Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Garret Days

I've spent the last two days settling in at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, where I'll spend the next six weeks teaching a course in chapter book writing in their graduate program in children's literature. I came to Hollins in 2005 as the program's writer-in-residence, a two-week commitment that involved giving a talk, meeting with almost all of the creative writing students, and generally immersing myself in this wonderfully stimulating community. The campus is idyllic; I was housed in the darling Barbee Cottage; I walked in the evenings past trees festooned with fireflies. As I left, another guest lecturer was arriving, and I told her, "You are entering the portals of paradise."

This year, however, paradise is looking a little different from what I expected. I'm not housed this time in a sweet little cottage on campus, but in a unit in the graduate student apartments across a highway. When I first saw the apartment, I almost cried. Well, maybe I actually cried. Linoleum floors. Cracked ceiling light fixture in the kitchen. No overhead lights anywhere else except the bathroom and hall. One sad lamp in the living room, on the other side of the room from the non-comfy couch. One sad lamp in the bedroom, on the other side of the room from the hard little bed. A bare, scarred table on which to eat. No pictures, no curtains (there are blinds), rugs, no welcoming "touches" at all. And I have to live here for the next six weeks.

I tried to remember how much I loved Sara Crewe's bleak, bare attic in A Little Princess, where she's sent by cruel Miss Minchin after Sara's father dies, taking his fortune in diamond mines with him. I tried to remember how many times I've seen La Boheme and yearned for my own garret in Paris. But neither of those had Linoleum floors!

I was in despair until my friend Lisa, a veteran of the program, living in the apartment across the way from mine, showed me how pleasant her little digs had become. I learned that those who teach here year after year keep heaps of apartment-brightening materials in the many large plastic bins they store throughout the rest of the year in a Hollins facility and haul other needed items with them in their cars. But I came by plane with only carry-on luggage, and I'm not sure I'll be teaching here again, so don't want to invest too much in furnishings.

Undaunted, Lisa set to work beautifying my place. Step one: move the TV, which I never watch, into a closet, freeing a table that could be moved next to the couch, so I'd have a light for reading. She somehow found some other little table I had overlooked that could be positioned next to my bed, so I could read there, too. She turned my couch at a more appealing angle. She suggested moving one of my two empty bureaus from the bedroom closet into the living room to function as a sort of sideboard. She took me to the Hollins storage facility that contains all kinds of abandoned things: there I scored a small area rug, another lamp, a fake plant. A trip to the Dollar Store produced a cheery tablecloth, some flowered place mats to cover other unappealing surfaces, and a puffy "armchair" pillow. She noticed that I could use my extra blanket as a throw for the couch. And she showed me the bargain bunches of flowers Kroger was selling for 99 cents.

My little garret is quite sweet now. I'm writing this by the glow of my new lamp, with a vase (drinking glass) of flowers set before me. (Oh, she suggested candles, too, another excellent idea.) I can now read in bed, read on the couch, type on my pretty table.

So I did get my long dreamed-of garret, after all, in Roanoke rather than Paris, and with flooring that isn't what I would have chosen. But it's all going to be all right, thanks to Lisa, who served as my magician, just as the Indian Gentleman did for Sara Crewe in the book. Now all I have to do is write something worthy of it while I'm here.

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