Today is my fiftieth birthday. I’ve been a school librarian for twenty of those years and a writer for a lot longer than that. My first multi-volume epic was written at age nine, the story of a boy who created a planet by firing a square stone out of his sling shot so hard it fell into the orbit of a distant star and formed the planet Cuberon, the denizens of which fought an eons-spanning war against the rapacious Lizard Men. A librarian is a kind of story-teller, too, and also a custodian of stories. Stories echo through time and offer deep insights into what changes about us.
As a custodian, especially if you work with children, you hear a lot (from parents) about the messages some older stories inadvertently give us, holdovers of obsolete thought, bad ideas from before we changed. There’s an urge to make those ideas disappear, at the cost the entire story they're embedded in. But those stories are an opportunity to educate people in how we’ve grown. Surely there’s no more important lesson for a child than that we can evolve from what we were.
It’s not as though we have reached the pinnacle of our enlightenment, not as though there are no ideas we hold true now that people down the line won’t read about and think us monsters. Maybe every time someone in the future reads about one of us using a phone, they will think about the enslavement of children in the Congo who mine for cobalt, a component crucial to our smart phones. We text away without much thought of that, just like someone long ago took certain things for granted, until something cast a light on it. Usually a book.
Librarian or not, something else you hear a lot about these days is the bad things people have done in their lives. Bad behavior they’ve exhibited, bad words they’ve spoken which, some contend, should be grounds for dismissal, for shunning. But it doesn’t take that much work to see what their record shows: do they continue to act this way, hurt people around them, propagate bad ideas? Or has their trajectory been upwards, do they appear to be improving, do they regret what they’ve done and are they doing predominantly good things?
There’s an urge to sweep away a person’s present along with their past, just as we seek sometimes to banish the bad ideas of our past so our present won’t be infected by them. As if we could ever have grown to where we are without learning from the mistakes of our past.
Turning fifty is an opportunity to think about growth. Making the bad ideas of the past vanish, or suggesting that who we were is a trap we’re stuck in forever, is to deny our greatest strength: our ability to rise, to become better.Thanks for coming on this journey with me. As the name of the website suggests, the journey is what it’s all about.