Rescuing the Remaindered


It started–well, hell, doesn’t it always start this way??–with an email. Simply worded, starkly phrased, politically correct (no suits would be offended or alarmed by this message), the gist of it was this: there were endangered books at the campus library, hidden in a back room.

That back room was really the Last Chance Hotel. If someone didn’t come and claim them,  the trash heap was the next stop for those books.

I gasped a wrenching gasp, and my nice colleague Linda, walking by on her way to the Keurig, poked her head in to see if I was okay.

“I’m fine,” I said, smiling brightly. I hit ‘send’ to share the desperate message with my peeps in the network. I knew they, too, would respond.

It was mid-morning before I could work my way over there: I had a meeting on that side of campus; I insisted I would walk across–alone–on that beautiful day… I carried a voluminous, sturdily lined bag with me. It is a bag I keep in my office for just this purpose. It is both thick and yielding; it will not quickly reveal what it holds within.

The library was hushed at that time of day. In a far corner, a study group met, and the lowered, insistent mutter of their search for meaning simmered. But there was no other noise beyond the whir of machine, the hum of fluorescent light. One lone student worked at the circulation desk; she was someone I’d worked with before. I dropped a word; I flashed my ID. The student jumped up and grabbed a clipboard.

“Sign in,” she instructed, and she winked at me.

Yeah, right, I thought, and I winked back. Grabbing the pen, I scrawled, Mary Wollstonecraft.

The student jerked her head toward the labyrinthine nether region of the library.

“You,” she said quietly, “know your way.”

I nodded. I passed Tracey’s desk; we shared a look fraught with meaning. Amy, on the phone, kept her eyes downward, but she gave me a barely discernible thumbs up.

I wound my way through the corridors, and I found the back room.

My colleague BJ was there before me. A retired high school instructor who couldn’t break his academic habit–he now teaches a full slate of American history and western civ at the college level–BJ is an inveterate reader and a Damned Liberal. I should have known I’d find him here.

He’d been busy; as I entered, he slipped a slender volume onto a small stack on an empty corner of the table closest to the door. I surveyed the room. Books covered three rectangular banquet tables,–covered the tables, teetered in stacks, and threatened to fall off their edges.

“Oh, BJ,” I said, and he threw up his hands.

“So many books!” he said, an anguished rasp in his voice. “But–Dreiser?  Henry JAMES?” He slanted me a look. “You read James?” he asked.

Then, without waiting for an answer, he added, his voice filled with remorse, “I CAN’T. I can’t take Henry James home.”

We worked in silence then, sorting and stacking.  We were, between the two of us, deciding futures. We were issuing reprieves. We were leaving other tomes, perhaps even some that were infinitely more worthy than our chosen ones, to the caprice of fate.

BJ left, toting a hefty stack of books, after a fervent ten minutes.

I eked out another fifteen minutes of agonizing selection. Oh, the things I put back, hoping other hands would find and cherish them! My bag, ironically, held a biography of Wollstonecraft, whose name I’d borrowed to sign in. I also saved Lillian Hellman’s Life. Volumes of Willa Cather were hidden in my bag. I had all of Herrick’s poems. I had the nonsense verses of Edward Lear. I had a GK Chesterton omnibus, and I had a volume or two by Kay Boyle.

And I hadn’t been able to keep myself from saving An Episode of Sparrows, by Rumer Godden. It had been one of my mother’s favorite books.

I knew it was time to go when Janelle, the library’s director, walked by and coughed discreetly. I bundled everything into my bag; it was heavy and clumsy. I wrestled it to the door of the room, and I stood looking at the silent books I left behind. I saluted them; I wished them the redemption I couldn’t offer.

I wanted to say I’d be back, but I knew it was a promise I probably couldn’t keep.

I retraced my steps and hurried out the library exit. My bag set off the meep meep meep of the alarm.

I kept walking.

I didn’t stop until I’d reached my car, popped open the trunk, and gently pushed my bag full of refugees into its darkness.

I locked my car, and I went back to work, trying to be normal, trying to forget that hidden cargo. At odd times I would remember, though–I’d think about the book that had been so handled and used, read time and again, that its cover was separating from its binding. THAT book, flung onto a discard table.

Was that sadder, I debated with myself, than the pristine book, twenty years old, whose ‘date due’ card revealed it had never been checked out?

What is worse, I’d debate, book abuse or book neglect? I would ponder; I would be paralyzed by sadness.

And then the phone would ring, and I would be compelled to shake it off and trudge through my daily commitments.

My son helped me drag the bag into the house when I got home from work, and he gently unpacked the volumes onto the dining room table.

My husband came home just as we were surveying the stacks; it seemed like a healthy rescue there on my modest table, but I couldn’t stop thinking of those left behind.

“Oh,” sighed Mark, “what have you done?”

I shrugged, my eyes on the books.

“We’ve talked about this,” he began, but his voice was gentle.

I snaked out a hand; I plucked a biography of Teddy Roosevelt from the top of a stack. I thrust it at him.

Mark took the book, and he gave me an agonized look. And then he went to sit in the reading chair and pore through the  table of contents.


We worked the rescued books into the shelves; the resident books sighed and shuffled and made reluctant but understanding room. I went to chop onions for the stir fry, leaving them to work things out.

Later that night, when Mark and the boy were both long in bed, I stood in the doorway of the living room and listened. The new books were softly anxious.

What will she….???

No worries, whispered the resident volumes. They all love books here.

I felt an expulsion of relief from the newcomers.

Then: Will she READ us? asked a plaintive little voice.

There was a pause, and then an answer came from the cooking memoir section.

Well, it said, she ain’t as quick now as she used to be. But yeah. I think she’ll read you.

This wasn’t my conversation. My cheeks burned at intruding. I grabbed the Father Brown Omnibus, and I took it up to the bathroom with me. In the sighing of the sleeping house, I murmured, You’re privately owned now. You have a home.

And I tried to pry off the Library of Congress sticker on its spine. The years, though, had done their work; the sticker had become part of the cover. The library years would always be evident.

Well, I ruminated, that isn’t the worst thing in the world.


Just before sleep, I checked my texts, and two of my peeps had sent photos.  More books were in safe hands that night.

And we were not the only ones; there were network members whose names we’d never know, whose faces we’d never see–or people quietly walking the hallways, going about their business, whose cars held rescued cargo, waiting to be transported to a new and welcoming home. People we worked side by side with every day, hidden rescuers, keeping the words safe.

I slid into bed, and Mark rolled over to say goodnight.  He sensed, I knew, my sadness. He murmured, “You just can’t save them all.”

The Roosevelt bio rested on his bedside table, a marker thrust into its pages, one quarter of the way in.

He’s right, I know: we can’t save them all. I thought of the left-behind books in that dark back room. I tried to block out the strident voice of a gleeful pharisee who’d once explained to me that the unclaimed books were ground up to make bedding for cows.

Cow bedding! Don’t TELL me this, I pleaded.

And then, in the quiet dark, I heard a whisper, a whisper that wound upstairs from the bookshelves in the living room, a whisper emanating from the books I’d brought in that day.

HOME, hissed the whisper. We are HOME.

Yes, I thought, yes! You are home, and safe. Safe for the time. Safe as we can make you, safe as hardcover books can be in a digital age.

I pulled the blanket around me. I drifted off to sleep.

The next morning I got up and went to work. And I carried with me that capacious, sturdy bag. Who knows when the next call will come, or the next email arrive.

I cannot predict the day or the hour. I can only know that, when it does, I’ll be ready.



Somewhere, Somehow, Somebody

Somewhere, somehow somebody
Must have kicked you around some…
…Everybody’s had to fight to be free
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee

—Tom Petty and Michael W. Campbell, “Refugee”

Sometimes I go looking for books.  A friend might say, “Oh, you really should read The Improbability of Love,” and I’ll track it down at the library and find out there are rows of reserve requests seven deep. I’ll decide to use my gift card to the big bookstore, combine it with the 20 per cent discount that landed in my email inbox, and I’ll have that book in my hand–and on my shelf–within four days.  I’ll savor and enjoy the reading, and the enjoyment will be enhanced by a kind of treasure hunt–what in this book spoke so clearly to Susan?  Where does our appreciation overlap?

I search that book out; I make sure it is there to be read. Very seldom am I disappointed to have invited it in.

And sometimes, I swear, books come looking for me.


That was the case with Dr. Mary Pipher’s The Middle of Nowhere, in which she chronicles her work with refugee families in Lincoln, Nebraska. I kept seeing it at libraries and bookstores; it just kept turning up. The book finally found its way into my basket from a clearance shelf.  It came home with me and waited, patiently demanding to be read.  I danced around it, and then, when I finally caved in and opened it, I was enriched.

Pipher shares the tales of several refugee families, and she says those families have a great deal to teach those of us blessed with citizenship from birth. Refugees turn pain into meaning; they give, says Pipher, meaning to their trials, reasons for the stories of their lives to be shared.  Refugees demonstrate growth and redemption.

“Viktor Frankl wrote that while he was in a concentration camp,” Pipher said, “he discovered that everything could be taken from a person but one thing: the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”  (

“What helps them recover, she found, is family, community and personal characteristics such as flexibility, sense of humor, hope, resiliency, and the ability to find new people to love and attach to.” (

And, Dr. Pipher notes emphatically, the refugees do much better when the community welcomes them.

I enjoyed The Middle of Nowhere, and I thought about its message of outreach and welcome, and I put it on my shelf to return to later.  And then I plunged in to other reading, and I didn’t think about Pipher’s book until another book found me.

This book was Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, and it was recommended, strongly, by a couple of bloggers I highly respect on WordPress. That same week,  a colleague forwarded me a video of Silberman talking about autism.  So, when an Amazon gift card came my way within days of the recommendation, I used it to order Neurotribes, and I read it with fascination.  Silberman tells the story of autism, from its first identification in the pre-World War II years to our current understanding of the condition.  Silberman reveals the personal agendas and quests for glory that undermined a real understanding of autism for many years; he highlights autistic heroes and heroic supporters.

And he talks about Dr. Temple Grandin, a genius with the diagnosis of Asperger’s–and  he writes about her remarkable ability to  tell her story to a wide range of people, to explain how her mind works and how it feels to live in a world that rewards a whole different kind of thinking. Grandin felt, she said, like an anthropologist from Mars, living in a whole different world.

Her story fascinated Dr. Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology and a gifted writer. He made it a point to meet Grandin; and when he came to know her, he was determined to tell her story.  He wanted to explain why this brilliant woman who happened to have Aspergers syndrome felt like a refugee in her own land.

His resultant book, An Anthropologist on Mars, is next up on my reading stack.


I thought about this today when I went to a People First meeting with Jim.  We have recently had the great good luck to meet a dedicated group of visionaries who are changing the way adults with disabilities are perceived and treated in our community. One of the many things they are doing, in their ‘person-centered’ philosophy, is helping disabled adults advocate for themselves.

Self-advocacy is the goal and the reason for being of People First (  There’s a new but thriving chapter in this town; its officers attended their first conference this year. For some, it was the first time, at age twenty or thirty or forty or even beyond, they’d stayed in a hotel; it was the first time they spoke in front of a group of people who sat and listened and asked questions.  It was the first time their words were received with applause.

They came back energized and wanting to do more.

So they have decided, with their mentors, to create a skit that they can take on the road.  They want to go to K-12 schools and service organizations and colleges; they want to talk to anyone who’s open to helping society change the way it regards and treats adults with disabilities.

And because Jim, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s/PDD-NOS, enjoys writing scripts, one of People First’s guiding lights, Missy, asked him to attend today’s meeting.


The meeting convened at the disabilities services annex, in a large bright room where twenty or so adults sat at round tables.  They were a mixed and welcoming group–they represented a wide range of ages, and they had a wide range of communicative ability.

They all introduced themselves and they all told us we were welcome.  And then Sandy, the facilitator, pulled them into a discussion.  The group decided, once they watched a couple of YouTube videos and understood where they were headed with the skit creation, that they wanted to address the issue of bullying.

Sandy led them in a discussion of bullying words–words they hate to hear, and better words that could be put forth to replace them.  She drew examples from the people assembled, who offered up things like this:

I don’t like it when people tell me I’m fat. (Lots of nods at this, mostly from the female participants.)

I don’t like the R word.  (Animated discussion followed this.  It was agreed that using the word “retard” was just mean and ignorant, and people need to stop doing it.)




All of the group had heard these words.  Let’s replace them, they suggested, with special. Unique. Nice. Friendly.

Then, “I don’t like it,” said one young woman, “when someone tells me, ‘Oh, you can’t speak French!'”  There was a swivel of heads. There were looks of surprise.

And there was an instant reaction of kindness.  “Yeah,” said Jeannette. “It’s bad when people say things like that.”

Sandy wrote, “People say you can’t speak French” on the smart board. She told a short story about a cousin who’d always taunted her by speaking French; she knew Sandy didn’t understand.  The discussion went on.

List compiled, Sandy and the other leaders directed the group to a discussion of a scenario.  There were plenty of ideas; there was discussion and feedback, and the group created a real and concrete picture.  One of us, they said, is at the beach.  That person is building a sandcastle and having fun.  And then a stranger comes over and decides to wreck it.  That person lays right on top of the sandcastle, and flattens it.  And–that person says bad things.

Jim and I left a little later; Missy is going to send him details and he is going to create his first script for live theater. He’s pretty excited about the opportunity.

And he was pretty moved by the meeting and the topics and the stories he heard.

“How,” he asked, “could anyone abuse or bully people as kind and innocent as that?”

And yet he knows it happens.  He’s had it happen to him–he’s heard the R word used to describe him because he’s different.  He’s been ignored or taunted, too.


Jim, like other adults with disabilities, often finds the rules and the reasons of our society random and unfathomable.  But, like Pipher’s refugees, people with disabilities choose their attitudes.  They’re kind, for the most part, and they’re trusting. And they believe in their own abilities to contribute.  This skit, they think, might make a difference, might touch one heart or teach one person a little bit about how bullying hurts the victim and the bully.

It’s apt, I think, the comparison of adults with disabilities to geographic refugees–two groups living in societies with codes and cues and secret handshakes they may never ever learn.  But each has the tools to survive and to thrive anyway.  Many have family support; those that don’t tend to create families to take that place. They take the slings and arrows life shoots at them, and they fend them off with humor and openness.  If I had to characterize, in just one word, the feeling in that room today when the People First members were planning their skit, I’d choose the word hope.

Those folks, the adults with disabilities and the professionals who work with them, see the possibility of a bright and open future.  They see a time when job opportunities are different and people in general are more accepting and nobody yells at them because they aren’t fluent in the language.

And they have the tools and the support to actively work for the change. I thought about Pipher’s list of things needed for refugees to successfully transition into the new society: Family. Community. Flexibility and sense of humor.  The ability to find new people to attach to. Those attributes were all there, in operation, in that room.

It was an exciting privilege to watch the group at work.  I don’t know if they’re Tom Petty fans, but they’re living his lyrics.  Sure somebody, somewhere, has kicked them around some.  But they’ve chosen to pave a new road; they’re a living demonstration that no one has to live like a refugee.