Our public library has always offered us relief. On the days that crawled, or seemed likely to stall out altogether and strand us in a perpetual wasteland of 3 PM, the library was there. When E and J were still small enough to ride through the library’s double glass doors in our rickety double stroller; when we were all longing to see something other than the same lopsided piles of toys or socks or mail littering the same familiar rooms, the library was there. Here was the broad, octagonal fish tank that rose taller than my head, home to the reclusive snowflake eel that J delights in spotting amidst the tangles of coral and fake plants, the chess set with a board as big as a kitchen floor and toddler-sized queens and pawns, the tables piled up with felted puppets, or meticulously knitted families of forest animals, or wooden building blocks, and most of all–of course–here were the books. We would stuff as many as we could underneath the stroller’s seats, eager to revitalize our familiar home reading nooks with unknown characters and uncracked jokes.
When I walked into the library a week or so ago, long past the days of double strolling and endless days at home, I was alone. I was on my way home from work, walking against the cold wind, with tiny snow pellets pelting my cheeks. I was tired, and I felt sick, but mostly at heart. My country now had a president who spoke and acted like a volatile child. In the mornings, when I would hear his boasts and tantrums barking through the measured NPR voices on the radio, I’d find myself thinking of the kind of kid voice that stands out in strident, whiny relief from the playground’s usual soundtrack of friendly chatter and giggles–the kind of voice that puts you on guard immediately. This is the voice you fear might goad your kids into being the cruel and selfish opposites of the caring and generous people you’ve been trying to help them become since they were born. This is the voice you’re glad you can whisk your children away from, and explain to them what could be driving the person who owns it to act the way they do. You hear pain and anxiety in this voice, and you feel sorry for its owner. This is the voice you believe will, in time, modulate in deference to the feelings of others, and learn to speak kindly. And this is the difference, of course, between a child’s voice and the current president’s. It’s admirable, and not that hard, to be patiently optimistic about the voice of a child who is seeking attention, or approval, or just testing the boundaries of their little play community. It’s far more difficult and dangerous to feel this way about a powerful man of seventy whose childish rants produce consequences far beyond anything the playground crowd could imagine.
And yet they do try to imagine: every night, E asks me what Donald Trump did today. When I stepped out of the cold and into the bright, warm library, coming face to face with the familiar shelf of new arrivals in the children’s section, I felt the dull ache of his question in my stomach. Help me, old friend, I wanted to say. Please help me, Library. Give me some sharp answers to different questions–about what the righteous and loving people of our country did yesterday, and the day before that; what they’ll do tomorrow and the next day and forever after. Give me answers of terrible beauty to tower over the answers I feel compelled to give my son every night, because I believe in honoring his relentless curiosity, and I believe in his right to think and respond to the real world around him. But I’m relying on you, Library, to make sure these ominous answers I have to give aren’t the last words of our day. Give us last words to soothe our anxieties, to swaddle the realities we face with armor, bright and hard as any fact, as we fall asleep.
I left the library with Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, and the latest installment of Princeless, a series of comic-books-turned-graphic-novels about an all-female crew of pirates determined to reclaim the throne stolen from their captain by her power-hungry, misogynist brothers. These books are full of women who resist the boyish playground voices that insist they can’t lead or can’t think, those voices that declare they can’t play with the boys who’ve appropriated the universities and labs and pirate ships that these women know they have every right to dominate. These women resist, perpetually and resourcefully. They give my children a million ways to answer the question not of what Trump did today but of what we, too, can do to resist. E and J have yet to ask this question, but the library anticipates it. Thank you, Library. Thank you for silently stretching out your shelves to meet us at the door, and offering us your strong and honorable answers.