My first visit to New York was at a pivotal time in my life. I was all of fifteen years old, and like most teens, desperate to be a cultured adult. I had just decided I wanted to be a writer and had committed to a serious daily writing practice. Heavy stuff for someone still in braces. I got drunk on words and the worlds they allowed me to build, worlds that took me far, far away from the study in human misery that was high school. So when the opportunity arose to visit my brother in New York--and miss school to do it--I was bursting with excitement to taste what to me was the artistic and literary life of The Adult Writer. I will always love the city for what it was and what it continues to be for me: a distilled memory of a young woman first finding her words, her stories, and her roar.
One of the most influential stops that trip was to the New York Public Libary, which in the mind of a budding writer, was like a bibliophile's haven in the midst of a world full of chaos and uncertainty (hey, I was a teen and so allowed to be a touch melodramatic). I fell in love with the various reading rooms and the romance of so many shelves dedicated to so many books. A small figurine of a Literary Lion, like the ones flanking either side of the library's main entrance, accompanied me home and became a fixture on my writing desk, a symbol of the literary life I would devote myself to...
...and then came graduate school. It felt like no small cosmic coincidence that I lost my lion figurine within the first quarter of my advanced studies. I've since learned that those library lions are named Patience and Fortitude, which somehow seems the perfect metaphor for the unfolding nightmare that was grad school. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad I have my doctorate degree, yet I also found that I wasn't the traditional academic scholar I had once dreamed of being (it was, in retrospect, a mere detour in my development as a creative writer). Never had I felt so silenced. Never had I struggled so hard to keep my natural exuberance alive. Never had I struggled more to keep my free spirit independent from the hive mind.
By the time I finished my dissertation, that enthusiasm for the written word had dwindled to a small half-dead spark. Then came those purgatory-like years in which I identified as a Recovering Academic, thirsting for a time when I unabashedly loved big books and knew who I was as a writer. It took some time--years--to painstakingly relearn the joys of storytelling and even longer to find my Writer's Roar again. This blog, in fact, started out as a daily exercise in reclaiming that wild woman writer with a lust for life buried under bureaucratic dust. Patience and Fortitude, indeed.
All by way of saying, I found myself taking a similar sojourn to this city fifteen years after my first life-changing experience there to celebrate the return of My Writer's Roar. The dwindling spark I nourished for so long had suddenly burst into an unquenchable internal fire. I had done it. The realization hit me at my writing desk one morning after tending my blog. I was literally living The Writer's Life teen-me dreamt of for so long. I was a teacher, a writer, a healthy yogini with a home (okay apartment) of her own. And I was one with my stories again.
It seemed only fitting to return to this literary mecca after recently finding that I had, in fact, found my words again. I must pay homage to the city that fueled me as a young writer. And so began my pilgrimage to the place that marked the beginning of my writing life.
One of the beauties of traveling is being open to the synchronous moments where you stumble upon the exact thing you didn't know you needed. Like those magical instants in our daily lives that push us in the right direction, an impulsive decision to get off the New York subway blocks earlier than you intend can lead you to marvelous places. Such was how I found the Argosy Bookstore, New York's oldest indie bookstore and my first (unexpected) stop on my day-long feast of books.
Here I was wandering the streets of Manhattan in search of a good cup of coffee on my way to the Morgan Library when all at once I was in front of this magical store. It was like walking into the inside of a story or some literary alchemist's den where only the most potent tales were spun. Old and rare books lined the shelves, stacks of antique prints teased the eye, and, my personal favorite, rare books and first editions on the occult promised otherworldly insights on the turn-of-the-century "new sciences" like astrology and clairvoyance. I drooled over rare prints and first editions of fairy tales, novels I'd grown up reading, and older than sin Shakespeare folios. What more could a woman ask for?
The books were alive here. Breathing living things made up of leather stretched across book board and handstitched pages smattered with inky words. Needless to say, I could have spent a whole day there. There was splurging. There was a rekindled love of old books and the rich vanilla-like smell of stories that have had time to marinate on their shelves. And there was also that fantastic cup of coffee I was looking for from a food cart on the corner of Park and 59th, thanks to the recommendation of the bookstore's employees. The day was off to a good start.
My next stop was the Morgan Library, a must for any bibliophile. Once the home of famous financier and avid collector Pierpont Morgan, this museum, according to the website, houses "illuminated, literary, and historical manuscripts, early printed books, and old master drawings and prints." What does this mean in layman's terms? Only the first edition of Jane Austen's Emma, in the original three separate volumes; or the remains of the earliest known tarot card set, circa 1450; or a 15-year old Mozart's attempts at a symphony; not to mention preserved hand-written letters of Samuel Johnson to his publisher and Victorian-era musings on magical flying machines (hello airplanes!) and early discussions of what we now know to be computer coding. But perhaps the most breathtaking piece on display was a first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which he wrote, designed, published, and marketed himself. Now there was a free-spirited writer if there ever was one.
This is to say nothing of Morgan's fabulous library where you feel you could while away an afternoon reading selections from this marvelous collection or spend an evening in thoughtful conversation with the man who so passionately hoarded these treasures. And even if all those manuscripts aren't enough to stir up writing inspiration, then there's always a Hemingway three-martini lunch (featuring three 2 oz martinis) to top off your visit. Writer's fuel never tasted so good.
My final stop that day (but by no means my last literary adventure in the city) was the New York Public Library, naturally, and just a few short block away from the Morgan. I wanted to see how good 'ol Patience and Fortitude were doing. It had been a long time, but they were just as majestic as I remembered them. I spent some time wandering the library, through the various reading rooms and up and down the wide, imposing staircases, remember how big it all seemed to me at fifteen. Okay, how big it still seems to me.
Like your favorite novel, you never get over your first time reading it. Each successive rereading is enriched and informed by that initial experience. This is the only way I can seem to describe what it was like to revisit this literary landmark. Walking through those halls I was fifteen again, awed by my first exposure to the bigger world--bigger possibilities--outside my own small teen life, and I was also thirty-one, seeing the library through the eyes of a woman with a little more seasoning under her belt. I'd done things. Gone through stuff. Made mistakes and made things right. Had adventures and even written some of them down. Experienced the plot twists that make life--and stories--and people--interesting.
Best of all, walking these halls, sitting in these reading rooms, and reclaiming those literary lions (I just had to get a magnet of them for my fridge!), I realized I always had it: that spark. The internal joy of living and reading and writing deeply had never left me. Not really. All I had to do was reclaim my Roar. Own it. Because there is no room in this world for anyone who thinks they can silence you. There is no room in your stories to submit to being silenced. I owe this lesson to Patience and Fortitude. As with many of my travels, I went a long way away to find that I what I needed was right in the palm of my hands.
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