Friday night at the bookstore

Barnes and Noble

Some people like to spend their weekends bar hopping, or going out to the movies, or shopping for new clothes. I like to go to the bookstore. I don’t necessarily go to buy anything, though it’s hard to resist the pull of a new book, the weight of it in my hands, the smell of paper and ink and glue.

I go, especially when things get stressful, because this is my happy place. It’s true that I spend most of my days surrounded by books in the public library where I work, but therein lies the problem. I’m working. At bookstores, I can relax. I don’t have to force a smile if I don’t feel happy. I don’t have to grit my teeth and explain to the same person for the millionth time that no, I am not going to fill out their job application for them. I am beholden to no one but myself and the books.

Growing up, my favorite bookstore was the Chester County Book and Music Company, a massive store in West Chester, PA. A solid half of my Star Wars book collection came from that store. I always had to beg my parents to take me, because they knew once they got me there it was going to be hours before I was ready to leave. That store is closed now, but I can still tell you exactly which books I bought there.

Now I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I spend most of my bookstore time in Barnes & Noble. This is more out of habit and routine than anything else. In high school a new development in a wealthier part of town brought in a Barnes & Noble, which was perhaps one of the most exciting events of my young life (this is not because my life wasn’t exciting; that just goes to show you how much I love bookstores). My best friend and I would spend entire afternoons there, giggling at trashy romance books and eyeing up new editions of Lord of the Rings. I accompanied friends to midnight releases for Harry Potter books, mostly because I wanted to be in a bookstore at midnight.

I generally follow a routine for my weekend BN visits. First, I look at the journals. Then, if I’m in the mood, I’ll stop in the cafe and get something to drink. Next comes the bargain section. From there I visit the science fiction books, first checking out what’s new and then finding my favorite authors on the shelf. Even if I have all of an author’s books, I’m not immune to the draw of a new edition. Plus, stopping by Neil Gaiman’s and Ursula Le Guin’s sections feels a lot like visiting old friends.

After sci-fi I peruse the manga and comics and contemplate whether or not I should buy the next volume in whatever series I’m working on (currently the omnibus editions of Fruits Basket and Elf Quest). Then I head over to the reference section to visit the writing books. I don’t buy many writing books, but I will borrow them from the library and buy the ones I really love.

This routine, the familiarity of it, the faint smell of books permeating the air, the warm drink in my hand, lets me relax. It gives me time and space to think, to figure things out and work through whatever problem I’m stuck on. In many ways, my bookstore visits are a kind of meditation. Sometimes I even say “I’m going to church” when I’m headed to a bookstore, and it isn’t a joke. There’s truth in that. To me, bookstores are a sacred space. They hold knowledge and mystery, power and wisdom. And that’s what keeps me coming back, week after week.

 

“You’re too young for [fill in the blank]!”

People tend to read me as younger (sometimes much, much younger) than I actually am. So, while I am a 30-year old who has been working since the age of 15, has 1.25 master’s degrees, and owns her home, a lot of people think I’m 22, have just graduated college, and have no idea how the world works. On a few recent occasions, people have assumed I’m still in high school.

“Oh, you’ll be grateful for that when you’re older,” I hear all the time from middle-aged women.

And sure. If people were just telling me that I look 22 instead of 30 all the time, great. But at least half of the time, they’re not. They’re making an assumption about my age, and then using that assumption as grounds to treat me like a child. Or they’re just being condescending assholes. Spoiler alert, it’s usually men doing this, though women aren’t immune.

(The other half are usually people like one of my library patrons who, for example, asked me excitedly if the 2016 election was going to be my first presidential election. It wasn’t—with one exception, I have voted in every election in which I’ve been eligible to vote, including primaries, since I turned 18 in 2004.)

Last summer, a door-to-door salesman for some power company came up to my house while I was outside with my dogs. He introduced himself and made some small talk, then asked, “Are your parents home?” in a very serious, I-have-real-business-to-conduct-now tone. I cracked up because he looked rather young himself and was trying very hard to appear older and (I guess?) more respectable, and it was obvious the possibility of me being the homeowner had never, not once, crossed his mind.

Then there are people who say things like, “Aren’t you too young to have carpal tunnel?” when I’m wearing a wrist brace for an injury that resulted from extreme gardening, not computer usage. This question (and others like it) are always asked in a condescending tone and with the assumption that youth equals health (it doesn’t, in case that was unclear, and it’s downright rude to ask a complete stranger about their health issues anyway).

Now back to the “You’ll appreciate that when you’re older” nonsense. This response is problematic for several reasons:

  1. The underlying assumption that age and beauty are somehow related, and that being young equals being more beautiful. Let me just call bullshit on that right now. Older people are beautiful, too, and anyone who tells you otherwise can be damned to a hell in which their every flaw is constantly compared against airbrushed magazine models.
  2. The underlying assumption that my self-esteem is based on my appearance, and that I need external validation to feel good about myself. Of course, this one isn’t about me at all—it’s about the person saying it. More than likely, they feel insecure about their age and appearance, and they’re projecting that insecurity onto me. I’d much rather have people’s respect than their compliments on how pretty I am.

You know what I’ll really, truly appreciate when I’m older? Hearing that one of my stories, or essays, or novels had an impact on a young person the same way books like Sandman and The Chronicles of Narnia had an impact on me.

No one is going to look at me, makeupless, in jeans and a Star Wars t-shirt, with muddy sneakers and messy hair, and think, “Damn, I’m going to spend my whole life trying to look like her!” And they shouldn’t. They should want to look like themselves. So why should I care what people think I look like? Answer: There is no reason. As long as I’m clean and dressed appropriately for work, it does not matter.

In the same vein, age alone does not determine anyone’s capabilities. I’ve met completely incompetent 50-year-olds and brilliant, wise 20-year-olds. The next time someone asks you if you’re “too young for x,” you can respond with, “Aren’t you old enough to know better than to ask inappropriate questions like that?”

Punk Rock Gardner

Johnny Jump Ups

Johnny Jump Ups remind me of gardening with my mother as a kid.

Working in the garden is meditative. There’s the endless pulling of weeds, checking vegetables and flowers for signs of insect infestation or fungal infection, repairing damage done by small animals or the weather, pulling more weeds.

I like the physicality of these tasks: the strain in my back and shoulders, the flexing of muscles, the slight soreness the next day when I try to do too much in one go. I would be happy to do this work in silence, with only the local birds as accompaniment, but this is often not possible.

Shelling peas

Shelling peas climbing a trellis.

My neighbor likes to blast country music from the backyard of his boarded-up house (why he decided to board up the windows I can only imagine). It’s not that I hate country music–indeed, I grew up listening to it–but it feels like the wrong sort of background for what I’m doing.

So I listen to punk rock, lots of Bad Religion, some obscure Japanese stuff, The Interrupters, Flogging Molly, multiple girl bands with “Betty” in the name. This too may seem incongruous, but growing my own food sometimes feels like an act of rebellion against agribusiness and companies like Monsanto who’d rather I spend my garden money on pesticides and grass fertilizers. Punk is nothing if not one long, loud, scream of rebellion.

A white peony.

The first peony of the spring. They smell wonderful.

Bad Religion has one song in particular that I listen to over and over again. “Kyoto Now,” off their album The Process of Belief, pleads with the listener to stop denying climate change and environmental destruction and take action now to save this ball of earth and water and gas that we call home.

I didn’t start off with the intention of listening to only punk while I garden, but that’s the music I find myself turning to more and more these days, and now it’s become A Thing–even when my neighbor isn’t blasting country music, I still put in my earbuds and crank the volume just high enough that I can lose myself in the noise and the work.

This act of listening to punk while I garden is my meditation on cultivation, destruction, and the intersection of the two. It is my meditation on the mundane and why the mundane is magical and worth saving. It is my meditation on power and abuse and resistance. It is my meditation on how to save the world, one tomato at a time.