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Home at the Library

Today, Peter Stockland writes a letter to his past self, and extends his gratitude to the people whose words lined the library he liked to call home. These minds shaped him, and lead him to keep asking the questions that keep him coming home to wonder.

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Home at the Library December 10, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland
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Our lives are overrun with strangers telling us how to succeed, who to love, what to buy, where to go and what to do. Yet each of us invariably encounters one or two people who truly influence us, shape us, give us the gift of being ourselves – and to whom we find ourselves giving frequent, albeit inner, thanks. 

Today, Peter Stockland writes a letter to his past self, and extends his gratitude to the people whose words lined the library he liked to call home. But we’d like to hear more from you, our readers. To whom do you give thanks for influencing you most? A parent? Sibling? Teacher? Stranger performing an act of uncompelled grace? Send us 300 to 400 words that you’d like to see published on Convivium.ca.

Remember when you used to wait outside the door of the undergraduate library that the university in its infinite wisdom chose to build underground?

You’d get there before it opened, sometimes the West Coast light just coming up, going down the steps to watch through the glass door, tracing the steps of the person so lucky as to already be inside as he or she ambled toward you there on the outside to let you, first arrival, step inside happy with the anxiousness of being home again.

Home itself, the house where you slept and ate and had grown up, wasn’t that great anymore. At a minimum, the walls needed fresh paint to cover your mother’s cooking smells of loss. But the library. Oh, the library. Remember the quiet. The peace. That sense that good-hearted overnight ghosts had perfectly lined up the books in the stacks just so all the ideas in the world were there for you alone to discover. The walk to your study carrel, which was “yours,” of course, only because you were there every day before anyone else and could have made any carrel “yours” so, naturally, you sat in the same one all the time because, well, it was yours. Your logic was impeccable even then.

Your old-fashioned brown briefcase with your father’s initials on it in small gold letters. Your books. Reaching down and pulling them out, the spine dragging up heavy in your hand. Milton first. He had to be done: a duty call. Remember imagining him as a shiny fat balloon you could pop with a hat pin?

Ibsen. That tangled, troubled Norwegian: your father’s country. Virginia Woolf. Oh, get on with it, you always silently snarked at her. Saving Shakespeare the way, as a kid, you would make yourself wait an hour to eat the last candy in the bag.

Looking up from Coriolanus or Lear or Hamlet, but mostly Lear, which you kept re-reading because you couldn’t get enough of his mad despair (Hamlet, you wanted to slap), and seeing a few other library early arrivals intruding (why didn’t they just stay home to study?), including those silly talking girls that you had to, that time, go over and shussh, telling them, in words you knew perfectly well were portentous even for you: “This is a library. There’s a whole world outside where you can have your conversation.”

Don’t get a swelled head, but I have to tell you, all these years later, that, while your method wasn’t ideal, I still like the way you turned around, justified, and walked back to your carrel, studiously ignoring the mean protesting thoughts those girls were shooting at you.

Whitman and Auden and Ginsberg and T. S. Eliot. Well, Eliot. Oh my. Open Eliot, and that was it. You weren’t studying anymore, you were swimming. Or floating. Skiving off, really. You knew better than to spend so much time hanging around “The Waste Land” but there you were. Prufrock. The Magi. The Quartets. Tradition and the Individual Talent, which you would have baked in a pie and eaten every day for lunch if you’d known how.

Yes, and then the surreptitious slide over to the audio section where they kept the recordings, and you could put the headphones on and listen to actual Eliot reading actual Eliot: his poetry; his voice. Or Faulkner reading from The Sound and the Fury. Or Philip Larkin, too tempting Larkin, who wasn’t even on any syllabus but, you know, he was in the house, so to speak, and… just a few. Dark chocolate. Okay, just one more.

You did have to watch the time. Not to avoid being late for your first class but because the clock was ticking on the days left to be at home there. Didn’t that wiseacre Thomas Wolfe say: “You can’t go home again?” Hmph. You can’t even stay in your chosen home forever the way you want to. Something always makes you leave, one way or another. Time. Time does that.

Remember fighting off knowing the time would come when you’d have to leave the underground undergraduate library for the last time? When you’d have to go through the library doors and up the stairs into the world where the worries were? It was a world where even those silly girls could have their conversations. Would anyone have the conversations you needed them to have with you? Eliot agreed with you. Would the world?

"The Waste Land's" words: “Time, gentlemen, please.”

And suddenly you are here, suspended in that place of unknowing bounded by memory (“remember when?”) and anticipation (“what next?”). You are held there immemorially, unable to look back through the glass door of the home that is behind you; unable, yet, to look forward past the opaque front door of your future. But here’s where I come in. Here is where I’m able to tell you what happens next because I have been given the gift of going on ahead.

You find another home. (You always kind of knew you would, right?) You find the world a place of almost infinite conversations opening to you continuously. You engage by discovering that you, as an individual, have a raw talent for the tradition of asking questions, which turns out to be a natural outgrowth of loving the poetry of ideas. You write down the answers that people give to your questions.

You write them as a reporter for newspapers and magazines and websites. You write them as imagined stories. You write them in your children, the eclectic disciplined artist daughter, the son who made your face shine by far-surpassing you as a scholar and writer so early on. You write them in your long, loving, blessed marriage. You write them in memory, and in anticipation of whatever next conversation might come along.

But here is the truly sweet part added atop everything else. You get to go back. Not back to the glass doors of that underground library, but to a library at a university on the other side of the country, at Concordia University in Montreal where, for reasons once unimaginable, you enroll in the Irish Studies department and spend hours surrounded by young faces as eagerly immersed in ideas as you were, albeit some of those ideas being unimaginable when yours was the young eager face. 

You study different content now, part-time, working around work. (You’ve learned the world will give you conversation but doesn’t owe you a living.) But you’re as eager for knowing as you ever were. You’d bake a cake of it and eat it in a single sitting if you could, chocolate smeared across your face. After all these years, it still leaves you happy. Happiest. Home.  


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