and i am welcome to binge, biblio-binge without remorse. i can fill my arms with as many books as i can carry.

in just the last two months, i’ve cleared a shelf of horse books — only because i’d toured my old kentucky bluegrass roots, and i came home curious. and right now, i’m onto e.b. white, one of my all-time heroes, a champion, a charmer, a writer who has made me cry because a spider died, and just the other day, when i read his 1947 essay, “death of a pig,” i cried so hard i spotted-up the nearly-yellowed page.

it’s all for free, which is a mighty fine thing for a girl who knows no paycheck.

but even finer is the truth that a life with room to turn toward the library, on a whim, is a life well lived. and one that convinces me, i am free, free at last.

i have a hunch that this old table is full of folk who wear out their library cards, or who wish they did. two questions: one, what little morsels are now perched on your must-read list, and two, if you were through the powers of magic given a whole day off to do whatever you wished, what might be the places to which you’d go running, and what heaven would you find there?