I live in a small Tudor on a hill, across from a middle school, just west of a seminary, and a mile from a university. I share a driveway with Gwen, who runs an underground raw-milk distribution center out of her garage. By day Gwen and I discuss tearing down the fence between our yards and sharing our chickens; by night I research tiny, off-the-grid cabins with no humans for miles. I watch neighbors stroll by outside my window and hope they do not come to my door. I hate the pancake breakfast in the park on the last Saturday in August. I do not want to throw a potluck, and please don’t invite me to yours. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about people. I do. I love even the people I dislike. I just prefer them at a distance. I understand that loneliness will shorten my life span. At least I don’t smoke.
Our chickens hatch, and I don’t move off the grid. My husband, at my request, builds a Little Free Library on our property near the street. It’s a red box with cedar shingles, and a clear glass door that latches. A white plaque swings below it explaining that you may take a book and leave a book. And many do — far more than I expected. Even though I love books, and I love sharing books, it hadn’t occurred to me that there’d be so many people dropping by to claim those books — people I welcome even if I don’t want to talk with them. I am now a citizen of sorts, a neighbor’s neighbor, though I never go outside to chat.
I leave my offerings in the library — literary magazines, a historical novel — and neighbors leave textbooks with bright-yellow used book stickers across the spines: 7 Steps to Fearless Speaking. Polish-American MBA at the Warsaw School of Economics. A romance novel appears: Love’s Secret Sniper. A postmodernist novel: The Body Artist. Someone leaves Tourists, by Richard B. Wright.
No porn. Not yet.
Books flow in and out as if there’s no shortage of ideas in this world or people willing to read about them.
Some mornings a petite mother pushing a curly-haired daughter in a stroller stops to look inside our library, perhaps for picture books. There aren’t any picture books. I don’t leave any, and neither does anyone else. I’m most sentimental about the books I read to my sons when they were small, when my marriage wasn’t yet troubled, when my family was what poet Kelly Hansen Maher calls “this one country,” a four-person nation nestled in the borders of an 1,100-square-foot house.
The petite mother shrugs and appears to say something consoling to her daughter. Through the open window I hear the little girl respond, “There’s not one? Mama, there’s not one?”
A different little girl donates a homemade book to the library. It’s wrinkled and creased and bound by frazzled blue yarn. On the cover the girl, whom I estimate to be about seven years old, drew a gold-and-black butterfly flitting above wildflowers. Her book explains why our ecosystem needs butterflies to survive. It warns, in crayon, that they’re endangered. When I read it, I remember the day my dog died, which was the same day the butterfly chrysalis my sons and I had found broke open and released the largest monarch I’d ever seen. The monarch’s wings were damp, and we kept him inside the screened porch for the first day and watched him flutter around. On day two he entered the wide world. The next summer, when the monarchs returned, I allowed myself to think one of them was my dog coming back to say hello.
An asshole in a cream Lexus stops his car in the middle of the road — door open, engine running — and takes the library’s entire contents into his arms, including all the books I put in this morning. Later in the week someone leaves a ceramic tile painted with an image of Mary Magdalene holding an enormous basket of apples. I’m an atheist, so the tile shouldn’t move me, but it does. I bring Mary Magdalene into my office, and when I look at her propped among my books, I think not of her but of the person who placed her in the library.
There are several 1980s cookbooks in the library: Microwave Cooking for One. Home Style Microwave Cooking. Microwave Chinese Cooking. The pages smell of stale cigarette smoke. A few are splashed with soy sauce or whiskey or tobacco spit, plus dried rice.
My younger son cringes when he looks out the window and sees the mother and daughter approaching. “Oh no, there’s that little girl,” he says, this child who hates to see anyone let down. “There’s not one?” the girl says, disappointed again.
Someone leaves a white knit stocking cap on top of the paperbacks. It’s brand-new with the tags still on. It’s so pretty, and I need a hat, and no one else takes it, so I claim it. I put it on my head and leave a Colum McCann novel, Let the Great World Spin, in its place.
In the winter the chickens lay eggs only once in a while, and when I do find one, it is frozen. We buy a heater to keep their water thawed. When I open the coop to feed them each morning, the hens stare at me, cold but uncomplaining.
There’s a new Moleskine notebook in the library. I know it is intended specifically for my library, because someone — a man — has written inside the cover: If found, please return this book to the Little Free Library . . . and he gives my address. Some tips are written on the first page: Carry: chapstick (it’s good for more than you realize), a flashlight, dental floss. Those instructions are followed by an account of going to a south-Minneapolis tailor to get his pants hemmed. He needs the pants for his job. The tailor is an old woman, and, for reasons that aren’t clear, she hems them for free. Whoever he is, I feel flattered that this person has left the notebook just for my library — and by “my library,” I mean me.
I find myself grateful for this overture. And, in the way we invest in those who invest in us, I’m rooting for him. Free hem. Happy man.
Someone leaves a note on my car that reads:
Keep it up
— A Fan
This note happens to pop up the day after I have a professional setback that makes me question my whole life. I have no idea if this note was meant specifically for me, or if someone placed the same note on cars throughout the neighborhood, but I will admit that, as I drive down my street, I look at Ms. Naganichi’s car and Yvonne’s truck to see if they received notes, too. They did not. I’m ashamed to say this makes me smile.
FEBRUARY, STILL (fifth consecutive day below zero)
The days are dark and relentlessly cold. The last few winters have been a fragile time for me. Whether this is due to genetics, seasonal depression, or a half-year hiatus from walks and sunshine, I’m not sure, but the brittleness feels private and menacing, so I tell no one, not even my husband. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung writes, “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself.”
Here is what I record in the Moleskine before I put it back in the library: Yesterday I googled “How to tell if you’re having a nervous breakdown,” and according to the Internet — and my son who saw my search history — I am.
It’s a relief to admit that I’m struggling right now, even if I only admit it to a stranger. What I do not confess to the notebook is that my husband and I are weary and barely speaking to each other. I do not confess that we have been this way for years.
I write in the Moleskine: Carry: a book by Marilynne Robinson or Roald Dahl, a pocket of almonds, a pen. Always carry GPS.
Writing in the notebook makes me feel less alone in the same way that reading books makes me feel less alone.
The Moleskine disappears.
The Moleskine reappears.
Some wise guy has placed a map of Minneapolis inside it.
I think of a poem, “The Abandoned Valley,” by Jack Gilbert:
Can you understand being alone so long you would go out in the middle of the night and put a bucket into the well so you could feel something down there tug at the other end of the rope?
FEBRUARY, remembering July
It’s no kind of life, being a chicken in Minnesota. In the winter, if your owners forget to plug in the heater, your water freezes to a block of ice. Roosting happens early in the day, and bedtime occurs when the sun goes down at 4:31 PM.
The hens don’t all get along, but they still fly to the perch at night, shuffling close to stay warm. Herky, a black-and-white Plymouth Rock, is the exception; for some reason the other hens will not allow her to join them, so she perches alone on the stairs, where her isolation puts her at risk of freezing to death. It’s unlikely she’s just shy or introverted, but how sad would it be if she did this to herself by choice?
FEBRUARY, remembering May many years ago
I once chaperoned my older son’s sixth-grade class trip to an environmental camp in northern Minnesota. Mr. S. took us on a night hike deep into the woods. With a new moon as our only source of light, he spread us throughout the forest, too far apart to touch. He knew the dark and the solitude would heighten our senses as never before. They did. I smelled the rich pine and heard the soft owl hoots, and the unceasing blackness became my entire world. Something else happened, too. In the dark forest the children extended their arms and realized they weren’t within reach of anyone. For a few tortured seconds everyone was quiet. Eventually one child broke the silence with a tentative, thin whistle. Someone deeper in the woods answered the call with another whistle. And on it went. The darkness persisted, but not the silence. The kids reached out with their whistles, as if tapping one another on the shoulder. And on it went, this chain of human echolocation.
We need constant proof that we’re not alone. And if we don’t see a companion, we strain to hear one in the dark. And when there is no whistle in return? I’m here to tell you, we will make one up.
I teach men and women in prisons. Many of them have been locked up for decades. I have to be so careful what I say, what assignments I give. Sometimes a book I share feels like a helpful whistle in the dark. Occasionally it is received in ways I did not intend. Such exchanges are not unique to people who are locked away from the world though. I think every one of us has a tiny detector buried somewhere deep inside our heart, and when we become dangerously lonesome, it blinks awake and works to pick up a signal in the world.
Behind the wise guy’s map I tuck a postcard of a man falling from the sky.
The notebook disappears and reappears. Strangers write about their personal lives in a surprisingly unguarded manner. My neighbor, an unemployed pastor, writes: I can feel a change is coming. We are talking to each other in ways we would never do on the street.
I am attached to this notebook given to me by a stranger about whom I know only this: his pants are freshly hemmed and he probably has a chapstick in his pocket.
The first days of spring bring out the good in me. My younger son and I go into the basement and dig through our picture-book stash — the one thing I might stab someone for if it was about to be taken from me — and I find a few I can part with. I remember reading them to my sons for long spells. I take a couple of these old books — just a couple, and not the most special — and I walk outside and put them in the library. Then I change my mind. I cannot leave the books after all, and I go back and pull them out and take them inside and stuff them in a box in my basement that I’ll open when I’m old and feeling nostalgic.
It’s not very awesome of me not to share our picture books with that little girl. I can be an asshole, too.
The Moleskine disappears from the library and never returns. I am bereft, but soon it is just a dull ache — survivable but familiar, maybe even a relief. Now I can stop caring about what it means, who put it there, how embarrassing it is that I want friends inside my library.
Someone, not me, has started leaving picture books. They drop off several at a time — some old, some new, all in fine condition. I smile when I see them. My younger son is relieved. But the girl and her mom have given up on us and no longer stop by my library.
It has been a long time since the Moleskine disappeared. Just when I’ve stopped expecting to see it return, I receive a colorful postcard in the mail, an invitation to attend Wee Go Library, an artist’s upcoming show. A local artist has won a big award, and my Little Free Library was part of his project. I go online to find out more.
The Wee Go Library project is a mobile cabinet of twenty-two altered books selected from Little Free Libraries throughout the Twin Cities. The artist uses collage, rebinding, cutting, folding, and tearing to create a “commentary about books, neighborhoods, and the idea of libraries as distribution networks.” Because his project is so specific about the address of each library, the way the Moleskine’s dedication was specific to my library, I assume this artist is Moleskine Guy.
I don’t attend Wee Go Library’s debut, but I notice that the first photo on the project’s website is of a book from my Little Free Library. I see a photo of my stucco house and my red library box and a pin on a map that shows right where you can find us. One book from my library, a cookbook, has a full-page collage inserted of a woman standing at her sink.
She is alone.
She is staring out her window.
There’s a gigantic hand coming through her window holding a piece of broccoli. There’s a floating eggplant and an ear of corn and a single word glued to the woman’s head, but I can’t make out the word: Is it kind or mocking or entirely random? Am I the solitary woman some disembodied hand means to nourish with a head of broccoli? I feel both seen and exposed; flattered and embarrassed. It is possible, of course, that the altered book has nothing to do with me, apart from the fact that it was plucked from the wooden box outside my house.
A commentary on books, neighborhoods, and libraries? To me the project seems more like a study of isolation — one in which the subject doesn’t know she is being studied. Or worse — maybe there is no study, just a woman who believes she was the focus of one.
Autumn ushers in an Ali Smith novel. It also brings good news for hermits. A scientific survey finds that reading books for up to thirty minutes a day increases your life span by almost two years. Scientists credit cognitive processes, but I think it has more to do with meeting others on the page. It is a small thing to leave a book, and it is a small thing to take a book, but it is no small thing to be invited into our shared humanity.