Solace on the Shelves

I ducked into the library on March 18th and immediately felt my spirits drop even further. I've been in the library after hours before, of course, experienced that eerie stillness that only occurs in places that are designed to be the opposite of empty. But this was different. After grabbing a few items from my desk, I peeked my head out into the Fiction Loop. The daylight pouring through the wall of windows was at odds with the completely silent lobby and the absence of the bustle of people on the library lawn. It even smelled different, like your house when you come back from a vacation, the staleness of a building with no life stirring inside.

On my drive home I accepted a few things. First, I wasn't going to be back at my beloved workplace for a long while. Even though then the plan was still to reopen in two weeks, I knew deep down that would not be the case. Second, like most of us during this utterly strange and difficult time, I've been guarding my mental and emotional health as fiercely as my physical. And I accepted that what I was feeling that I needed to reckon with was actually grief.

I have since stumbled upon this great article from the Harvard Business Review about my generation's uncharted journey into collective grief and found it very insightful.

“The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll, the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we're grieving. Collectively.”

So, what now? The logical step after recognizing our negative feelings that are taking center stage is to mitigate them with activities that keep us well occupied and out of our own heads. At least in times of strife that has always been my strategy. Accept what you're feeling, allow yourself the space to feel it, but don't dwell.

I took a few days when this all started (which was inexplicably only a few weeks ago and not last year) to process everything and come up with a plan to busy myself. I took stock of the many, many books I currently have. I considered myself very well prepared for social distancing in that regard, at least. You'll rarely catch me without at least 10 books on deck, global pandemic or not.

But here was my rationale, which even in hindsight I believe was sound: I now have more than enough time to read. Before all of this, reading was an absolutely essential daily activity, not only for my own enjoyment and “down time” at the end of the day, but a pretty big part of my job on the Book Squad as well. I decided to turn this into a unique opportunity to explore other things I've always wanted to do with my, until now, scarce leisure time.

First up was a very intricate paint-by-number. I have always lamented my lack of artistic talent. I love the act of painting (what is it that's so soothing about a brushstroke?) and wish I could create a masterpiece all on my own, but it's just not in my repertoire. So this is the next best thing, keeps my hands busy and still allows me to create something beautiful. I threw myself into it, and as of right now it's almost finished, soon to be mounted above the piano in my living room.

As satisfying and fun as it has been, my mind has wandered while I paint. While my hands are dedicated to this task, my thoughts return to a million different sources of anxiety and grief. All that my children are missing, all that they're feeling, how my handling or mishandling of this situation is affecting them, my husband's continued exposure as an essential employee, the health of my parents and last living grandparent...and those very personal concerns don't even scratch the surface of the broader affects of a global pandemic, which also weigh heavily on me. 

Painting was satisfying but not exactly what I needed. 

Next, I revisited Outlander, an escapist watch if ever there was one. I adore this show, as well as the books its based on. The story is imaginative and engrossing, the actors have amazing chemistry and are quite fun to look at. But still, I would find myself gazing off into space as my mind trotted back to doom and gloom. Claire and Jaime staring passionately into each other's eyes in the serenely beautiful Scottish Highlands is quality entertainment, but something was still missing, my brain would still not shut up. Outlander is a tremendous show, but not exactly what I needed.

What I needed was, SURPRISE, my books. In a last ditch effort to quiet my mind so that I could sleep peacefully at the end of a long day of isolation, I returned to the hobby that has always seen me through the toughest mental and emotional challenges. I cracked open This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger and was instantly soothed by its demand of my undivided attention. It's not a story that is all sunshine and rainbows. A tale of orphans who escape a soul crushing imprisonment and set off on a harrowing adventure to claim their freedom, it certainly has its dark moments. But there is also a constant undercurrent of hope, buoyed by the relentless joy seeking spirit of children.

It's been a balm to my soul this last week, but even knowing it's a phenomenal book, I also know that its not necessarily special in its healing capacity. Back in 2011, two researchers from the University of Buffalo ascertained that narratives alleviate loneliness and other affects of social isolation by providing a collective identity that is easily assumed and psychologically rewarding. And a 2009 study at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress and anxiety by up to 68%.

In the cover letter accompanying my resume when I applied for my current position on the Book Squad, I wrote, "Reading has remained my most beloved hobby, books my most stalwart companions, for all of my life." That is as true today as ever, and because of this philosophy (and the science that affirms it), my team members and I have been working diligently to continue connecting patrons with the books that will enrich their lives and see them through this time. We've curated digital only lists, are making plans to move our book clubs online, will continue doing readers' advisory, hosting Bring Your Own Book and Beverage Zoom gatherings, and are constantly looking for new ways to stay as connected as possible with our patrons.

It's my hope that whatever you're doing right now is bringing you peace. But if it's stories that quiet your mind, an escape to someone else's world that gives you clarity and comfort, books are always here for you. And so is your library. 

-Leah Newton is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.