The first book I remember reading as a child was titled Kitten Jones. The Jones family was perfect — unlike my own. But that’s another story for another day. Or, as a dear friend of mine says, it’s another story for another glass of wine…
Mrs. Jones wore an apron and baked cookies. I could almost smell their chocolaty sweetness coming off the pages. I don’t remember much else except that they adopted a little gray kitten. It drank warm milk from a saucer and made the Jones family perfection complete. The story delighted my six-year-old heart.
Not long after that, on a Saturday trip to the grocery store a woman had a cart full of kittens that she was trying to give away. There was a tiny gray and white kitten and I begged my mom to let me bring it home. I was thrilled when she said yes. I immediately named the tiny grey ball of fur, Kitten Jones.
Never mind that we were the Campbell family.
Books have the power to take us to places that we never dared to imagine. They can help us heal and inspire us to share the goodness within our hearts. They make it possible to both escape our lives and engage in them more fully. Books impart the kind of knowledge which can build the infrastructure of entire countries.
More so, they offer wisdom and insight into our relationship with a diverse group of people so that we may better understand that our differences are not so vast. I don’t think there is much that books can’t do — including giving a little girl the sliver of Jones family perfection she craved.
The local mayor recently proposed a $61 million budget cut which will devastate many city services and prompted our Library Board, in an effort for compliance, to propose the closure of six local libraries.
One of the six slated for closing is my neighborhood library where I took my children to story time every Wednesday for at least six years. That’s a lot of Wednesdays.
We read countless books extending the duration of my boys’ bedtime routine with “just one more book” until I was so sick of characters such as Froggy, that I would blissfully recall high school biology class where I dissected the poor formaldehyde-soaked frog.
Unlike trips to Target where I often had to say no to things they wanted to put in the cart, I never had to say no at the library. I would carry my weight in bags of books that they picked, each filled with colorful illustrations and vibrant words which brilliantly combined to bring to life an amazing array of adventures.
Books were so much more entertaining than the countless aisles of toys at Target – and much easier on my feet than the tiny Lego pieces that otherwise invaded my house.
And whenever I was absolutely at my wit’s end with parenting – totally overwhelmed and desperate for information on how to survive motherhood, discipline my children and take the blob of life I was given and mold it into a recognizable contribution to humanity (preferably one who ate with a fork) I would go to the library and get a book. I didn’t always read all the parenting books I checked out, but nonetheless having them made me feel a little more equipped during the times when ketchup was dripping off my dining room ceiling.
In honor of my neighborhood library, I volunteered to collect petitions that would let voters decide through a straw ballot initiative whether they want the opportunity to consider creating an independent tax district for local libraries. The designation would prevent city government from continuing to cut already skeletal services resulting from years of budget reductions.
One of the spiritual works of mercy is to instruct the uninformed. Most of what I have read about this work involves our call to parent our children, and this certainly provided an opportunity to do that as well as inform others of a way that may eventually save our city libraries.
My boys and I met with the attorney spearheading the effort to collect the necessary 26,000 signatures to get on the 2014 ballot. He instructed me of my responsibilities because these were legal documents which had to be verified by the Supervisor of Elections Office.
On our way home, we drove by the library and my older son optimistically said, “That’s the library we are going to save.” I thought about how neat that would be if it were actually spared, and he could take his own children there someday. He could tell them the part he played in saving his neighborhood library. They could check out books about Froggy together and my son would finally realize that frogs don’t wear clothes or play golf, and that making bizarre repetitive sounds like zonk, zoink and zzzz is torturous when all you really want to do is take a shower and wash his younger brother’s spit up off you.
How amazing would it be though if, in a few decades, I could bring my own grandchildren there on a Wednesday and share once again the wondrous world of books that I shared with my own boys?
When we got home, my youngest son chanted in protest around the house, “Don’t mess with me or the librar-y!” While I appreciated his zeal and attempt at poetry, I told him he would not be allowed to say that when we went to the library to ask people to sign petitions.
He asked me whether we would be arrested. I explained that we had the right to voice our opinions as long as we did so peacefully and respectfully. Library closings are foolish and contribute to an ignorant and polarized society; we have to do our part to protect them. I continued with a brief monologue on how it is our responsibility to fight for things we believe in, and thought regrettably how rarely I have done that in my own life.
I was never that girl holding a sign to protest anything or collect petitions until I embarked on this endeavor to do works of mercy. I had been more interested in holding shopping bags and collecting shoes. But in life, if we are fortunate enough, we evolve.
So there I was actually happy to be in the sweltering mid-day heat with my boys and our homemade posters sitting outside the library greeting patrons, informing them about the details of the petitions and encouraging them to sign.
We were there for three hours and had gotten more than half of the petitions signed. People thanked us for our advocacy and shared their own stories of what the library met to them.
I took the rest of the unsigned petitions to a restaurant where we were meeting a large group of friends for dinner and what remained were signed on top of menus, over drinks and by candlelight. I even got some of the wait staff to participate until the entire stack was finished.
It will be a while before we know what the next chapter holds for these six libraries. I hope that it ends well because truly it’s a sad day when we shutter libraries, and all the stories they contain never have the chance to open hearts and minds.
As far as my cat, Kitten Jones, he died of a bladder infection when I was in the sixth grade. Hardly a happy ending — but like so much in life maybe it’s not the ending that is so important.
Perhaps what matters most are the pages in between — where lives are lived and characters evolve to embrace their responsibility to make the world a better place so that ultimately lives aren’t lived keeping up with the Joneses, but instead showing them how it’s done.