Up a Tree With a Book: Figuring Out in My 50s What I Was Always Meant to Be

I've always known who I am. A bookish nerd who loves libraries, bookstores, museums, and travel. What I never knew about myself? What I was.

A One-Act Story in Four Scenes

I started publishing personal essays a couple of years ago and recently wondered: Why travel? Why was I always writing about my travels? While conjuring this piece, it dawned on me I'd discovered many links to my past while on the road--in museums through art and in libraries--that helped me finally figure out in my fifties what I was always meant to be. (Defining my life's calling has bedeviled me since I turned twenty, since I gave up being a pre-med my junior year at Vanderbilt.) The answer seems simple now, obvious even, looking back. How could I not have known?

Scene 1

On Boylston Street, outside the Lenox Hotel where we stayed on a recent visit, I looked up at the glassy, blue-green Hancock Building stabbing the Boston skyline above the Public Library and jumped up, slapped my husband a high-five.

"We're back, hun!" I said.

"Yepper...so, where we going? What'd you decide?" he said.

"The library?" I raised my eyebrows, clenched my teeth, my lips peeled back in an oh-please smile--the emoji face.


"You know, the BPL--the Boston Public Library--down the street."

Jim tilted his head, his eyebrows question marks. Like, "You wanna go to the library on a gorgeous Saturday?" Like, "Why?"

"Yeah, yeah, okay?" I said with my eyes.

He nodded, smiling.

The unspoken part of the conversation vibrated in the airspace between us like electrons, like ESP--extra sensory perception--the sexy-sounding business the enlightened got up to in the Seventies. We've been together so long, we can read each other's thoughts--although I'm pretty sure we don't have ESP. But hey? Maybe we do.

Scene 2

We held hands walking. The city, where we'd lived on and off for decades, feels elemental, our bedrock. Halfway down the block, we stopped. The yellow line painted on Boylston Street--the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I stared at the buildings, at the sidewalk across the street where all the people had stood, where the bombs exploded that wrecked so many lives at the 2013 Marathon.

Jim and I looked at each other. We couldn't say anything out loud about the Marathon bombing. Too painful.

This Back Bay neighborhood was the backdrop of my twenties. We'd gotten married in a church a couple blocks away on Commonwealth Avenue. I'd worked at a nearby publishing house and often walked by the Marathon's finish line to the BPL's modern entrance to check out a book because I spent my lunch hours reading there, or in the Public Garden with a paperback I'd bought at the old B. Dalton on Boylston Street, or at Bailey's having a grilled cheese and a lime rickey.

Scene 3

We turned and kept on walking down Boylston, around the corner to the original, Beaux-Arts entrance of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. I couldn't wait to get inside, to feel the light, to see the sights, the paintings, the people, thinking of the different rooms I wanted to visit.

Inside, we climbed the marble steps of the grand staircase, my tongue practically hanging out like our old dog Annie's, I was so happy. I rubbed the paw of one of the enormous, marble lions at the turn of the stairs. Tears sparked my eyes when I remembered bringing Isabel, our only child, here for a commemorative mother-daughter outing during her graduation weekend at Boston University.

At the top of the stairs, we entered Bates Hall--the grand reading room, where green opalescent lamps light rows and rows of desks full of folks working underneath the vaulted ceiling. We made a little tour, soaked in the scene, the vibe.

The shelves of books from the main collection, the people reading and studying affirmed my faith in mankind. I thought: This is the temple. This is life. Sitting at a desk reading, writing, studying. It's everything. The source of every happy thing. For me, anyway. Because I'm a nerd. Obviously.

I've loved libraries since our momma first took my brothers and me downtown to the Chattanooga Public Library on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus in the summer when we were kids. We'd slip through the Gothic-style, stone entrance of the Children's Room. Down the flight of stairs we'd go to escape summer's heat, to feel the cool air in that basement room--a Wonderland cavern, filled with magic words and make believe.

Back then, even when I was on the ball field playing softball with my team, or in our backyard tree house eating lunch, or in the field down the street building a fort with my brothers and the neighborhood kids, or at the East Ridge Community Pool swimming, or at Southland Roller Rink skating, I loved reading in the library best.

In the seventh grade I worked in the library at East Ridge Junior High--checking out books, repairing broken spines with webbed binding fabric and a pot of glue, unpacking boxes of new books, pasting due-date labels in the front of new arrivals.

Oh, yeah, I knew what I loved from a young age, but not what I was meant to be. Not in my twenties, nor thirties, nor forties.

Scene 4

Next, Jim and I wandered into the library's medieval-themed Abbey Room, a mysterious Gothic treasure chest, lined with dark wood paneling, decorated with a series of paintings of lords and ladies that depict the quest for the Holy Grail. I peeked out the window that overlooks the outdoor courtyard--a hidden garden inside the limestone nesting box of the library's walls. I looked back at the painting of the Holy Grail and felt like I'd found a four-leaf clover, like in a flash I'd found what I'd been looking for all my life: the knowledge of what I am...

Drawn by that hidden courtyard, I dragged Jim outside, where I had him snap a picture of me by the gurgling fountain and its statue of a dancing nymph holding a baby. I imagined I was the dancing nymph with my baby, Isabel, when we lived in Rockport, an hour north of Boston, a block from the ocean. I remembered how her playgroup met every week at Cape Hedge Beach in the summer. Oh, how we played at the beach, in the water, every chance we got. That was what I was then. A mom at thirty. But I didn't know what else I was. Not yet...

After Isabel was born, I'd fail on my foray into library school in Boston. Then I'd spend years freelancing book publicity, years scribbling a novel that lies in state in my desk drawer to this day--a first attempt, a first pancake--years scribbling a second novel--only recently published--two years writing essays on Medium, months blogging on travel on The Huffington Post. Until that day--that day last fall at the Boston Public Library when I finally knew for a fact what I was, what to call myself...

Energized, filled with memories of a life well-spent, I left the Boston Public Library with Jim that day at peace with my self, knowing that, indeed, I wasn't just a nerd--I was a nerd who, at fifty-five years old, finally knew what she was. A writer.

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To learn more about Lisa, visit LisaShanahanBooks.com

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