The Most Surreal Moment of my Life

My sister has brought me to see the new library. I am in the town where I grew up, Eastsound, Orcas Island, Washington. The old library, where I knew every nook and cranny, where I came for story time, for puppet shows, for the Library Fair, is closed; has become a real estate office, or insurance, or some other such place where the stories they weave are more fiction than fact but no one ever admits it.

We walk into the new building and it smells of paint and printing, and, inexplicably in this modern time, paste. (Perhaps that’s all just in my mind.) It holds the old books, housed on new, honey-colored shelves, but not the old feelings. Nor do I find the marble statue of David…complete with fig leaves. I never looked at that thing without blushing.

I wonder, is new always better than old? Is large always better than small? Well, in the case of books, more is better than less, this I must admit. But it feels, somehow, wrong. As if I don’t belong here. As if I am a tourist. I remember, suddenly, the bumper sticker, popular in this tourist town when I was a child, “I’m not a TOURIST, I live here.” I was never quite sure why a person would want to advertise this. Now I understand better. To live here is to belong. Sadly, I no longer do.

Eastsound bay...not too far from the new library.


I wander around, admiring the lay-out, the picture windows, the local author’s section. “Will I ever be shelved in that section?” I wonder, I long. I see the children’s section and am drawn to the books I love best. I see the bean-bag chairs, the colorful painted walls, the smiling stuffed Madelines, Pooh Bears, and chubby ducks, packaged together with their corresponding books, hanging from convenient racks.

I run my hand along a shelf, randomly grab a volume – with a title I do not recognize – and heft it in my hand. Clearly, this book was carted over from the former building. No brilliant illustration graces its linen cover, no plastic dust jacket is folded and taped with precise and crinkly splendor, to protect it from greasy fingers, little brothers. I open the book, compelled.

There, in affirmation of its age, is a cream-colored pocket, complete with card, proving its pre-computer derivation. I pull out the card, intrigued by this reminder of what libraries used to be: written proof of a person’s interests. It has not been checked out very often; only half a dozen names grace its lines. The most recent date is some 10 years previous, the oldest more like 20. I glance at the names, some penciled in childish printing, some in a mother’s neater cursive. Suddenly, my heart skips a beat as my eyes take in the second name on the list, just one certain scribbled name: Gretchen Wendt.

Here, I, on the road to independence, was allowed to sign my name, was allowed to leave my mark, the proof of my existence. Frozen in a moment of time that I have long since forgotten, this card holds a story. Here, where I have never been…and yet I have.

Me - probably not too far off from the time when I check out that book.

P.S. -
In case you’re wondering, no, I am not on the island right now – this incident happened some 15 years ago…but I’ve never before been able to write about it to my satisfaction. Today, writing in the present-tense, I could.

2 thoughts on “The Most Surreal Moment of my Life

  1. Wow, this is a powerful post. What were the odds that you would pull a book you had once checked out from the old library. This was meant to be.

    My hometown of Vesta never had a library (still doesn’t although they’re working on getting a Little Free Library), so I never experienced what you did. But, oh, how I love books, as much as you.

  2. It is amazing, isn’t it? I can’t even tell you what the title of the book was; I was so consumed with the book’s card that I didn’t notice! Such a sense of belonging…in this place where I had never been. I suppose that any place with books is a place I’d feel comfortable in! But this was especially blessed…

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