Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Perpetual Advent

Part I.

"One thing you must know is that in the South there is a story for everything." He leaned in warmly, eyes alight, and I caught myself smiling back, perched expectantly on the edge of the white, linen covered sofa. I slid my finger rhythmically around the base of the wine glass in my hands as he proceeded to launch into a tale about the fireplace...and eventually the chairs and the baby grand piano. Suddenly their histories became alive, knit with interesting characters, amusing coincidences, and notes of sentiment. They were described so elegantly as being "wrapped up in a whole constellation of emotions and memory". Two Alabaman transplants were about to move from a house they had called home for the majority of my life, and here, for maybe a final time, they were smiling over narratives with new company.

Shortly after transplanting here myself, I noticed this culture of storytelling but was never quite certain if it was a happy accident from theatrical coworkers. They possess the delivery, timing, and voices to brilliantly tell a good story. Almost as much as I love absorbing these stories I want to learn how to tell them like they do.

I've stood in crowded rooms with them as they've explained connections and relayed anecdotes in low voices about characters standing across the room. I've drank in tales of history and travel, and attended dinners around intimate tables discussing Southern Gothic, their "culture of storytelling", and eccentric neighbors. We've shared our experiences of Rome and Palladian villas looking out across green Italian hillsides, and those English Gothic cathedrals that bring out sighs at the mention of their names. And miraculously, I've been able to bond over a love of writing.

Writing has always been a constant in my life. There is something endlessly fascinating about forming ideas into something a little more tangible. If nothing else, it makes for dependable catharsis. There are many poor sketchbooks and scraps of trace I've cluttered with words instead of drawings, and class notes halted with staggered pages of (at best) tangential thought. Architecture school always seemed to disapprove of writing, and it was rare and exciting to be encouraged in the impulsive habit. But I've found encouragement in odd places along the way, and amazingly continue to do so. 

I've wondered how to describe my time in Alabama so far, how to share an experience now familiar to me but mysterious to others. If it weren't so banal, I would mention the curtains of Spanish moss and uneven, hexagonal pavers. Or how to arrive here you honestly take any road called "south". Or how sometimes, yes, the air outside smells like fried chicken. Regardless, the stories are omnipresent and the characters hardly lack drama.

Part II. 

"In the morning let me know your love 
for I put my trust in you. 
Make me know the way I should walk,
to you I lift up my soul." 
- Tuesday compline, Psalm 143

"What am I doing wrong?" I thought as I stared at the blank, white ceiling as two German girls cheerfully gathered up their things and began to set out for the day with the other pilgrims. I felt that same feeling that occurs after lying down in bed following sleepless nights in Bond; it was the feeling of a giant magnet in the earth's core pulling my bones painfully down through my body by the power of gravity. It hurt to lie down, it hurt to sit up, my breathing was heavy, and my throat was burning. What am I doing wrong? I recalled several friends who had smiled and simply said the Camino was a great experience - sparing, apparently, all gory details of desiring to amputate one's own toes. Had they too encountered bronchitis in the albergues? Had they developed blisters this badly? The previous afternoon I had walked the last 100 meters barefoot because it was less painful without shoes. Being on the road early in the morning was my favorite part of the day, but there were mornings of exhaustion and emotional distress when I awoke asking myself: How am I going to walk 15 miles today? It became a kind of mantra and a metaphor, even beyond the summer, when I felt I couldn't continue. How am I going to walk 15 miles today?

Stairs entering Portomarin
Villafranca was the worst morning, however. Once we reached Sarria my body would have adjusted, and even heavy lungs from bronchitis would seem insignificant. In fact, as we passed through the enchantingly beautiful forests of Galicia, I suddenly lost all awareness of my feet and consciousness of pain. I almost believed I had floated there. We passed through cathedrals of eucalyptus with carpets of dense ferns, and there you could feel only wonder. Time and place ceased to be as well. Life before the Camino felt like a dream and the thought of life after it seemed equally unlikely. 

At the start, around midday of June 1st, I found myself begging aloud for someone to tell a story because I didn't know what to do with myself and the silence. I announced to my brother I now fully understood why Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. You could talk to those around you, you could silently pray, but you could not escape an overwhelming silence disturbed only by an overactive mind. Still, I refrained from iPods and earbuds except when distraction was absolutely necessary to keep going. People say the Camino presents different trials to different people, and mine was certainly a challenge of both endurance and surrender.

The Benedictine Order seemed to follow us like a shadow. They were always the ones to provide compline or sacraments or housing along the Way, to the point where it seemed spurred on by divine humour. It was from them that I heard the words that resonated in my mind: "Walk light and carry few things. Let God be God." Often something wouldn't go as planned and sacrifices had to be made, even after arriving in Santiago. My brother left the same day we arrived due to an early flight, so I was left alone in Santiago de Compostela for three days. I liked the idea of going to Finisterre, the optional extension of the Camino at the ocean's edge where pilgrims burn their clothes and possessions in bonfires at sunset as a final act of detachment. However, I was still sick, it was cold and raining, and I was ill-equipped to continue. It was then that I realized how attached I was to this idea. So, I abandoned it immediately.

In Praise of Porticos
Rain, rain, go away,
Come again never.
Call it morbid or melancholic, but I had a keen sensation of approaching death as we neared the end of the journey. It was a goodbye and goodbyes habitually remind me of mortality. Our last night before entering the city I caught sight of the sun setting over Santiago de Compostela as we walked back to the albergue from dinner. I took off running barefoot through thistles to see it better from the hill in Monte del Gozo, entranced by the beautiful vision. I hadn't felt such simultaneous sadness and beauty since looking out over a decayed but oddly romantic Havana.

The next morning contained all the anticipation of Christmas Day. We woke up early in the cold and the splatter of rain meant little to my excitement. The morning was grey and solemn, quieter than all the others, shrouded in heavy fog and mist. It was poetic that we were closer than ever to our destination but it was perfectly hidden from view. I had the vision of the sunset over the city in my mind as we sped on toward what seemed unattainable. As we entered Santiago and glimpsed the towers, I commented to my brother, "If I lived here I would sit outside every morning to watch the faces of the pilgrims arriving." Finally, the moment we had waited weeks for was here...but, although I was awed and excited upon reaching the cathedral, it felt strangely empty. We arrived from the back and the square in front was vacant; I was shivering from the cold as I gawked at the baroque facade hidden under scaffolding. I was imagining the homecoming of St. Peter's Square, a family reunion of the Pilgrim Church on Earth. It was emotional, however, to enter and embrace the apostle, attend the Mass, and spend much time in quiet contemplation. I had carried a lot in my mind along the journey, and my thoughts had been far heavier than the over-stuffed backpack. Over the next three days I ran into friends along the street, hugging strangers, both welcoming and parting with a bittersweet foretaste of a heavenly homecoming. I heard a man call out in the street to another pilgrim, "Buon Camino - forever!"  

Part III.

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot

Just as post-grad had started to become bleak again, I found myself once more around a Southern dinner table with the happiest of company, shedding tears from breathless laughter. The stories were endless and absurd, bringing out the hardest laughs and causing minor injuries for the storyteller (who ended up icing a bruised hand). Hours passed with wine, wit, and hilarity. It must have been what the Spanish call sobremesa. It is nights like these when everything reaffirms that I am exactly where I should be. I only wish I could share these moments with the friends who I know would enjoy every second of it as much as I do. I found myself wondering why no one else has discovered this. Have they been turned away by the thought of Alabama? They would love it though; they would love this. The joy in our community was contagious and I wanted it to be. 

It is a strange thing to be content and longing at the same time. The world is thy ship and not thy home, etc. etc. One night as the moon, though only a crescent, somehow looked too heavy for the sky, I drove home reflecting how I've grappled with "calm turmoil" for a year. That rare, bizarre feeling of peace while remaining the opposite of complacent, it is longing yet knowing that all is right for the moment and will be in the end. As I was reminded on the Camino, "You know where you are going, you just have to get there." The "getting there" can seem like an eternity. We walk a perpetual advent, a continual arrival, often as exhausted and irritable pilgrims turned speechless at mountains and awed by forests. It demands a perfection of patience. I've heard, however, that the journey makes for a good story.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Waxing and Waning

When I was in studio earlier tonight on my way back to my desk, a friend waylaid me. "Isn't it funny in the hundreds of thousands of years that the earth has existed - isn't it strange that man has built everything that has been built in this span of time and we have to learn how to build it?"

I paused and replied, "Mmhmm. This is just a blip in the scheme of things. There's a whole universe out there."

"Why aren't we studying the cosmos?"

I shrugged. We sighed and resumed studying.

Later, about 1:30 am, I was walking back to Walsh and was arrested by the sight of the moon. It was sort of a hazy and humid night and it hung there, full and weirdly luminous, casting a bone colored glow under a curtain of cloud. I wondered how many people stop to look at the moon and consider the weirdness of its existence. We live on a planet in orbit, a small piece of an entire galaxy surrounded by and composed of literally countless masses of orbiting, floating stuff, and we're not even phased (no pun intended) by the moon. For a brief moment it made me very happy to remember there is so much that is larger than deadlines.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Containing the Creator

"Is there anything in me, O Lord my God, that can contain You? Do indeed the very heaven and the earth, which You have made, and in which You have made me, contain You?"*

St. Augustine's words echo into the darkness of a cold night. They sound haunting in their doubt but hopeful in their wonder. Is there anything that can contain? Of course we know that this is the night when creation contains the Creator of the stars. This is the night the Incarnate sleeps in a manger in Bethlehem - the feeding trough in the House of Bread. This is the night that will culminate "when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness"**. This is the night when the filled vessels, "should they even be broken...will not be poured forth". 

I often have a dreadful sense just before the end of Advent that the season was overlooked. Much of this has to do with being a student and the fact that early to mid December is consumed by finals, packing, and travelling - not to mention the hectic fury of seasonal consumerism. Sometimes it feels as if all of Advent is condensed within the hours leading up to Midnight Mass. Final preparations for both tonight and tomorrow are made and still we glance at the clock in anticipation. King's College has live streamed their last Advent Lessons and Carols and the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur has broadcasted their Midnight Mass. Outside falls rain after another day of grey mist and fog inspiring the thought of London (and not even a Dickensian Christmas at that). Still, in Eastern Standard Time we wait. We're promised it won't be long, but we continue to ask how soon? Presently the uneasiness of a weak Advent will be forgotten in song and the warmth of incense and candlelight.

Not yet, but soon.

Anyone who has ever patiently waited for something has experienced immense joy at receiving the object of desire. Given time, however, this feeling of happiness usually dims and gradually gives way to complacency or even blatant dissatisfaction. The beauty of Christmas is that when we receive the long awaited it is incapable of bringing us complacency and incapable of dissatisfying. Augustine resounds: "And when You are poured forth on us, You are not cast down, but we are uplifted; nor are You dissipated, but we are drawn together." 

We are close to joy because we know that even before morning we can contain, as the heaven and the earth, more than our fill. Gloria in excelsis Deo. It is nearly midnight.

*The Confessions (Book I Chapter 2-3) 
** Pascal Exultate

Friday, September 26, 2014

Crashed and "Grilled"

The basilica bells tolled 5 pm. "Ok, class is over." we whispered to each other as we shifted on the pavement by the statue of St. Joseph overlooking the lake. We were reviewing outside and had two more presentations before the end. Cellphones and bricks were distributed over the drawings as paperweights. A few pairs of shoes came off throughout the course of three hours and at least one intrigued passerby stuck around to listen.

"I was timing reactions and you kept them amused for four minutes," our professor stated at the end of the last review, "then you crashed and grilled."

Crashed and grilled? We collectively spent the next ten minutes giggling in sporadic fits. Not crashed and burned. You crashed and grilled.

St. Mary's Lake is pretty beautiful as it is...
So, here we are knee deep in the semester. Everyone has muddled through at least one test and a handful of late nights falling shy of the sunrise. I imagine there is a steady flux of students entering and exiting LaFun, breathing in the arrival of autumn as they clutch their coffee and muse on the high R value possessed by the Huddle's Styrofoam cups. (Maybe that's just me.)

Then studio involves Fauré's Requiem on repeat interspersed with our obsession with "Jackie and Wilson" and "Riptide", cups of Earl Grey, The Idea of Space in Greek Architecture, graphite covered hands, and channeling everything Bertram Goodhue. We joke frequently about high cortisol levels and about how every environmental systems class we are reminded of ways in which we could easily die at the figurative hands of mold or mites.

Don't let the cortisol jokes fool you, however. I've been making dedicated efforts to monitor my coffee intake, sleep according to REM cycles, take breaks when necessary, not forget appointments, and keep my life in a state of relative order. Efforts have also been made to fulfill my friendly duties of keeping my studiomates fed with dining hall bananas and generating a steady flow of snarky comebacks and puns.

Then there's always the huge, on-going topic: process. Architects are dedicated to making the intangible tangible and there is nothing quite as thrilling as the hands-on process. I'm speaking of furniture design class which is (in my biased opinion) unquestionably the best concentration. There's a tremendous satisfaction that comes with taking rough-sawn wood and joining, planing, and cutting it yourself to reveal its beautiful, natural finish. We're getting close to creating the actual joints so stay tuned for mortises and tenons soon-ish.
Future skirting for the table.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

In Deep Charrette

Near the start of the semester I went to the campus bookstore and bought a planner to keep my life organized. That was a brilliant idea except for the fact that I keep misplacing the planner and thus can never refer to it. I'm discovering that a hamster has better organizational skills than I do.

Most frustrating and recent was the oversleeping incident this morning. I overslept mass and joined the usual crowd in the dining hall in the most completely grumpy mood.

"The schola sang."
"It's the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross."
"There was incense."
"Shut up."
"You missed the schola and the incense."

"Give me the baby." I demanded of my sister who passed the toothless and grinning chubby child to me. I held him throughout most of breakfast until I was no longer aware of self-inflicted anger. Law School Mass it would be today, and Law School Mass it was. It was fine because Fr. Miscamble gave an excellent sermon that was partly about crucifixes in the classroom. I appreciated it because I often appreciate the crucifixes in Bond when everything is tipping over the edge.

Speaking of studio, our charrette is actually going quite well. I'm very excited about the project as a whole and there is enjoyment amidst the stress. Credit for the expression "in deep charrette" goes to a fifth year who relayed the phrase to me during our charrette in Romania. I'd not be surprised if arkies at another school have thought the same thing at some point. Architorture is similar everywhere.

In other news, those of us in the furniture design concentration purchased our wood last week. In case you are curious, my table is going to be walnut. I'm pretty excited for this.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hello, Syllabi

Part I. Awkwardness and Grace

Fumbling with my card at the door, sporadically and hopelessly punching in my code between card scans while balancing poster tubes and a roll of vellum that I will never use again, I deduced that my Italian ID is the only card that works now. Abandon hope, all ye American cards.

Walsh is beautifully located off God Quad and houses the most spacious single one could imagine. I am now properly settled in minus a few more decorative desires, such as more Christmas lights to replace the fluorescent atrocities. I need white lights for Narnia too. Narnia is my walk-in closet, the "hermit hole within the hermit hole", but actually just a brilliant little storage space.

Between timidly asking my sister "What code do I punch in at the doors again?" and actively researching the dining hall hours of operation it's a little strange to be back in a college setting. After cooking every meal in a kitchen with friends for the past year something seems off about the luxury of having various cuisines laid before you.

Coming home hasn't changed anything about my excitement to be here, not even slightly. As my brother and I pulled off the toll road a few days ago I was practically shrieking with joy behind the wheel, "Where's the dome? Do you see it yet?". It's still an honour to spend another year (two!) on campus at this university. The novelty of it just doesn't seem to wear off for me.

Part II. Enter the Syllabus

Classes began on Tuesday and the first and most exciting was furniture design. After the safety lectures about possible "dismemberment and even death" we were released into the library to search for design precedent. The theme of potential death continued into environmental systems when hypothetical situations were addressed. I can't recall another semester starting off on that foot.

Those of us who were abroad in architecture for a year are foreign to worksheets and tests. We're slightly disgusted that "homework" is still an accepted concept. We're spoiled with design work and painting so structures and systems worksheets with numbers are both ugly and frightening. Suddenly carrying a backpack and being assigned homework seems extraordinarily childish after becoming accustomed to learning through one-on-one discussions with professors, walking cities, and listening to guest lectures. I don't know what other schools and departments are like, but I am thankful that in the School of Architecture we cultivate personal relationships with our professors and chat with them at literally any time of day or night. There's mutual respect and they tell us that we're capable of doing more than we often realize.

With every syllabus it seems that another weight is being given to us. At the end of the day they stack up and you can feel the pressure of assignments building up -- oh, and here are some forms to fill out and some emails about the information we'll be covering and other classes you might want to take. It has begun, friends, it has begun.

Part III. Barbarians and the Cave

After completing my environmental systems worksheet I set out with the intention of going to Morrissey Mass. I remembered that there isn't a way for me to swipe in so I hoped to rely on the kindness of a resident. However, when I reached the threshold I saw in the lobby a flood of freshmen and chickened out. Then I observed a friend running in through the side door but she was gone before I could call out. So, that's not happening I guess. I'll try tomorrow. 

I casually looped around Bond and towards the lake where I saw fire flaming in the water. It was a gargantuan bonfire across the water by the CSC. By the time I turned towards the peaceful flames of the grotto barbarian chanting was audibly accompanying the wild fire. I can't wait until beginning-of-the-year dorm activities end so the grotto returns to its silence. Eventually the wild yells increased in volume until I got up to leave. A literal hoard of barbarians wearing horns and running shorts jogged roughly towards Main Building. Ugh. Siegfried. I rolled my eyes.

Now it's time to read all the emails from professors. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Bookcase for Fiction

Due to some recent conversations and because this has been stewing in my mind for a while, I think good fiction needs its respect. Summer has always been the time to lose yourself in a story. Last summer it was Flannery O'Connor and John Henry Newman accompanied by countless pots of tea. This summer it's the top of my I'm-Embarrassed-I-Haven't-Read-This-Yet list and more pots of tea. There are a lot of books on that list but if I told you which ones, well, I just wouldn't.

This is me when I'm home. If you know where this is from, then we've just became best friends.
Last summer I also skeptically began watching Doctor Who and barely passed the Eccleston test of stupidity tolerance. The timing for Doctor Who actually could not have been any better as I embarked on my year of travel. I told myself I wouldn't continue watching it abroad (because who watches TV when in Europe? Amiright?) but before I knew it I was through all of the David Tennant series and suddenly Matt Smith as well. Travelling sometimes alone and sometimes with friends but always in an unfamiliar place, I learned to empathize with the likewise Baggins-esque choice between home and a different world. I don't think I encountered many aliens or dragons in my journey (there were some strange folks and Gaudi houses), but I did often think about these stories and their characters because they resonated with my life.
I'm no English major, but I think that's sort of the point of fiction. It must be grounded in something that resonates with humanity - in fact there's no way it cannot be. Civilizations were built upon stories, myths, legends, and epics and even the craziest of fantasy creatures is connected to something we already relate to or know. My dad is quick to remind us that there are only about seven basic plots because these are sort of inscribed in humanity. When properly told, stories do more than just entertain and provide an escape from reality. Fiction helps us understand ourselves through the eyes of someone else. Good fiction helps us live better lives.

In other words, fiction isn't a time wasting escape from our "real world problems"; it tells us how to deal with them. Humanity hasn't changed much from when Shakespeare penned his plays. We still overthink, ponder unexplored death, and obsess over our inaction like Hamlet. There's something comforting about discovering this in someone else's words and witnessing the echos of the past come alive in the present. It's why we form attachments to fictional characters and long deceased authors. It's why we weep at the graves of men we never knew.

That's my soapbox for the day.