Our theme for the month of February is “plants.”
In library school, they teach us to weed. That’s what you call it when you take things out of your library collection—maybe they’re too old or too smelly, or no one’s checked them out in four years, or we own six because they were the it-book of last summer but now it’s this summer and we really need space for another copy of Where the Crawdads Sing.
So we weed. We scour our overgrown collection and pull up books by their roots and scrutinize their stats, their circs, their condition. We keep a few and send the rest to the Friends for repotting. (The withered ones we compost, secretly, for fear of walkers in our garden who return with a handful of dandelions that they found in the recycling bin, convinced that we must have placed them there by accident.)
You see how the metaphor makes itself.
And it stretches further before it breaks, I think. What if the whole library is a garden? What if the computers are little fish ponds, used for sustenance or fun? What if the used book store is a flower stall and our events are tiny garden fêtes? What if the system is an entire habitat, and it sustains itself through crosspollination with the others in our co-op? Come, we beckon, and sit, and exist in our piece of peace. It’s beautiful, see. The garden welcomes everyone.
A young woman in her early twenties stops at the library card desk. “Can I use your phone?” she asks in a watery voice. She offers hers, a black square made useless by a latticework of cracks, as an explanation. “My boyfriend smashed mine and I need to call my mom.” She puts a hand to her neck and then tilts her head upwards to ask, “I am bleeding?”
She is, from the two red points his thumbs made on her throat. “Please don’t call the police,” she says.
She says it again, later, when talking to her mom on one of the office phones. Her voice breaks as she says, “He choked me, Ma.”
The next afternoon, a middle-aged white woman approaches one of our regulars, a Black man that she does not know, while he charges his phone at a table near our information desk. She screams at him that she knows he’s a drug dealer and that he should be shipped back to Kalamazoo. She calls him all the words you’re imagining, and a few more.
When the police officers arrive, she kicks one before they arrest her. They also take the man’s statement, ask if he wants to press charges, and then, because he has an outstanding warrant for a missed court date in Muskegon and the bad fortune to be the victim of a hate crime, they arrest him too.
That night, a ten-year-old boy hovers by the information desk. He’s alone at the library again, but at least this time he’s wearing shoes. “Can’t I just hide here for the night?” he asks. He’s crying and it’s fully dark outside. The wind whips near-frozen rain across the parking lot. “Don’t make me go home. I don’t want to go home.”
I don’t know how to weed such a garden. I don’t know if you can.
Where’s the metaphor now? What part of the ecosystem is that woman, or that man, or that child, or the dozens of others like them that come to our gates suffering? This is the fertilizer, isn’t it? It’s the shit that will make us stronger and more vibrant once we’ve learned how to use it to fuel our own growth.
(It’s not. It’s nothing. It just is.)
Maybe the garden is beautiful—I believe this; I have too—but leaving it at that is a lie and a naivety. It is, unfortunately, more. It’s cigarette butts on the path and rancid-smelling puddles and a single mother who’s trying to pretend that a nature walk really is what her screaming kids need right now and an old man glaring at them for spoiling his view of the petunias. And someone’s definitely ODing in that porta-potty.
I’m scared of it. I’m scared that it’s going to eat my empathy like Audrey II and spit me out as cardigan-shrouded bones. I’m scared that I’ll turn into the kind of gardener who only cares about how neat her flower beds are because caring about garden design is just too exhausting.
I’m scared because every day is a piece of sandpaper, and I don’t know whether I’m being sharpened into a point or ground away into nothing.
Wow. In all the fuss over teachers and what they see and have to deal with, we forget about librarians. Thank you for this.
I certainly didn’t see that coming. The garden is sustenance for us all. Where would we be if it didn’t exist. I am grateful you do what you do. Your writing always gives me something to think about. (I am still digesting the epilogue from the last one)
As a fellow queer librarian… oh, I felt this to the very core of my being. Thank you for this, Annaka.