Of going and coming

This is a tale of two movements, of going out and of going in, of losing and of a small moment of grace.

Some years ago, my uncle sold his Adirondack cottage, in a pretty colony of private summer homes on the remote shore of one of the lakes. Already in Cleveland, I made the long drive there to fetch an old canoe that lived beneath the cottage and manhandle it away to safety.

For years, our family had gone on visits there, and I can fairly say I loved the place even though I could claim no rights in it. It was a sad trip, because I knew it was unlikely I would go back.

After I lifted the heavy red boat onto the top of my truck, I walked down to the dock, to take a last look at the lake. In the deep quiet of a weekday afternoon after Labor Day, I stood at the shore and tried to fix the scene in my memory -- gray clouds, gently rippling water, steep green hills just beginning to change color; islands; and the tiny chuckle of waves poking under the dock. It was calm and open, the sort of place to relax the eyes and let you give up ordinary cares and even the prospect of hours of driving. I didn't want to turn away.

Then someone came up behind me. "Excuse me -- this is private property. " he said. It was the colony's resident busybody -- almost every small community seems to have one, and well-off, closed places always seem to. I suppose now that I should have more respect for him, for it takes some courage to accost strangers dressed for work in an unpeopled spot more than an hour from the nearest police station. If I had acted on my first impulse, what would he have done?

But I didn't strangle him, of course, and I suppose he knew I wouldn't.

Instead, I mildly told him who I was and why I was there, and explained, "I just came to take a look at the lake. I will never be back here again."

Not a total clod, he was silent for a minute. "That's sad," was all he said, and he walked away.

But my reverie was gone, and a moment later, so was I.

The canoe I still have. The last time I tried to float it, it sank. I have some refinishing to do.

Of coming in, I have a more modern story. My heart was beating hard when I walked into the city library just after the new year. My first piece of mail for the year was a notice that several dozen books had been charged out on my card and not returned, and I realized that my identity had effectively been stolen, for the card was gone from my wallet. There was well over $1,000 worth of stuff gone, just from the list in my pocket. One of the books was a Bible; another, a Torah.

I was terrified that I could lose my library privileges and have to pay some huge, unaffordable sum for the lost books, since the card had clearly said I was responsible.

Now, I have an irrational attachment to libraries. I've been in and out of them since before I was old enough to read, and my old, paneled hometown library, tiny as it was, is one of the treasured places in my memory, while the big city one I use now is an almost inexhaustible treasure trove of entertainment, if not serious research. I conducted my first grown-up transactions with librarians; the idea that I had let them down by losing my card and having it misappropriated was devastating far beyond its actual impact on my finances.

So I pushed into the gold-carpeted Modernist building with what I can only call dread. I really had been having nightmares of a nasty interview with some wizened circulation-department chief or, worse, with the library's overwhelming director himself.

Of course, the circulation director turned out to be a short woman my own age in a new-looking Christmas sweater (in modest librarian fashion, mostly black). No, she would not hold me responsible for the theft. I could even have a new card, without so much as a snotty reminder to take care of it.

What's more, my theory that a student hanging around the last day I had the card could not be correct, she said, for they usually take CDs and DVDs -- the popular stuff. My tormentor had taken how-to books and references (the titles were obscure on the list I had), and those over two weeks, which is unusual in book-thievery, she said. They might even come back someday.

I formed a vision of an immigrant, perhaps undocumented, who didn't dare make an official connection but wanted to learn, to take advantage of what the library has to offer at its best.

That the books apparently would be put to good use was a relief. That I would not be penalized was encouraging. That this matter-of-fact representative of library officialdom didn't seem to be mad at me was grace.

The sense of relief I had was overwhelming. I had not felt that way since my daughter was born healthy and strong, with her mother well and happy.

So far, I have been right about not being able to return to the central Adirondacks. Happily, I can keep returning to libraries.

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