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by BK Loren
I didn’t read books when I was a kid. My parents were raised in ranch-handing families, and they carried that work ethic into their more urban lives. Stories were important to them, and work was their story, but reading books bound tidily and placed on shelves was a luxury afforded only during school hours. At home, there was no sitting in one place long enough to read.
At night, though, I ducked under my covers, and I wrote. Every Saturday, I spent my weekly allowance on a pocket-sized notebook from the local five-and-dime. I’d spend all week scribbling words in it. On Friday, I’d bury the notebook where no one could find it, walk to the store, buy another notebook, and start again. I loved that words alone could conjure the sulfur-yellow of a meadowlark’s feathers flying over a bright green field. It was magic, to me.
Then more magic came along one day.
When I was sixteen, I carved out a well-paying job for myself. I worked at a private high school teaching martial arts; I also taught for the YWCA, a private dojo, and the local rec center. For a kid my age, I was making bank. So I did what any sixteen year old kid would do with it: I handed it over to a psychologist—a Jungian analyst, to be exact. I always had this itchy beneath-the-skin feeling that some part of my life was amiss, and I was driven to find out why.
One day, I was sitting in my analyst’s very serious office with its very dark wood carved into Corinthian scrolls at every possible occasion, and my analyst said to me. “So, what do you want to do when you’re an adult?”
“Well,” I took a risk and told my secret. “I’d like to, maybe, write books?”
“Oh! What’s your favorite novel?” he asked.
“Novel? I’ve never really read one. I was thinking, you know, maybe just a book,” I said.
He flinched at my complete ignorance, but he hid it well. It was a mere squint, like a minor pain in his left earlobe. After that, he turned to his bookshelf, grabbed a book, and plopped Anna Karenina into my lap. “Keep it,” he said.
Later that night, when I opened the pages of that novel, it was as if I were Harry Potter opening the doors to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This was a magical world that I wanted to stay in forever. Not Anna Karenina’s world—that would be weird. But books, stories, novels—long novels with 3D protagonists who seemed to live on the inside of my eyelids so that when I closed my eyes at night to sleep, there they were, and there was the world they were living in—a full stage rising up in my own little brain.
From then on, I couldn’t stop reading. I read Anna Karenina while working in Dave Cook’s Sporting Goods, selling shoes. The stockroom was made of wobbly plywood shelves stretching to the ceiling. I shimmied up those shelves, and when I reached the top, I separated the shoeboxes and shaped a little mousehole between the Converse and Adidas. I climbed through the mousehole, and I lay in the narrow corridor between the stacks of shoes, hiding, absorbed in story. When I heard, “BK to the shoe department,” on the intercom, I jumped from the shelves, ran to the sales floor, and said, “May I help you?”
“I’d like a size nine,” some stranger would say, shoving a shoe my direction. I’d head back to the stockroom, self conscious of the dust that no doubt covered my backside, and of the no-doubt lost look on my face, because writing always took me into another world, and it was hard to find size nine shoes in that world.
A few years later, prompted by my analyst, I applied for and was accepted to the University of Colorado. And here’s even more magic. I have to switch into present tense to tell you this one. It’s still that vivid, to me:
It’s my twenty-first birthday, late at night. I’m walking down Broadway in Boulder, Colorado after partying into the wee hours with friends. In nine months, or so, I’ll be a student at CU. Meanwhile, I’m living in a nearby apartment, and I’m feeling good about life. So when a white-haired gentleman walks by, I say “Hello.”
He returns the greeting, and for some reason, we stop, right there on the corner of Broadway and Marine Street, and we fall into a long conversation. We take a seat on a brick wall in front of the apartment complex where I’m living, and we talk about everything. “What do you do?” I ask him, eventually.
“I’m a dairy farmer,” he says.
He’s dressed in white—all white—and his white hair outlines his ruddy red face, a dairy farmer if I ever saw one. His chest fills out his white t-shirt like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon. This guy, with his pale eyes that twinkle like Santa Claus’s, makes me smile. He’s quick witted and irreverent. And after we’ve been talking for hours, he says to me, “What’s that?” and he points to a blue pool behind the apartment complex.
I shrug. “Swimming pool,” I tell him.
His eyes light up with mischief.
“But . . . it’s private,” I say.
He makes a dismissive noise. He waves his hand, slaps my arm. “Let’s go,” he says.
A few minutes later, we’re climbing the chain link fence. We loop our bodies over to the other side, and we jump to the concrete. Once there, we strip down to our skivvies. I leave my bra on, too. But otherwise, it’s all wild abandon. We jump into the pool, and we splash around like two kids. We laugh. Then we get out, his white hair turning more curly around the neckline.
The sun’s a huge red ball on the horizon now. We’re getting dressed, pulling dry clothes on over wet undies, and he says to me, in this sort of wistful voice: “So, you’re twenty-one. You have your whole life in front of you. What’re you going to do with it?’
I think about it, because writing has always been a secret I can’t tell anyone. But it feels safe, and so I say, “I’d like to write books.”
And he says, “Oh! I write, too!”
And I cringe. I had spent the last five months in Norlin Library, reading everything I could. I did not want to read some newspaper op-ed written by an old dairy farmer. Still, I was polite. “Oh! What do you write?” I said.
He shrugged. “Ever heard of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”
I chuckled, a few, “Huh, huhs,” just to humor him.
“Or Sometimes a Great Notion?” He smiled this broad, dairy-farmer smile, and he said, “I’m Ken Kesey.”
We were climbing back over the fence by now, and as we landed on the other side, he looked at me and said, “You know, you’re gonna do okay, kiddo. Just keep writing.”
After that, he walked away, and I walked into my apartment.
Later that day, after a long sleep, I stood in Norlin library, holding Sometimes a Great Notion in my open palms. There, on the back flap, was a photo of the dairy farmer I’d spent my twenty-first birthday with.
Thirty years later, and a few years after Kesey’s death, I still hear his voice: “You’re gonna do okay, kiddo,” and his stories and characters still pop up behind my eyelids: there’s Chief, sweeping the floor in the mental institution; there’s McMurphy’s smirk, a permanent crescent in my brain; there’s Nurse Ratchett, a cultural icon we all refer to, whether we’ve read the book or not.
Why does literature matter? Because I could have walked by that old man that night. But stories connected us—not just stories bound in books, but stories shared in everyday conversation, stories we might one day write down and preserve so they might open like meadowlark wings in someone’s dark imagination. Because that night, that old dairy farmer and I stripped down to what was essential, and we jumped in, and we swam.
Bk Loren is an award-winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction. She teaches at Lighthouse, and at writing conferences and events across the United States and Canada.
This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Mark your calendar for Colorado Gives Day or schedule your gift now. Thank you!