A Trek to the Suzzallo Library

Given that in my life, thus far, I have spent most of my free time that wasn’t spent scribbling in a notebook, either peering off over the horizon wondering about what things were like in far off distant places or with my nose deeply buried in a book trying hard to immerse myself in the world of someone else’s imagination, it will come as no surprise to you that most of the items on my bucket list either involve books I want to read, or places I want to visit. However, while I have had the pleasure of traveling to some of these far off destinations, and am steadily making my way through an ever-growing list of books I want to read, I am adding things to my bucket list at a much faster rate than I am completing them. Often times, this is simply because the realities of life are not required to positively correlate with one’s desires; meaning that finances, time, and other limited recourses don’t just become available because we desire them to do so. However, more often than not, the reason I am not checking things off my list is quite simply because despite being awesome at finding things I want to do or see, I am completely and hopelessly inept at making myself do them, or to be more specifically, just to start.

I can quite honestly always come up with at least 14 reasons why I should not do something that I really, really, want to do. Given enough time, I could probably alphabetize those reasons for you and make a power point presentation highlighting, demonstrating, and describing all of the ways that something could go wrong. The tragic irony of this is that at no point while doing so, will I ever think to ask why it is that I have the time and resources to invest in such a ridiculous endeavor as alphabetizing my phobic reasons for reticence but cannot possibly spare 15 minutes to actually spend on something I want do.

I am sure that there are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, and given the impetus I am sure I could figure out what each of them are. Perhaps at one point in my life I might have thought it important to know what they were. However, as I sit here typing these thoughts on a computer that I love dearly (and really, really wanted for a long time but still steadfastly argued with my husband why I really didn’t need it) it occurs to me that, in actual point in fact, it really doesn’t matter why. The plain and simple truth of the matter is that it simply has to stop.

I am quite certain to many of you (okay, both of you) reading this, that such a statement may seem exceedingly obvious to the point of being pedantically unnecessary. Nevertheless, for someone who spends as much time inside her head talking herself out of things as I do, the concept is truly revolutionary; simultaneously freeing, and frightening. Similarly, this rather obvious discovery was neither instantaneous nor quick learned. Like most, my “revolutionary discovery,” came from a lifetime of experiences, lessons, and of course a precipitating event (or two) that made everything else come into focus.

Over the last year a number of things have happened, any or all of which could be credited with the label of precipitating event: I turned 40 and did all of the seemingly mandated self-reflective inventories; my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer resulting in months of uncomfortable and rather debilitating chemotherapy; and a close friend’s true colors were revealed to be distinctly different from how I had perceived them up until then. However, while all of these things suggested to me that perhaps it was time to start living life a little more intentionally, it was in the library that I finally found what I was looking for.

It had been a long, and rather arduous summer. The details of how or why are really not important to note, just suffice it to say that, not only was I not taking care of things on my bucket list (I wasn’t even coming close), I wasn’t even scratching the surface of taking care of my basic needs. Recognizing the signs of burnout, not to mention an impending melt down of epic proportion, my husband stepped in and lovingly and perhaps even generously, evicted me from our home.

Of course when I say he evicted me, I do not literally mean that he kicked me out of the house, but rather that he “forced” me to go and take care of myself. The only requirements being that I had to leave home, do something that I enjoyed, and then come home when I was ready. In return he would watch all four of our children and be waiting to hear about my adventure when I returned home.

Obviously, serious travel was neither logistically nor financially possible. But certainly, I could afford the time and fare to get away for a single day. So where can a girl go: alone, cheaply, safely, without having to drive, and still be able to be back home in time for bed? My first thoughts were of hopping a train to Portland and spending a day in Powell’s Books. However, since this met only 2 (alone and safe) of the 5 requirements it was quickly jettisoned, and in true form I tried to get out of the whole trip, siting reasons that fell just short of the biblical plagues. My husband wasn’t having any of it. I was going to have to go and do something I liked…. whether I wanted to or not.

So back I went to the drawing board. Being around huge numbers of books has always made me feel at ease, I don’t know why, but always has, even when I was very small. So it seemed that when one is falling apart, and in need of a restorative outing, heading out to a large repository of books seemed to be the clear answer, but one that would not result in huge amounts of funds being spent. All of a sudden the answer finally became clear to me: go to a library.

For weeks I had been trying to plan a family trip to the Suzzallo Library in Seattle, a library so beautiful and with architecture so stunning, that Pacific Builder and Engineer pronounced it in 1927 article to be “the most beautiful on the continent” and “ranked among the most beautiful in the world.” Why not head over to the city and spend the day at the Suzzallo?

With the destination chosen, the planning began, slowly, to take on a momentum of its own, and I began to feel a relief I hadn’t known in far too long a time. I felt like I was going home. Of course the moment I realized this, I tried to cancel the trip, pointing out that I was after all feeling better and therefore no longer needed to go. Seeing this here in words, I now understand why my husband laughed, but at the time it was quite a mystery to me.

And so it was, that on one of the last days of summer vacation, armed with nothing more than a pen and a notebook, a novel to read, and a cheese role to eat, I hopped on a ferry and headed into Seattle.

I would like to say that I slid onto the boat, and right into the ease of my anticipated outing, but actual fact I found the lack of things needing my attention a little overwhelming. I had no noses or tails to count, no emergency trips to the bathroom to anticipate or attend to, no gaggle of competing voices all vying for attention like starving baby birds in a nest. So I pulled out my journal and began to scribble, and gradually started to unwind.

An hour into my trip, as I was just starting to feel the benefits of the time alone, my old companion guilt decided to take umbrage with the extravagance of such a selfish endeavor as to TAKE a whole day away from the rest of the family. However, before guilt could be allowed to blister my ears or darken my mood, I began to distract myself with my phone and discovered that it was Dorothy Parker’s birthday which got me thinking about another solo outing I had taken, nearly 20 years prior, in New York City.

I had just broken up with my boyfriend, and in a burst of uncharacteristic spontaneity, I bought a ticket to New York to visit a friend and get away and see new things. Unfortunately, my friend was unable to get any time off work, so I was faced with the task of filling my days with solo outings. Much to my great surprise this was not the arduous task it normally is for me – probably because I had already take the first step of buying the ticket and actually leaving home. On the particular day in question, I had made one my first intentional book treks, I ventured to the Algonquin Hotel to have lunch with one my literary idols: Mrs. Parker. Not literally of course, but as close as one can with a woman who died in 1967. The fabled round table was gone, and I was much too shy to ask if it was possible to view her old rooms, but sitting in that beautiful old dining room filled with its heavy dark wood furniture, I soaked in as much as I possibly could. I had peeked timidly into the formal dining room, which was not open for lunch, squeaked out a barely audible question about the round table, and then stealthily headed over to eat in the less formal dining area.

After a lunch of soup and wine (which were in about equal proportions I am afraid) I had ventured to the New York City Public Library. It had been amazing. I highly recommend going to see it (and not just the lions outside). It looks and smells amazing. It is like walking into a photograph from a bygone era. Seriously, if you ever walk into the reading room and just look around at the room, when you finally look at the people they will look out of place because they will not be dressed for the era the walls around them suggest you are standing in.

Still thinking about New York, I arrived in Seattle and began my metropolitan travels across town towards the University of Washington by hopping on a bus. As I rode through the city, I began to recognize other places I had been and how they connected together. I began to talk to myself less and look out the window more. It was nice to not be doing anything. Just wandering.

A few blocks from campus, I got off the bus and strolled through the University District. There is something unique about college towns, they are more international, older, and have more cafés per square foot than I imagine are even present in Paris. It reminded me of my undergraduate years at Cal. I realized then how much I really missed school. Not the homework and exams, which I was thankful to be finished with, but rather the constant feeling of being surrounded by learning and books and brilliant discoveries.

A feeling that was amplified as I strolled past Meany Hall and found myself in the wide open area that is Red Square, the Suzzallo Library looming on the other side of it, all gothic spires and sandstone. A flock of pigeons were the only thing missing to make it look like an old world European Cathedral, complete with what appear to be figures of saints adorning the exterior. (Later I would learn that these were not saints in fact, but scholars from all different disciplines of study such as Galileo, Homer and Beethoven.)

Suzzallo Library as viewed from Red Square.
Suzzallo Library as viewed from Red Square.

Not quite ready to enter, I sat in Red Square scoping out the Library, eating the cheese roll I had brought from home, and fighting the urge to leave without going inside. Finally, curiosity and desire beat out nerves and reticence and I entered the library. Upon entering the library, one is immediately struck by how seamlessly the building manages to feel entirely modern and entirely timeless, simultaneously. I gathered all of the pertinent materials available at the Front Desk that I could grab with my hot little hands and prepared to begin my tour. But before embarking, the kindly older gentleman behind the desk asked if I was there to do research or to study. A common enough question in a university library to be sure, but for me it was like a huge welcome sign, a way of saying you look like someone who belongs here, not a tourist.

I was so moved, that I had to restrain myself from hugging the man in gratitude. Instead, I sheepishly mumbled an explanation about being on a first outing without children in 10 years and generally acting like someone who may or may not be on a weekend pass from the psych ward. To the gentleman’s credit, this in no way diminished his friendly or helpful demeanor

Bearings straight, I began as most women do upon arrival at a distant location, with a visit to the loo. Every bit a testament to their 1920’s construction, from the slightly lower than modern sinks, to now too expensive to even consider placing in a public lavatory, marble accents on the walls.

Base of the Grand Staircase
Base of the Grand Staircase.
View of the Grand Staircase from the top looking down.
View of the Grand Staircase from the top looking down.

Nervously, I mounted the aptly named Grand Staircase and began to climb to the top. Upon rounding the curve halfway, I was greeted the familiar smell of a college library. The odor of paper and unseen dust as distinct as it was familiar. I felt at home again.

At the top of the stairs I was met with the limestone floors and vaulted ceiling of the Grand Stair Hall. To the left stood the 1963 addition to the Suzzallo library looking very much like the stacks and study areas of every other modern university, complete with the requisite sterile overhead lights, modular metal shelving units and books bound in bizarre colors ranging from avocado green to burnt umber, (with every horrible shade of orange and red known to man in-between). And with over 2 million volumes, a roam through those shelves was definitely going to be worthwhile.

View of the stacks in the Suzzallo Library.

To the right however, within the Grand Stair Hall, and just before the entrance to, the reading room (the jewel in the Library’s crown) was the Bhutan Book, one of the largest books in the world, and easily the largest one I have ever seen personally. After paying my respects, I finally entered into the Suzzallo Reading Room.

The Big Book of Bhutan
The Big Book of Bhutan

To say that this room is magnificent is an understatement. It is like an old gothic cathedral, missing the religious overtones. The lead glass, the spired ceiling, the aged oak bookshelves, and row after row of long study tables each with a mounted table top light running the length of it, made the room feel both grand and yet cozy.

Suzzallo Library Reading Room.
Suzzallo Library Reading Room.

I strolled down the aisle, my eyes scanning every detail of the room, until I found the right spot from which to make my perch. There I sat, reading and writing for the next 3 hours as the many fragments of my soul seemed to gently weave themselves back together.

A terrible picture of the beautiful stained glass windows.
A terrible picture of the beautiful stained glass windows.
A great place to perch.
A great place to perch.

Eventually, I decided to pack up my things and traipse around the rest of the library. As I was doing so, I noticed the graffiti on the underside of the lampshade. Like the smell of the library itself, college graffiti is as common as it is unique. Young men and women professing feelings for one another, angered students alleging lurid details of a TA or professor’s personal lives, but the one that really caught my eye and stood out as unique among the rest was “It looks like Hogwarts in here.”

Lamp Graffiti
Lamp Graffiti

Now there is a library I would love to tour, I thought to myself as I headed off into the stacks and then back to my life at home.


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