Destination Clearwater: Alone in Public

"Alone" doesn't mean "lonely" especially at the library.

My paddleboard's loaded on the car, and underneath my sundress I'm wearing a daffodil yellow bikini, but I can't seem to make myself get up from my roost on the third floor of the library.

The bay is a sheet of smoked glass, cut only by boats and the occasional bird, and I want to get out there, I do. But I'm perched at the edge of the library's reference area, in a soft chair with sturdy wood arms, and the solitude among the stacks fills me with tiny zings of pleasure.

Growing up, I volunteered here. Oh, not this library – a much smaller one in the same spot. It had three floors but the third couldn't or didn't hold many books, if memory serves. I learned the Dewey Decimal system like other kids learned to bait a hook or throw a ball. I could shelve books, use the card catalog, and figure out the microfilm machine like a pro. Of course, I could help patrons, too, but that really wasn't what I loved about the library. What I loved then – and now – was the feeling of seclusion in a public place. I loved losing myself in the shelves, finding a book whose spine caught my eye, and sitting down right there, on the floor, and diving headfirst into my own quiet world.

Today I hear people talking (libraries aren't as quiet as they used to be) but I can type away, overlooking the water, left alone in my own little world, lost in the wilderness of ink and parchment.

Enchanted. To me, libraries are. The smell of the glue in an old book, that unique odor of must mixed with decay and wisdom, seduces me. The heavyweight plastic library bindings, lined up like soldiers of knowledge on every shelf, entreats me to pry one open and force it to give up what it knows. The public quarantine of sorts, imposed by forced silence, makes the experience religious, a church of literacy.

As much as I feel giddily alone here, I'm having a public experience ingrained in our group counsciousness. Millions before me craved the same juxtaposition of crowded isolation. Alexandria held research rooms and a zoo of sorts; the Library of Congress holds, well, everything. At the other end of the county, the tiny St. Pete Beach library, a fraction of the size of this library's first floor, became the champion of libraries everywhere a few years ago when the commission wanted to cut the hours to save money. Big or small, libraries remain a pillar of society. We have a love affair with them, and for good reason: they promise us deliverance from ignorance.

I suppose that's why I love it here, too, but there's something more for me. Yes, there's a cafe, computers, more books than I could ever hope to read, and free wifi. There's a breathtaking waterview, a gorgeous park, and so many personal happy memories here, but that isn't quite it, either.

It's the singularity of the moment, I realize as I look out at the boats and bay. This is not unlike the way I feel on my board of in my kayak: alone in the Universe, yet not alone at all.

No better feeling exists.


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