Finally, full-blown crocuses.
Pine cones, scales open, strewn about, at the last stage of their life cycle.
The sun, hot beams through the still-cold air.
We pulled around to the back of Phillipsburg Manor, a historical restoration in Sleepy Hollow with a mill pond and a still-working farm, and got out of the car to look over the fence. A dozen sheep grazed, several of them fatly pregnant, while one tiny white lamb hid behind the herd. The first of the new babies.
I was very familiar with this place, this scene. A library stands on the property, housed in a white clapboard, colonial-style home. It contains the archive where I researched The Women of the House, where I went to investigate the lives of one New York family, the Philipse clan, and its wonderfully headstrong matriarch, Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse. I remember that I would lift up my face from the heady dust of crumbling manuscript pages to take a break, and go to look out the window, where the early spring lambs bleated and raced around on their still clumsy legs, the white flags of their uncut tails flopping in the breeze.
It made a wonderful juxtaposition, the ancient and the new.
As a longtime nonfiction writer, and now historical fiction, I have spent, cumulatively, I think, whole years of my life in libraries, and I know that some of the best days in my life have been in libraries. I’ve not only dug in to books and manuscripts, taken thousands of pages of notes, and written many chapters, but even eaten and drank within different libraries’ hallowed halls.
I’ve also taken some great naps, with fantastic dreams.
Libraries are in my blood. Some of my favorites over the years: my hometown library, overlooking the Hudson River, which had a conservative collection but the perfect books I needed growing up, the Virginia Woolf and Lawrence Stern and Melville that made me the writer and person I am today.
Then there were the stacks at Columbia University’s Butler Library when I was an undergraduate– what a thrill it was to step through that heavy portal and prowl among the tiers of volumes with their sweetly musty aroma of aged book paper.
I have to mention the New York Public Library, where for 30 years I have made pilgrimmages to the Rose Reading Room, to the Manuscripts Collection and most recently to the Allen Room, which allows authors with book contracts the privacy and quiet to make progress on their projects. The NYPL – all that chunky Vermont marble and golden oak can’t help but inspire a writer.
But I digress. It is spring, still brisk, but time to think about spending afternoons outside, not inside even the most magical library’s walls. I know I’ve told this story of Gertrude Stein before but it bears repeating.
When Stein was an undergraduate at Radcliffe, in the 1890s, studying under psychologist William James — she was a young woman, conventional at least on the outside, not the close-cropped Amazon she would some day become — the day came to take the course’s final exam. Here is how she tells the story in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:
“It was a very lovely spring day, Gertrude Stein had been going to the opera every night and going also to the opera in the afternoon and had been otherwise engrossed and it was the period of the final examinations, and there was the examination in William James’ course. She sat down with the examination paper before her and she just could not. Dear Professor James, she wrote at the top of her paper. I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day, and left.
“The next day she had a postal card from William James saying, Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself. And underneath it he gave her work the highest mark in his course.”
It’s spring. Let’s cut school. Let’s cut work. Let’s get out there and smell the crocuses.