I tightened my makeshift bonnet, hitched my silk crepe skirt a little higher and picked my
way through the powder snow in my anachronistic vegan suede boots. The dress would cover them anyway and even though the winter sun was bright for February, the crisp air reminded me that Rexburg’s winters are brisk. I stopped ten feet from the paddock fence, still on the public easement. The ponies, a good twelve yards away, didn’t acknowledge me, thank goodness. I really didn’t want to explain to their 21st century owner why her horses were being agitated by a visitor snapping photos and romping through the snow in Regency-wear.
I really was too old to be frolicking in dress up clothes, but the local library’s book club
activities had coaxed me out of ambivalence and into costume. I suppose I was easy to rope in, having moved to Idaho in the middle of the pandemic. I had immediately isolated myself and my young children to avoid contracting and spreading COVID to our vulnerable family members. This left me friendless, disconnected from a community I barely knew, and feeling purposeless and adrift. When a Madison Library District employee offered me a Jane Austen activity kit as she handed me a grocery sack of picture books at the library’s curbside pickup, I enthusiastically accepted.
At home, I eagerly pulled each item out of the poly plastic bag. A paperback, Jane
Austen’s Persuasion, was the main event, but it had been packaged with other thoughtfully
chosen items: Biscoff cookies, mint herbal tea, a deck of cards and instructions for whist. I
examined each element, delighted at the library's whimsy and magnanimity.
Colored half-sheet leaflets detailed that month’s activities. This Persuasion business was
no mere book club. It was clearly meant to immerse its participants in 19th century England,with a literary criticism lecture, quadrille dance instruction and what was this? A photo scavenger hunt. What a beguiling idea! A little competition with the flavor of Austen was an enticing bright spot in my dull, lonely snow season.
I was not going to do this halfway. With the help of a cream-colored empire-waist
gown--a bargain at twelve dollars from the thrift shop--two cropped jackets and a few
well-placed straight pins in my favorite sun hat, I cobbled together something that I hoped
resembled ladies’ clothing circa 1820.
Wearing it was simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking. I was a half step away
from feeling transported two centuries back in time, but also very, very nervous about appearing in public to take photos. I relish a good cosplay, but didn’t want the distinction of being the only one in costume everywhere I went. Weird looks from strangers was not an item on the scavenger hunt list.
“Here goes,” I thought, as I gathered the drapes of silk around my legs and nestled into the driver's side of my Toyota van, my mother/photographer gamely waiting in the passenger seat. I was a driving contradiction, displaying a 19th century look while encased in the hull of a modern motorized vehicle.
My mother graciously snapped pictures of me on location at over a half dozen locations
in Idaho Falls and Rexburg. I tried to mask my timidity and embarrassment with wide smiles that I hope communicated, “It is totally normal to dress like this!” My favorite photo from the
experience is a shot of me, bonnet-bedecked head down and basket handle tucked over my arm, walking through drifts of white in front of the tall windows of the Rexburg tabernacle. This building could absolutely pass as a mansion on an English estate if you know nothing about architecture. I liked the picture because the scavenger hunt was my formal introduction to the lovely historical structure and the photo also appeared to me the most believable. This dampened the voice in my head that told me I was a complete dolt for undertaking this challenge in character.
That little voice swelled as I approached the library circulation desk to submit my entry on the day of the deadline. I had bound the printed photos together in handmade unbleached cotton paper and blanket-stitched the spine. I was sure that that level of effort and my costume communicated that I lacked both friends and meaningful hobbies and pursuits. Incidentally, both of those were true.
Yet, as I penned my information on the entry form, I noticed I was not the only one
submitting a photo book for the contest. I snuck a glance at the gentleman next to me. “I’m
dropping this off for my wife,” he informed the librarian at the computer behind the plexiglass. Interested, I peered sideways at the tiny spiral bound book he held in his hand, and to my joy, spotted on the cover a picture of a woman who, because of the way she was dressed, could have been a double for any of Jane’s literary characters.
Hallelujah! I jubilantly smiled to myself, suddenly hopeful. Had I been the only person cavorting around eastern Idaho in clothes that belonged at Kellynch Hall, I would have been a freak. But if there were two of us in this town, it meant that I was not quite the oddity that I felt to be, that there was someone--and probably lots of someones--in this little town that also loved books and quirky adventures, and that possibly one or more of these people would eventually befriend me.
Madison Library District has become a fixture in our family as my kids and I figuratively tear through Rick Riordan novels, literally clamor over the soft-structure logs in the toddler zone, sing along at story time, and check out so many DVDs that one inevitably falls underneath the couch and ends up costing us $7 in overdue fees. The kids cheer when a library trip is announced, scrap over who gets to insert the books in the automated book return and add so many books to our check out pile that the only person who can carry them all is their (very muscular, thank you) mother. We are so grateful for this neighborhood resource that has influence well beyond the size and boundaries of its brick walls. It is inclusive, engaging, and if you take thirty seconds to set up Library Elf due date reminders, utterly free.
Some people love the library because the books it houses are vehicles of knowledge, escape and entertainment. While I find that to be true, to focus solely on the books oversimplifies the role of the library to the Netflix of print media. Every time I step into MLD, I recall the first gifts it gave me and the reason I keep coming back: it catalyzed a connection to the places around me, it serves as a reminder to nurture my creativity, and offers the promise of fellowship and friends.