Both Sides Now

There’s a song I love by Joni Mitchell called “Both Sides Now.”  It’s a melancholy tune about how you see things differently as you gain life experience.  Clouds go from being “ice cream castles in the air” to things that “block the sun” and “rain and snow on everyone.”

She goes on in the same vein about love and life.  To me, it’s always been about the loss of innocence inherent in growing up.

But recently, the song popped into my head for a happier reason.

As longtime readers of this blog know, one of my favorite places to read and write is the Oakland Carnegie Library.  It’s the centerpiece of the sprawling Pittsburgh Carnegie Library system, and a true gift to those of us fortunate enough to live in and around the Steel City.

It’s got all kinds of nooks and crannies in the stacks perfect for reading and writing.  It’s also got a collection of books (as well as films and periodicals) that would make any bibliophile’s mouth water.

But there’s a side of the library I hadn’t seen in a long time.  For one of the most interesting things about the library is that it’s connected to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  The stacks and museum share a wall, and I’ve spent many days sitting in the window looking down on a giant dinosaur skeleton.

Recently, I decided to visit the museum, something I don’t remember doing since I was a child.  I enjoyed the exhibits, but I stopped in my tracks when I walked into the dinosaur room.  It wasn’t the dinosaur models that caught my attention—impressive as they were—but the view of the library windows.

So many times I’ve looked out of those windows.

Now suddenly, I was looking in.

It was a strange moment, like finding myself living inside a painting I’d looked at many times.  The dinosaurs looked smaller, somehow, and the library bigger.

And that’s when the Joni Mitchell song popped unbidden into my head. 

The moment felt strangely profound, a true-if-obvious metaphor for our different perspectives.  There wasn’t all that much space between the people in the library, and my spot on the ground in the museum, but they felt worlds apart.

Then two little kids—brothers, I had to assume—started fighting over some toy they’d got in the gift shop, and their mother shouted down their shouting.

The moment was gone, and I was wholly back in the museum.

I’ve seen the library and the museum—both sides now.

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