How I became a Compositionista
There is a room in my home that is full of books. Three pine shelves line one wall, filled from top to bottom with fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, bibles, dictionaries, textbooks, almanacs. Two more shelves, punctuated by tall, old fashioned windows, line another wall. Then there is a couch, pushed up against patio doors that once opened out to a deck until my husband finally dismantled it two summers ago, pulling the rotting wood planks apart and stacking them beside the red maple tree. Against the last wall sits a piano and next to that is our computer; we gather here when skyping into my family’s birthday parties in New York City. My husband picks out the notes to “Happy Birthday” and my kids sing along while I turn my desktop monitor this way and that in an effort to show my mother all five of us at once.
We refer to this book-filled room as the Library, but I think of it as the Estrogenarium, a response to my husband Michael’s attic “mancave”. With its burgundy curtains, communist pop art, and the Barbie collection on display here, this is, unequivocally, my space.
There is a thread of energy winding through that vast landscape of the mind, connecting my library to my childhood livingroom in our old apartment on Hoffman Street in the Bronx. This was a space my father filled with books – plays, encyclopedias, magazines, science fiction, bibles. livingroom space was my father’s library, a space inspired by his own father, a man who translated Milton’s Paradise Lost into Spanish as a literacy exercise. My Abuelo loved books, but Abuela did not want her home overrun by them, so Abuelo commandeered my father’s bedroom, turning it into a library. My father learned to cherish Abuelo’s books; they were, he explained to me later, his toy soldiers.
In order to create his livingroom Library on Hoffman Street, My father picked books out of the garbage, borrowed them from the Library, and even sometimes bought them. These books became our teachers, initiating us into human culture.
When I wanted to learn ballet, my father opened one of our many books and showed me an illustrated section on dance. There were pictures of girls with bows in their blonde ringlets standing in spectacular halls. Beneath them were captions describing their various ballet poses. I can remember standing in the livingroom, imitating the girls and tracing my fingers over the captions. One day, I knew, I would tell what the letters beneath those pictures meant. Other illustrated sections dealt with the Solar System, the periodic table, and the animal kingdom.
Studying those sections over and over, I finally began to decode them. I wanted to understand the other treasures in my father’s book collection. Gradually, I discovered a book of verse, the “Just So” stories of Rudyard Kipling, and the Mayan creation myth of Popol vuh.