As we were driving home from church yesterday, my son and I were talking about Epiphany – in the religious sense – and epiphanies –in the James Joyce sense of “sudden and momentary showing forth or disclosure of one’s authentic inner self”. I told him my favorite epiphany story – the story of how I realized that I had to be a librarian. I was in the fall semester of my last undergraduate year at the Catholic University of America, and one evening – I remember very clearly that it was a Tuesday around 5 pm – I walked into the university library stacks, breathed in and thought, “I love the smell of books”.
Now, my memories of the next few minutes may be a little skewed, but I am pretty sure the ceiling opened up and a bright light shone and angelic voices sang. Or maybe that’s just how it felt. Because in that moment, I knew, without the slightest doubt, that I had to be a children’s librarian. I knew that, in my soul, I already was.
The reason I remember that this happened on a Tuesday night around 5 pm is that I had my children’s literature class that evening, and I remember arriving early and pelting the professor, Kristi Beavin (head of the children’s department at Arlington County Library), with questions about library school. I was so excited that I called just about everyone I knew that night, and stayed up all night researching library schools on my slow dial-up internet connection.
As much as that moment felt like a sudden revelation, it was really more about making a connection. All the clues had been there before. I loved children’s literature, and I had already started preparing graduate school applications for an MA in English, figuring that I would become a professor in that field. I had adored libraries since I was a child. Books were my best friends. (My mom, in fact, had had a middle-of-the-night epiphany a few years before, at the time when I was an unhappy musical theater major, that I should switch to English, a major I had never even considered before despite the fact that I loved books and writing and I had been editor of the literary magazine in high school.) I was already taking a children’s literature course in the education department and had been hearing about children’s services in libraries all semester. When I had presented the story “Mr. Fox” during class, the professor had written on my grading sheet: “You have a future as a storyteller, if you want one.” (Note to teachers: Don’t think your students don’t listen to you. Look how I make a living now.)
So, all in all, when I look back at that moment, I think: what the hell was wrong with me? Why didn’t I see it until that moment? It was that moment of pure physical presence among the books (and, as my friend Marie Flanigan would say, perhaps being addled by the smell of book mold) that did it.
So after telling my son that story, I started thinking: what about becoming a writer? Was there an epiphany about that? And the answer is: nope. But I have always been writing, from the time that I wrote (bad) poems for extra credit using my spelling words in middle school. (Maybe one day I will dig some up and post them here…if I am ever in the mood for complete humiliation.) Whether it was fanciful stories or fanfiction or articles or attempts at real stories, writing was how I always felt most comfortable expressing myself.
So I guess at some point I had a quieter epiphany, a gentler, less startling “disclosure of my authentic inner self” – not that I wanted to be a writer, but that I already was.