Architectural Cravings, Fatherly Advice, and Closed Doors

“For a few of my Harvard years, I taught drawing to architecture students, and during that time I became convinced that we human beings gravitate toward spaces that are metaphors for our inner lives.” –Martha Beck, Expecting Adam, Berkley Books, 1999.

My house has slanted ceilings, while my workplace has generous, soaring space above.  So are my personal goals cramped and limited?  Do I not give myself the space I give my students?  Both these places are old, and crumbly around the edges.  Is my inner life crumbly?  I think it is.  In a good way.  My classroom has huge windows, and my home has little ones.  My workplace is very public, open, out there, and my home is very tucked in, private.  The pitch of my ceiling at home is an acute angle, sloping down to the corners.  My classroom is all right angles.  Home is pinched and sheltered.  Work is strict, set, and accessible.

I read this book on my way to Rome last summer.  The cover embarrassed me a great deal.  It not only says, “National Bestseller,” it also has a soft drawing of a woman wearing a nightgown, barefoot, and looking at a daisy growing out of the dry, cracked ground.  I mean, seriously.  Ultimately, the brightness of Beck’s voice and the fervor of her spiritual callings is so engaging that I could never dismiss her as flimsy or cliched.

“What parents may sometimes do in a helpful way is to point out certain principles of action.  I do not think I would be helpful in advising you too strongly.  I do not even feel the need of doing that because I have so much confidence in your having really good judgment.  I believe that what I can do for you once in a while is to point out certain principles that have developed in my mind as sound and practical, leaving it for you yourself to apply them if your own mind grasps and approves the principles.”  — Katharine Graham quoting a letter from her father, Personal History, Vintage Books, 1997.

Is there anything more inspirational than someone saying, “I trust you”?  Especially a parent.  I love books about journalists.  They’re like writers, except more involved in the world, and a little less angsty.  Katharine Graham, who ultimately ran the Washington Post, shows the progress of women, from the surge of power and excitement in the 1920s and 1930s to the muffling of ambition in the 1950s, and finally a blossoming in the 1970s.  Her story is also painfully personal, and wryly told.  I occasionally hate her when she, say, meets Brancusi, but then I love her when she admits to humiliating self-doubt.

“‘Grace fills empty spaces… it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void…. The world is a closed door.  it is a barrier.  And at the same time it is the way through….The presence of a dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real.'”  –Francine du Plessix Gray quoting Simone Weil in her biography, Simon Weil.  Penguin, 2001.

I guess this goes to the rich man and the camel argument.  People who can care for themselves, people who don’t need anything, might have a hard time seeing the need for a God.  If you’ve always been lucky, luck might have no meaning to you.  Your losses are an opening for enlightenment.

The last part of the quote is from a little later in that chapter, and that’s what really got me going.  I didn’t know anything about Simone Weil.  I only read this book because it’s one of the Penguin Lives series that I love.  The absence of a missing person is real, while the presence is imaginary.  Maybe there’s nothing more real than the absence of someone you love.  Real: tangible, powerful, pushing.

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