Sunday, September 25, 2011

A New York Public Library Card!

"The library was a little old shabby place.  Francie thought it was beautiful.  The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church.  She pushed open the door and went in.  She liked the combined smell of worn leather bindings, library paste and freshly inked stamping pads better than she liked the smell of burning incense at high mass."
--A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

When I walked in the front door of my "growing-up library" in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, I felt much the same as Francie. There was nothing shabby about it, with it's polished hardwood floors, matching paneled walls and sparkling floor-to ceiling windows, but it was the feel. . . the feel of the place that remains with me almost 50 years later. There was a reverence about it, a calmness and respect, something reassuring like sitting beside my grandmother in "our" pew on Sunday mornings.

I wasn't the reader at 11 that Francie was.  "She had been reading a book a day for a long time now and she was still in the B's."  For me, the joy was more in the looking, examining the covers, thumbing through the pages -- feeling the books in my hands.  Should I pick the one with the palomino horse looking ever-so grand, the best friends walking arm in arm, or another Nancy Drew, the one that sounded particularly scary?  And I loved to check-out, putting that carefully chosen book on the librarian's desk, handing her my library card!  It was light blue, the corners wrinkled and worn, with my name at the bottom, written in perfect fifth-grade cursive.

From then until now, one of the first things I do when we move to a new (English-speaking) place, is get a library card. But in New York City, with 43 neighborhood branches in Manhattan alone, where should  I go?  The obvious choice is the New Amsterdam branch, just 2 blocks from our apartment, but I want an adventure; I want to go to the BIG, main, flagship library, the one with the lions guarding the entrance.  So, undaunted by drizzle, I take the #4 Express to 42nd street, walk 2 blocks to 5th, and there it is.  What would Francie think?

White marble, grand staircases,  gold-lettered inscriptions on the walls, candelabras highlighting names of wealthy benefactors. Nothing shabby here.

With application and ID in hand, I climb the two flights to room 315, the main reading room of the Research Library, where the library card application desk is located. The magnificence of a museum greets me, with muraled art covering the door ways and ceiling.
(photo by Wikipedia)
A simple sign, "Apply for a Library Card Here," directs me to a row of arched, wood-framed windows, which looked like they have been transported from a fancy 1920s bank lobby.

The "teller" (aka librarian) enters my information into the computer, checks my ID, then presents me with a shiny, blue NY Public Library card!

Of course, I have to use it today, to experience the joy of feeling a borrowed book in my hands, one that has been read by others, and is waiting patiently on the shelf to visit my home.  Since the main library is for research rather than lending (except the children's section), I walk across the street to the Mid-Manhattan branch, check the catalog and find what I'm looking for, thankfully, with "available" by the title.
Proudly handing the librarian my card, the book is mine, until October 14.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  My third time to read it.  Francie and I will, again, spend hours together, "at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl can be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy. . ."

What is your library story?  Please share it for others to enjoy.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Curious George in Manhattan (but leaving soon!)

 "This is George."

(Disney clipart)
"He was a good little monkey and always very curious." 

So begins each new adventure of Curious George, the series of books which children have been snuggling up to at bedtime and circling up to at storytime for over sixty years.  My brother and I were two of those children, encouraged by our mother, a kindergarten teacher, whose collection of yellow-covered Curious George books took up an entire section of her overflowing bookshelf.

The family tradition continued last week when 2-year-old granddaughter, Ruby, came for a visit, bringing along Mama and Papa.  She had studied the guidebooks, checked the internet and knew exactly what she wanted to do in "The Big City."  Right at the top of her list was the Children's Museum of Manhattan where George was hanging out in the "Curious George, Let's Get Curious!" exhibit. Thanks to Mama and Papa's love of reading, Ruby knows all about George's exploits at the library, baseball game, hospital and camping.   As she dashed from bigger-than-life George to his friend, The Man in the Yellow Hat, and everything in between, I discovered the quietest area in the room, where few of the pre-school crowd was gathered. . . filled with facts about George's creators, H. A. and Margret Rey.

The splashy yellow and red sign, with squiggly edges and trademark Curious George signature, provided no clues about the seriousness of Hans and Margret's own daring adventure.

Escaping Paris only hours before Nazi troops entered the city, the pair left by bicycle, pedaling for three days, spending one night in a cow stable before reaching a train station.  Speeding across Spain to Portugal, they boarded a boat in Lisbon that took them to Brazil, where they booked passage on another boat headed for. . .

They had no room for luggage, for a carry-on stuffed to over-flowing, no place to put possessions except in a bicycle basket. Perhaps they hurriedly threw in a change of clothes, a prized family photograph, a loaf of bread.  The one item we know of, for sure, that they tucked safely inside Hans' coat, was the manuscript for George (originally named "Fifi").  As a writer, I completely understand this.  It was their creation, built from hours and hours of thought, imagination, collaboration --  selecting just the right words, penning just the right expressions. An artist's work becomes part of who he or she is.  It was not a choice for them to leave it behind.

And for generations of readers, what would childhood be without the curiosity of a little monkey to entertain and make us laugh?  The exhibit moves on after September 25th, but thanks to Margret and Hans, we have George forever.
George and Ruby



Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Remember to Love"

Thousands of white ribbons are tied to the fence surrounding St. Paul's Chapel in Lower Manhattan, a block from where the Twin Towers stood,

"Remember to Love" printed on each.  

Not solely the word "Remember," but "Remember. . . . to Love."  The 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks is surely about remembering the acts of terrorism,  so cruelly and intentionally performed, and honoring the lives lost, families left, and futures forever altered. Yet the ribbons remind us to step beyond, to act on those memories.  To love.

Last night I entered St. Paul's where an All Night Vigil was being held.  People sat in silence, lit candles, walked slowly from exhibit to exhibit gazing at pictures of those who died, those who responded with acts of bold heroism and gentle kindness, at banners, charred uniforms, a white pew scuffed with the boot marks of tired firefighters.  I chose to walk the labyrinth, in the center of the chapel floor, its path curving back and forth from its entrance, to the center, and back.

A journey that slows my pace, my breathing, my chattering mind, forces me to concentrate on each step.   Nearing the center, I began to cry. I knew none of the victims, was not personally touched by the tragic events.  I had not even been living in the United States at the time;* did not see videos until weeks later.  But the extraordinary love that passed from person to person in this place 10 years ago was tangibly present, absorbed into its walls, floors, its soul.   It embraced me as I circled the labyrinth, and compelled me to ask, "How can I Remember to Love in my daily life?"  "How can my hands join the thousands who lovingly tied white ribbons, to create a more peaceful world?"

Questions that stayed with me as I left the church and walked to Ground Zero.  Approaching the site, my eyes traveled upward, as if the towers were still standing.  In their place were twin beams of light, streaming into the night sky, bursting through the clouds high above, announcing to the world,  "Our spirit is still present."  
May we honor that spirit by remembering . . . to love.
What can that look like for you, for me?

*I invite you to read my article, "A Face of Peace," that appeared in Downtown Magazine NYC this week.  It tells of an experience I had while living in Cairo, Egypt during 9/11.


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