Sunday, June 26, 2011

Force of Renovation

On our way back from another reunion activity, walking through the clean, dark air of a Vermont evening, Lee and Ellen get into a friendly debate about the architecture of Atwater, the dorm we've been assigned as housing for the weekend. Lee raises funds for arts organizations; Ellen, among other things, is an artist and a photographer.

Lee likes the way Atwater is designed to reflect elements of older buildings on campus, and, thus, fits in--gray stone facades, squared modern details that echo the simple architectural lines of buildings like Starr and Painter. Ellen decries the repetitive tedium of Atwater's facade, the unresolved architecture of the space between Atwater and its cross-quad twin, which consists of utilitarian sidewalks that serve no aesthetic purpose. Also the blank narrow sides of the long dorms that resemble European public housing.

Lee remarks, and we all agree, that the interior spaces with their suite design are very pleasant, and, as we understand it, sought after dorms on campus.

The College as we knew it barely exists--or, rather, our alumni events take place in all the new, sumptuously designed spaces the College has created in the 25 years since we've left campus: Atwater dining hall with its golden wood and glass interior, the Mahaney Arts Center with its cathedral-like open spaces, the Axinn Starr Library with its marble and glass addition and a large entry much like a scaled down version of the main hall at the Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington DC. Some of these are extensive remodelings of things we knew: the pool, the original library. Like any urban area, like my own Bethesda neighborhood, the old gives way to the new, remodeling, re-imagining how life will be lived, in what spaces will lives be shaped. Redesign as an endless, ongoing process, akin to reincarnation.

This is the first time I've returned for reunion in 15 years. In the meantime, my entire life with Robert has existed, a parenthesis in the middle of a much longer existence of over four decades. Within this parenthetic bubble, I'd gradually lost my ability to see the strands of my life that pre-dated him and flowed around him. As Stevens says, all this / Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge, / Required, as a necessity requires.

I'd been nervous about this return, like an end of the imagination, inanimate in an inert savoir--an inability to imagine telling people I once knew about all of it, the possibility of conversations stumbling to a halt over this kind of semi-tragic revelation. Yet it turned out the absence of the imagination had itself to be imagined: my careful exposition of where life had taken me was met with all kinds of interesting stories and semi-confessions, in-laws coping with a disabled child, a ne'er do well brother scraping by on disability, a friend who dropped out of sight only to resurface with a disabled child and the unintended awkwardness of a run-in reacquaintance. And empathy, of course--all of us older now with divorces, job-changes, infertility, family crises of one kind and another. Our lives have been a constant, ongoing reorganization and renovation of interior space now subject to public view like the full-spread real estate ads in the NY Times magazine, the ones with the floor plans revealed to ungenerous comment on room size and arrangement by casual readers.

What I thought might be seen as the cratered building of my life seemed instead only vaguely postmodern in its design--some areas open to the weather, unintended courtyards, elements of accessibility and closed space arranged in a sculpture only I could have wrought myself from materials native and acquired. A sprawling building of many rooms, connected through hallways and conjoined by walls intentional and accidental--bearing walls and temporary walls.

Just so, the college as we knew it hardly existed, many of its building re-assigned, re-built. Yet, of course, we alums were and are a version of the college, a sprawling cross-continental living sculpture, a human architecture draping distance and time, waiting to be assembled and re-assembled.

And I was able to reach back full circle and find a cornerstone of former self on which to build again another private space, one of my own design, incorporating the person I was and am and will become, that shelters 15 years of accidental art I've made of a disabled boy whose life has made a collage of intentional and unintentional living spaces--of unresolved courtyards, of industrial and public facades, and, still, of interior spaces hidden beneath those outward architectural signs, spaces linked by hallways and conjoined by doors that link a found community and security and love.

Stevens writes, the great structure had become a minor house--that we return to a plain sense of things, in that return a humbling and diminishment. Yet the poem fails to take into account the significant imaginative force of renovation.


A said...

Very early in this long process, I used to tell myself and others that the advantage of being so shattered was the opportunity it presented to rearrange the pieces differently. But construction often comes to a halt or changes direction, and I hope I haven't lost the keystone in the rubble.

Elizabeth said...

Most days I hardly remember who I was and it's only when these old friends pop up to remind me that I feel tethered to that other me or real me or before me.