Category Archives: Life Purpose

Take a Book, Share a Book: Make a world of difference

A transplant to the city after raising my sons in a small town, I measure the quality of my urban neighborhood in ways that a Zillow description likely would overlook. Shoveled sidewalks in the winter. Tended flower and vegetable gardens during the summer. Friendly people, of course, and Little Free Libraries.

The dinosaur decorations and reachable door handle make this box accessible for children.

The half-dozen free-book boxes that I encounter on my milelong walk to work speak to me of neighbors who not only like to read — a value instilled by both my parents — but who are generous and want to share ideas.

Owning and maintaining a Little Free Library is a rewarding hobby for parents who want to see others enjoy the books their children have outgrown or aging former English majors and empty nesters like me who have reached the point in life where our reading years are numbered. Why not pass along the many books I have collected over the years and ones that I will never read again?

In that spirit, here are rules — or tried-and-true suggestions — for launching your own public book box.

Rule 1: Make your book box official

“Little Free Library” has become a generic, all-inclusive term for any wooden or plastic box attached to a stand that holds giveaway books on a public sidewalk. In fact, just as we say Jell-O when referring to gelatin or Kleenex when we mean any brand of facial tissue, Little Free Library is a trademarked term, dating back to 2013. It also is a nonprofit organization and a brand that sports its own tagline: Take a Book. Share a Book.

I was put off, initially, by the expense of ordering a ready-made box or a build-your-own Little Free Library kit from the website; costs start at $260 for a box of unfinished wood and an additional $80 to $180 for the ground post. Instead my husband, a handy guy who likes to build things, constructed our book box out of salvaged lumber and a cottage window we were replacing in our house.

I didn’t realize that purchasing a structure from the Little Free Library organization would have netted a range of benefits — including access to a 13,000-person private Facebook group for Little Free Library Stewards and the option to buy deeply discounted books to keep the mix of offerings fresh and appealing. More important, the purchase would have enabled me to support a global organization, based in Hudson, Wisconsin, whose mission includes “championing diverse books,” “removing barriers to book access” and supplying stocked Little Free Library boxes to “high-need areas,” including Native communities.

Registering your homemade book box as a Little Free Library gives you a range of benefits and helps support literacy worldwide.

The board of directors models the diversity that the organization promotes and includes literacy experts, academics, and nonprofit and business leaders — book lovers, all.

Clearly, my $400 to $500 investment in official Little Free Library materials would have been money well spent. Turns out it wasn’t too late. After poking around the website, I figured out how to register my homemade box with the organization, which will put me on the Little Free Library map and get me a numbered “charter” sign for what I will soon, officially, be able to call my Little Free Library.

Soon to be an officially chartered Little Free Library, the book box that my husband built (painted to match our house) has become known in our neighborhood for its well-organized and diverse array of books.

Rule 2: Keep it up

I use metal bookends to keep the books upright in my library, and I straighten the books every day, sometimes rearranging them — a la the endcap displays at either end of grocery store aisles — to draw people’s attention to a good read that apparently has been overlooked. (Who wouldn’t benefit from Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, for example, especially if they’ve already read Traveling Mercies?)

Because my library looks tended and cared for and ripe for exploration, it has become a true library, a neighborhood resource, a place where people stop by not only to find a good read but to donate good books: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue and Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult were two recent contributions that I previously had enjoyed.

Messy shelves do not invite browsing.

I dog-walk through my neighborhood every morning, often deliberately coaxing my willful beasts down the blocks where I know Little Free Libraries stand. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have strolled past boxes that look appealing — their design mimics the architecture of the house or they’re painted a cheerful array of colors — only to find empty shelves, a disorganized mass of magazines or a shelf stocked two-deep with books so I can’t possibly see the contents while holding dog leashes.

So, I move on. Any library that is poorly stocked or is a public trash can for materials the owners otherwise would toss is not worth repeat visits.

Rule 3: Curate your selection

I have taken religious tracts (My Utmost for His Highest and Investing in God’s Business: The “How-to” of Smart Christian Giving) to book boxes at the Episcopal, Catholic and United Church of Christ churches in my neighborhood. I reluctantly recycled a Bible that was falling apart — holding off for a day to be sure it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the forced churchgoing of my childhood, where I was always bored and eventually came to wonder (and then resent) why both God and the ministers were male.

A neighbor once teased me about “censorship” after I posted on Facebook about recycling a Women’s Health magazine (“My Little Free Library, my rules”) showing an impossibly thin young woman and the headline: “Bikini Body Now.” It isn’t censorship, I shot back, it’s called curating — and, in fact, such discernment is essential to maintaining some measure of quality in the materials you showcase outside your home.

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This donation got tossed into my recycling bin. I spent too many years struggling with media-driven rules about women’s bodies to inflict this on a neighborhood girl.

I’ve rejected and recycled waterlogged novels, books with the covers held together by rubber bands, advanced uncorrected proofs, a dated state bicycle map, a Lutheran hymnal, romance novels, cookbooks from the ’90s and academic texts. A Little Free Library cannot be a dumping ground, especially if you want your neighbors to see your box as worthy of the literature and thought-provoking nonfiction — like Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, novels by Russell Banks and Jane Smiley, The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl — that they have read and are paying forward.

A retired high school English teacher down the block makes that clear with this handwritten sign on her book box: Please respect the spirit of this Little Free Library and only put books in here that you have enjoyed and you believe someone else would, too. Do NOT put in books that you merely are trying to get rid of.

Rule 4: Commit to the investment

My younger son recently brought over a bag of books that he no longer wants; those are stacked in a corner of the living room, waiting for winter to pass and more walkers to be outside so we can refresh our book box selection. I recently brought home another copy of The Late Homecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang that I grabbed from a table of free books at the university where I work.

That now sits on a kitchen shelf my husband and I have devoted to books-in-waiting for the Little Free Library. Goodwill stores have proven to be a worthwhile place to shop for $2 hardcovers and paperbacks for a buck.

Literacy is literally everywhere: This unregistered book box (not officially a Little Free Library) is at my favorite dog park, Battle Creek, in the Twin Cities.

During the pandemic, people have been raiding some of the book boxes in my neighborhood — “Little Free Library Shenanigans” was a recent headline on — and likely trying to sell the books at used bookstores. The problem is pervasive enough that it merited a story on the Little Free Library website, where Half-Price Books has declared it will never knowingly buy books filched from a free library.

Once my charter membership is official, and I become a “steward” of the Little Free Library ethos of generosity, I can order book labels or a rubber stamp that says, “Always a Gift; Never for Sale.”

That speaks to the true purpose of a public library and to the trust — in our neighbors, in all of humankind — that we Little Free Library stewards aim to instill in our communities.

The wisdom of, ‘Whatever’

My friend Connie, a retired executive, a Christian believer, a mother and grandmother, a considerate friend — a woman whose “lake cabin” is more elegant than any house I’ll ever own — is the last person I would expect to be dismissive or nonchalant.

But that is how I initially interpreted her answer when I asked how she had navigated the final year of her career, at an organization and in a job that were important to her. Whenever something bothered her, she said, when she felt slighted or overlooked, when she disagreed with a decision or a directive from her boss, she would shrug her shoulders and tell herself, Whatever.

The one-word toss-off — so unnatural to her, otherwise — gave Connie perspective, allowing her to see that she could not simultaneously step away and hang on, that she had given a year’s notice before retiring because she wanted to open the door for someone else. Someone different. Someone younger.

Whatever stays with me as I scan my sharp edges after 15 months of a frightening, constrictive pandemic. The principle applies not only to how I navigate the final years of my career but to aspects of life beyond work. Whatever is not: Fuck it! It’s not resentful or angry. It’s the Serenity Prayer, accepting all the slights and hurts, the aggravations and unexpected detours — “the things we cannot change.”

It is recognizing, as my husband says, that America already has too much contention, that I need not engage in every fight or always weigh in with my opinion. Sometimes, the silence can say more, at less cost.

Anger-infused wisdom

Twice in one day recently I had to stop myself from firing back angrily over email (both times with men, whom I rarely allow to gain the upper hand) when the responses to an innocuous request or an open dialogue came across as condescension or mansplaining. One colleague declared it was “not my first rodeo” after I asked him to take notes in a conference session I could not attend (a reasonable request, in my view, given my interest in the topic). Another man gibed that I had become a “convert to Hinduism” after I described the eight limbs of yoga in a conversation about yoga bans in public schools and pointed out to him that, however unwittingly, Alabama and other conservative southern states may grasp the holistic nature of the practice better than most Western fitness enthusiasts.

Both times I stepped back, literally walked away from the computer, and then flipped my irritation like a rock I had stumbled over in the woods. What was beneath it? What resentment would crawl out? “Whatever,” I said aloud, giving myself a pause to reconsider and later to examine how my sensitivities about other aspects of these relationships were fueling such a strong reaction.

Literary wisdom

Sometimes I wonder whether the book I happen to pick up is the one I am meant to be reading. Ideas and awakenings will grab me, ones that seem to be precisely what I need to hear at this time, in this place.

So it was with The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, an appealingly easy read, recommended by a friend, after nearly four months of textbooks in my spring semester graduate class. The story of three women in their early 70s mourning the death of a friend in their longtime foursome, the book described the softening judgments and hard realities of aging, showcasing a demographic often rendered invisible and inspiring this Boomer to highlight passages in multiple colors on her digital reader:

  • “Everybody hated old people now; it was acceptable, encouraged even, because of your paid-off mortgage and your free education and your ruination of the planet.”
  • “You had your ostensible life, going about the physical world, and then you had your other real, inner life — the realm of expression, where the important understandings, the real living, took place.”
  • “On these silent morning walks, her body was ageless, it had seen no degradation.”
  • “The moon appeared now and then between sweeping clouds, and in those moments of cold light, Wendy saw this: my life has not been what I believed it to be.”

I recommended The Weekend to my older sister, thanked my friend David for suggesting it, put it on my list for the next installation of my Annual Book Club — and then was caught short by a dismissive review on Goodreads: “the author was too bored of her own boring book to write an ending for any of the boring characters.” Whatever! The book spoke to me, and that’s what counts.

Animal wisdom

The older I get, the more I see how the wisdom of age is inspired by the wisdom of animals. It is my dogs fleeing to tight, confined spaces when an early-morning thunderstorm warns them to seek shelter. Or the cat, years ago, that pressed itself into the far corners of a closet until it could recover from a fight — the cat we rescued because the owners had declawed it but then left it outdoors to fend for itself.

Like those animals, I seek quiet as I grow older. More yoga, more reading, more breathwork, more stillness. I instinctively retreat from the strivings and drama of my youth — the aspirations at work, the loud, noisy parties, the exhilarating but exhausting relationships. Energy diminishes as we age, and I conserve mine for what matters most. For whatever appeals to me now.

Want to celebrate a friendship? Mail a card

I had a memorable birthday celebration on July 4, made no more special by the 10 people (only one of whom I know) who pressed three buttons to wish me a “Happy Birthday” on LinkedIn. Likewise, the 63 Facebook messages, many with the identical auto-filled and poorly punctuated “Happy Birthday Amy!”, were a nominally satisfying way to feel remembered by former coworkers and other folks I’m rarely in touch with anymore.

But that isn’t how my closest friends reached out to me. They sent birthday cards with personal, handwritten messages, the old-fashioned way, through the U.S. mail.

My friend Sarah stays in touch with cards.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history,” reads one, a quote from Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that women of my vintage sported on T-shirts and book bags when we were young. Another card, from a friend I have known since my mid-20s, pronounces us “friends for life” in a touching handwritten note. “If you have a garden & a library, you have everything you need,” reads a card from a friend who is as busy with work as I am and who suggests we continue our tradition of occasional Sunday morning teas and talks.

  • My birthday was special because each of my two grown sons gave me a book with a long, handwritten letter inside.
  • My birthday was special because my neighbor surprised us with a homemade cake and a socially distanced gathering in her backyard.
  • My birthday was special because my husband’s best friend swung by in his 1981 Corvette with a piece of lemon meringue pie (which I don’t like, but no matter) and sang an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the top of his lungs from the front sidewalk.

Friendship has become a commodity these days, a point of pride to be measured more in quantity than quality, with hundreds of people on social media calling themselves my “friends.” Except they’re not. They are well-meaning acquaintances — just as I am to them — who are good enough to “like” my family photos and raise a fist in camaraderie to my political posts. My friends are the women I called when my parents died. My friends are the people who help me stay sober. My friends are the ones I can pick up with, after weeks or months, and enjoy a long, freewheeling talk over breakfast or on a bike ride.

My friends send greeting cards, hand-selected to evoke laughter or a sense of well-being, because that process takes time and thought, just as a true friendship does.

This card from my brother accurately pokes fun at my multi-tasking nature.

A sidewalk sign outside a family-owned business in my neighborhood started me thinking about the thoughtfulness, artistry and relative permanence of greeting cards. “Anyone can send a Facebook post,” it read. “Be a friend. Buy a card.”

Avalon on Grand — one of those charming, well-curated gift shops that has nothing you need but a whole lot of everything you want — boasts “one of the largest selections of greeting cards” in the Twin Cities. It’s one of several stores where I shop for cards all year-round, choosing cards for friends and siblings (sometimes bursting out with laughter in the aisles), and then stashing them away for just the right occasion.

Cards can be standalone works of art.

The Greeting Card Association (who knew there was one?) traces the history of greeting cards back to the ancient Chinese and the early Egyptians. Wikipedia is another good resource for the card curious.

Europeans began exchanging Valentine’s cards as early as 1415. Twenty-five years after the 1775 founding of what is now the U.S. Postal Service, Valentines were becoming an affordable way to express love and affection throughout the fledgling United States. The “first known Christmas card” was published in London in 1843.

Unfortunately, the latest entry in the GCA’s “History of Greeting Cards” is 1943, which doesn’t signal optimism for the practice of card-giving, especially in our digital age. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll learn that Millennials are giving new life to an industry that was faltering with the advent of social media and e-greetings.

“Millennials are . . . seeking a feeling of nostalgia in card-giving,” says a National Public Radio story from Valentine’s Day 2019, just as they’re embracing vintage clothing stores and mid-century modern furniture — the plastic, minimalist ugly basement of my childhood.

Americans overall buy some 6.5 billion greeting cards a year, and women are 80 percent of those card carriers.

“Due to technical difficulties, your cake will be postponed to next year.”

An Amish card holder hangs on a wall by the front door of our home. It’s a vertical piece of maroon cloth strapped around a small clothes hanger; interwoven pieces of green, blue and black fabric decorate the three pockets that are the perfect size for greeting cards.

I don’t remember where we bought it, or when — likely 15 or 20 years ago, when the boys were small, and my mom would watch them over my birthday so my husband and I could bike the Root River Trail in southeastern Minnesota. We’d stay in Harmony, near an Amish enclave, and probably found the handcrafted holder in a coffeehouse or antique shop.

The cards I have saved and selected to place in those three pockets are keepsakes:

  • Smart-ass ones from my oldest sister (“What’s the difference between you and a senior citizen?”).
  • Cards with handwritten notes from my husband and sons.
  • An artsy thank-you card from a friend and spiritual guide that includes a quote from the late, great U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (“Let there be no distance between the words you say and the life you live”), who raised his three children in Northfield only blocks from where my husband and I brought up our own sons.
  • An undated birthday card from my father with an affectionate note in his barely legible handwriting: “It’s getting hard to think of you as my little girl.”
Greetings from Helene and Connie

Most precious are the two cards I kept from my mother, one from 21 years ago when I was turning 42 and she was a robust 73. I had been sandbagged, apparently, by someone I loved and trusted, though the anger and shock have long since faded. Mom gave me a journal and a handwritten card: “I hope what you put in this little book will help your feelings to heal,” she wrote, with wisdom I surely failed to appreciate at the time. “Recapture the joys and delights you’ve had. Life goes by so fast. Be happy. Love, Mom.”

The other card I saved from her is dated July 4, 2012, four months after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The handwriting is shakier, the message simpler: “I’ll buy you lunch wherever you want to go.” Could she even still drive? But I can touch the card and see it, and I can feel my mother with me, in a way that an old social media post (“Your Memories on Facebook”) could never replicate.