Plans are under way for a new library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As yet, we have no idea where it will be or even when it will be, but our city's library board promises that a library is coming, and it will be even bigger and better and more beautiful than the library we lost in June.
I can hardly wait.
In June, Cedar Rapids, my hometown, suffered a devastating flood. Much of our downtown remains vacant, most of our city buildings and museums are empty shells, and many streets are still lined with condemned homes awaiting demolition. My condo home, high on a hill on the outskirts of town, escaped the raging water, but actually no one in Cedar Rapids escaped the flood. In myriad heartbreaking ways, all of us grieve for some missing part of our lives. For me, it's life without the library.
If you rarely use your library, you won't understand how I feel. You would probably tell me to buck up and concentrate on our many "people problems." But for me, it's not that easy. The library is a gentle haven, a quiet shelter from life's busyness. All my life, it has been where I go when I'm looking for inspiration and wisdom and energy and joy – and I always find what I need.
And all my life, I've taken the library for granted. It never occurred to me that there could be a time when there was no library. So in June, when the floodwaters subsided and 290,000 soggy books – plus CDs, DVDs, videotapes, and computers – were hauled to the dump, for the first time in my life, I couldn't go to the library.
When I was a little girl growing up in a Chicago suburb, the library was three blocks from our house, and those three blocks made up the most important path in my life. "I'm going to the library," I'd call to my mother, and off I'd run. I loved that solid, square Andrew Carnegie building – the quiet, the smell of the books, the librarian who supervised with a smile from her stool at the center desk.
I loved to read about girls like me and girls who lived in faraway places. And I loved to pretend I was a heroine in one of the books I read. (For one long summer, I was Jo in "Little Women.") When I was a gawky teenager and sure that everybody in the world was whispering about me, I found escape from my self-centered agony in library books. And when I was in college, the library stacks were where I could hide when I really needed to study hard.
But it was after I became the mother of five little boys that the library became my lifeline. In those days before dishwashers, clothes dryers, and permanent press, homemaking was hard work, and the day-in, day-out drudgery was numbing. Mine was the sort of lifestyle Betty Friedan railed against. But I discovered a miraculous antidote: Once every two or three weeks, after the dinner dishes were washed and dried, my husband took charge, and I hurried off to our homey old Cedar Rapids library.
I'd leave the house dull and droopy and tired – and two hours later I'd come home elated and inspired and enthusiastic. I'd be carrying an armload of books. I always included one biography, one novel, one book about faraway places, and several "how-to" books: how to collect antiques, how to cane chair seats, how to refinish furniture, how to make slipcovers, how to grow herbs, how to cook like Julia Child, how to celebrate Christmas like Martha Stewart, how to be a freelance writer, how to prepare for reentering the job market. In short: how to restore your I-love-life frame of mind.
And later, coping with the empty-nest syndrome, and then retirement and widowhood, I've always found something at the library to be excited about, something to activate my mind, something to turn daily living into an art. Life without a library and an armload of books? Impossible!
Now in Cedar Rapids, we can begin to celebrate: A new library is in the planning stage. It will be large, light, roomy, and modern. There will be comfy chairs for reading and rows of computers for research. There will be small private study spaces and big tables for spreading out. The children's area will be colorful and fun with a librarian who supervises with a smile. And outside there will be lots and lots of parking spaces.
And I'm absolutely sure of one thing: On the day our new library opens, I'll be there – waiting in line to check out my armload of books.