In 2008 I quit an all-consuming sales position in Missoula and tried to move with my husband to Lake Pend Oreille in the slim Idaho panhandle, where we hoped to rededicate ourselves to our writing. Mother nature had other plans for us, blanketing the Inland Northwest with record-breaking snowfall and rendering our little cabin in the woods inaccessible. We detoured to Spokane, my hometown, a city I’d mostly avoided since leaving for college in Seattle—having suffered a public shaming at 17 that lives within me still—and we waited out a month of poor weather at my parent’s house.
For me, this pause in our plans was purgatorial. I couldn’t calm down. I kept looking over my shoulder as if I were being hunted. Eventually, after recurring dizzy spells, stabbing pains in my chest, an EKG, and an agoraphobia that made getting to a doctor feel like a suicide mission, I wound up diagnosed with panic and anxiety disorder. I’d been hyperventilating so hard I’d torn muscles in my chest. The doctor prescribed Xanax, which succeeded in pausing my panic only by inducing slumber. Once I woke up, I was gripped anew.
Still unable to get to the lake, my husband Sam and I flew to Michigan to visit his mom and brother. The first morning, in a car with my husband and mom-in-law, I began to squirm, the panic digging its sharp bony fingers into my chest. I balled up in the backseat, riddled with discomfort, trying to fight it, and finally, overcome, I burst into tears. Sam’s mom pulled the car over, got out, and wrapped me in a hug. I trembled and cried. With a hand on my back, Sam explained that I was struggling with anxiety; we weren’t entirely sure why, but likely it had to do with all of the transition, and with returning to a place I’d once felt hated by so many others, most of all hated by myself. Embarrassed, I stammered apologies. His mom had just lost her husband to a cruel disease, and here I was, sobbing, quaking, over what seemed like nothing. They didn’t shame me for it. They held me up with love. We returned to her home, I took a Xanax, grew relaxed and then limp under its spell, and napped.
When I awoke, it was dark. The panic was there, but distantly, snuffling like a restless animal in the shadows. I had enough space to move away from it and remember myself. I went downstairs to take up a task I had always enjoyed while visiting Michigan: reorganizing my mom-in-law’s library. Touching the books brought me a deep sense of peace: Simply being near tomes of stories and words quieted my own. It reminded me that my story was small, just one narrative in a many-leafed, ever-expanding library of narratives, and this smallness comforted me greatly.
This has always been with me, this feeling I have toward books, that I can sense their communicative power merely by standing in a room filled with them, that I can be warmed this way as if by a fire. It’s a realm I’ve always wanted to be a part of as a storyteller, and as a reader. But how remarkable to experience such comfort in their nearness alone, without even cracking open the pages. When I’m in a public library or a local bookstore, I can hear all of the books singing together, and it’s a balm for me, a firm paperweight over a fluttering heart, even as the voices carry heartache and war and cruelty and pain. They carry it all. They carry stories I disagree with, narratives I dislike. They carry poetry and transformation. They carry my favorite characters, and they carry strangers I’ll never know. There is a flood of words within them, tiny dark marks like starling murmurations unfolding on page after page, some of them in languages I can’t understand, but how gorgeous they all are in their infinite diversity. I think about all I read but I think, too, about all I haven’t read, will never have time to read or understand, because this, too, is like life: limited, focused, modest. I’m more interested in what I’ll never know than what I think, mistakenly, I do.
I had a revelation in that little library in that quiet grieving house in Michigan that what I wanted to do with my life revolved around books. I decided then and there that I would never accept another job unless I worked with books directly. I remembered fondly when I worked for the University Book Store on the Ave in Seattle. I started looking at the employment pages of Northwest libraries. In all of this fear and doubt, I rediscovered my priorities.
We returned to Spokane. The snow melted in March, and we were able, finally, to make it to the cabin in the woods. I began to write for the first time in three years; I submitted my short stories slowly and painstakingly. For months the panic continued, but it had less and less power over me. When I succumbed to it, I lay down and let it electrocute me, and I thrashed on the bed while my husband sat at my side, his hand on my arm, waiting it out with me. I stopped fighting it. This, it turned out, was the key, to simply surrender to my fear. August came and we returned, to my surprise, to Spokane. The town I swore I’d never again inhabit—kingdom of my life’s many mistakes and agonies—now became our home.
I remembered my promise to myself. I worked at Auntie’s Bookstore first, one of the most beautiful independent bookstores in the country, and then as an Information Specialist for the Spokane County Library District. In both places I loved helping people, sometimes with book requests and sometimes with requests completely unrelated to literature, but my favorite moments were when I was alone, shelving, maybe, or weeding the collection, surrounded by the many-hued kaleidoscope of spines, becalmed by the harmony of all of these stories around me, so many experiences, so many perspectives. And what I felt in those moments was peace, wonder. It is a version of worship where one book is not lauded as truer than all of the rest but where the very innumerability of stories can change us.
I’m working now for a new independent children’s bookstore in Spokane’s Perry District, Wishing Tree Books. Spokane is a town of readers, and I hope they keep supporting their local literary landscape. We have two incredible library systems here, Spokane Public and the Spokane County Library District (where I worked for so many years), and beloved used bookstores like 2nd Look Books and Giant Nerd, and Atticus and Boo Radley’s with their great book collections, and of course Auntie’s, the gem of our downtown. These places serve to combat close-mindedness, and I hope our citizens visit them all in droves.
And what a delight it is to be an indie bookseller again, especially at Wishing Tree Books, a lifelong dream realized by owner Janelle Myers Smith. The purple house, renovated and filled wall-to-wall with books, sits squarely in Spokane’s walkable Perry District, and customer after customer enters to tell us how excited they are by the bookstore’s arrival. One of my co-workers is another local writer, Stephanie Oakes, who is just about to turn the latest draft of her third novel in to her agent. It’s an all-women staff, booklovers to the extreme, and we’re elated with Janelle’s curation.
Most of the time, assisting customers, I keep it under wraps that I’m a writer. My goal with reader’s advisory is to match people with what they want to read, not with what I want them to read. But every now and again it comes up, or someone recognizes me, and I feel amusingly awkward and self-conscious. With The Cassandra, I’m almost apologetic to people when I explain it, warning them of its darkness, even though I know in my very-ferocious writer’s heart (the tiniest, flintiest, and most determined heart in my nesting doll of hearts) that all of it was intentional, necessary, when writing a novel about our regional history of militancy, abuse of power, and atomic war.
Winning the PNBA Award, then, is a joy for me, to know The Cassandra in all of its darkness and commentary—principally about power and the silencing of those without it—is appreciated by booksellers who no doubt tend their store’s shelves with a similar sense of awe and worship to what I feel, this sense of gratitude for the ever-expanding catalog of stories that divide us and knit us back together. Nothing can replace a brick and mortar bookstore. I hope these roomfuls of books will continue to fill up with diverse voices, so that the chorus becomes richer, the songs more complex, and the understanding of our lives—furtive, gripping, loaded with potential, like the object of a book, itself—sonorously deepens.
The plaque for the 2020 PNBA Book Award for The Cassandra will be awarded to Sharma Shields at an event at Wishing Tree Books on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 6:00 and will celebrate with fellow 2020 Award winner Aaron Bobrow-Strain and 2017 PNBA Book Award winner Alexis S. Smith at Auntie’s Books on Saturday, March 28, 2020 at 7:00 pm.