On Belonging

You belong among the wildflowers.
You belong in a boat, out at sea.
You belong with your love on your arm.
You belong somewhere you feel free.

 

There was a period in my adolescence when my dad got really motivated at work. He started working Saturdays at the car dealership, which meant there was more money to splurge on fun adventures (enter my mother tsking the fact that it didn’t mean more support for our basic needs), but it also meant that we had to entertain ourselves on Saturday.

One of those days, I was so bored. Danielle was home with Mama. Punkin was off with his girlfriend. Marcus was probably downstairs being creative with the dvd player. He used to love syncing the scene from Purple Rain where Prince takes Appolonia on a bike ride with different songs to see if he could find a more natural pairing than “Take Me With You.” Marnie was upstairs in the spare bedroom reading a book from Daddy’s library pile.

Not including the baby, we were four children very close in age. Two boys and then two girls. Nature had decided that Marnie was my partner in crime. If I could not persuade her to do something with me, I was on my own. I went upstairs to the spare bedroom and saw her lying on the air mattress. Her eyes and pose firmly communicated that she was lost in a good book and was not going to take kindly to interruptions.

Ok, so we’re reading. I sighed resignedly and flopped beside her, staring at the pile of books from which she had withdrawn hers. It looked like Daddy was bingeing on an author, Eric Jerome Dickey. I snuck a peek at the spine of my sister’s book, Friends & Lovers. Yep, same author. I flipped through the stack to find a title that looked interesting. I don’t usually read book or watch movie previews. I liked to be surprised by the plot, so titles are very important to me. And book jackets. I read Ella Enchanted because the cover of the book at the branch I visited was so ornate. The first time I read it, I held it up on my knees for a couple of minutes and traced my finger along the ridges while repeating the title in a stage whisper. Ella Enchanted, Ella Enchanted, Ella Enchanted!

I found one. Milk in My Coffee. With one more look at Marnie’s back, I turned on my side and settled in. And so began my love affair with Eric Jerome Dickey.

When I tell people who are familiar with his books that I love Eric Jerome Dickey, they smile knowingly at me as if I just confessed that I watch three hours of porn every evening. I don’t like those looks. I hate that people lump Dickey’s books (at least the pre-2005 ones) in the erotica category. He is no Zane. Sex is not the focus of his books. Descriptive sex scenes appear in his novels because it’s a part of the human experience. Dickey specializes in realistic fiction. Most of his novels take place in Memphis (his hometown), LA, or NY (places he has lived as an adult), so his settings were always well written.

I used to think I love his books for the same reason I loved The Baby-Sitters’ Club and Gilmore Girls – they described worlds that I didn’t live in, but longed to touch. These texts and visuals allowed me to create a world in my mind that I could retreat to until the time came for me to leave and physically inhabit those worlds.

But as I have gotten older and reread his books on multiple occasions (in college, I kept two or three in the bathroom with my favorite sections dog-eared), I realize that I loved his books because I saw myself in them, the girl I was and the woman I was becoming. He wrote about me time and time again.

In Milk and My Coffee, there was Kimberly (not Kim) who had learned to control her emotions because she had grown up as a child who cried  with no one around to defend her tears. Kimberly loved to paint through the night because she loved to watch the world be enveloped in complete darkness just to be bathed in radiant light within a span of a few hours.

Then there was Tammy from Cheaters who moved to France to start a new life for herself and when asked by her lover why she didn’t go home often or speak about her family too often, replied, “A woman ain’t supposed to look back when she’s running. Looking back slows a sista down.” This quotation was my gchat status on and off in college.

It took me a while to meet Nicole from Between Lovers because my homophobia made me nauseous at the idea of reading a tale about a woman who stood her fiance up at the altar and his quest to win her back from her girlfriend. But, my devotion to Dickey forced me to eventually get through the text. The first time I read it, I was rooting for the narrator to succeed in his endeavor, but by the second time, I could see how brave she was and I was proud of her. Standing in one’s truth when it goes against the mainstream requires so much courage and Nicole was courageous.

At one point, the narrator laments how much she has changed since they met. He had wanted her to be a more self-actualized person, but he never imagined her journey would lead her to this place and he wanted to turn back the clock. He wonders if this is possible and she shuts his musings down with, “Evolution moves forward, never backwards. Butterflies never become caterpillars. (One summer, I convinced my best friend to read this book and while he was reading, he transcribed all of my comments from the margins, put them in a google doc, and added his own commentary that he shared with me. We went back and forth for a couple of days, engaging in an online book club. To this day, that ranks as one of the most loving acts than anyone has ever done for me.)

And then there is Genevieve. Genevieve (JAHN vee ev) and her eponymous book is the most recent Dickey book that I have read. The past decade, his focus has centered on drugs, crime, and sex, so he and I have had a parting of ways. Genevieve was the supernova of a beautiful literary relationship. The main character is an accomplished professor with a husband who is obsessed with knowing more about her past. Genevieve was not proud or enamored of her past, so when asked what her happy memories were, she replied, “Meeting you, marrying you, waking up next to you, these are my happy memories.”

 

Her reluctance to share that part of herself with him leads to distance in their marriage and a couple of events force her to face her past with him by her side. At one point, she asks him to come and meet her downtown where he finds her sitting across the street from the library, her refuge from the people who had abused her in her youth. “This is my good memory.”

God bless libraries and all the librarians of the world who protect our hearts and imaginations by introducing us to kindred spirits that exists across time and space. Libraries have always been my safe space and librarians have always been my friends. When I transferred schools in the middle of fifth grade because my mom got a house across town, my dad took me to school to get my transfer papers. While he was charming the ladies in the main office, I went to the library. The librarian was sad to see me go. She gestured to the Accelerated Reading  fame reel that was suspended from the ceiling. I had the highest score (Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself pushed me over into the big time) by at least twenty points. She hugged me and then told me I could get three books from the Scholastic Book Fair items, which I had never been able to order from. I still have that mini-bio on Will Smith at Marnie’s house.

In college, libraries lost their charm. After high school, libraries signified impending deadlines and inadequacy. College was home for me, but never because of the academic experience. I always felt as if there was something I was missing (there was: an understanding of what it means to analyze texts and write about my observations, essentially, academia itself) and I was too proud to ask for help. So, I just treaded water for four years.

My changed emotions to libraries grieved me. Harvard’s library system is a wonder to behold. There were places to sit where I could be surrounded on three sides by authors that had inspired me. No text or media was too obscure for Harvard to possess. The library system was a bibliophile’s dream come true and I was not enjoying it. Would my love for libraries ever return?

It did. Years later, but it did. After my apartment, my favorite place to be in Guatemala was my job because of our library. Guatemala doesn’t have libraries like we do here. The books are locked up and the staff will pass you reading materials one at a time. Our school library was the best library in Xela and it looked simply like any public school library in the States.

I would arrive to work at 6 am, an hour and a half before the rest of the staff, just to sit in the silence, surrounded by voices that soothed me when I was anxious or scared. It was there that I discovered Anne Lamott and her folksy wisdom.

One of my coworkers from Guatemala passed away this summer and I went to Long Island for the wake. As I was walking the couple of blocks from the commuter rail to the funeral home, my legs turned to jelly and my hands clammed up. I became acutely aware of the fact that I should not have gone there alone.

With one foot in front of the other, I made my way through the door, to the bathroom where I let my grief pour out of me through hacking sobs until I was able to stand and make my way to the family. Ten minutes later, I was back on the streets, heart pounding and tears screaming down my face. I raced until I stood in front of the library that I had passed before. I went in and discovered that the outside of the building was a facade. The building had mastered the gift of presenting itself as a castle while being a matchbox of books on the inside. No matter. I strolled around the non-fictions aisles until I could take deep breaths again. I leaned against a shelf until I could walk back to the train.

I have been listening to the podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Texts, and one of the broadcasters spends a lot of time thinking about the living beings who help Harry figure out who he is and remind him of the truth when he forgets. At the end of one episode, he blesses Ollivander for being a source of information for Harry about his wand and the connection the two of them share. His discussion of Ollivander reminds me of all of the librarians who have guided me over the years.

In a different episode, he blesses Hedwig for being a constant presence to Harry during his days at the Dursleys. Though he never articulates words to Harry, his very existence keeps Harry in constant communion with his true self even when he is on Privet Drive. Not to reduce animals to the level of inanimate objects, but I saw a parallel between what Hedwig did for Harry and what books did for me.

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about my eighteen-year old self. What made her feel like there was a richer life beyond her hometown? I don’t remember there being a group of people telling me that; in fact, most comments I received were to the contrary. So, what sparked my dream and what sustained it? I asked myself these questions for years and now I would answer, books. Books showed me who I was and where people like me belonged.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. crafted a theory called the trope of the talking book, which explains this theme that is present in a host of slave narratives in which slaves (similar to Atahualpa throwing down the Bible being offered by Pizarro) believe that books literally spoke to people and that only certain people got the honor of communicating with books. This resulted in the illiterate slaves feeling powerless and resentful. Why won’t the books speak to me?

From our perspective, we can obviously see why the slaves would have assumed that the books were talking and also, what was really going on. Still, the slaves weren’t completely misguided in their interpretation of the situation. I do believe that books speak to people and that there is something magical about the relationship between readers and the texts they choose to engage. When I hear Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers,” I imagine that it is my books speaking truth into my life, nudging me to keep moving along until I arrived at the place where I belonged.

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