The Secret Truths about Being a Librarian

My sister Becky and I were talking a few days ago about my job. She wondered if I ever just wander the library stacks, picking out books at random, just because I’m just there, all the time, at the library​.

And here is the truth about being a librarian: You lose some of the magic of libraries when you work at one.

Feb 2020 book stack

Not all of it. I still sometimes have to pinch myself when I realize: I WORK AT A LIBRARY! I get to order books and take care of books and help people find books and talk to people about books.

Being a librarian is, I've decided, a calling more than it is a job. And many librarians are kindred spirits.

But when you love books and then you become a librarian, even though you gain many things, you lose some things, too.

When books are your job, it becomes impossible to separate reading from your work. (Because librarianship is a calling, remember?) Even when you just want to read a book, there is a part of you thinking about that book’s place in the library. Who might you recommend it to? What book list would you put it on? How could you tell more readers about it?

When you work in a library you can't smell the library smell anymore. 

And because I have a to-be-read list that is unimaginably long, I never wander the stacks just looking to see what I might find. I no longer read books serendipitously.

Sometimes, if it's slow at a reference desk and I'm at the end of my librarian patience, I might wander over to the stacks, pull out a book I love, and then read a few pages.

But a TBR this long isn't going to make itself. (Nor are any of the one million tasks librarians do going to do themselves.)

Here's another thing, though. When you work at a library, you see so many books. You discover books while you’re working on your collection. You read book reviews and book websites so you can stay on top of what people are reading. You learn as much as you can about as many different kinds of books as possible, because there’s no way to read every book (nor do I want to), but you do want to help every patron find the book they need or the one they will love.

So all that reading about and researching books? Means as a librarian (a person who already loves books and reading) you fall in love with so many books. And I don’t know if this is true of all librarians, but for me, I want to take them all home. (Even though I know I cannot possibly read everything I want to read.)

I got my current library card in July of 1992 and since then I've checked out almost 8500 items.

I REALLY wish I would've noticed how many I'd checked out when I started working here in 2008, but I bet that two-thirds of those check outs have happened in the past twelve years. Maybe even three-fourths.

Of course, not all of those items are books. I check out a lot of movies and CDs, too. But it’s mostly books.

But here’s another truth about being a librarian: sometimes I get tired.

Really, “frustrated” or “annoyed” might be better words. In some ways it is sort of a stressor: knowing what all of the new and hot books are, and the feeling of wanting to read them (again, not all of them, because I still have my own tastes) and join in on the online/social media conversations. So I bring home more and more books, or my hold list grows longer and longer, and I read two or three books a month and then take the rest back.

(And that’s not even considering the books I buy!)

It is illogical, bringing books I never finish back and forth from the library. Just because I love them. Just because I want to read them. Just because everyone else is reading and talking about them and I want to be included in that conversation.

Dark tower 1
Last week, I was talking to Nathan, who is wanting to read more. I gave him some recommendations and then he asked me about The Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

“I read the first three books in that series and loved them,” I texted him. “But I didn’t finish them.”

My dad and I read the first three books together. I mean…we had our own copies (I think I still have mine), but we read them at the same time and would talk about them. He was delighted by the series and his enthusiasm made reading them even better. He especially liked the lobstrosities and sometimes he’d just say “ded a chek?” to me out of the blue.

After the third book in the series, The Wastelands, King took a break from the series. This break coincided with my wedding, working on my degree, and becoming a mom. My dad picked up the fourth book but I didn’t—I felt like I wanted to read other things then. (OH how I wish I had just read those with him, too.)

I told Nathan that at this point, I haven’t finished the series because it makes me sad to read them without my dad. His response?

“Maybe you can read them with me this go around.”

(He is a good kid.)

Dark tower 3The next day, I put all of the books I had checked out, except two, onto my TBR list (I keep mine on an app called Libib) and then returned them. I suspended all of my book holds (I have 43 on my list, shhhh, don’t judge) and gave myself stern instruction to not add any more. (I have since added more…but only three.)

I set myself a goal: when I finish the two books I am reading right now, I’m going to read The Dark Tower series. I’m going to clean out the cupboard where I think my copies of the first three books are, and buy the rest, and then read them. And talk to Nathan about reading them.

I’ll still pay attention to new releases and hot books and what everyone else on bookstagram is reading.

But I really want to take control back in some way. To not have my reading controlled by what comes on hold for me, or what everyone else is talking about.

Books are about story, of course. About going somewhere in your imagination, about becoming friends with created beings. But they are also about relationships. With the story and the characters, yes, but also with the other people who read them. And they are about making connections with yourself, too—understanding something, or sometimes just something as pleasant as a sentence that makes you feel less invisible in this world.

I want to reconnect, somehow, to that primal love of reading I had when I was reading The Dark Tower series with my dad. Before I learned about literary theory and critical thinking and textual evaluation. I want to be able to read outside of being a librarian, but just as myself.

Reading them with Nathan seems like just the thing.

Dark tower 2

on The Passing of Ursula K. le Guin

I have been thinking lately of writing a list. A long list of all the women who have influenced me. My mother, certainly, and my sisters. My daughter. My best friend from high school who I don't see often enough but who knows me. Teachers, both those who taught me and those who taught with me. Gymnastic coaches and ballet instructors. So many librarians, both now and once-upon-a-time. Friends from my childhood and friends from my neighborhood and friends I met online. My nieces; my cousins. My aunts, but long ago. My grandmothers in entirely different ways. My great grandmothers who I never met.

In fact, the list would have many women on it who I never met. Sylvia Plath, Anne Stevenson, Marge Piercy. Tori Amos and Kate Bush and yes: Olivia Newton John. Georgia O'Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt. Poets, musicians, artists, politicians, women in history. Even some imagined women.

High on that list would be Ursula K. Le Guin, Ursula le guin bookswhose books and ideas and fierceness have been a part of my thinking since I discovered her via her short story “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” in one of my literature courses at BYU. That child in the dungeon…it still comes to my mind often, reminding me that my life is built, on many invisible ways, on the misery of someone else.

When I was teaching, one of the first things I had my sophomores read was Le Guin’s short story “Texts.” It is a very short story, about a woman who starts seeing words in everything, the foam the waves leave behind on the sand, a piece of manufactured lace. It ends with the haunting refrain “sister, sister, sister, light the light,” which is another bit of Le Guin’s writing that stays with me. As does the first sentence of the story, “Messages came, Johanna thought, usually years too late, or years before one could crack their code or had even learned the language they were in.” It is the same truth from a poem that also shapes me, “We go by going where we have to go.” It is the same thing that life has taught me: you can look back and understand but when you are in the present it’s hard (if not impossible) to decipher meaning. I started my students with this story as an introduction to what my goal was as a teacher: not just learning grammar and how to write well and some things about literature, but how reading—how someone else’s written words in many forms, and we did read many forms—can inform your life with knowledge, compassion, understanding, and little hints at how to go.

A few years ago, for our citywide reading experience, we read A Wizard of Earthsea. And for a few days, I knew that one of the librarians who runs all the programs was working on bringing the author to our library. Ursula K. Le Guin! At my library! Those were some of my hopefullest days. Alas, she didn’t come—I don’t remember if it was just too expensive to bring her, or if she had some other thing planned, but the thought of meeting her! (I am, I confess, still disappointed that didn’t happen.) It’s a little bit like the emotion you see in those old videos of the crowds of girls waiting to catch a glimpse of the Beatles. Except, you know. A bit more librarian-ish.

Why would I get so excited over meeting a writer? I think most people are most excited over meeting someone truly famous, a rock star or a movie star. For me, though, it’s not the level of fame, but the level of impact the person has had on my life.

And le Guin has impacted me.

It’s hard to classify her writing; you could use the “fantasy” label or the “science fiction” one, but it doesn’t exactly fit or follow all the genre expectations. She didn’t follow genre rules or the snobbery of Literary Fiction. Instead, she just wrote. She wrote so well. Her Earthsea series is the only Tolkien-informed fantasy I can stand to read, because while there is something of Gandalf in Ged, the writing is so good, the striving for self-control and retribution as well as understanding and knowledge, that I don’t care. (And if you know me, you know how picky I am about my fantasy.) Her ideas about women, gender, and social influences were astounding to me when I first read them, not because they are entirely revolutionary but because of how skillfully she takes a theoretical idea and turns it into a story and, in doing so, makes the theory into a possibility.  She is unequivocally feminist, not in that man-hating way that the media and the uninformed think that feminism displays itself, but in real, practical, living-your-life sorts of ways.

It’s not only her novels and short stories, a few of her poems (the non-rhyming ones) and a whole lot of her essays. It is her perspective on life, a sort of no-bullshit approach to the world’s bullshit. She harbors no fools. She was unafraid to speak her mind on many topics: literature, yes, but also women’s rights, abortion, the book industry. Amazon. One of my favorite pieces she wrote was a critique of Margaret Atwood’s objection to her books being labeled as “science fiction.” I mean…Atwood is possibly my favorite writer, but followed closely by le Guin, so the two of them in the same room (metaphorically)? Magic for me. Possibly because I think Atwood’s protest is actually bullshit. As does le Guin.

Her last novel for adults, Lavinia, is on my top-ten-favorite-novels-of-all-time list. Not only because it does one of my favorite things that novels can do—takes a marginal character mentioned in someone else’s work and turns it into a character with a believable story within the structure of the existing work—but because it is powerful. It tells Lavinia’s story (from Virgil’s The Aenid) in a historical context (le Guin learned Latin before she wrote it, so as to bring more authenticity), imagining the early Italians within the context of their mythologies, bringing to life the society’s morals and ideals. But it is also a story about power, and how women, who rarely have any, try to work within power structures. At its heart it is a story about men and women, not just in the romantic sense but in the real, living struggle of abuse, trust, misunderstanding, affection, social roles and personal roles and the push-and-pull of relationships. There is also an edge of tired frustration in the story: this happened so long ago, and yet so little has changed. “Women are born cynics,” Lavinia understand. “Men have to learn cynicism. Infant girls could teach it to them.” As we still could. Finally, it is a story about story itself, how it endures, how it shapes both individuals and civilizations.

I’ve read Lavinia three times since it was released, and each time I finish it I think “Oh how I wish she’d write one more novel.” She did say that Lavinia would be her last book. But I kept hoping that she’d surprise us with another one anyway. Alas: that is no longer a possibility. Nor is meeting her or having her sign my books or just telling her thank you in person. Because Ursula K. le Guin passed away this week. There will be no more new books from her.

But that is also the magic and durability of writing. She’s gone but I can still revisit her creations. They will last as long as people last, perhaps. At least far longer than her one human life. I realized when I put this post together that I don’t have my own copies of most of her novels. I think I need to remedy that. I think I’m going to go in search of some cool copies of her works, and reread them. And I am going to reengage with the process of writing—not blogging, but writing, all of it, but especially the submitting, the act of asking to be noticed. I am remembering her words:

I am sick of the silence of women. I want to hear you speaking all the languages, offering your experience as your truth, as human truth, talking about working, about making, about unmaking, about eating, about cooking, about feeding, about taking in seed and giving out life, about killing, about feeling, about thinking; about what women do; about what men do; about war, about peace; about who presses the buttons and what buttons get pressed and whether pressing buttons is in the long run a fit occupation for human beings. There’s a lot of things I want to hear you talk about… We can all talk mother tongue, we can all talk father tongue, and together we can try to hear and speak that language which may be our truest way of being in the world, we who speak for a world that has no words but ours. I know that many men and even women are afraid and angry when women do speak, because in this barbaric society, when women speak truly they speak subversively—they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.

That’s what I want—to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you—I want to hear you. I want to listen to you talking to each other and to us all: whether you’re writing an article or a poem or a letter or teaching a class or talking with friends or reading a novel or making a speech or proposing a law or giving a judgment or singing the baby to sleep or discussing the fate of nations, I want to hear you. Speak with a woman’s tongue. Come out and tell us what time of night it is! Don’t let us sink back into silence. If we don’t tell our truth, who will?

I am not young anymore. I don’t know if I have the power of any volcano. But maybe there is a bit of magma left. Right now, so much of my life is about change. I am coming up against the difference between what I hoped my life would look like when I was here—45 years old, my children no longer small but going out into the world—and what it actually is. I am working on letting go of what I hoped for and embracing what I have. And I am also learning something new and exciting: If it will not be what I wanted, what I hoped for, there is a freedom here in what is. I can choose. I can make it what I want it, shape it how I will. I still have paths to follow and choices to make. I still have a voice. It’s not just le Guin’s death that is sparking me. But she is right: my experience as my truth is something to share, to create from, to let influence more than just my own life. This is why I admire writers the most, and why I get excited about meeting them: because they make things that influence other people. That drop little hints about the way to go. I don’t know of any other higher praise than, at the end of a life, to have someone say “I want to be like you.” And that is what I would have said to her if I had ever met her: “I want to be a person who influences others with words. Like you did.”

Literary FYI: William Wordsworth

Today (April might be yesterday by the time I get this written!) is the poet William Wordsworth's birthday. I know: it's a fact that will stop your life in its tracks, causing you to break out in unfettered joy. For certain.

I've just spent a good half-hour trying to write about why Wordsworth's birthday would matter to anyone. But it's coming out all stuffy and scholarly and boring; details about the Romantic period in writing, and his Lyrical Ballads, and how his poems revolutionized poetic thought are hard to write about in a bloggerly way. So, here I go: I'm going to delete all the drivel, and just say this: 

I was thinking about poetry tonight after work, and about the things I studied for my Bachelor's, and how happy it made me to finally be learning about literary stuff. At work, we were talking about the value of a humanities degree, and while the world definitely doesn't place much value on learning about books, ideas, philosophies, or ways of thinking critically, I still value it. Studying different historical periods and movements in literature felt like putting together a puzzle for me; all my life I'd heard or read about things like romanticism, or the Victorian era, or feminism, but I didn't really understand it. Whether or not the world in general values it or even cares (and, trust me: it doesn't), some of my life's best experiences came in my college English classes.

And maybe the world is right: maybe my knowledge of the romantics doesn't do much for me. It certainly hasn't brought me much money! But I still cherish what Wordsworth brought into my life, the knowledge of people who paid attention, and wrestled with words, and did both things in an attempt to make art---to create something larger than themselves. Wordsworth is a case-in-point of that idea: More than 200 years after his first poems were published, and nearly 16 decades after his death, I'm here, thinking about his poems, his ideas, his life, and in that way he continues to matter, even thought the mattering is pretty small compared to things like recessions and presidents, basketball madness and whether or not Jessica Simpson is still hot or not.

Maybe it would be seasonally appropriate to share his daffodil poem, considering how the lines "they flash upon that inward eye/which is the bliss of solitude" are some of my favorites, and especially how my daffodils were particularly gorgeous today, when it finally warmed up. But I'm going to share my favorite Wordsworth sonnet instead, just because I love it so much and because I want someone else to think about the poem today (or tomorrow), too. It says much that I feel but cannot say in another way.

THE world is too much with us: late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. -- Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

November 29, or, How Three Authors Changed My World

A few weeks ago, my niece called me to ask for some book recommendations. She had an assignment to read the biography of a person who had changed the world. Not wanting to be typical, I stayed away from people who've changed us in obvious ways (I'm certain---since I had a very similar assignment I had my tenth grade students do---that lots of kids would read about Einstein, or random presidents, or even movie stars). Instead, I found her some biographies about writers, because I think they change the world, too. Sometimes they only change the world for a few people, but the impact grows as those changed also make changes. Several writers have changed my live, but three in particular were born today, November 29. These aren't just writers whose work I enjoyed reading; they are writers whose work changed me, by giving me an idea or two I had never considered and then showing me how the idea played out in a well-wrought imaginary world---also leading me to see how it might play out in my own, real world. I read each of them when I was young and impressionable, not to mention lonely, so their work became, for me, not just stories but ways of learning about the world. All three of them are dead, now, but I think there's still a sort of cosmic responsibility to let your favorite authors know you appreciate them, once in awhile. (I've occasionally sent letters to living favorite writers, although it feels like something I shouldn't confess to doing.) So that’s what I’m doing today. In a way, it’s almost not even about the authors, but about the books themselves, independent of their writers, changing the world by way of a reader or too. The book keeps the author alive, as long as someone is reading it, a sort of post-mortal communication by way of paper and ink.

When I was in fifth grade, I must have read Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, at least seven times. I put it down so often on my reading list that my teacher, Mr. Strong, asked me to read something else. I think I was drawn to it at first because of the similarities to my family: four sisters. Plus, I liked old stories, books about the past; I had the romantic view of history that made me wish I had been born in the 1800's. (Which family I would wish to join more, Laura Ingalls' or Jo March's, was a toss up.) I liked the gentle romance in it, too, Laurie's bumbling attempts to win over Jo, Meg's idyllic wooing by Mr. Brooke, Amy and Laurie finally getting together. I was also drawn to the life their family shared---Marmee, especially, seemed intriguing. Whose mom was like her, helping her children overcome their faults, taking care of the poor, always singing? I especially loved that she tried to teach Jo how to manage her quick temper with use of a book (although I had no clue what Pilgrim's Progress was). It wasn't so much that Jo had a temper and I thought she shouldn't, but the process of trying to overcome it.

Looking back as an adult, I think part of what drew me to Little Women, over and over, was that each of the sisters was a bit like me. Meg's desire to fit in with her friends, Beth's shyness and love of kittens; Amy---well, she was an Amy completely unlike me, vibrant and brave and outgoing, the Amy I wished I could be. Plus she could paint. And Jo, of course, with her writing. Maybe I have been trying to become Jo all my adult life. In fact, one of the few things I didn't like about the book (still don't) is that she gave up writing to become a wife. I still think about her declaring "I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle—something heroic, or wonderful—that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream." Even in the fifth grade, it was my favorite dream, too.

How this novel shaped me is by giving me a family that was similar to mine---and then showing me how different it was, too. It showed me that my way of looking at the world wasn't the only way. It also puts forth some ideas about gender that I didn't really notice as I read them, but that continue to affect me. How does a woman find happiness in the world? Is it by Meg's traditional path, or the more creative one that Jo and Amy follow? Is finding the person you love and getting married the only way to live? Can't a woman continue on with her creative side even after marriage? Of course, our perspectives now are far different than those held by the March girls. But I think they are still valid questions. More than anything, Jo's passion for writing still continues to haunt me. She's still a role model.

Alcott wasn't particularly fond of her Little Women books. "I'm tired of providing moral pap for the young," she wrote in her journal. She liked writing what she called "blood and thunder" novels, full of mystery, duels, bloody deaths, addictions. She only wrote Little Women on the advice of her publisher, and maybe to have something she could publish under her own name without embarrassing her family. Yet, to my uneducated 10-year-old mind, the book wasn't about morality at all. It was, in the end, about the search for the self, a search I continue to progress in.

I've written before about how much I like C. S. Lewis's Narnia books. He was born on November 29, but a generation or two after Alcott (1898). The books were thrilling in a way I couldn't really explain, and I loved, loved, loved Aslan. The images of crumbling, empty Charn, Queen Jadis with her Deplorable Word and, later, the juice of the magic apples staining her face; the striped scars on Aravis's back; the making of Narnia and the ending of it, that field of lilies at the end of Dawntreader: all of those things stay with me. But it was that deep, unnameable thrill that influenced me the most; it was the touch of the Spirit telling me that what I read was True. Not scripture in the truest sense. But still a sort of scripture to me, an introduction to spiritual concepts like the creation of worlds, like good and evil, like the archetype of the symbolic sacrificial lamb. Like forgiveness and faith, too.

I didn't fully understand, of course, how allegorical the Narnia books are, not when I read them over and over as a child. I didn't know that C. S. Lewis was an atheist until he began discussing religion with J. R. R. Tolkein. But as I got older and began to experience my own spiritual conversion, I was always bothered by the belief systems that had come and gone. No one believes in Zeus anymore, or in Epona (the Celtic horse goddess) or the Norse Odin. Yet people did believe in them, once, and lived their lives by their beliefs. Why didn't they know the same God I was coming to know? During that time in my life, I happened to reread the Narnia books, and then to dig into C. S. Lewis a little bit. He based the novels on religious motifs---not just Christian, but all religions. (Queen Jadis, for example, is highly Islamic.) He, like me, had read fairy tales and mythology, and as he wrestled with his own faith, changing from an atheist to a Christian, he considered my same questions. Lewis came to believe that the Pagan mythologies were God's way of expressing himself through the people at that time---the way, given their lives' perspectives and conditions, they could understand the spiritual. That made sense to me. The understanding of the spiritual by way of stories is, it seems, a human instinct.

I've since read several of Lewis's books for grown ups. (Till We Have Faces is a particular favorite.) As good as they are, as thought-provoking, though, they still are paler in comparison to the magic of Narnia, which had an immense impact on my spiritual possibilities. I might not have ever believed without having read them. C.S. Lewis said that "miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see." I like that thought, like the idea of truth being everywhere, only we can’t always see it within our perspective. His books were a sort of miracle for me, retelling in a way I could grasp the story I might not have been able to see without them.

Madeleine L’Engle, whom I've written about at least one other time, is the last of the November 29 babies, born just a few years after Lewis (1918). Her Time Quartet series does a similar thing with truth, flinging bits and pieces of it across the universe and throughout time. Or, maybe with L’Engle, truth really isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s good and evil. She wrote A Wrinkle in Time after reading some of Einstein’s work, and I see it as an application of those ideas into the world. The images of the witches explaining tesseracts, or of Meg walking back down into the city to get Charles Wallace back, the furry beings without eyes: these have all stayed with me, but what has impacted me the most is the idea of possibility. Especially in regards to time, to being able to move within it. I confess it is one of my greatest wishes, to be able to go back in time. Silly, yes, but it’s a concept I continue to ponder. As I do the ideas of multiple worlds, and how small decisions make huge consequences, and what average people can do against evil in the world.

When I graduated from BYU, Madeline L’Engle spoke at the convocation. (She was also given an Honory Doctorate of Humane Letters.) I can’t even say how excited I was! She spoke about her process of becoming a writer, and she said something that continues to stay with me. While she was a mother to young children, she wrote bits and pieces when she had time, but she knew she couldn’t do both well. "I knew there would be enough time in my life for both," she said (I wrote that down on the back of my program with a pen I borrowed from a guy sitting next to me who I vaguely remembered from one of my lit classes), "so I kept the stories in my head until the children were old enough for me to have time to write." That continues with me for obvious reasons; it gives me hope that I could still achieve my writing ambitions, and plus, there’s that idea of time again. Her speech that day was the first thing that really taught me: right now matters. Doing your best with what you have right now matters. And I don’t think I would have heard it as well if it came from someone I didn’t already admire so much.

So, now I’m wondering: are there authors who’ve influenced you or changed your life in some significant way?

Read at My Funeral

Yesterday in church, my friend Wendy and I were talking about a hymn we were singing, which she'd also sung at her grandmother's funeral. Oddly enough, I've been thinking about funerals ever since. Maybe that sounds weird? Or maybe just like something I'd think about, but there you have the truth: every once in awhile I find myself wondering what my funeral will be like. When my grandma Elsie died, she'd left a list of poems she wanted read at her funeral (I read an excerpt from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and a sonnet from Shakespeare), and while I still carry a certain bitterness towards Grandma Elsie (because she was a reader and yet she didn't keep a journal, which in my stubbornness seems like a betrayal to both loving books and loving her posterity), I love that she loved poems enough to want them read at her funeral. Me, too.

So it works out well that today, when I am thinking about my own funeral (with the hope that it will be at least forty five or fifty years in the future), is Thomas Hardy's birthday. He is my favorite classics writer, I think because his novels feel both old and contemporary, all at the same time. Tess of the D'urbervilles (my favorite classic novel) could almost have been written yesterday. He describe his mother as a "powerful, rather than tender" woman with a "dark streak of gloom and anger," and I think the same descriptions could apply to his novels; they're not all light and angels.

What many people don't know about Hardy is that he also wrote poetry. In fact, he considered it to be a superior form of art, more important than novels. Not a few of his poems were written out of the grief and guilt he had over his estrangement with his first wife. But my favorite poem of his, "Afterward," is the one I'd want read at my funeral:

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbors say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?

If it be in the dusk, when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight."

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?

I love this poem for lots of reasons (could there be a lovelier image than May flapping "its glad green leaves like wings"?), but namely for two reasons. One, it illustrates the observant nature a real poet possesses---the inherent habit of noticing the small things. And two, because of the amount of yearning in the poem, a desire to be remembered for being observant and careful and in love with the natural world. Obviously I respond to that yearning because it is something I share with Hardy---my desire to notice the things of the earth because I love them, and for people to know that I loved them so that they, too, will love them. And that is a way of being remembered.

Maybe this seems like a gloomy topic, especially for this gorgeous new-June day we're having. But really: it's not about gloom at all. It's about looking forward, about hoping that one day I'll have granddaughters (and grandsons, too!) who also like poems, and will love that I loved them, too, and because they love poems they won't forget that I also loved the world.

Literary FYI: Michel de Montaigne

Did you know that today, February 28, is the birthdate of Michel de Montaigne, the man who invented the essay? OK, I know: stop the presses, that's totally exciting, right? But I'm such a geeky kinda gal that little tidbits like this one make me stop and mark the date.

So. Michel de Montaigne was this guy who lived in France in the 1500s. After his father died, he left his career as a lawyer to care for the family estate. He discovered he loved writing letters, which was great until everyone he wrote to passed away. Then he started writing to an imaginary reader, and voila! The essay was invented.

I know the tendency is to think of an essay as one of those boring things you had to write in English class about Francis Bacon or Albert Einstein or whomever your teacher assigned you to research. But really: that is research---restating facts. An essay is something entirely different---it is a place for discussing your thoughts on just about any subject. Aldus Huxley said that the essay is "a literary device for saying almost everything about anything." It can be personal, or tell a story, or argue a certain position; you can write one about a poem or a novel or another essay, or how you feel about, say, toenails or archeology or daffodils. In essence, it is a space for writing down and discussing your ideas and opinions. (If you want to read some good essays, try The Best American Essays 2007---or any year, really---which I found at Costco a few weeks ago, much to my surprise!)

The essay is my favorite thing to write. It's what I shlep around to literary magazines, my bread-and-butter rejection-letter collection agent. I tend to think about topics in an essay structure. But here's the deal: If you are a blogger, and your blog is more than a collection of your daily itinerary---if it's a place where you put your ideas and opinions into a logical structure---then you're an essayist, too.

The blogosphere owes a hearty thank you to Michel de Montaigne, I think. Maybe even a cupcake or two, but certainly a few well-written blog entries. So, share with me: are there blogs you enjoy reading because the blogger writes well? I want to know about more of them!