The Green Library window

June 20, 2024, 1:01 p.m.

You might not realize that you know what a Peter Brugel painting looks like, but you’ve seen one. Even better, it doesn’t take an art practice major to create one, or an art history major to identify one. You don’t even need to go to the Cantor Art Museum to find one. Take any window — you can try it right now — look outside, and mentally freeze the image. With that, you’ve created a modern-day Bruegel masterpiece. The beauty of these paintings is not solely that you can recreate them in your head centuries after Bruegel’s life; it is that they depict real life in a completely unadulterated way. In Bruegel’s paintings, just as in real life, there is no chance to stop and fix something you don’t like, nor can you ask for a redo. There is beauty in the imperfection; a fact that can become very hard to remember living in a time period where photo editing and unlimited takes are mandatory — harder still while living in a time and place infected by hustle culture.

After arriving on Stanford campus, Green Library quickly became a second home. A couple of weeks into my first quarter, I stumbled upon my soon-to-be favorite spot: an old armchair nestled into a nook on the second floor. With a wall on one side and a window out to the area of Coupa Cafe on the other, the spot is perfect for focusing. Or, it’s perfect for realizing that you can create Bruegel paintings by looking out any window. Pick your poison.

The exterior of Green Library, shot from Coupa Cafe.
Looking up from the lively, bustling atmosphere of Coupa Cafe, you can see the quiet inside of Green Library. (Photo: JACK BERNARDO / The Stanford Daily)

The armchair provides me the perfect perch to work — and to watch other people work. People-watching was a good distraction from not only my work but also the nagging thoughts which quickly began plaguing my mind:

“Does this word sound weird here?”

“Was this assignment actually due last night?”

“Am I reading the prompt wrong?”

And, sooner rather than later, those thoughts spiraled into bigger questions:

“Am I choosing the right major?”

“Should I be taking more classes?”

“Do I really deserve to be here?” 

By the time I discovered my antidote to these questions — the do-it-yourself Bruegels — it was Stanford’s alumni weekend. The weather was picture-perfect, and the festive mood was only helped by the Stanford colors adorning anything that had space for decoration. Staring out the window toward Coupa, the glass was a canvas painted with people. In one corner table, a group of alumni drinking coffee and laughing together; nearer to the grass, a mom playing with a small child and an even smaller dog; someone in a “Class of 2027” shirt leading around two older adults in Stanford merch. And, looking at all of these people, my mind started to weave their stories.

The Green Library window
The Stanford Libraries collectively contain more than 12 million items. (Photo: JACK BERNARDO / The Stanford Daily)

The group of people sharing coffee and laughter didn’t look like they had a worry in the world. Yet, given their Stanford nametags, they had, at some point, sat in a seat very similar to mine. Despite the fact that I am currently studying at Stanford and they had long since graduated, it hit me that even now I could see similarities between us. Watching them, I saw my laughter with friends while sharing soft-serve at Stern or late-night fries at Lag. Laughter like what they were experiencing almost never comes from conversations about work — they were talking about life, whether it be their present or their past. 

The mother and child playing with the dog provided an interesting mirror-image to the family I saw being led around by a fellow Class of 2027 frosh. On the one hand, the mother’s smile on the grass, arms outstretched, displayed hope and happiness. Her priority that minute was simply the child in front of her and witnessing his present joy. Meanwhile, the family members or parents following around the friends carried a similar smile — yet, their smiles displayed thankfulness more than it did hope. Thankfulness, yes, partially because their child goes to Stanford, but also, because their child is happy. Gratitude because their child learned their new home so well that now, they’re being taught about the campus by a person who moved here only a few weeks ago. In both cases, the window provided me the ability to see something that’s less clear when you’re part of the picture — the smiles and the joy and the hope of others and the gratitude for the moment that is, rather than that which will be. 

People-watching and contemplation are interesting activities, but even better distractions. Even writing this article, I am keenly aware that the reader might look at the examples above, concede they’re beautiful observations on humanity, but decide that they have work to do and forget about them. After all, we cannot advance through life unless we take care of today’s tasks, whether those be assignments in order to pass a class, working a job in order to pay tuition, or something else entirely. And, for all the care I put into painting mental Bruegels for myself and others, I agree: You cannot get through life without work, and inevitably, work will bring some amount of stress. It is how you prioritize your work and choices, and more importantly, how you respond to the consequences of both, that differentiates between simple work, or even passion-driven work, and hustle culture. 

The reason that the armchair in Green has become my favorite spot in the library is not that it has cured me from overworking, or that it has prevented me from stressing about the future while working on assignments that only make up 10% of my grade. It’s also not because it’s the most productive spot in the library, or because I get all my work done there. 

The reason I love that armchair is because, unlike the desks which it faces in Green, it has no blinders to prevent distraction. It has no safeguards against letting you see people, what they’re doing, or your surroundings. The chair, albeit unknowingly, provides the perfect spot to work, while being reminded that your work is not everything. Sitting in this armchair, you do not have to retreat into the stacks and read in order to learn something; simply looking out the window will teach you about yourself and how you view life. In providing you paintings of real people in real time, the chair provides you a museum of evidence for why overthinking or over-stressing about small decisions or small actions won’t be useful in the long-run. Even if the window doesn’t help or comfort you personally, I hope you at least look down and enjoy the view; after all, you might be part of someone’s next mentally-created masterpiece. 

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