A year ago, in the middle of the pandemic, a friend from our co-op preschool family hopped on FaceTime before our kids took over and asked me if I was taking any classes. “Are you still in school?” she asked. “Who me? Nah, I took the semester off to help with distance learning.” “Me too,” she admitted. To which I replied, “I mean we had to, didn’t we?”
I thought taking off a semester would be a relief to me, that it would lift the fog of constant distractedness from my brain. I thought it would reduce the overall stress in our house. One of my friends called it a gentle and caring decision for myself and my family. I felt good, quietly confident, as I hit that withdraw button.
And then few short weeks later, I freaked out about it.
It all came pouring out after watching Disney’s Frozen (and while I was reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed). Before bed my husband asked me what was wrong and that’s when I lost it. I sobbed incoherently, “Look what happened when they tried to tame Elsa?!” My husband patiently helped me backpedal to the source of my discontent.
You see, although I asked to be a stay-at-home mother for the first six years of my child’s life, like many new mothers, I soon felt like I was drowning in this all-consuming role. The first thing that led me out was volunteering to write blog posts about the value of libraries for the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library. When my son was 2, I hired a Mommy’s Helper for two hours a week so I could squirrel away to my bedroom and type frantically, weaving together my personal narrative and universal truths about the transformative power of libraries.
This volunteer gig, which lasted 5 years, was so fulfilling that it motivated me, in 2018, to finally enroll in an online Master of Library and Information Sciences at San Jose State University. Throughout my program, I’ve pointed fellow students and professors toward my blog, called The Vertical File, with pride. My first post for the Friends was featured as one of the first Real Stories posts on the American Library Association’s Libraries Transform Initiative website. Another of my posts about the library as a steward of democracy was liked on EveryLibrary’s Facebook page over 300 times. Writing blog posts about libraries to support my community library was a solid win win win.
And then the Friends, trying to find a way forward in the pandemic, turned their website into a commerce site, deleting any space for a blog. The president of the Friends wrote me a sweet letter releasing me from my volunteer duties. Last June.
Last May I started a virtual internship with the San Francisco Public Library’s Jail and Reentry Services Reference by Mail program. This program, modeled on the 30-year-old New York Public Library’s Reference by Mail program accepts handwritten letters from people who are incarcerated all over the country in which they request information. The queries are typical of those asked of a public library reference librarian. I was initially drawn to this internship because it was a chance for me to gain virtual reference skills and experience. I applied in January before the pandemic. The service population was, honestly, secondary. I even neglected to include a learning objective in my list that focused specifically on learning about social justice and mass incarceration. Thankfully the supervisors of the program provided enriching and humbling lessons on both.
This internship helped me see my strengths as an information professional and it helped me showcase how well my skills work together (vital reassurance for a woman who has been out of the work world for eight years). It helped me dispel stereotypes and untruths that I had never questioned before. It broadened my understanding of social justice librarianship, mass incarceration and the importance of quality reference services. It reminded me, with a dose of humility, why I am called to serve patrons’ information needs. This internship opened my heart. It was nothing short of life-changing for me, an experience for which I am humbly grateful. And after 12 weeks of deeply engaging and deeply meaningful work, along with glowing feedback on over 100 letters, with learning at every keystroke, my internship ended. In the beginning of last August.
And then I dropped my last class.
Which is how I found myself a hysterical mess over the loss of my two volunteer jobs and graduate school in the midst of a global pandemic where my high-risk family is cut off from even the possibility of joining a family or friend bubble.
My schooling was my “me time”, my respite from serving my family. Like most caregivers, I am lousy at both prioritizing self care and actually caring for myself. My husband regularly reminds me that I need to carve out my own me time, in whatever shape it needs to take. That is especially true during this semester’s sabbatical.
So instead of library school, I decided to devote an entire semester to establishing a healthy self-empathy, or self-compassion, practice. I dutifully enrolled in a mindful communication class with Oren Jay Sofer, author of Say What You Mean and picked up a book by my graduate school mentor, Cynthia Kane, called Talk To Yourself Like a Buddhist and on top of that I invested in a Pema Chodron trifecta: When Things Fall Apart (a book about self compassion, or maitri in Pali), Start Where You Are and The Places That Scare You. I readied my Liz Gilbert notebook from the Emily McDowell collection and made myself word bracelets, one that says “gentle” and the other that says, “make space”.
As August slid into September, and we slid into a discordant experience of second grade that disrupted any sense of routine and productivity (what day is it?), people kept dying and I found myself increasingly displaced in my own home. Where had my space gone? I couldn’t found it in the living room where my son attends class. I couldn’t found it in the loft office that my husband has abandoned for the quiet privacy of our bedroom, a space designated as mine at the start of my internship, because the boy is so against wearing headphones. I couldn’t found it in the garage or my son’s room (where I was able to at least close the door for a spell). I wasn’t been able to find myself or space or even a regular day to clean. Like a nomad, gathering my wares and wandering from room to room, I made sure I completed my tasks before the next distance learning break or the next meeting, upon when I will be called to be a playmate, a referee, a cook, a pee alarm.
And yet, one day, as we emerged from a dark week, filled with fits that lasted hours, migraines that lasted days and ceaseless ash and smoke-strewn skies, it dawned on me that we all felt displaced. Not just me in my own house. The ENTIRE world had been displaced.
It sounds so obvious. But now I could actually feel it. We had ALL been displaced.
From our routines, from our community, from our coping mechanisms, from our expectations, from our sense of security. We had all been displaced from what we all knew of ourselves and our lives. If I was so exhausted from this feeling of “other”, so was everyone else. We had all been so exhausted by the relentlessness of this year. We had all been drowning in the river of grief washing over us.
My son had a rainbow heart taped to our big picture window with a sign next to it that said: “We are all in this together.” And he’s so right. In the midst of this displacement, my heart opened and softened as I caught nuggets of normalcy: Shopping at Trader Joe’s with my son with his clean hands shoved deep in the pocket of his shorts, the keeper of the debit card, list and keys; Klay Thompson playing basketball in the Warrior’s two-week voluntary training camp dubbed The Dubble; reclining in a chair at a bustling orthodontist’s office, all of us patients, gently holding our masks on our laps; hearing how my son’s teacher, a very real part of our household, our family, helped to raise him (and his classmates). I was like the Grinch in these moments of beauty, my heart swelling beyond the capacity of my chest.
Here is a story about what I learned about compassion during my internship: I opened the scanned letter from D. explaining that he would be released soon and he needed information on where his family could purchase gloves and masks. Time stood still for a moment. Here I was, a person of privilege, free to access whatever information, goods and services I needed to stay safe and healthy, and there was D., an individual who was incarcerated about to re-enter this mess of a world, writing a letter to ask for information on how to stay safe and healthy. And so I obliged and went a little beyond what he asked for, giving him up-to-date information from the CDC on COVID-19, its transmission and their safety guidelines for hand-washing, social distancing, mask and glove wearing. I even included instructions from the CDC for how to make masks. And then I provided him with merchants from which to buy masks and gloves with a caveat about delayed shipping times and price gouging. This letter, and the experience answering it, for me pointed to the importance of librarians as information stewards, the importance of fair and equitable access, the importance of information literacy, and the importance of care and compassion in service. I took extra care with that letter because it felt so important to do so.
Compassion is vital, whomever it may be directed toward.
It is, for me (and a lot of people) much easier to have compassion for other but not myself. What I am learning is that having compassion for yourself allows you to have compassion for others. And compassion for others brings us in touch with raw humanity. It connects us. We are all in this together. We may all be displaced but can find refuge, a home, in each other, in our shared experience of being humans in a messy, complicated world.