Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A new community, a new library

Every so often I am compelled to write about libraries.  I love libraries.  I love that they're filled with books.  I love that you can read those books for free.  I love that each library has its own quirks and personality.  (My childhood library, for instance, features a moose head on the wall of the children's room.)  And now, as libraries expand and adapt our ever-changing lives, I love that you can find everything from movies to museum passes at the library.

I'm writing today becausefor the sixth time in my lifeI have a new library to call "mine".  Each time I move to a new town, I hurry to get acquainted with its library.  I want to know which corners have the best light and the fewest distractions.  I like getting to know the circulation librarians and discovering who else frequents the library when I do.  I try to poke around the library's programming to discover whether or not they offer book clubs, reading programs for adults, or other social activities.

This newest library is the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts.  I have to admit that my first few trips to the library were intimidating.  Unlike many of the other libraries in my life, the layout of Forbes isn't exactly intuitive.  There are large reading rooms on the first floor, but upon first glance, most of the "fun" books seem to be sequestered on various floors and in hidden rooms, all of which appear to subscribe to the oh-so-New-England tradition of "you can't get there from here".

Frustrated, I left on my first few attempts feeling like this just wasn't the library for me.  I resolved to simply reserve all of my requests online (I'm still amazed that you can do this... what service!) so that I could just march into the library and pick things up at the circulation desk without having to wander around.

I tried this attempt for a couple of weeks.  Then, I got over myI don't know exactly what: pride? annoyance?—and asked someone to direct me to the audio books so that I could poke around.  That led me to discover the racks of CDs and DVDs you can borrow.  And the musical scores.  And the art gallery that is full of paintings one week and photographs from around the world the next.  I found a snug alcove full of magazines.  I discovered the reference desk. I finally stumbled upon the fiction.

I started visiting the library every couple of days.  (What did I expect, being within stone-throwing distance?  It's like an addiction.)  In addition to getting used to the library's funky layout, I also started chatting with its librarians (who gave me great ideas for new books and movies to check out and who rarely snickered when I borrowed things like The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook and Magic Mike).  I even discovered the Forbes Library's incredible reader advisory service, where you send them a list of books you like, and a list of those you don't (with a bit of narrative to explain yourself) and they send you a personalized reading list in return.  I was incredibly pleased with my results; of the list I had read and enjoyed several, and promptly began requesting the others.  I have yet to be disappointed.

In any event, I love that I can borrow Zumba for Wii, Downton Abbey DVDs, and Stephen King novels all in one trip to Forbes.  I appreciate that when I return an audio book or a movie, sans the last disc (as I've done three times now), they don't scold me, but do call to remind me.  And because I'm a fun-loving person at heart, I also like that they have raffles, a bust of someone (Calvin Coolidge? Charles Forbes?) that often wears hats and goofy eyewear, a summer reading program for adults, and even prizes (I once won a bagel and coffee!).

I know that libraries are different things for different people.  But for me, libraries will always be equal parts wonder (I can browse to my heart's content and borrow all these amazing things at no cost!) and comfort (they know me here and they're friendly!).  So thanks, Forbes.  I'm glad that you're in my community and that I got over my trepidation of your sprawling spaces.  I'm sure I'll be in tomorrow (I have holds available for pick up, of course).  See you then!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Supreme Court rules DOMA unconstitutional

Well, well, well.  Hello there Inner Thoughts & Outbursts readers.  It's been quite awhile since I've last written here; I fell out of the habit of blogging and, until today, didn't feel compelled to sign in.

Today, though, things changed.  Today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional.  Today, I felt like I was witnessing an important part of history.

I've been a supporter of same-sex marriage from what I consider "the beginning" (at least, my beginning)when my home state of Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004.  (I even wrote about it for my college newspaper, but, alas, some things on the Internet aren't forever... I can't find the links.)  I have always maintained that gay rights are civil rights and that the benefits of marriage should be available to all. 

That being said, I'm also someone who is easily overwhelmed by sad or frustrating news.  I find myself having to look away when the news covers tragedy after tragedytsunamis, wars, bombings, misery....  And I feel my blood pressure rising when foolish politicians yammer on and on while taking away basic human rights and imposing their views upon others.  So I wasn't actively following the case to overturn DOMA; it was simply too hard on my heart to follow its ups and downs.

But this morning, I saw that a ruling was expected.  While at work, I started listening to the news and refreshing the blogs.  When the announcement was made that DOMA was ruled unconstitutional, I burst into tears at my desk.  A coworker asked if I was okay, and I was so choked up I couldn't answer for nearly a minute. 

I certainly wasn't expecting to cry.  I feel strongly about equal marriage rights and benefits for all, but I didn't expect to tear up when I heard the news.  I expected either feelings of triumph (I had those) or more blood-boiling frustration (none of that, thanks to the outcome), but not tears.  So why?  Why did I react so strongly?

I think I started to cry for two reasons.  First, I felt like the DOMA ruling was some good political news in a world that is increasingly full of political decisions and efforts that break my heart and raise my blood pressure.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, I felt relieved that my gay friends and family now had this one victory in their corner.  That should their partners end up in the hospital, they'll be allowed to visit.  That they won't have to pay more for their health insurance.  That when a partner dies they won't have to pay ridiculous taxes and fees, like Edith Windsor, the woman who took her case to court and won today.

As a country, we still have a long way to go.  Today's ruling doesn't "allow" same-sex marriage in the United States; it just awards federal benefits and protection to couples who have married in states where gay marriage is legal.  But, it's a start.  And my heart is happy tonight knowing that someday, I'll be able to dance at a family member's same-sex wedding without worrying about whether or not he and his partner will be treated equally by the law. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to feel great about yourself for $2.74

It's been over a year since I last wrote about the Prison Book Program.  In March 2010, the Prison Book Program ran a dictionary drive.  I sent in a donation to cover the cost of five dictionaries and was so impressed by the organization that I started volunteering with them.

In the past year I've worked to set up a blog featuring essays and artwork from inmates who write to the Prison Book Program.  I've donated books, sorted mail, packaged books for inmates and worked the organization's postage machine.  I've recruited a few friends who now volunteer on a regular basis, typing up essays from inmates and sorting through donated books.  In short, I've become involved in an organization doing good work and I'm glad to be a part of it.  

Now, the Prison Book Program is running another dictionary drive.  Inmates use dictionaries to improve their spelling and vocabulary.  They use them to check Scrabble words and to help solve crossword puzzles.  These prisoners are using dictionaries to improve their lives by making positive choices that focus on education. 

Please join me in donating to the Prison Book Program's dictionary drive.  $2.74 will buy you a large cup of iced coffee, or provide an inmate with a life-changing dictionary.  A mere $13.70 provides five prisoners with dictionaries (or it might buy you a movie ticket and—if you're luckya small popcorn).  You can change the life of 20 inmates by donating $54.80—the price of a dinner out. 

So, consider skipping one cup of coffee, a movie ticket, or a dinner out with your partner and change a life instead.  The warm fuzzies you'll receive will be worth it.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Tornadoes hit Western Massachusetts

Yesterday, tornadoes touched down in my city and some surrounding communities.  My family is safe, as is my home, but I'm still shaken.  I think I'm feeling shaky for three main reasons. 
First, I've always lived in Massachusetts and I've always believed that my little corner of the world is relatively safe from disaster.  For the most part, we don't have earthquakes here or hurricanes.  Volcanoes don't erupt.  We're not in danger of tsunami waves.  New England has always felt safe and free of the natural disasters that plague other parts of the country.  This tornado business caught me completely off guard.
Then, there's the fact that the tornado struck so close to home.  One tornado touched down only two miles from my house; it hit a neighborhood I drive by frequently, and an area where friends live.  While I am grateful that the tornado avoided my house, it's eerie to think about how close it really came.  It's even more unsettling to think about the danger my boyfriend was in.  He works in a nearby town and a tornado touched down in the parking lot next to his building.  Windows were blown out, power lines went down, and trees crashed everywhere.  Nearly all the cars in the lot were damaged; some flipped over completely, others were hit with tree branches and debris, and some simply had their windows smashed by rocks.  My boyfriend and his coworkers managed to get out of the building safely, but the building is now uninhabitable. 
The final reason I still feel shaky is because in the worst-hit areas, the damage and destruction is so complete.  Cars were tossed around and landed top-down.  Trash barrels, tree branches, and lawn furniture blew together to create small mountains of debris.  Roofs were ripped off of schools.  The scene that struck me most profoundly was a damaged three-story apartment building made of brick.  The whole front of the building had been ripped away by the tornado; what was left looked like some sort of tragic dollhouse—furniture and appliances still inside, but the front wall completely missing.  All this complete destruction, and yet, in areas just a couple of miles from the flattened neighborhoods, people were back to business as usual. 
I guess that's the eeriest part—the fact that there was a lot of sunshine today and that my house looks no worse for wear, but just down the road, entire homes were blown off their foundations.  Four people have already died in Massachusetts as a result of the tornadoes.  Towns have declared a state of emergency and the governor called in the National Guard.  My little piece of the globe is both completely devastated and wholly unaffected, depending only on which end of the road you happen to be on.

The extremes make my head feel a little woozy.  I feel blessed and relieved that my family and friends are safe; a few of our friends suffered some property damage, but to my knowledge no one was seriously hurt and none of their homes were flattened.  That being said, neighborhoods I know and love have been destroyed and it will likely take a long time to rebuild.  For now, I'm hoping to support my community and help out when I'm needed.  I'm also saying a prayer to thank God that everyone I know is all right.  

To help with relief efforts, consider making a contribution to the Red Cross

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The heartbreaking effects of homelessness

For a few years I worked for a non-profit that helped homeless children and their families get access to early education services and become self-sufficient. Our communications director used to joke that we never needed a public relations campaign because the thought of homeless children was compelling enough on its own. She was right, of course, as no one likes to think of children being homeless. As a result, people donated time and money to help our organization help these children.

As heartbreaking as the thought of a homeless child is, I had an even more profound experience with homelessness today. As I was driving to work this morning, I saw a young woman standing near the off-ramp of the highway with a cardboard sign that read "Homeless. Please help." As my car neared the place where the woman was standing, the light turned green and I drove past her with a line of cars both ahead of and behind me.

I knew as I passed, however, that I had to do something. For the first time, I saw someone who looked like me, standing on the side of the road, and it broke my heart. It really made me think—she could have been one of my friends. She could have been me.

We've all seen homeless men sitting around with their paper cups out, asking for change, walking around with their cardboard signs reading "Help a homeless vet," and "Will work for food." We've seen the woman with her shopping cart wearing eight layers of clothing. And when you've worked with homeless families, like I have, you've seen all kinds of women and their children. Black, white, recent immigrants, native speakers, old, young, educated, uneducated... I thought I'd seen it all.

But today I saw that woman and she looked like me. She was younger, granted, but not by much. She was probably in her early twenties. She wore a light jacket and carried a messenger-style bag over her shoulder. She looked like a college student.

For a minute, the thoughts of a scam ran through my head. She's so young! How could she be homeless? It must be an act.

But it was dreary today and raw. It had been drizzling all morning and showed no signs of stopping. Who would stand out in that weather looking ashamed if it was just a ruse?

Scam or not, I decided to go back. I stopped at a convenience store just down the road and bought some food. I tried to choose things that were both appealing and would provide some nutritional value—a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, a bag of trail mix, a bag of snack mix. I asked for a plastic bag and drove back to the girl on the side of the road. I had to honk, since she was on the far side of the median and her back was toward me. I motioned her over and she came in an instant.

"Here," I said. "I don't really carry cash, but I stopped and bought some food for you."

She looked at me with wide eyes and just said, "Thank you. Thank you so much."

"You're welcome," I said. "I hope it helps. Good luck."

She thanked me again and we looked at each other for a few seconds before I hopped back in my car. As I pulled away and turned around to drive to work, I saw someone else talking to her through the window of a car. I hoped that whoever it was might be able to help her.

I thought about that girl all day. Would she be okay? How did she get there—both literally and figuratively—in the first place? I wished that I had contacts in the area who could help her get the services she needed. My contacts from my former job were all hours away on the other side of the state, and it made me feel helpless.

Regardless of how the woman got there, homelessness is a real problem in America. It's easy to say "he brought it on himself!" when we see a grisly old man drinking on the street. And in some ways, maybe he did, but he—like 39% of the homeless, up to 76% of homeless vets—may be fighting a debilitating mental illness. The homeless woman with small children may have lost her home to a fire. A young woman may have left an abusive relationship. A young man may have aged out of the foster care system.

The point is, homelessness is devastating—not only for those who experience it firsthand, but for those in the community. It broke my heart to see that girl today; people shouldn't have to live like that in this country. We should all worry a little less about how people got in the situation and worry a little more about what we can do to prevent it from happening to other people.

And to the girl I saw today, I hope you're okay and that you've found a safe place to stay the night. Tomorrow is a new day; may it be the day you get back on your feet.