Early morning drop offs at the Boylston Street entrance I would wind my way left, through the expansive Adult Fiction section of comfortable chairs filled with happy, bedraggled often shoeless bums, not that they didn’t have any shoes, but they seemed at ease in their socks, curled up with a book or ten, probably one of the reasons I still have an unusual appreciation for homeless gypsies—they are often quite thoughtful and well-read…past the librarian’s “pick of the month”—usually some John or Abigail Adams historical thing and/or the latest from Dennis Lehane or Sue Miller, Boston’s own, of course… through the outdoor courtyard that always reminded me of the Hermitage Museum in Russia, the largest museum in the world, or maybe that was the Louvre, well, I was eleven when I visited it and it felt endless anyway… through the McKim building lobby, past the Map Room and up the grand staircase, with the frescos and the lions, (cousins of the ones outside the New York Public Library main building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue?) … through two more inviting thresholds, and finally, the wrought-iron gated Bates Hall Reading Room.
Incredibly high arched ceilings, a wall of windows with books below, long wooden tables from end to end, and little green desk lamps on every table. My own little ecstasy. I would spend entire days in this room. I would eventually discover little peep-hole windows looking out on Copley Square and the Trinity Church, I would commune with nearly every bust at one point or another, (Ben Franklin was my favorite), and I would pick up many unknown books and peruse them for interesting pictures or lines. I can’t quite remember any of what I ‘learned’ in this room, but I so remember the feeling it gave me, and the peace, and the sort of solidarity I felt with the others in the room. For whether they were homeless or scholars, they were similar to me—book people.
I began my 8th grade year not enrolled in any school and not exactly homeschooling either. I wasn’t lazy or a drop-out, I simply had parents with quite unorthodox views on education and formal schooling I guess. I was very busy. I was in the professional track at Boston Ballet School, I worked at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, mostly with a four-year old girl who was in a bad place after being hit by a car, I took Algebra I by mail from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and I had French and Sewing lessons on Friday mornings from one of my mom’s favorite Harvard students. (I remember learning a little French, getting to about the half-way mark on a pair of pajamas with cows on them, and eating lots of sesame noodles that I was too shy to confess were too spicy for me… but mostly I got some ideas on how to be ‘cool’ and smart—which Melissa was, and a concept which I’d had little exposure to before…) I remember that early on I decided that I was missing a ‘science’ component so I proposed a weekly article summary/analysis assignment. I used the Health/Science section of the Globe or the New England Journal of Medicine or something, ‘turned it in’ to my mom or dad, and they generally said ‘very good’.
The majority of my time though, was spent at either the Public Library or the Boston Ballet in the South End. I could walk between them and did so almost every day, crossing Copley Square and the diagonal plaza outside the Hancock Building, up Clarendon on the overpass of the Pike, and downhill by the sketchy bar that recently became DeLux, past Lasker’s Variety, past the frame shop where I would usually admire the Doisneau photos of Paris or the painting of the woman in the red dress and the tuxedoed man dancing in the rain, a maid extending an umbrella out over them, or the sort of shocking photograph of a girl in the foreground in her underwear and her boyfirend’s button-down, putting on lipstick in front of mirror but with her legs sort of open, her toes propped up on the vanity table, and in the background a shirtless boy in bed, similarly tousled, but completely transfixed by the bewitching woman in front of him…
I have the images in my head but I wonder now if I am describing them accurately. I wonder if the feeling I remember is actually the feeling I felt at the time or some amalgam of all the feelings I have felt in the interim, my own feelings about the feelings, and the inevitable romanticization of the past—especially, of youth. It is a very strange thing how much I like the feeling of remembering. For one thing I guess I am sort of struck by how vivid the memories are. I remember the rough feel of my black Army Navy pea coat against my wrists and I remember how hard it was to get those big buttons through the rigid and economically-cut holes. I remember my black courier-style bag and all the useless crap I used to keep in there…
I am often accused of having a ridiculous memory, it gets me or other people into trouble much more than it seems to be a good thing, and I often wonder why it is so good. I have engaged in plenty of supposed brain-cell killing activity, and yet it prevails. I think of the ‘chicken or the egg?’ scenario—asking myself which came first—the ability to remember so much or the pleasure I find in actively remembering. Maybe it is part of being born a book person—and, a writer. I wonder if my ability to imagine the description/poem/story of myself engaging in any experience almost as it is happening is somehow self-consciously creating a code or touchstone for my later self to access.
I always loved writing and my favorite way to start a story has always been with a picture, whether mental or actual. My most wonderful and pure writing experience took place in 5th grade after my class had spent a couple weeks reading books based in Japan and a day or two watching videos about Japanese life. We had written haikus in class and learned how to make some basic origami. I missed a couple days of school and to ‘make up the assignments’ my wonderful teacher Eloise allowed me to write a short story using a picture postcard showing a typical Japanese home. I created a boy main character and immediately felt myself enter into his life, into the picture, complete with relatives in nearby rooms, the smells of rice and seaweed cooking, and the quiet shuffling of feet. If I had a terrible accident now and woke up with some kind of amnesia I almost wonder if I could connect as much to that story I created of the boy—because the feelings felt so real to me as I wrote them, as to my own actual personal history.
As I have gotten a little older I notice my ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes has weakened a bit. Perhaps I have more clarity on my own perspective, it has sharpened and the edges are less round, and I am also a little more set in my ways. I don’t remember every detail quite as much, quite as vividly, and sometimes I worry I don’t feel as much as I used to. I know this is a common idea, it has echoed through many books I have read, and certainly many people see it as more of a blessing than a loss. I agree wholeheartedly that it would be tiresome to go through life with the rollercoaster-like emotional range and vulnerability I had at 15, and clearly one of the main reasons for all the excitement of youth was the series of ‘firsts’ … but I think it is sad when months and years blur together like gray-scale palettes devoid of memory-making moments or experiences. Anyway, I guess that is what I’m working on, continuing to work on, with this blog, with the relationships I have with people, with my acting, my writing, my photography … and so on.
Ahh, perhaps I should take a vivid mental picture of this most special place to me—and then I can come back here any time. At least, as a jumping off point.