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Starting Point

The Sacred Closet


At Santa Monica’s Grade School in San Francisco, the basement level contained three things that fascinated me.

The cafeteria held a particular alluring mystery for one who brought a sack lunch from home everyday, as I did. Steam rose daily from giant pots. I got to the point where my nose could discern when the main course of the day was to be my favorite: macaroni and cheese.

The corner of the room marked by staggered music stands seemed to vibrate even when the school band wasn’t there practicing. I never did get a chance to play my clarinet in that space before we moved.

But the most favored area for me was the supply room. It was a closet really, with a pull string light switch dangling from the ceiling. A divided door created a counter when the upper part was open and the bottom part closed. Students could purchase pencils and such there, but the primary purpose was a repository of supplies for the teachers. Binder paper, composition books, chalk, scissors, construction paper, glue -- all the accoutrement teachers used before computers. Even peacock blue cartridges for my fountain pen could be had.

Once in awhile, especially in the first grade, I’d get to accompany Sister So-and-So to the supply room to help fetch more delicious stuff for the day’s work.

This is the most important part. She’d open the door to heaven and a smell of new, clean paper and pencils and ink would wash over me like a wave of Christmas. I pined for every single eraser and notepad I did not personally possess. Had I my 7-year-old druthers, I’d have had the entire contents of the sacred room in my closet at home, if only to have the swooning pleasure of its scent each time I opened the door.

I loved starting each school year with new books, lined paper, “Pee-Chee” folders, pencil boxes and pens. Not to forget the mandated rectangle of oilcloth to protect my desk when I ate lunch. That first page, whether of a composition book or textbook, held promise of achievement and success. The slate was clean, the starting afresh.

The smell of this newness and potential gave me hope, inspired my efforts, bringing me deep pleasure. While this all might fade with the passage of the first few weeks of each year, as the pristine progressed to the beginning-to-get-worn workaday lessons, but ah, that first hit was enchanting, intoxicating!

To this day I become delirious in book, stationery and art supply stores. I still pine for most of what I see in them, wanting to casually remark to the salesperson, “I’ll take one of each, thank you.”

I realize now that I equate the heady smell of these things with creativity, wrapped in a box with a lustrous bow, just waiting to be opened and played with. However, most of what was done with those wonderful supplies turned out to be lifeless, linear exercises in robotic deadness. Even the so-called art period consisted of overly structured, this-is-how-you-do-it exercises. So it is no wonder that by the second or third week of school, after the Sacred Closet smell had worn off the books and supplies, I resigned myself to just making the grade.

There was also the fear. I don’t think it took long for my quest for perfection, accompanied by fears of possible failures, to lock onto my creativity, paralyzing it, immobilizing it, stunning it into silence. For as long as the paper stayed new, empty of word or picture, I had not yet tried and failed. In the beginning, I was relaxed in the appreciation of potential, not tensed by performance, production or the expectations of others.

None of this was conscious, of course. But I understand it now as I let my mind and heart taste the deeper significance. This is important because it speaks of an early, primal pleasure I can -- and have -- brought forward, now able to mine its essence in a way I did not permit myself back then. The Sacred Closet continues to offer me the gift of excitement about creativity. I just have to follow my nose.

Maria Susan Greene is a free-lance writer who lives in Los Angeles.

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002