Essays

What Space is For

The forking paths of memory and return

Mairead Small Staid
Interior view of library.
Phillips Exeter Academy Library. Photo: Gunnar Klack / Creative Commons.

Looking back can lead to trouble. Ask Lot’s wife, turned to salt for the sin of wanting to glimpse her hometown one last time. Ask Orpheus, who found Eurydice only to lose her again. In myth, this backward looking always leads to grief: seeking the thing you want destroys it, or you. Turning, we are inevitably turned.

But lately my days are spent looking back. I’m writing a book about an autumn spent in Italy ten years ago. I’m living where I lived at fourteen. I’ve returned to my high school as a writer-in-residence, as one of the adults pacing its perimeter, no longer the beating center of that adolescent world but part of the pastoral background. I might fade into it, seeking the past, but I’m more worried that the past itself might vanish. Isn’t this the latest word from certain neuroscientists? Memories aren’t stored like relics, they say, but recreated each time we summon them up from the depths they swim in, flat as undiscovered fish at the ocean’s bottom. Our memories are fragile beasts, and great risk comes with loosing them.

Better make it worth it, then. Every day, I sit on the top floor of the tallest building in town and pull words out of books, out of memory, out of thin air, as we say, though the air feels thick up here. My office is in a library designed by Louis Kahn, and I find books about the architect on the library’s shelves. I pore over sketches of the walls I lean against to read. “You say to brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’” Kahn once told his students. “Brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ If you say to brick, ‘Arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening. What do you think of that, brick?’

“Brick says,” Kahn concluded, “‘I like an arch.’”

Every day, sitting on the top floor of Kahn’s library, I think, What do you want, words? Some days, they answer: a brief sentence or a long one, a parallel structure, a phrase. Some days, they scurry out of my grasp, and I spend long hours staring at the sky beyond my window, pacing the small perimeter of my office, or reading the books of others, as if my words might be hiding behind theirs. Words are both ally and enemy in my foolhardy quest to look back: they can aid memory and they can hinder it, can carry the past or slip wholly into its clothes—a changeling, doppelgänger.



we go back when
we’ve left something behind—when, as we say, we’ve forgotten something. What have I forgotten since leaving the school? An impossible question; if I knew, I wouldn’t need to ask. I forgot about that, we say precisely when we’ve remembered it.

It’s hard to know what we have lost for sure, what we’ve left behind and won’t regain, no matter how arduously we hunt. The past can grow as nebulous as the future. “I cannot paint / What then I was,” wrote William Wordsworth after visiting the River Wye, though the past self he struggled to recall was only five years gone. I cannot paint the teenager who walked this campus, or the twenty-year-old riding a train down the spine of Italy, or the self I was yesterday, the self of an hour ago.

But every now and then the line between what is recoverable and what is truly lost becomes thick as grounded air, a mark drawn by the darkest of pens: destruction or death. Only then does remembering—turning back—reveal itself in the full extent of its fruitlessness, for the sight we hoped to see has already vanished, gone whether or not we sought it. All too often, as with Orpheus and Eurydice, the misfortune suffered was inevitable. They were never going to make it to the surface.

We know this, we humans, but we remember anyway. “Memory implies a certain act of redemption,” says the critic and novelist John Berger. Though they don’t, in fact, share a root, it’s hard not to see in the word remember the opposite of its seeming kin, dismember. To re-member can feel like putting a body back together. The false etymology promises, It’s not as futile as it seems.

The man who taught me Wordsworth’s poem died four years ago, and in returning to the place where I knew him, where he lived for so long and is now missing, I’ve decided to believe in an etymology I know to be wrong. To ignore the warning of Orpheus and look back. “What is remembered has been saved from nothingness,” Berger says. “What is forgotten has been abandoned.”



i met my teacher
when he and his wife chaperoned a term abroad in England, where we read Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley, visited the heaths of Wuthering Heights and the trails of the Lake District, and sat in a Stratford theater to watch Oberon and Titania glide across a starlit stage. I was seventeen, my days filled with reading and writing and travel and art, and it seemed possible, for the first time, that an adult life might be lived like this, not in great gulps of moments but in a sustained, and sustaining, way. I have sought such a life ever since. When I’ve been lucky enough to find it—in England, in Italy, in the long days of a Michigan summer, in the quiet of Kahn’s library—it comes like a return of that first season, an irregular clockwork. And when that life has been far from me, when I’ve been weighed with the freight of tedious jobs, harried days, bad news, errands, illness, or angst, I try to believe that my nostalgia for these elevated seasons is not weak or indulgent but a necessary reminder: there exists a life worth longing for.

One weekend we traveled to Tintern Abbey, near the banks of the River Wye. The abbey of Wordsworth’s title is a ruin now, as it was then, most of its outbuildings crumbled to their foundations. But the frame of a church still towered over the landscape, a skeleton able to stand despite the loss of muscle, tendon, and nerve. The sandstone arches that once held windows now held only sky, and grass cushioned our feet where there had been wood. Above, the roof of the nave opened, an unintended oculus letting in the light. The day of our visit was bright beyond measure, and the sun pouring through the vast openings in the stone burnished the grass to a brilliant green and the gray pillars to gold.

Detail of Tintern Abbey with sun shining through roof
Tintern Abbey. Courtesy author.

“In its countless alveoli,” writes the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, meaning small hollows found in the lungs, “space contains compressed time. That is what space is for.” Some spaces contain more than others, I think, a denser compression at work in their air and brick. I think of ruined Tintern Abbey as sunlight falls through one long window of Kahn’s library onto a rug the green of grass. I think of Stonehenge, as the afternoon goes by and that column of light shifts from one side of the room to the other, a sundial by which I live.

Beyond the window of my office is a brick parapet—What do you want, brick?—open, like Tintern, to the elements. This not-quite-building surrounds the library—a body inverted, a skeleton worn by flesh. Inspired by the Greek wreckage at Paestum, Kahn believed that architecture expressed its truest form only after ceasing to function. “I thought of wrapping ruins around buildings,” he once said, and many of his creations look like ruins in reverse, anticipating what they will become. The library’s atrium is surrounded by concrete walls, four stories high, with circular openings at their centers, as if the material had been hewn away by a giant’s hand. Floor upon floor of the library’s stacks are visible through the cut- outs, and sunshine seeps through the windows beyond the books. These openings evoke the work of the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who cut holes and gashes into abandoned buildings: a letting-in of light, a preemptive strike against time.



i saw my teacher often
when we returned to campus, and we kept in touch after I graduated. Whenever I passed through town, we’d get coffee or lunch, and I’d tell him what I was reading, what artist I was newly enamored of, where I wanted to travel next. His eyes were bright behind wire-framed glasses, and when he laughed, it filled the room. His joy was warm and loud and freely shared.

Time is compressed into the space of books he gave me over those years: an anthology of writing about baseball, a biography of Shakespeare, the collected poems of John Keats and Robert Frost. Folded and tucked into the Frost is an essay, “Symmetries,” written by my teacher in 1983, when he sat on a bench in the school’s assembly hall and listened to Jorge Luis Borges speak. “If you don’t like a book you are reading, throw it down,” the great Argentinian said, and my teacher wrote, “I laughed with those around me, laughed unnaturally hard because I wanted him to know that I had understood. And then he said, clearly, calmly, ‘My favorite poet is Robert Frost,’ and I remembered.”

What he remembered was a day in 1956 when he heard Frost read, as halting and white-haired as Borges would be twenty-seven years later. My teacher was then a sixteen-year-old student, and he wrote of that younger self, “Perhaps he knows that he must be here in order that the man whom he will become, whom he already is, be where he was when Borges spoke.”

The man he will become, the man he already is: our bodies, too, are spaces that contain compressed time, places where days we have yet to live bide their time in our bloodstream. My teacher took his title from the line in a Borges story: “Destiny takes pleasure in repetition, variants, symmetries.” I’m trying to take pleasure in the symmetry of this year, trying to worry less about what I’ve forgotten or left behind, about what and who are missing, and to concentrate my gaze on what I do remember, on what I’ve been given, tucked between pages.

my days are quiet: home office, library office, home again. I read while I eat lunch and dinner under the cathedral ceiling of the campus dining hall (another Kahn creation). I make hour-long, wandering calls of the kind we used to term long-distance to my boyfriend, back in our Midwest apartment, our real life. I’ve stepped aside from that kind of reality and like it that way, my mind unfurling in the space made by a chosen kind of silence. But silence is another difference in my return, a flaw in the symmetry. The town I lived in as a teenager was full of voices: the intensive chatter of classrooms, the shouts of the softball field, the laughter of the dormitory, where I lived in near-constant conversation with the people I loved most in the world. Every waking hour hummed with the friction of lives struck against each other, sparking.

My friends are missing, too, far from here in their own real lives: working in gleaming offices in New York and on movie sets in Los Angeles, living days we imagined in high school and days we didn’t. My best friend lives in Boston with her husband and baby, and I take the train down to sit with her over plates and glasses and talk about the strangeness of that real life, hers, how it came to be and how it cannot be undone. Mine can’t be, either, but it doesn’t feel that way. Returning, it feels as if I might reset, might proceed in any direction. I’m at the center of a Borgesian maze, and I can choose any path.

Rereading my teacher’s emails, I’ve been surprised by how long they are, how full of reminiscences and recommendations and details of his travels and health—while my own, embarrassingly, are too often brief and apologetic. I was always running off: to a college class, to work, to see friends.

I see him every day—Borges. Photographs of the school’s visiting writers line the walls of my office, and the picture of Borges rests at eye-level, across from where I sit at my desk. His hands have been captured mid-gesture, vibrating with articulation, and I can make out the lines of an open palm. The picture was taken when he visited the campus in 1983. In “Symmetries,” my teacher wrote of the Borges he met that day, now gesturing from the wall, “As if too heavy for his neck, his head swayed, nodded, felt for the dimensions, the movement, in this new room, his obverted eyes scanning the misty darkness of which he formed the core.”

Borges doesn’t look out at me, as so many of the other portraits do. He is fixed in profile, half-turned, looking—if not back, I admit, not forward either. He speaks to someone who isn’t there—or rather, to someone who was there and is no longer, to someone in that middle distance just beyond the frame.

time is compressed and contained in pictures on a wall, pages of a book, pixels through which, these days, we keep in touch, a euphemism now dismembered from the body. Trying to re-member my teacher, I’ve been reading emails he sent me over the years. In one, he recalls a conversation we had that fall in England, leaving a play and walking out into a slight rain, when I spoke with some effusive affection and he felt our friendship begin to take its sweet and lucky shape. It was a kind and wonderful email to receive, arriving just when I needed a reminder of the love I could have for the world, and the clarity with which I could see it.

(Rereading my teacher’s emails, I’ve been surprised by how long they are, how full of reminiscences and recommendations and details of his travels and health—while my own, embarrassingly, are too often brief and apologetic. I was always running off: to a college class, to work, to see friends. Why is this surprising? Why did I think I’d written as diligently as he had? I can only guess that the correspondence of five or six or seven years ago has been superseded, in my memory, by the unwritten exchange of the past few years, when I have had so much to tell him—long letters unspooling in my mind—and he has been unable to reply.)

In the work that occupies my days, much goes unwritten, unremembered. The book I’m writing is an attempt to limit this loss, to wring every word from a single season, to make it last. Whole swathes of our lives are reduced, a summer just a sentence, days and years vanishing into the white spaces between. Yet here, in my teacher’s email, a small dam rises against the flood: The briefest of moments is remembered and described at length, given its due. More than, in fact—my teacher often recalled this moment when we spoke after the play. He mentions it in a short note, in the inscription of a gifted book, and in that email, where he begins the story by saying, “I remember still, quite vividly…”

But I don’t. I don’t remember it at all. I’ve tried, like a detective on a cold trail, to find this non-memory—rereading the play we’d seen, the paper I wrote about it—to no use. This absence knocks the wind from me. The pain of missing my teacher is compounded by guilt: I didn’t correspond as generously as he had; I didn’t remember as carefully, as vitally. I was given this moment, flush with joy and recognition—I was given it, once, and I didn’t take care of it. I let it go. How, then, can I possibly beg for more? What right do I have to wish him back from the dead?

“if one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open, one would have to tell the story of one’s entire life,” writes Bachelard. I pass the dormitory door I once lived behind, laughter and ambition on the other side of its uncrossable threshold. I open a door to the library instead, one of two: Kahn’s building offers a choice at every turn. Two entrances mirror each other, and two sides of a travertine staircase rise from the ground-floor foyer to the atrium. On the top floor, I reach my office by turning right, or left. Kahn’s symmetries would put me in mind, were I not already there, of Borges and his own repeating library, his forking paths.

But it’s “Borges and I” that I think of, on days when the words don’t want to be anything at all, and we sit in my office through the long afternoon—Borges and I. I look at him, and he doesn’t look back. In the story, the author imagines his doppelgänger: “It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to.” From the hushed height of the library (the floor is locked to students and holds no other offices) it starts to seem as if there must be an other me, a real one, to whom things happen. She lives our real life, and I’m just here to write about it. On days when I don’t speak to anyone, when I slip up the stairwell unseen and startle at my own reflection in the windows, I feel like a ghost, peering down through the absent architecture at the living below. Unfathomable that I was once among them. Equally unfathomable that I’m—that she’s—not there still, in this place she loved so well, for so long.

So often the self that we forget is worth forgetting, one of our many dull, wasteful, or ungrateful selves—how we’d like to forget the times we have been cruel or hasty or humiliated, however slightly—but occasionally it is not.

There is both a privilege and a pressure bound up in the act of return. When I take the train into Boston, it passes, unstopping, through the brick-ridden mill towns where I grew up, and I crane my neck to glimpse the church my mother took me to most Sundays, the pizza place we ordered from, the high cupola of the library where I borrowed as many books as I could carry. I pass a road I know better than any other. If I disembarked here and followed it through the woods, out of sight of the tracks, it would take me to a quiet intersection, a stone wall, a grassy hill giving way to trees. There I once pulled from a battered mailbox a letter that said I was welcome at the school I’d been dreaming of, that my tuition would be paid by generous strangers, that I could spend the next four years reading and thinking and meeting others who wanted to read and think, who would show me how such a life might be lived. And there, too, atop the hill beyond the mailbox, the house I returned to every summer—the house my mother grew up in—once stood, before it was demolished. Bachelard says, speaking of the homes in which we were children, “All the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme.”

Variations are repetitions gone wrong: the rhyme missed, the room askew. We reach for a knob and find it missing. It is on the right side of the door, not the left. Our hand has forgotten, or remembered all too well. I glance up from my book in the dining hall, and my heart lifts—but no, the head of thick silver turns and belongs, suddenly, to a stranger.

something has been salvaged. Some part of my life that I failed to keep safe has persisted despite my failing, first in his memory and then in the words he wrote: a slight hill, a light rain, a happy conversation. I couldn’t remember the moment, it’s true, but now I can—I’ve read those words so many times the scene they describe rises behind my closed eyes. And if this memory is a false one, not remembered but re-created, what does it matter? Borges wrote intricate, essayistic fictions about books that didn’t exist. We imagine the past as much as we imagine the future. We build the structures that house us, that keep us, out of thin air.

It’s not until the last verse paragraph of his long poem that Wordsworth turns from the River Wye to reveal that someone stands beside him:

For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart.…
                          … Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once.

So often the self that we forget is worth forgetting, one of our many dull, wasteful, or ungrateful selves—how we’d like to forget the times we have been cruel or hasty or humiliated, however slightly—but occasionally it is not. Occasionally, we have reason to believe that we may have forgotten better moments, moments when we were our better selves. May I behold in thee what I was once. What a fragile, vitreous thing, the impermanent space that is another person.

In his foreword to the book that ends with “Borges and I,” the author dedicates the volume to an older poet, imagining a scene in which he presents his elder with the finished work, though the man has been dead for many years. “My vanity and my nostalgia have confected a scene that is impossible,” Borges writes. “Maybe so, I tell myself, but tomorrow I too will be dead and our times will run together and chronology will melt into an orb of symbols, and somehow it will be true to say that I have brought you this book and that you have accepted it.”

I cannot paint what then I was, Wordsworth said, but he did—however faintly, however flawed. He wrote of “little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love,” though they were not, and are not, unremembered after all. Such acts can put a body back together, can build a ruin in reverse. The scene might seem fantastical: grass growing through the floor, sunlight pouring through the vanished glass. But I remember still, quite vividly: it was true. Somehow, it was and will be true. I have turned, am turned, and find myself surrounded: Not only pillars but arches and lintels, parapets and balconies, friezes and domes of glittering white. Not only a building but a city—as ruined as Paestum, and as beautiful. Here we stand. There we stood. I have brought you this book.

Mairead Small Staid was the 2017-2018 George Bennett Fellow at Phillips Exeter Academy. Her first book is The Traces. @maireadsmst
Originally published:
June 28, 2021

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