Tag Archives: Personal Essay

Growing Up Femme: Role-Models

It’s weird developing role-models when you’re different from society norms. I’m not talking about a general teenage angsty feeling of being different (which is totally valid, it’s just not what I’m talking about), but rather the effect of being a minority in the eyes of society. Straight white dudes get to look out into the world and see a world of role-models reflected back at them but for those of us who aren’t as privileged (Full Disclosure: I’m white and am male, though I usually need to butch up before my male-ness is entirely recognized) finding role-models can be tricky. I’d like to talk about my experience  as a femme boy in the world of searching for role-models.

First I want to acknowledge that it’s completely possible to have role-models who don’t reflect your exact identity. Straights can have role-models who aren’t straight and female identified people can have genderqueer identified role-models and so on and so on but there’s something comforting in finding role-models who share at least part of your identity. Particularly when you’re already ‘different’ finding a role-model who shares your differences can be really nice.

The trouble with growing up as a femme boy in rural Vermont is that you don’t really have a lot of femme role-models in general. Carhartts are standard dress for men and women in the town that I come from (and I don’t just mean Carhartt pants but Carhartt shirts and boots and hats and if it has the Carhartt label you can bet people in my hometown are wearing it), and heels really aren’t practical. From the moment I began expressing my own opinions I was leaning towards a femme aesthetic, an early indication that I was going to be different from my fairly butch community.

Before I could verbalize my emotions I was hunting down femme role-models in history books and the pages of magazines. Finding other men who presented as femme was basically impossible. I picked up a few male role-models (Benjamin Franklin and Captain Picard and, well, that was basically it…), but I ended up getting drawn into the world of women who behaved badly and ended up making history. I became fascinated by women who were femme but also were loud and took stands and were sometimes even abrasive. They proved that it was possible to be a soldier in a petticoat (name the Disney reference), that femininity didn’t mean weakness.

The likes of Nellie Bly, Abigail Adams, Virginia Woolf, Coco Chanel, Minerva McGonagall, Queen Elizabeth I, Hillary Clinton and others filled my head. (You’ll notice that all the women I listed are white and cisgender. At the time I thought nothing of it but looking back at it I’m almost horrified at how white and cis my exposure to history and current affairs was.) When I looked at them I didn’t just see people who had done great things but who also looked like I wanted to look like. If this idea, the idea that there is immense power in finding a role-model who looks or acts like you, is strange then I humbly suggest that perhaps you’ve always been exposed to role-models who you can relate to.

As I got older I began to find a few more femme male role-models but these were far and few between. Quentin Crisp was practically heaven-sent for me and watching The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York warmed my soul but these moments are far and few between. It’s easy to suggest to me that I might take inspiration from drag queens and while I do love a good drag show I can’t really relate to drag queens. As a general rule the drag queens I’ve seen take on characters that are so outrageous that they’re almost comedic portrayals of femininity. Drag is great, I’ve even performed in a drag show, but it’s not who I am in my daily existence.

An arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst

There are some who challenge my femme presentation and say that it makes me a less effective activist. They will say that my lipstick and pencil skirts make me appear too weak. In response I would like to remind them of Ms. Emmeline Pankhurst, a woman who wore skirts and big hats and make-up (possibly, I don’t actually know this for certain but looking at photos of her makes me suspect she had at least a smudge of makeup on her face), and heeled shoes and was most definitely not weak.

Some suggest that my clothing and make-up are the product of a society dominated by the patriarchy and that I’m buying into beauty standards of a backwards and sexist age. The fact that I’m a man makes my daily fashion radical but even if we put this aside all I can say is, “Shove off.” I am consciously choosing my presentation based on how wonderful it makes me feel and not because I’m being pressured into it. (This being said I do have strong issues with the European centered standards of beauty that our society is so fond of and would like to see us begin dismantling these standards.)

I take strength from my femme identity. Being able to express myself gives me strength. Being able to go about my day feeling attractive gives me strength. It’s a wonderful, wonderful strength that helps sustain me when shadows draw near and I know that I’m where I am today because I was able to find my role-models. The fact that I can look at my role-models and see that I’m not alone gives me more joy and strength than I can express. That’s the power of role-models.

So for all of you who will ever interact with a femme boy:Please, please let him have his role-models, it’s damn important.

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After Boston

On Monday morning I was pressed up against the bodies of strangers as we gathered to watch marathoners preform feats of physical and emotional strength that I marvel at. Moments earlier as we joined the crowds my friend commented on how much she loved Marathon Day. This day was more than a celebration of athletic prowess, it was also a celebration of community and the way in which we come together. Four hours later our joy became horror.

I learned of the news as I was leaving my sister’s dorm, just over half a mile from Copley Square. Once again I was in a crowd of strangers. Now we were joined together in silence with our attention focused on the televisions in the dorm lobby. My desire to get out of Boston pushed me out of the dorm and onto Boylston Street in an attempt to reach my bus at South Station. The crowd I joined on the streets was louder than the one I’d just left. All previous feeling of joy and community and kinship and unity felt fractured as every stranger became a potential assailant.

Hearing the stories of the courageous acts that followed the explosions has helped to remind me of the kindness that exists in humanity. In my area of Boston there were no great acts that could make the headlines. The streets that I hurried down were filled with people who had been evacuated from the local metro lines, marathoners wrapped in their foil blankets, folk hearing the news on their cellphones. We were in the middle-ground, too far away to have been immediate victims but too close to be pure observers.

9/11 happened when I was in third grade and of all the days from elementary school that one is one of the, if not the, clearest day in my memory. My memory starts with our teacher telling us that a plane had crashed in New York City and until I could speak with my parents all I thought about was my family just across the river in Brooklyn. That was the closest I ever came to being personally affected by a violent tragedy of any sort. Until Boston.

Even when I was out of the city and on my bus back to quiet Amherst I thought of my friends and family in and around the city. As I scanned through The Huffington Post every few hours over the past week I was looking for streets, towns, places that I was familiar with. It turns out that I was lucky in that no one I knew was hurt. On Friday night a relative could hear gunfire from the direction of Watertown and it seems that this was the closest my loved ones came to the truly sad events that began Monday afternoon.

I will never presume to say that I was intimately impacted by what happened in Boston. I’m not  a resident, I didn’t know anyone racing, I wasn’t near the finish line, etc. However this was the closest I’ve been to terror, to violence, since September 11th. I may play myself off as a curmudgeon who has a Vulcan attitude towards emotions but the truth is that I’m an empathetic person and I’ve always assumed that because of my empathy I’ve been able to empathize for the victims of acts like this one. Now I don’t believe that. What I felt as I walked down Boylston Street, the fear, the anger, the desire to sit down and sob, was like nothing I’ve ever imagined, let alone experienced, in my life. When I think of the people who were more intimately connected to the bombings and the manhunt I find myself entirely incapable of understanding their emotions.

There’s been a lot of good writing over the past few days and one of my favorite pieces was written by a close friend of mine on the importance of empathy. In a slightly similar note several people have taken this opportunity to remind us that in some areas of the world bombs are a daily fact of life. In response some of said that these people need to wait, need to step back and let people heal before saying things like this. While I think that there’s a place for kindness and healing I think that using what happened to remind us of the frequent acts of violence in foreign parts of the world is appropriate.

I’m still dealing with my emotional aftereffects from Monday but what I can’t let go of is the idea that for some people the emotions that I experienced are commonplace. For me this could easily be a once in a my lifetime event but the fact that there are people out there who will be, have been, are being exposed to such events regularly is a fact that I cannot bare. I cannot bare that what I experienced as an atypical, unusual, truly frightening day could be just another day for some.

There’s a need for self-care and for healing. Sometimes we need to turn off the news and drink tea while reading a thick book. Sometimes we just can’t read another article about children dying in explosions. Sometimes for the sake of our mental health we have to go a day without acknowledging the fear that exists in our world. The thing is that we shouldn’t hide behind self-care and ignore the brutalities forever. I am entirely guilty of turning off the radio when another report comes on about bombings in distant cities and then soothing myself by saying that it’s for my own mental self-care when in reality it’s because I want to live in bliss.

Not any more.

Yes, when my depression is bringing me to new lows I will refuse to open my daily New York Times e-mail but I will not let myself pretend that my depression is an excuse to be blind.

What happened to me was a reminder. It was a reminder of my safety and of my privilege. It was a reminder that children and adults face bombs, violence, terror on a regular basis and that such a thing is abhorrent. My peaceful life was rattled on Monday and it was a reminder I can’t allow myself to hide in ignorance.

What happened to me was a reminder that there is work to be done.

Doctor Pulaski: Motherfucking Boss

A few weeks ago a blogger who shall remain anonymous posted on Twitter some very hurtful comments about Doctor Katherine Pulaski, the season two Medical Officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. We bantered a bit (and I won*) and I decided that there simply isn’t enough Pulaski love out in the universe. On the rare occasion that Pulaski is even mentioned she’s almost always mocked or hated upon or otherwise maligned. And because I’m a freak I sat down to watch every episode she appears in and took notes along the way.

Upon concluding season two I’d like to propose to those gathered before me that Doctor Katherine Pulaski is a Grade-A Bad-Ass Motherfucker.

Pulaski’s first appearance (“The Child,” ep. 1) sets up her basic personality. She’s an older, stubborn, McCoy-esque doctor who really doesn’t take anyone’s shit. Though she’s supposed to report immediately to the Captain upon arrival she places the needs of her patients (Troi, who is suddenly and bizarrely pregnant.) above matters of not-so-urgent protocol. (Personally that sort of behavior is what I look for in a doctor.) She takes her job as doctor very seriously and even is willing to pull rank on the Captain if it means keeping him from dying because his fake heart needs to be replaced. (“Samaritan Snare,” ep. 17)

This is also a woman who constantly demonstrates her ability to keep cool in the face of danger. Even when she’s aging prematurely and facing death (Can we talk about how anytime Star Trek puts aging makeup on a character they look hilarious?) her entire focus is on staying calm and she refuses to put the rest of the crew at risk by returning aboard. (“Unnatural Selection,” ep. 7) She’s so badass that even Worf respects her and honors her with the Klingon tea ceremony (which she fucking takes part in because she’s cool like that.) (“Up the Long Ladder,” ep. 18)

Besides being an excellent doctor (Source: Every episode in which she practices medicine.) and the owner of a pair of steel balls this woman is also tons of fun to be with. She likes to take risks and will go toe-to-toe  with Worf in poker and is chill with Deanna Troi and has a pretty sharp wit. She’s on my list of people to hang out with in Ten-Forward.

And let’s not forget that Professor Motherfucking Moriarty totes has a crush on her. (“Elementary My Dear Data,” ep. 3)

There is the matter of Data. When I was re-watching season two I tried to pay particular attention to any interaction that Data and Pulaski had and my final conclusion is that people focus on their preliminary interactions and not how their relationship evolves. Yes, in the early episodes she’s an ass about Data. Pulaski is old-school and has a hard time seeing Data as anything more than a glorified computer but as she works with him we begin to see her attitude towards him become kinder. The episode that I really point to is “Peak Perfomance” (Second to last episode of the season.) when she pushes Data to play Sirna Kolrami in a game of Strategema. In this episode she talks and interacts with Data as if he’s any other member of the crew and when his loss wounds him she basically uses psychology on him, admitting that he is more than an adding machine.

Apparently people are put off by Pulaski’s no-nonsense attitude and the fact that she doesn’t have an issue speaking her mind. This is one that I have a very hard time seeing as I find Pulaski’s personality to be very similar to Bones and Captain Picard, both of whom are fan favorites. Is it possible that we’re uncomfortable with a woman, particularly an older woman, who is strong and loud and bends the rules?

Or is it that we don’t like to see anyone butting heads so fiercely with the beloved Captain Picard? I adore Picard to pieces but I have to admit feeling a certain sense of happiness in watching him talk with Pulaski. Like Troi, like Crusher, like Guianan, Pulaski helps to show us the conflict that Picard inhabits as he struggles to not let his “Captain”-y side dominate his humanity. Troi and Guinan do this through empathetic conversations with Picard and Crusher does this through moments of sweetness and love and Pulaski does this by being blunt with the captain. As much as I would have liked to have seen Pulaski come back so we could watch her evolving relationship with Data, I would really like to have seen her come back so we could watch her relationship with Picard evolve.

Whenever you hear people discussing Pulaski there’s always at least one voice grumbling about how they don’t like Pulaski because she’s a “replacement” for Crusher. Is that really Pulaski’s fault? I adore Doctor Crusher, I adore her beyond belief, but I also really like Pulaski. I’m able to identify much more with Pulaski and I find her humor more entertaining but that doesn’t mean I can’t love Crusher too. I mean, loving Pulaski doesn’t mean I’m betraying Crusher.

And in conclusion: This is a woman that Professor Moriarty fell in love with. That’s right, Doctor Pulaski is the a Grade-A Bad-Ass Motherfucker who doesn’t get nearly enough love or respect.

*The real reason why I’m not revealing the name of the blogger is because I don’t want anyone to ask her about whether or not I won because the truth is that there was no winner.

Sod Off (Give Away)REMINDER: I’m giving away two copies of this print for free. Details are here.

Why I Really Intensely Want to Talk About My Depression

Since starting this blog I’ve written three posts that specifically address my depression, referenced it a few times and Tweeted about it quite a lot. The truth is that for every time I’ve mentioned my depression on my blog or Twitter there have been been like fifty other times I’ve wanted to bring it up. Almost every time I’ve wanted to bring it up I’ve quickly shut myself down. Quite honestly I was afraid of being seen as a whiner or a complainer who was trying to get sympathy for myself. (There’s a very strong part of my identity that’s pure Vermont Yankee who would rather suffer with a stiff face then admit to any turmoil or pain.)

But there are times when I’ve let my Yankee facade down and talked about my depression online and I’m a bit confused as to why. Rather, I was a bit confused because after a few days of contemplation (read: several hours on public transit between Northern Vermont and Amherst, Massachusetts) I think I’ve discovered a new knowledge about my relationship with depression and why I’ve felt strange urges to publicly talk about.

I grew up hearing that depression was natural, that it wasn’t taboo or strange. At home and at school I was told that mental illness wasn’t supposed to be stigmatized and that with support depressed people could work through their pain. Nice but not very useful since I was given very one dimensional descriptions of what depression actually was. Oh sure, it was feeling sad and whatnot but when examples were given they were so extreme and tended to follow the same linear pattern. First a person had some sort of traumatic event (Death of loved one, extreme bullying, shark biting off arm) and then they were very depressed (Self-harming, hospitalized, basically catatonic) and then someone (Friend, professional, fairy godparent) helped them and they were fine. A to B to C and home in time for supper.

When I began to experience depression (A time that I date to around age 12, if not earlier) my depression wasn’t caused by one specific event. On the whole my childhood was quite nice and if I had a slightly different brain chemistry or something I wouldn’t have become depressed. My depression also didn’t look like the depression that I heard about. There were no books I could find or class talks held that described feeling general self-hatred, anxiety, pain, the ability to go from happy to crushingly sad in the same time that it takes a Kobayashi to eat a hotdog. When my depression started I simply couldn’t recognize it. And that really, really sucks.

It wasn’t until I was around sixteen that I realized that I had something going on that needed a professional’s help. Even then I didn’t want to admit that I was depressed. I had accidentally learned that depression had to be caused by trauma and to claim I was depressed when there was no obvious cause felt like weakness or asking for attention. I’ve been through three kick-ass counselors and one amazing psychiatrist in the past four years and with each of them I’ve said something along the lines of, “But I’m not depressed. I’m just being a whiny little baby.” Their replies were supportive and made a point of telling me that I was wrong (Though in therapy speak. They didn’t just go, “You’re WRONG, Samuel.”) All of their help was wonderful but we were trying to overcome more than a decade of me telling myself that I couldn’t have depression because it didn’t fit with my model of what depression was.

I wish I had been exposed to a greater representation of how depression can manifest itself and what can cause it. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m blaming the adults in my life for teaching me a limited version of depression because I hold no ill will towards them. The issue is that there isn’t a varied representation of depression out there. That’s why I want to share my personal experiences with depression.

Depression is awful no matter the form it takes but not being able to recognize your depression because your mind has only one model makes it all the harder to begin to treat it. This is why I get so excited when I see people with depression taking their stories to a public forum. It’s damned important for these stories to be shared and I beg all people with a history of depression who are at a place where they can talk about their experiences to please do so. We need to make the public aware of all the various types of depression that exist (I suspect that this is something that would be useful to many other mental illnesses or disorders but I only feel comfortable talking from the point of view as someone with depression.)

I wish, I truly wish that I had been exposed to more people’s stories when I was growing up. The trouble is that I can’t go back in time and teach pre-teen Samuel that his depression is valid and real. What I can do is share my own stories in an effort to help the pre-teen Samuels who are here now and who will come in the future.

I Do NOT Cross-Dress

Look at how lovely I am in this dress. I am a man and I’m wearing a dress and I’m not wearing cross-dressing. What. That’s a nice dress. (Photo credit: Skye at “My Kingdom for a Hat” [colormebrazen.wordpress.com])

If you define cross-dressing as a person wearing clothing that their culture expects to see on a different gender/sex then alright, I suppose I do cross-dress. I mean, fine, alright, I guess I’m crossing gender/sex lines when I, a self-identified male with a penis, put on a dress but I don’t really think of it like that. It’s not like I wake up and go to my closet and say, “Well I could wear these pants and turtleneck or I could subvert American society’s traditional and oppressive gender norms by putting on this grey and lighter-shade-of-grey striped dress with three buttons off-center of the collar’s front.”

To be honest what I’m thinking when I get dressed is, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, late, shit, shit, this clean, shit, shit, shit.” OR “What would Emily Gilmore wear?” OR “How much like Virginia Woolf will I look if I wear this?” I suppose the question I most often ask myself when getting dressed is, “What do I want to wear today?”

When I look at clothing I don’t look at how they’ve been gendered by society. I see trousers that would fit me, skirts with waists that are too big for me, pencil skirts that make my ass look damn wonderful. I see them in terms of how they relate to my body, how they’ll look when placed on my physical body.

This tendency to forget that clothing comes with gender implications can sometimes get me in uncomfortable situations. There have been times when I forgot I was going to pick up a job application from a store and put on a pencil skirt before leaving the house. I’m not ashamed of my pencil skirts but I do recognize that depending on where I’m getting my job application my clothing may have a negative impact on the hiring process. I’ve been so fortunate that I’ve never been in physical danger because of my clothing but I’m aware that this could change. If I feel that I’m going somewhere where my clothing might draw “danger” from people then I wear pants. The trouble is that I’m so used to wearing what I fucking want to wear that I slip on a dress or heels without a second thought.

It’s at a point now where if someone describes me as a cross-dresser or transvestite I tend to get confused by what in the name of hell they’re talking about. It’ll take me a few seconds to realize that they’re talking about my nylon stalkings from Rite-Aid, black dress with white lilies and short sleeves, strand of fake pearls and light mascara. There’s nothing wrong with being a cross-dresser or a transvestite but it’s not how I see myself. In my mind I’m not crossing gender lines or wearing another gender’s clothing, I’m just wearing… my clothes.

“This is my daily activism,” I tell myself when I’m made aware of my nontraditional clothing choices (This awareness is usually triggered by someone staring at me like I’m a chimp in a mu-mu singing “My Sharona.”)  Sometimes this reminder, this reminder that I’m fighting the gender binary simply by putting on a sundress, is nice but sometimes it makes me sad. It makes me sad that my clothing is in anyway provocative or even interesting beyond the fact that it’s nice.

My day-to-day clothing is fairly conservative. I like clothing that makes me look like Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, or Miss Marple or your grandmother. My colors tend towards darker tones and my favorite fabric is tweed. Yes, I wear loud broaches but if I my body had prominent breasts and didn’t have stubble and wasn’t so tall then my clothing wouldn’t raise eye brows. The fact that I get stares because I’m a man wearing this clothing can get pretty annoying.

Clothing trends will change. I predict that in my life it will be commonly accepted for men in my society to wear dresses but I’m afraid that these dresses will have some stupid name like “he-dress” or “man-robe.” (Think of the “man-purse.” Why, why, why for the love of all that I hold holy, why did we need to call it a “man-purse?”Isn’t it a purse period, full stop, end of story, stop right there mister you’re going to jail, hold it, go no further, do not pass go?) When women started wearing trousers regularly in the early 1900’s did we call pants for women “woman-pants?” (No seriously, did we? I want to know if someone can answer this.) By fixing these new gender labels to clothing we’re perpetuating this highly unnecessary habit of assigning clothing to various genders. Let’s call a dress a dress, no matter who it’s on.

In conclusion: No, I do not identify as a cross-dresser or transvestite or as a drag queen or, or, or, or… I identify as male and look forward to the day where I can wear what I want to wear and not have to explain my sartorial choices.

In Defense of Twitter

For the past few months I’ve been getting really, really, really into Twitter. I’ve had various Twitter accounts before (including one fake account meant to be funny but that ended up going nowhere) but never have I been this into it. As more of my non-internet friends/family members learn of my current obsession they’ve been responding with, well, I wouldn’t call it scorn exactly… Their initial response is usually one of mild ridicule and I will admit that I find Twitter a bit ridiculous myself. Trying to communicate in 140 characters? And who are we communicating to? Are our mildly amusing jokes tweeted to our favorite celebrities just an attempt to make us feel like we’re cool? Why do I send out tweets about my need for high-fiber cereal to help with my old-lady-bowels?

The answer I have to that last question is this, “Why do people favorite or even respond to these tweets?” It’s because we like the community. It’s nice knowing that you’re not the only under-sixty five year old who needs cardboard cereal to get things moving along. It’s nice knowing that you can tweet about how you really want a toddler and someone will offer you theirs. This argument of community is the one that gets trotted out the most and many people have, and will continue to, dismiss it as a fake community. If you’ve tried Twitter and it didn’t work for you then grand, just don’t develop a superiority complex because you don’t like something that’s popular. If you haven’t tried Twitter then why are you so convinced that you can tell me what my experience on it is? Seriously, I’m waiting for an answer.

It used to be that when I heard people rag on Twitter I’d roll my eyes and not bother responding since I didn’t have an answer stronger than, “I like it.” (Except isn’t that good enough? It’s not doing anyone harm if I use Twitter so why isn’t “I like it” a strong enough reason?)

Everything changed on the night of the Oscars.

That night, that angry night of people responding to our culture’s casual racism, homophobia, ageism, general scummy-ness, misogyny, was the night that I was able to say exactly why I so enjoy Twitter.

I was in my apartment watching the Oscars live but even though I was in Amherst, Massachusetts I was connected to feminists on both coasts (and other countries), friends in the Midwest and various other intelligent people (the majority of whom I’ve never even met) from around the world. I don’t know what your Twitter feed looked like on Oscars night but mine was a beautiful display of cultural criticism that fed into long and thoughtful conversations.

Now when friends and family make some disdainful comment about Twitter I refer back to Oscars night. I’m able to use those few hours of live-tweeting to articulate my defense. In real time I was hearing opinions from the people I wanted to hear from and links to articles were being shared that provided the context and analysis that you don’t have room for with 140-characters. Instead of sitting in my own anger and swearing at the television (Don’t worry, I did find time to let out with some really great swears.) I was able to turn my emotions into something productive, into conversations that helped me process my anger and get at the root of why I wanted to throw up.

I’ve spent several months crafting the list of people who I follow on Twitter. There are vloggers and bloggers and librarians and celebrities and camp friends and pundits and porn actors and politicians and companies and news outlets and any given person is probably going to be interested in no more than ten or twenty percent of the people I follow. What ties all these people together, why I follow them, is that I value their Tweets. Some of them make me laugh, some make me rethink traditional patriarchal structures and many do both. What’s important is that I want to read their tweets.

Yes, Twitter provides a community, I’m not going to argue with that, but what I saw on Oscars night is how it’s more complex than talking about what you had for breakfast. It’s a source for resources, for connections, for information, for information that I will otherwise miss in my day-to-day life. Not only do I get updates from my friends who live way too far away (This aspect has become more important to me since I moved out of state.) but I receive updates on breaking news stories and get to witness @chescaleigh dole out amazing wisdom. My Twitter account is useful and I adore it and the defense rests.

I Went to the Library Today

I nearly started to cry in the library today. Inside the fiction stacks I began to feel the familiar pressure build in my chest and I blinked rapidly, not wanting to lose the dignity that I cling to so obsessively. It was all too much.

The heaters and humidifiers hummed as they worked to keep the temperature stable. Behind the ajar door marked “Interlibrary Loans- Staff Only” came the sound of heavy, thick piles of books being moved from wooden tables to metal carts. Newspapers rustled and computer keyboards, muffled by the rows of shelves that separated me from them, clicked. Occasionally  there was a faint laugh and more frequently someone coughed. Winter coats made the sound that only synthetic waterproof fabric can make, a scratching sound that I cannot stand.

This library-induced need to cry isn’t an isolated case. I’ve been in libraries before. Some not as beautiful as this and some more elaborate than this. Larger and smaller libraries. Louder and quieter libraries. All, at one time or another, have brought me close to tears. When my mood becomes unstable it’s easier for me to become swept up in the quiet tragedy of the library. My mind becomes obsessed with reports of dwindling numbers of patrons; of famous authors calling their local library “obsolete” and calling for them to close; of memories centered around searching through the physical card catalogue, memories that can no longer be lived. It’s all I can do not to tear books off of their shelves to see the last time they were checked out. Of course the black ink dates stamped in the back will be out of date as the modern library uses scanners and e-mails now.

Do not think of me as a regressive librarian who is grumbling at newfangled changes. I enjoy how online catalogs and barcodes make my trips to the library run more smoothly. What I miss is the tactile sensation of flipping through well worn index cards to find the book I want. (Or do I miss my childhood which is to always be associated with standing on tip-toes to reach the upper drawers of the card catalog?) I don’t get angry at people who only come to the library to use the computer and have never checked out a book. I believe that providing internet access to the local communities is one of the most important responsibilities of a library and that this responsibility falls well within my ideas of what a library is. It’s not the modern library that makes me want to cry, it’s the chemicals in my brain forcing me to focus exclusively on the sadder aspects of life that makes me want to cry.

Standing in the stacks I find it all too much. The books around me become large, no, they’re always larger than their physical presence. Books are the size of their authors, of their history, of their readers, of their story and right now they’re too big. It’s not that they’ve grown but rather that at this moment I’m shrinking. There’s not enough room for me in this world. Ideas I harbor of writing, of becoming a librarian are instantly dismissed as utterly stupid. How could I ever think that I could become involved with this world? I’m not a mortal who looks to Olympus, I’m in the Asphodel Meadow and longing to be alive (longing for life must be stronger than the river Lethe.)

This shell of unneeded tragedy cracks as I touch a book’s spine. If this was a fairytale this moment when the pad of my finger touches the plastic cover would be the moment when Spring returns to the kingdom, when my family awakes, when my true love transforms from crow to Prince. This is not a fairytale and this is the moment when I realize that I need to go to the B’s. I’m in the G’s, only two rows away from where I need to go. It’s the Brontes that I want. Their stories will pair well with the winds and grey sky outside of this stone library. More importantly they’ll connect me to a world I can relate to.

There are no books by the Brontes. I’m so shocked that I check the shelves twice more, touching every book from “Bo” to “Ca” just to make certain that my eyes aren’t lost. The online catalog informs me that the Brontes are located in the lower level in the 800s. The shame I feel at needing this computer to tell me where to go is unbearable. I should have known that 19th century literature wouldn’t be located in the fiction stacks, I’m not your average library patron. Mortified I walk down the stairs. Here the shelves are metal and some have large posters from the 90’s that offer simple breakdowns of the Dewey Decimal Code. I dawdle in front of them, slowing down my pace to touch each laminated poster and feel the return of library classes from many years ago. In fact I suspect that this yellow poster with white lettering is identical to one used in my school library, or close enough to make me feel nostalgic for my early days in libraries. Those were the days when I believed that librarians could be dragons, that swords could fall out of books, that Dewey’s order was the thin line that separated us from anarchy. I still believe these things but they’re less literal and more metaphoric now.

In the 800’s I make a point of looking at every book. I suspect that these titles don’t get the attention that they were once used to and I feel guilty that I don’t visit more often. Chaucer, Hardy, Eliot and their compatriots are interspersed by biographies of these authors.

The Brontes no longer seem so important to me. I look over their titles, consider re-reading Wuthering Heights and then inspect Jane Austen. Maybe Doyle? No, too modern. I pick up Cranford. It’s a title that I’m familiar with only in the sense that I know of references to the town it takes place in. The first page is intriguing (a town in the early 1800’s that’s run by Amazons?) and soon I’m smiling, not just at Elizabeth Gaskell’s humor but at the similarities I feel between this town and my rural home.

With Cranford in hand I head upstairs. I’m not ready to leave the library and I go to the third floor for no other reason other than the sign that says “Special Collections/Robert Frost/Emily Dickinson/Third Floor.” The door to the special collections is closed. I think I could just push it open and go in but I suddenly can’t face Frost, so unhappy at Amherst, or Dickinson, too emotional for this moment. Fingers dragging along the polished railing I go back downstairs.

I’m a Yankee and uncomfortable with displays of emotion in public. Hell, I’m uncomfortable with displays of emotion even when I’m completely alone. That’s why I need libraries, that’s why I need Elizabeth Gaskell. This visit has taken me through emotions that I repress. In the presence of Virginia Woolf and Junot Diaz and Piers Anthony I admit to anxieties and fears that I regularly refuse to admit to myself. Libraries are the repository of the human experience, of the full range of our emotions, of the Marquis de Sade and Danielle Steel. They are the closest I’ll ever come to so many parts of life as they collect the sum of our existence into something accessible. In libraries I find prayer, salvation, hope and Cranford.