Since Lena began walking, I’ve wanted to write about watching her explore her environment. Over and over, I hesitated because the writing seemed either too bombastic or too precious. But as spring has sprung and we’re basically living outside on the warm sunny days, it’s constantly on my mind and I finally decided, to hell with it. I need to pull together these bits and pieces.
I’ve spent a great deal of time in the last decade thinking about spaces. Public spaces, private spaces, and those in-between. How people create, furnish, and occupy them. This started when I was a graduate student researching and writing about urban spaces and gentrifying neighborhoods. As an archivist, I’m regularly concerned with the widespread issue of too little space and how to get creative with the room we have.
Two years ago we bought a house and I quickly became obsessed with how I wanted my home to feel and how it could best function for our family. This reached a fever pitch last year when I took a part-time job in a lovely mid-century modern consignment shop. I could spend all day fantasizing about outfitting my house with beautiful vintage furnishings and what life among those things would look like.
In an oddly tidy fashion, I’m now back in the world of archives working with collections that focus on architectural and landscape design, so my internal conversation about space continues as I learn about designers, planners, and the process of space making.
But what’s really launched this fascinating theory forward is observing my toddler as she interacts with her environment. She has a compulsion to physically interact with a space, just like any active kid. She observes details like a hole in a tree trunk or the decorative metal element on an old door. When I was a kid, I remember noticing these things, too–how the pine trees behind my neighbors house grew denser the farther we walked; how the light in my room crept in differently depending on the time of day. It’s like every experience stood out as a unique thing, before the synapses connected together to create a familiar script that didn’t require any further exploration. As I’ve grown older I’ve stopped observing things. For instance, I never noticed how kids walking along 34th Street, a place I spend a great deal of time, always hop up on the cobblestone incline between the sidewalk and the bit of grass that rests on slightly higher plane. Someone else pointed it out to me, and now that I know it’s there, I can’t help but smile as I watch them, unable to control the urge to learn how their body feels walking at that angle.
Why does any of this matter? I’m not sure I can articulate it precisely. On one hand it’s a spiritual lesson. I’m learning to slow down, to notice, to appreciate. Lena is teaching me. I still have to fight the urge to say, “No, don’t climb that, you might get hurt.” Instead, I take a small step back, spotting her from a reasonable distance. She’s experimenting and learning to trust her body. I can either get in the way and block that experience or I can allow her the space to try and to grow.
It feels like an artistic endeavor, too. In my 9-5 job I’m learning about the process of designing spaces; at home I’m observing the product of that creative expression. And there’s something very satisfying about allowing those worlds to enrich and inform one another.
I’m sure I’ll have much more to add to these ramblings in the years to come. I have a pretty smart tour guide who also happens to look pretty good in a tutu.