The Most Surreal Moment of my Life

2 Aug

I adore beaches. This is Eastsound Bay...

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.

Quintessential Orcas Island beach scene: sea weed and starfish and jagged rocks!

I wander around, admiring the lay-out, the picture windows, the local author’s section. “Will I ever be shelved there?” 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 on 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. Now I have found it, here, where I have never before been…and yet, somehow, I have.

Perhaps I’m not a tourist after all.

I'm the smallest one...probably not too long before writing my name on a certain library card...

(Those of you who know me may be wondering…no…I’m not on Orcas right now! I’ve tried several times in the past to write about this incident – which took place probably 15 years ago – but have never been satisfied with what I wrote. Today, writing it in the present tense, it finally came. I guess it took an epiphany…)


19 Responses to “The Most Surreal Moment of my Life”

  1. CMO August 2, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    This one is my favorite yet love.

  2. Jenny August 2, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    My favorite bumper sticker is “If It’s Tourist Season Why can’t I Shoot one?”. It kind of sums up the local feelings. We couldn’t make it without them though, specially the ones that move here and build houses, though they will not be considered locals for quite a few years!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 2, 2011 at 10:20 am #

      I haven’t seen that one! And yes, it’s a love-hate relationship, isn’t it? Do you remember this incident at the library?!

      • Jenny August 2, 2011 at 11:30 am #

        Can’t say as I do. But that’s not really a surprise is it!

  3. Gretchen O'Donnell August 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    Well, it was far less surreal…and thus memorable…for you, most likely!!

  4. Gretchen O'Donnell August 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    By the way, Jenny E. and I were giggling at the length of your dress. Uff da!

    • Jenny August 2, 2011 at 3:17 pm #

      I agree! Sure can’t do that now! I don’t look all that happy either! Were you about Lucy’s age there?

      • Gretchen O'Donnell August 2, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

        Probably even younger, actually. Though a friend who saw the picture said that she really thought I look like Lucy in this picture. I hadn’t seen that, minus the hair!

  5. Stacey Greely August 2, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    This post makes me think of the little library I frequented most often in my Grade-School days: the East End branch of the Superior Public Library. It was probably about 1/4 of the size of the main library uptown. Although I loved both buildings (the larger is a Carnegie building and on the NRHP list, I think), thoughts of the EE Branch give my heart a warm fuzzy. I can vividly remember where “Little Women” and “Little Men” were shelved, 30+ years later.

    The EE Library was on “Main Street” of the East End of Superior-along with the grocery store, the hardware store, the drug stores, the Ben Franklin five and dime, our bank-and just around the corner from the post office. To this day, when I think of East End I think of those paintings that depict an old-time downtown complete with rain-slicked streets. “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks….even stoplights blink a bright red and green….as the shoppers rush home with their treasures” plays around in my ear and heart’s memory.

    Belonging is a powerful feeling. What do you suppose it is/why do you suppose it is, that you didn’t feel you “belonged” there until you found your name in a book? The sweet library memories are yours, the experiences with the books you read (even the ones you don’t remember!) are yours, and in the future when libraries and even pages you can turn yourself instead of letting a computer do it (HORROR!) are a thing of the past, all the memories will still be yours. The experiences will still be yours. You belong because your memory and your experience say so.

    New or old, large or small, ink-printed or electronically-lasered: maybe one or the other isn’t better; they’re just different. Whatever they are, though, they are yours: part of your experience and memory. I must admit, though, that like you my attention is drawn to the cream-colored pockets with cards for signing books out, rather than barcodes. i fancy myself too much a purist to ever get one of those e-reader thingees (I need the feel of the page as I turn it, the smell of the paper), but if i did, I’m POSITIVE I would get a cream-colored pocket with an old-school check out card and tape it to the back of it.

    In preparation for moving this last time, I decided to catalog my 300-some library books. I decided to do this so that each time I move (dear God, when is it going to stop!) I can re-shelve my books with more sanity. I’m one of those people who knows where to find a book based on what other books it is sitting by, so such a system is needed. I have to admit, it gave me a bit of a thrill to put tiny little labels on the spine of each book. I ALMOST thought about going really crazy and giving them Dewey Decimal #s; thankfully my exhaustion said that was a little too far to go.

    Gretchen, here’s to someday seeing your books shelved in local libraries, or online bookstore categories, or wherever…and to some former young adult remembering how your books were a sweet part of their own experience and memory.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 3, 2011 at 10:47 am #

      The belonging idea: I think that whenever I go back to Orcas Island, I realize how much things have changed and that makes me feel like I don’t belong because to me, for example, the grocery store is still called “Templin’s” and is still downtown, as opposed to two blocks over and with a different name. I WANT to belong…yet those changes make me realize that I don’t, quite. It is still such a part of my heart/my identification with “home”…yet it isn’t “home” and that’s disorienting and saddening. If I could go back to “our” beach, then I think I’d feel truly “at home”…but it’s not “ours” anymore, and tresspassing is frowned upon. Just another reason to feel that things aren’t as they should be.

      I love your library remembrances! And your idea of gluing (pasting?!) a library card/pocket to the back of your future Kindle, or whatever e-book you might have! LOVE that! And, of course, I love your “cheers” as Lucy calls them…thanks for rooting for me!

  6. Nancy Cook August 2, 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    I love how you write, Gretchen!

  7. Tarisa Smith August 2, 2011 at 7:20 pm #

    I love this! I’ve never belonged anywhere long enough to really feel this depth of connection to a library, although libraries are always one of the first places I find when I move. And I’ve never been back anywhere to find my name inside a book. Though there are books I connect to places I’ve lived. I finished Little Women in San Francisco, shivered through the Telltale Heart in Redlands, CA, read East of Eden in Zaire, Jane Eyre in Sioux Falls, Anna Karenina on a rare rainy day in Arizona and Mists of Avalon during a foggy winter in St. Paul. At any rate, I hope and believe that libraries are a place that help us feel connected and I’m glad you found a piece of you in the new library.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 3, 2011 at 10:22 am #

      I love your connection of books to places…perhaps I need to blog on that thought! Our daughter Katie can’t listen to a certain CD without feeling frightened because the first time she heard it she was reading a scary book. (One which I wasn’t overly pleased that she was reading!)

  8. Danielle Porter August 9, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    Well Gretchen I had a few moments before going to work and I peeked in on your posts. I truly enjoyed this one! Thank you for sharing it with us. I think we all had a good childhood living on Orcas. 🙂

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 9, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

      Thanks for “stopping by”, Danielle! Yes, we did – it was a great place to grow up! I sometimes am sad for my kids that they’re missing out…

  9. Susan August 9, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    Well done as are all of your writings. I, too, hope your book will grace the shelves of the library some day–sooner than later.

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