The first film that I have managed to watch in its entirety since Halloween weekend was Julie and Julia, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. The following exchange between Julie and her husband caught my attention immediately:
– You know what I love about cooking?
– What’s that?
– I love that after a day when nothing is sure, and when I say “nothing” I mean nothing, you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.
I don’t know if this exchange appears in the original Julie/Julia Project blog and/or book that inspired the film, but it has stayed with me over these past few days.
The maintenance of an ordered and simplified library, of its space and resources, and the methods of so doing, have always been particular interests of mine as a librarian. In his essay ‘On Libraries'(the introduction to Libraries, Candida Hofer’s collection of photos of libraries across the world), Umberto Eco identifies the quintessential bad library as a place in which it is nigh impossible to find a book, because catalogues and space are almost endlessly divided and subdivided. I have over the past few years in my current job as Assistant Librarian gradually developed a year-round user education scheme whose main purpose is the training of students to find and assess resources of particular value to their studies, particularly to their dissertation research. This scheme grew out of my experience as a scholar and my interest as a librarian in encouraging library users to develop an enthusiasm for the research process. It is through the maintenance of an orderly and simplified space and the resources held therein (physical and electronic) that library users can the necessary skills to conduct their own research with confidence and, ideally, with enjoyment, and without panic.
Librarian by day, researcher by night; because I have continued to indulge my own research interest in addition to working and developing my skills as a librarian, I am in an excellent position to understand the needs of the researcher, the library user, because they are my needs too. I have published book chapters and book reviews; I have presented conference papers and have researched library practices overseas.
Librarian by day, researcher by night; while that was probably quite enough to keep me out of mischief, it was not all I was or all I did. At other times over the past years I have taken on volunteer work, for example as a steward at the 2010 Lambeth Palace Library exhibition Treasures of the Lambeth Palace Library. I have been a fencer, and over the years I became increasingly involved with the organisation of my former fencing club, writing for and ultimately editing the club newsletter, and acting as social secretary then as general secretary. I have been working towards becoming a chartered member of CILIP. I have continued to study medieval art, culture and literature. I have developed my web design skills and made plans to take formal courses therein so that I am better able to develop our web presence and resources in my library. I have learned more and more about the theory and practice of rare book librarianship, at work, through research and volunteer work, and on courses. I have started, and maintained, albeit infrequently, this blog.
Librarian by day, research by night: my work, research, volunteer experience and hobbies have complemented each other well, with research in one area often informing writing in another, or inspiring my choice of hobbies, but it has sometimes been difficult to maintain a balance between them. Even just typing this summary of recent years’ experiences and endeavours is exhausting. Librarian by day, researcher by night; but for now my two main vocations, and everything else, are on hold.
Since the end of October, it has become increasingly clear that I need to focus on taking the first steps of order and simplicity that Thomas Mann recommends in The Magic Mountain, as quoted in the title of this post. The subject to be mastered? Not any aspect of librarianship, not any area of research, not a new sport, not a committee position, but my life. It is normal at New Year to take stock of one’s life, to look at what has happened in the twelve months just past, if not further back. This year I began that process at the Celtic New Year, Samhain, instead of waiting until the Gregorian New Year just two days from now. It was at Halloween that everything stopped, and it marks the point from which I have to rebuild a life less frantic, more simplified and ordered, balancing my professional and research commitments and development with relaxation. I am learning how to properly define relaxation – it doesn’t always mean what I thought it did, and it’s not necessarily crashing out on the sofa in front of the television. As I said above, I love to help people develop an enthusiasm for the research process. Librarianship is a vocation; I have always tried to help people, professionally and personally, but now I am having to learn how to be more selfish, how to indulge and spoil myself sometimes, how to relax, how to change the way I think and respond to situations through various techniques. I also need to make sure that I spend more time with my family and true friends; I have learnt how to recognise who deserves attention and effort, and I am gradually doing what I can to make up to these people for the past few years of increasingly random and intermittent communication and meeting.
Like Julie Powell in Julia and Julia, I have found a sense of order and calm in the kitchen. Cooking has become one of my main distraction and relaxation techniques over the past two months. I made sweets and biscuits as Christmas presents, using my Grandma’s recipes. I cooked the Christmas turkey and several of the side dishes. I decorated the Christmas cakes. I made my Grandma’s 96th birthday cake in November and experimented with cupcake recipes for her care home’s Christmas Fayre. I made some slightly evil-looking sugar mice which have been particularly popular with my family. It’s been wonderful, and I can see that future research projects may be of a more practical bent – the medieval ten-bird Christmas roast would be an interesting, and delightfully messy, challenge.
I’ve put my research and writing to one side for now. It has taken me nearly four weeks to work my way through this blog entry; I’m writing it as much for myself as for anybody reading, to help me think my way through the present and the future. It’s heartening to read that people I greatly admire, like the poet John Keats, experienced periods where they had doubts, because it is easy to see that they overcame these periods. I recommend reading Suzie Grogan’s blog, No Wriggling out of writing, especially the entry about John Keats. As I did a final readthrough of this entry, determined to publish it before 2012, Bing Crosby’s ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’ played on the radio. The very title is another of the lessons that I’m needing to learn now.
This very rambling post can by summed up by my acknowledging that my challenge now and for 2012 is to make what has felt like the end of so many aspirations, hopes and projects into the beginning of a life that is calmer yet still productive, filled with family and friends, with productive work and fruitful research, and more cooking. And to keep life ordered and simple.