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The building wants to say

Mairead Small Staid ’06, 2017-18 Bennett Fellow
October 25, 2017
Mairead Small Staid ’06

Bodies provide a site of continual erasure: cells flake and regenerate, bones fuse. Buried deep in our bodies, our memories rush away more rapidly than they came, an otherworldly tide. We can never make more of memory, only less.

Memory is classed into kinds, semantic and episodic, and its failures can be categorized the same way: We forget facts we once knew; we forget whole years we once lived. Returning to Exeter 15 years after my first arrival has reminded me of these absences, and done little to fill them. My forgetting, too, is semantic and episodic, both scenic and expository: I’ve forgotten the declensions of Latin, the formulas of calculus, and I’ve forgotten the particular shifting textures of hundreds of days. And though I know, I know this body of mine lived through them, the evidence seems scarce. I gather what I can.

Most of the time, the transformation of our bodies is too slow to be noticed. Few are the minutes singularly imprinted, whether in joy or pain or their incongruous collision. A small scar on my right thigh reminds me of biking circles around this campus in the gleaming spring evening, in the fleeting minutes before hastening back for check-in, air rushing past our ears. Turning off Front Street and down an unlit drive, our bikes are halted, my hips flung forward into handlebars and my right leg caught between pedal and twisting wheel: a chain stretches across the access road, invisible in the satin black of the night. All that rushing air seems to lie within my ears now, not without. We bike back to our dorms gingerly, jeans ripped and leg bleeding and laughing, because we are fine; we are more than fine.

Every morning since returning, I look down that unlit drive from my apartment’s window. I can see, if I lean just a bit, the chain that still stretches there, that still shines in the worn quarter of skin on my thigh. Returning to Exeter, my memories are corroborated, made real, but also exposed for their thinning inadequacy. I walk across green lawns, looking up at buildings I spent countless hours in, and think: Shouldn’t I remember more of this? Shouldn’t there be more?

My oldest friend comes to visit, and we walk past the brick building where we met, pushing her baby in his stroller. There’s still a great deal I might learn about how the body can be altered. There’s still a great deal I might learn, in general.

Every afternoon, I enter the quiet of the campus library to write. My office is on a floor I never visited as a student, so it exists solely as part of this new Exeter in which I live, holding no memories or their absences. There, I’ve been reading about the life of Louis Kahn, the architect who designed the building. One of Kahn’s realizations, writes Wendy Lesser, his biographer, “was that architecture exists in time, not just in space. … Only by walking around and through one of his finished structures can you perceive how many different pathways to discovery it offers.” When I need to lift my eyes from the page or screen, I leave my office to walk around and through the many light-filled floors of the library: the clothbound hush of the stacks; the travertine atrium; the warm tones of the ground floor where Kahn’s models for the building sit within the building itself, like a memory contained, displayed, preserved.

“The building wants to say,” Kahn once said, “‘Look, I want to tell you about the way I was made.’” The body wants to say the same. And this saying, this telling, which is my occupation, seems to grow more worthwhile beneath this vast and airy concrete ceiling, between these stacks, in this cathedral to the object I’m trying to make out of my memories, out of their failures.

Kahn’s own favorite buildings, Lesser says, were the ancient Greek ruins of Paestum, the temples and city walls that have survived their creators by two and a half millennia — Kahn called the place “a beginning within which is contained all the wonder that may follow in its wake.” There is no limit, I’m reminded, to this wonder. We can only make more of it, never less.

Editor’s Note: The George Bennett Fellowship celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Established by Elias B.M. Kulukundis ’55 in honor of PEA English Instructor George Bennett, the one-year fellowship has provided writers “of outstanding promise” with the support they need to pursue their craft. We will feature a Bennett Fellow in each issue of the Bulletin this year to celebrate the anniversary. This article first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.