“Ruins, for me, are the beginning. With the debris, you can construct new ideas. They are symbols of a beginning.” -Anselm Kiefer
“There is life outside your apartment–” –Avenue Q
Supported by a Watson Fellowship, my friend spent a year climbing fences, finding abandoned buildings, and making art about what she saw. I was in Germany (through Amherst’s Schupf Scholarship–thank you, Mr. Schupf!) during her Berlin tour, so I tagged along to Beelitz-Heilstätten and other places where vines and age and spray-painted figures pulled apart the brickwork and tore down the roof. Paint bubbled and fell. Stone crumbled. Roots dug. The metal stair of a spiral staircase broke beneath my foot. We spent a heart-thumping twenty minutes navigating a pitch-black tunnel by flashes from my camera. When she first told me what she was doing, I couldn’t understand her project–why set out to find these lost spaces? Strangely enough, in the time we traveled together, in all the conversations we had, I never asked her that question. Maybe sharing part of the adventure with me was the fullest answer she could have given. In any case, as went from room to room, I started realizing I’d stumbled into my own reason. There was a magic to these shattered places.
Buildings, rooms–apartments–are one way in which we measure out this space, and call it ours. (It’s a bit like the vaulted ceilings of a cathedral: whenever you step outside, the space above you is higher than any room; the builder cuts off a piece of sky, he ties it to us, and now that its reference is a human, not a planet, the space seems larger while being smaller). They’re our redefinition of the world as our environment. Day after day, my friend showed me places where that definition–inevitably, inescapably–had crumbled. The trees came back. The grass came back. The words in newspapers, so important in their day, so racy or ribald or inspired, faded away on the walls. We were watching humanity’s insistence that we are the center of things, and we were watching it torn apart like wet paper, or, perhaps, like stone in the face of time. I loved those quiet rooms. I loved whispering with my friend. It felt right to lower our voices, although, really, it felt even more right to walk quietly, witnessing the change, the rubble, the end that was not an end but always a kind of beginning.
Avenue Q was uproariously funny, but it wasn’t just funny. I was in my senior year in college, and I watched adults around me double up over the lines, “I wish I could go back to college / In college you know who you are.” That was a little threatening. They looked like they had their lives together. They looked like they knew, more or less, what they were doing. And here they were laughing about how lost they were. Was it true? Was that where I was headed?
Ten years out, I can say, yes. And no. More importantly, I can remember the buildings with fallen walls and open ceilings. We work so hard to manufacture a moment, a place that is ours, but I think I’ve always been more inspired–and, in truth, more at home–in spaces that have something of mine and more of everything else. When I manage to build my walls, to order my room, I end up pretty bored and lonely. When I’m outside my apartment, when there’s someone else walking by and a storm blowing in and the sun’s going down and something furry just moved in the grass, rattling dry leaves, I feel more alive. I feel like I have more of myself. Perhaps that’s because, in that space, all life doesn’t have to come from just me.