Service in Quarantine

Last week, in a fit of oddly misplaced energy, I found myself making cheese tortellini by hand.

It was not an easy process. I have very little upper body strength – a definite drawback when making good pasta involves kneading the dough for an extended period of time, then rolling it out thin enough to be edible (I don’t have a pasta machine). By the time I started actually filling the little dough rounds (cut inaccurately with the edge of a drinking glass; maybe I should have thought through my lack of equipment beforehand) with cheese filling, I found myself sweating and starting to feel the ache of exertion in my muscles. Why did I do this? I wondered. Nobody had asked me to make tortellini, much less by hand.

The answer came later, when I had cooked the tortellini and served it to my roommates for dinner. It was probably the most enthusiastic response I’ve ever gotten from them about any meal, and I’ve been cooking regularly for the house for several months now. One roommate even told me that the first bite of pasta transported her back to a previous trip to Italy, where she and a friend had purchased pasta from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, then sat out in the sun to eat it. It was a wonderful compliment, and I’m still smiling about it now as I write this.

But, what does this have to do with library school?

In normal times, the answer would be virtually nothing. But, during the pandemic – can you believe it’s been over a year now? – the answer is everything.

Early on in my career, when I was still trying to decide whether to apply to library school, I spent some time exchanging emails with a special librarian who was a friend of a coworker. She asked me why I wanted to become a librarian.

Well, I wrote, I’ve always loved books.

Her reply was kind but to the point. I’m glad you’re interested in librarianship, but it’s really not about the books.

I understood what she meant after my first quarter in library school. The books – and other materials – are perhaps the least important parts of a library. It is the people. The people who visit the library, and the people who serve those visitors.

I know that librarianship is a service profession, but I didn’t really consider how integral that was to me until Washington went into quarantine. Though I am lucky enough to still be able to perform my graduate assistantship at the UW Libraries remotely during this time, I’ve been struggling with a sense of disconnect, of trying to find meaning in my work. It’s challenging to truly feel like I’m being of service when so much of my work involves staring at a screen all day, whether or not there are people on it.

I am even more fortunate, during this time, to be living with several roommates. In normal times, it may not matter; but since we spend nearly all of our time at home, they are my main source of socialization. If I didn’t have them – and, more importantly, get along with all six – I would probably never leave my room, eat proper meals, or change out of pajamas.

Well, I still don’t do that last one, but we can’t have everything.

This brings me back to the cooking. At first I did it to experiment with new recipes; but I’ve kept doing it because my roommates appreciate it, and because it makes me feel needed and useful. In the absence of feeling like I’m being of service to others in my job and in school, I’ve tried to find that fulfillment elsewhere: in the creation of increasingly elaborate meals and baked goods.

Sometimes, I feel a little bit guilty that I’m finding happiness outside of my chosen profession, but I also try to remind myself: it is not healthy to pin everything on your job, especially when that job involves service. Those of us who are drawn to service professions need to take care not to pour too much of ourselves into programming, so that we don’t end up exhausted and burnt out. It’s a wonderful feeling when a patron smiles and thanks you for putting on a great program, but the amount of personal fulfillment gained rarely matches up with the amount of effort and energy put in. I am someone who wants to excel at my job, but I also have to remember that I am only one human trying to serve many other humans, who may not always offer me the response I want.

So, I turn to cooking for others to sustain that feeling, and to help bolster my spirits when I’m feeling sad about my job. Maybe it is worth it to consider marrying the two together in the future (did you know food librarianship is actually a thing?), but for now, it is what keeps me going in these dark times.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels (sadly, I forgot to take a picture of my own tortellini)

1 reply

  1. Food Librarianship is a thing?!? I need to know more. I moved in with my dad shortly before lockdown and have taken a lot of the cooking responsibilities. I found I actually really love it and have been urged by several friends and neighbors to open a cafe (not really my thing…unless it’s also a bookstore). But if I could merge the two? I’m all for it. Btw, I’ve been considering making pasta by hand, we also don’t have a pasta machine. But I keep rethinking since making bread by hand was enough to show me I have no upper arm strength.


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