No one would mistake my office in the basement for the headquarters of a $200-an-hour lawyer or a high-powered CEO. No plush carpet on the floor, no walnut paneling or fox hunting prints on the walls. No ebullient receptionist stationed at the entrance to greet you and inform you that Mr. Gurley is in conference, closing a big deal.
I sit in majestic isolation at the end of a concrete crypt. Particle-board rafters threaded with electrical wires and decorated with yellow insulation beards comprise the ceiling. Two naked light bulbs illuminate the suite. Disheveled stacks of half-read books and yellow pads with reminder notes cover my desk. A small pile of unpaid City of Lawrence parking tickets in their snug yellow envelopes peeks out beneath a parcel of coffee stained files.
The fact that I have few visitors may be attributed to the forbidding atmosphere of this arena where all my important work is done. Glueboards placed along the walls are covered with spiders, sow bugs and small snakes who've sought refuge here through the open sump pump pit. Even an occasional shrew or vole has met its end on those tar pit pads. My wife can only make it half way down the steps before she sees something ghastly and begins to scream. So I have the kind of privacy necessary to profound thoughts. Disorder and reminders of mortality are spurs to the creative life.
But occasionally, when spider webs impede my passage through the room and the dust gets ankle deep, I go on a clean-up frenzy, racing through the basement with the vacuum cleaner, sucking up dead insect husks, filling trash bags with papers by the shovel full. Following the practice of Navajo weavers, who stitched a flaw into their rugs so as to avoid provoking the jealousy of the gods, I leave a small mountain of rubbish in the corner for the next cleaning.
For a day or two, the place looks almost tidy. But within a week, disorder reigns again. Just now, I noticed a strand of spider silk connecting Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" with a note reminding me to call my 92-year-old mother some months ago. Everywhere you look there's a spider web -- between the plastic plumbing pipes, hanging between the bookcase shelves. One fellow has stretched his lines between the ten pound weights I last lifted a year or two ago. Spiders are an inspiration to anyone trying to summon the determination to begin a little work.
The time of year lends itself to musing. Sitting in this dungeon, surrounded by books, the accumulation of a lifetime's reading, it occurs to me that writing is not unlike what the spiders do. Stretching a web is an act of faith. Many of the webs in my basement haven't caught a thing. So it is with books. Many fail to capture a reader. And yet they too were lovingly spun.
There are books in my shelves I've never read. A few I've read three times, and I'm still entangled in their webs. Some have lost their covers from having been read too much. Others I've dutifully read and can't remember a single fragment of what they contained. It would take several lifetimes to digest them all.
Two steps from where I sit is the kingdom of Shakespeare -- vaster and more durable than the conquests of Alexander. "Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes can outlive this pow'rful rhyme," he wrote. And yet it's not hard to imagine the day when no one reads and Shakespeare has been forgotten.
When I go upstairs, I'm reminded that there's a real world out of doors. It would be a crime to spend such a morning in the basement. This is the finest season. The trees have exchanged their green uniforms for gaudy costumes of yellow, orange and flaming red. One last fling before winter strips them back to bony black naked shivering limbs.
A restless feeling of change is in the air. Flocks of migrating birds fly by, making a sound like rushing water. Deer stand in open fields, boldly advertising themselves for mates. The hammock beneath the elm tree beckons. But soon I'm back in the basement with the spiders and the worlds created out of words. It seems I'd rather read about autumn than experience it, just as I'd rather read about art than visit a museum.
I don't recommend reading as a substitute for living. But how can anyone not be charmed by those voices, speaking of this time of year: The trees are in their autumn beauty, the woodland paths are dry, under the October twilight the water mirrors a still sky... Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom-friend of the maturing sun... Especially when the October wind with fists of turnips punishes the land... Lord it is time. Summer was too much. Lay your shadows over the sundials and set your winds loose in the fields...That time of year thou mayst in me behold when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang upon those boughs which shake against the cold...
-- George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.