Wordsanctuary Revisited

Musings of a writer-teacher-counselor.

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Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

I am inquisitive and have worked in writing, editing, and teaching. I am a citizen of the USA and also concerned about the world. This is an addendum to my original blog, Wordsanctuary. That's at www.wordsanctuary.blogspot.com Please check out my column at www.insidehighered.com, "A Kinder Campus." Click on Career Advice to find it. Thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Farewell to the William Telling Mansion as Library?

I pulled out some “Forever” stamps today, remembering how little in life lasts forever -- or even as long as we would like. Stimulated by a recent Facebook post by a friend, I began thinking again of the future fate of the William Telling mansion, the once-and-current … but not-forever home … of the South Euclid-Lyndhurst library, one branch within our impressive Cuyahoga County Public Library system.

“Just a building,” you might be thinking. “So, Maria, with all the books you own, what do you need a library for, anyway?”

Well, I did not always own many books. As a little girl, the child of immigrants with few material goods but who possessed the strategic thinking to live walking distance from a library, my wealth was access to library books. One of my earliest and joyous memories was cracking the code of reading. And my self expression was, from very early years, writing. At the solid oak tables of my childhood library, I read and wrote. That was the Coventry library on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and I’m pleased that it is still there as a library. (Not without twists and turns I remember quite well.) It is a jewel within the Cleveland Heights-University Heights library system. In fact, improving access to public libraries is the reason that our county system was born in Ohio, I also learned today.

My elementary school (since demolished and replaced with another facility) was across the street from the library; stops there after school were convenient. Books were in a structure that respectfully housed them--and, more than that, celebrated them. And a certain decorum was expected in the library…a hush that I barely sense even in houses of worship any more. And I learned at a young age that it is ok to quiet one’s mind and mouth to prepare for a journey within. Today's kids--and adults, too--might be noisier; expectations for libraries to double as community centers prevail. That's all right for part of a library's mission, but the ability to reflect is important. Just as audience behavior for a ballgame is not that of an orchestra concert, e-books and videos are not all there is to literacy. Even if people "demand" that now. The whole picture is important, andability to handle a book with respect and curiosity should not become an arcane art for fewer and fewer people.

For me, the fate of libraries, academic or otherwise, is somehow tied to books. Yes, even in this e- era. We had best be cautious about devaluing them and always trading in new for old.

My childhood library was a far-finer place than I could ever hope to live in – just as the William Telling mansion I knew is beyond my reach but in memory now. In recent years, the collection seemed to be dwindling...I did not frequent it often. Yes, entering even as a stranger one can feel wonder (as did my concerned friend from Lakewood upon learning of the building's unknown fate).

Reading several times in my life -- and almost memorizing -- the story of William Telling, an entrepreneur whose dream home construction began in 1928 and whose immense professional success was derailed by circumstances of the Great Depression, I am always saddened. Yet I felt connected to his aesthetic sense and aspirations. I strive to foster in my students creativity; he was an innovator knocked down (like some of my own ancestors) by history. Yet, his building remained.

The library now (with some brave protests) symbolizes to me planning decisions over which I feel absolutely no control despite my deep sense of connection with -- even reverence for -- the site. Who really cares whether I'm disappointed at another Cleveland landmark abandoned, demolished, or replaced? I should be used to that by now.

If you have not been there: The William Edward Telling Mansion (French Chateau, pitched roof, leaded windows, stone and brick, cone-shaped towers, marble floors, arches, abundant designs of birds and flowers inside, carving-laden fireplaces, tiled fountain on sun porch) drew its share of patrons despite parking challenges.

I described it as best I could to my sister out of state: "It sounds like a healing spot," she said.

Yes, magical -- and the art of reading can lift us up like a building's arches, I think.

Thanks to a Cleveland Memory Project resource, I learned that March 4, 2013 will mark 90 years since the county public library board first met. Those of us who might take venerable institutions for granted should reflect on historical origins. How an organizational mission plays out is often up to interpretation. As citizens, we might keep our eyes and ears open before such huge decisions are made.

We are stewards of land and property. A green building is a noble venture. So is creatively revamping a building that already stands. An update of the William Edward Telling mansion would have been a great addition to any architect's portfolio. The venerable building's "flaws" -- like its remarkable traits -- could have provided a springboard for innovation.

Literacy means personal power. I was not the only little girl that had few books at home but whose mind and heart and imagination extended in an elegant library within walking distance. Perhaps Telling meant so much to me because it reminds me of the extraordinary public library almost in my backyard growing up.

Some kids might lack books because computers reign supreme. But no matter what side of the digital divide one is on, books and libraries matter. New patrons, at whatever library, will form their own memories -- just as parishioners at whatever house of worship or students at whatever school will adapt. Yes, we all  move on -- regardless of the wonder of certain rare places in our heart. My own indelible memories of the library at this site linger:
  • Before buying a home in South Euclid where we have lived for many years, my husband and I rented within the city. The grace of the library was a draw for both decisions.
  • One of my college students, seeking me out for reference help off campus, said: “I’ve driven by this building so many times but never stopped here. This is great…I’m going to bring my children here
  • My mother, now deceased, pointed out that from my home in South Euclid, we could cover the one-plus miles to get there on foot, a cherished destination. We relished the fountain inside, the high ceilings, the windows shedding light.
  • My senior citizen memoir students had some special writing sessions there … able to reflect on their past juxtaposed with a trip to the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Historical Society.
  • One staffer was my point of contact when my child was very ill; skillful searching led to books ordered from other branches to promptly arrive. That reassurance helped me have hope. Personal attention meant a lot.
  • When I created my first community workshop, Poets Place, in Telling Mansion, the seeds had been planted right there one decade before (and the site was once farm land). The first community writing workshop I ever participated in, shyly and very young, was under the tutelage of a former library employee. I learned from him to show hospitality to bewildered, aspiring writers. 
Kindness is caught not taught -- and so is appreciation of community treasures. The magic of our structures does count. Perhaps William Telling himself, a man of dreams, would agree that life is change, and we must be prepared to let go. Setbacks near the end of his career were vast. What he ultimately and inadvertently created was a place of inspiration for others. A steady, stately building symbolizes more than great architecture. It  is a haven for personal discovery. The aquarium. Well-planned children's rooms, on the scale of a child. Periodicals beautifully housed. An aviary. Mystical symbols stretching back into time...

We are in an online era. Libraries cull collections for computers that will soon be obsolete. Books are green, and one can serve many. Printing of articles at homes creates a mess I have not yet learned how to battle; print magazines were a pretty good invention after all. But technology gets smaller and smaller in size even while increasing itself in range. Soon we may wonder what to do with our empty bookshelves from abandoned bookstores and blank spaces in our minds.

The South Euclid-Lyndhurst library will be in a new, to-be-built location. I am aware that the library lacked an elevator and needed accommodations. While in a multi-year recovery from an auto accident that affected my neck and shoulders, I still went to the Telling Mansion and used library computers for some typing as I was on the don't-have-it side of the digital divide at that time.

My son and I went to several libraries as he grew up; yet Telling Mansion/South Euclid-Lyndhurst library was our special place. Perhaps my best memory is when he sat in on a memoir workshop. It was a privilege to facilitate that group and to listen to elders sharing their stories in a beautiful room.

This past summer, the day a Plain Dealer article ran, I decided to say goodbye to the facility. I saw two friends from a neighboring suburb in the parking lot, coincidentally, with their grade school son skipping at their side.

“We loved coming to this library,” they said sadly. “But soon it will be gone.”


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