It was a month spent mostly lying on my back on the floor. If I were to make up a story of discovery (or re-discovery; I haven’t figured out which this is yet), I would most certainly come up with a more romantic or elegant series of events probably involving some grand or deified figure leading my awakening. No. This is just about me, all alone on the floor in someone’s library. When I finally did get up and return to the real world of uprightness I had been transformed for the better.
Okay, I might be fudging a bit. The married couple whose house I was staying in for that summer surely had a hand in this transformation if only indirectly; it was their library with their particular collection of books that inspired me to revisit my intellectual and emotional self, long abandoned while I experimented and struggled with teenage conformist attitudes and behaviors. While I should respect their privacy I also want to share my feelings for them, so here follows a piecemeal introduction to them.
She is a very important friend to me and at certain times in my life, my most trusted confidante. I’m not sure of her age, but I’m pretty sure there is a 38-45 year age difference between us. She always insisted, in fact still insists to this day, that I have the soul of a teacher and wonders when I will grow up and accept that. Although she had at that time only known me as her student for a couple of months, she trusted me enough to babysit her daughter (my same age) for a couple of weeks, so that she wouldn’t be lonely or frightened in this rather large house. Her trusting me flattered me then and amazes me today. I still do not understand what made her see any potential in what was a very rough and tumble me back then and how we came to be such kindred spirits and close friends. I have very fond memories of the one thing that we enjoyed doing together above all else; making a pitcher of gin and tonic and listening to a symphony or two while lounging around in that library.
Her husband, while not as friendly to me, is an amazing man and responsible for stocking that library that so inspired me. He spent most of his life as a teacher and administrator but when I knew him he served as a specialist in desegregation, traveling constantly to work as a consultant with school boards and to serve as an expert witness in discrimination trials relating to school policy and districting. He is a Quaker and was a Conscientious Objector during World War II.
They took extended vacations during the summers, usually some type of Edu-tourism travel planned by Oberlin College for its alumni. I became caretaker of their home while they were away. I still don’t know exactly why, but I would get this awful back pain when I stayed in their house and it could be quite debilitating. I was convinced that it was caused by drinking the softened water, and I might have been right. In any case, the only way to feel relief from this awful back pain was to lay flat on my back on the floor.
The summer of the first house-sitting coincided with what was to me the end of MTV as anything I could stomach. I was quite addicted to the original format of somewhat mediocre videos but of music that I loved. During this summer, the transformation of MTV to more of a commercial format, (I remember Madonna, Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper) made it unwatchable to me. I had already begun to listen to symphonic and opera records in the library, but now I immersed myself in all the music from her collection in the library which included much jazz from the 50s and many of the original bossa nova recordings. This was the beginning of me completely losing interest in pop/commercial music and it still seems to be holding true today.
I was barely working at the time so I had many hours of day to fill listening to music. After a week or so of listening to so much music, it really started to tax my brain. While listening, I started looking at the big beautiful books about art that seemed to cover every available surface in the room. I remember books by the recognizable, well-know-to-me artists and also enjoyed learning about men unknown to me at the time, Romare Bearden, Paul Klee, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, etc. (I was less than a year later to meet Rauschenberg sitting at an adjacent table in a Captiva Island restaurant and had a brief chat with him about fishing). There was only so much I could absorb from these art books, though as I didn’t have a strong enough interest to read the full text of them.
Also while listening to music, I would scan the titles from the spines of the library’s books. I hadn’t read anything other than assigned school work since I was thirteen (although I had been a voracious reader as a child) so I was not immediately drawn in. I started to read some Civil Rights era non-fiction titles that caught my eye and enjoyed learning about that period that was barely spoken of in high school. I discovered travel books relating to the many trips my friends had taken over the years so I learned about many European and Asian capitals and felt a never-before felt desire to want to see these places for myself. I probably learned more facts in that one month spent on the floor than I had in three years of high school.
The strongest impression I have of that month on the floor was the beginnings of my love for literary fiction. I believe Rabbit Redux was the first book I attempted (although I stopped midway after I realized it was the second in the series and started Rabbit Run). I breezed through the many paperbacks on the shelf probably at a pace of 3-4 books a weeks, I couldn’t get enough. This voracious reading would continue almost uninterrupted for the next ten years, I believe to the detriment of my musical training as I would often choose to curl up with a book rather than practice my instrument.