Library stacks are underappreciated.
People come, they browse, they select, they leave. Dusty and solitary, books are left to their quiet existence on the shelves.
But I’ve worked in a library for eight years, and I’m telling you–it’s not like that. The stacks are, for me, as sacred and meditative a space as any of the Buddhist temples I visited in Thailand.
A few years back, I watched the Chinese film, The Drummer (1997). Honestly, I don’t remember much. Leaning heavily on the usual tropes, it followed a troubled teen who (of course) ended up at a Zen temple where he was trained in traditional drums.
But first, he had to carry stones. And this is the part I remember. His master gave each student a task. And the tasks, invariably, were arbitrary and menial. One woman, if I remember right, had to pick up feathers. The lead had to pack around stones.
The thing was that gradually each character began to enjoy their tasks for the sake of the task. They began to appreciate the beauty of each feather. The individuality of each stone.
I thought this was a beautiful metaphor for how we approach our daily lives.
Shelving books is not a glorious job. It’s not highly respected. It’s not intellectually stimulating. It pays peanuts. And I sneeze a lot.
But over the years, I’ve grown to love it. The stacks have taught me how to hold my own life, cupped in the palm. Alone with my own mind for hours on end, I began to notice what I think about. And how I think about it.
It was in the stacks, at 24, that I realized I was angry. All the time.
In the stacks, at 29, I realized my marriage was dying and my ability to feel was dying along with it. But I was too afraid of the unknown to leave.
And at 31, I sat beside my stream of thoughts and realized that all along, the anger had only been a way of avoiding all that fear.
Yes, it is necessary to get outside and live life. To go exactly where we’re most afraid to go. Divorce. Grief. Loss. But I think most people overlook the other necessity–that of a quiet space where we can discover what it is we’re afraid of. Name it. And prepare to meet it.
In certain Buddhist traditions, the devout stack stones as an appeal to a higher power. To have their prayers and wishes granted. I’m not Buddhist, but on my better days, I like to think that each thought, each day is a stacked stone. Like the characters in The Drummer, the menial task of shelving books was something I responded to at first with outraged pride. But over the years, that same “insult” has taught me mindfulness. Humility. Self-awareness. Joseph Campbell said, “A whole life can be a meditation on one thing.”
And I think that can only be learned in doing the tasks we think we are too good for. And doing them with grace, moment by moment. Day by day. Stone by stone.