Sunday, May 30, 2010

Small Girl, Great Wall

I grew up in a small town in Ohio. Not even a town, technically, as the population density, or lack thereof, classifies it as a village. Even other Ohioans are rarely aware of Greenwich Village, and when asked to further clarify its location, and my origin, I often jokingly claim that I was raised in the middle of a cornfield. Greenwich (pronounced "green witch" -- we're a phonetic people) had the advantage of being one of the safest places on earth for a child to be raised, and I'd often play barefoot in the soft, uncut grass of my backyard or even in my neighbors' backyards. In the purpley-grey dusk of evening, my best friend and I would coast through town on our bikes, sometimes playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek throughout the village. It didn't really matter where I roamed; as Greenwich was too small for any sense of anonymity, everyone knew either me or my parents.

Nonetheless, there were disadvantages to living in such a small town. I felt certain limitations without fully being able to understand or express them. My dreams of becoming an author or an artist, and my accompanying individualistic attitude, marked me as a shy eccentric. When Disney's Beauty and the Beast was released, I could relate closely to Belle, who dreamily lamented, "There must be more than this provincial life," while her neighbors, not unkindly, sung, "It's a pity and a sin / that she doesn't quite fit in."

Books were my escape. There was the library, which though now moved to its own separate building, was once located in a single, corridor-like room on the second floor of the firehouse. I would visit the library/firehouse and pile books pecariously on the handlebars of my pink 10-speed bike to transport them back to my house. My favorite books included an enormous tome of Tennyson's collected works. It had a dark, satiny, mustard-coloured cover, gilt edging, and original engravings from the 1880s, when the book was published. I also liked to tote back what few travel books our library proffered, which were fortunately kept a bit more up-to-date than the poetry section. After making it home, I would spread these out, with my geography book from school, along the honey-coloured wooden floorboards of my bedroom and read bits of everything. Too greedy for information of a bigger world, I'd sometimes try to absorb them all at once -- soothing, rhythmic sections of The Lady of Shallot, snippets from travel guides, photos from my geography book . . . especially photos from my geography book, poring over scenes of the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, wishing that I could see such places in person but never considering it an actual possibility.

When I was in China, I visited the Great Wall, not once, but twice, hiking along different sections both at Mutianyu, a restored Ming dynasty area only an hour outside of Beijing, and at Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall snakes into the Bohai Sea. While I was there, I felt something expand inside me: a sense of achievement, of somehow entering the geography books myself. That's a lot of what this blog is about for me -- a celebration of the fact that one day, I only dreamed of seeing the world, and now it's really happening.


  1. Melanie, as one of those librarians (albeit a more recent librarian in the separate building) I am so proud to find you out doing, living and seeing all the things that you read about for so long. Your mom dropped off a copy of "Female Nomad and Friends" for our collection. Loved your story and love your adventures! Keep them coming! Chris Mills

  2. Thanks, Chris! I just noticed this comment. Libraries have played a big influence in my life, especially in allowing me to see a bigger picture than my immediate surroundings. As a librarian, you have the ability to inspire people, so keep up the good work. Thanks for reading my blog. :)