2016.12.17 : topographic narrative, narrative topography

It’s snowing. I don’t think we’ll manage a white christmas this year, because the temperature is expected to continue to go up, but right now, the roofs of the houses are disappearing into the white cloud cover of the sky, and the haze of snowflakes rushing towards the earth is hazing up my vision. 

It’s the sort of weather that is perfect for staying inside. There’s light reflected off the various newly whitened surfaces of the sky and the buildings and the earth, but it’s made soft. 

This is the weather that makes leaving hard to imagine. My room in my parents’ house has excellent windows. I have a bay window that faces south, and a huge window that faces west. I get beautiful warm afternoon light, and even in the morning, my room glows with natural light. 

Topography, geography, and architecture––the aesthetics of place––are of particular interest and importance to me. All spaces, shared and personal, are composed of the complexity of interaction and occupation. (I am attempting to escape my tendency to speak of “ownership,” both because it limits my thinking and because it contributes to a destructive interpretation of reality and experience.) But just as my parents each have their home office, into which I may walk and even perhaps take a book off a shelf, or borrow a tool, the understanding is that the space and its contents are under the purview and primary usage of someone else and that I am a guest. However, I find, that their occupation of the shared space of the sun room, and the dog’s persistent usage of the couch in that room as a bed means that I am alienated from that space. Not that I am unwelcome, but because it is a shared environment, the rules are less defined about usage and occupation, in that they are dependent on the other occupants, in a manner that leaves me uncertain how to proceed.

I contrast this to my experience of cities and streets and other public spaces (not simply shared ones). Cities have always held power over me. I love the way they feel: complicated, alive, communal, disinterested. They feed my desire to know that other people exist, and are alive, and are living, while allowing me the veil of anonymity and its associated confidence. 

Public spaces demand a certain vigilance: you are surrounded by strangers, but like any good party, you have an invitation and no one will ask you what you’re doing there, as long as you make a good show of belonging. 

More than that, cities are also made up of strips, sequences of travel. Commutes and favorite haunts are habits that become extensions of the self. We develop familiarities with the landscape and its inhabitants. A favorite graffito, a fellow commuter, a notable architectural feature, a crack in the sidewalk. We develop itineraries of place that keep us tied to the physical world. 

Personally, I build ant’s eye views of all the cities I visit, and the places I live. Like medieval travel maps I build sequential images in my head that tie one place to another. With enough time, those sequences will start to overlap and become branching webs of options marking all the turns that connect the places I frequent to one another. Sometimes I look up and find a landmark of significant height to serve as a beacon (the Acropolis serves particularly well, when in Athens) to get me back to where I started. But maps and other bird’s eye views have never really helped me. I find it easier to navigate in the dips and swells of the topography, from hills to sidewalk cracks, and the rhythm of travel, the rush of landmarks as you push your pace to make it to work on time, the number of breaths and turns along the bus route, where the road opens up and you can hit the gas. 

Places are something felt, a somatic experience, a story told with the body, rather than something one walks through or inhabits to carry on the intricacies of existence. 

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