It’s Christmastime in the city

I’m back! Admittedly, I haven’t been in the celebrating — or blogging — spirit in the past month; ’tis the season for final papers and presentations (now completed!), and a beloved family member passed away over the Thanksgiving holiday. But I’ve been coerced out of my hermitage by an annual magpie-like weakness against the lure of sparkly things: I’m a bit of a Christmas light enthusiast.

Unlike last year, I didn’t make a trip around town to admire the Rockefeller tree and shop windows, and the circuits in my lovely old apartment don’t take too fondly to overuse. Still, Christmas found its way to me, from the lit display of trees for sale down the road, turning the sidewalk air to pine, to the lights above the supermarket that I found mid-stringing. The light-highlight was another happy accident; on campus, I bumped into a crowd awaiting Columbia’s annual Christmas tree lighting, and shivered along with them until the shapes of trees lining our main walkway appeared, white-dotted and shining. I have a longstanding partiality to lines of lit trees; when I was a child in Houston, the image epitomizing the holidays for me was Post Oak Boulevard. My family would make an outing of driving down the road, under its chrome arches and between its seemingly endless rows of tree-lights. I have always loved how we reinvent places with light, infusing branches, outlining eaves and columns and, especially in NYC, fire escapes, using our built (and planted) environment as a means of expressing this inescapable sense of seasonal joy.

Christmas lights on Post Oak Boulevard in Houston, photo by Brent Allen Thale

Columbia in anticipation of light

Columbia trees lit

College Walk, Columbia

on Broadway, how New Yorkers buy Christmas trees

decking the market

Dates and foundations

Vera Taylor, 1920-2010

I spend quite a lot of time considering what it means to spend time. One conclusion I have reached is that, to me, dates are objective correlatives, talismans of memory. I tend to equate forgottenness with loss; if I will have no way of recalling in exactly a year’s time what I was doing on today’s date, the present seems doomed to oblivion.

Maybe parallel thoughts led my grandmother, Vera Taylor, to begin the journal that she kept for decades. Cursive words and a stack of black, bound volumes hold a daily chronicle of her life: where she went, what she did, and who was there. She held phone conversations at her desk, jotting the news she learned from family and friends; when she would ask for a name to be spelled, I knew what I had said somehow merited recording. She noted special meals, and sometimes seemingly mundane ones; “Don’t you want to remember what you ate for breakfast growing up?” she would ask, enticing me with the threat of lost memories, however small, to start a journal of my own. But I never did for more than a few weeks at a try, and Grandma remained the only diarist in the family. Through the years, we had many evenings of cherry pie and debates over family chronology — attempts at calculating the date when someone’s old friend came to visit, or when someone lost a tooth — that Grandma always concluded with, “Let me check my journal.”

I will never forget what I was doing on this date last year, when I drove with my parents and sister from Grandma’s home in New Braunfels to the town of Uvalde in southwest Texas. I remember the day as a series of passed places: the house where Grandma’s mother lived, where my dad remembered visiting his own grandmother; the singing school where Grandma’s father-in-law, my great-grandfather, taught — now an empty lot; the department store where my grandfather worked long ago; the cemetery where he was buried, and where we lay Grandma beside him, one year ago today. Places are talismans of memory, too.

The last direction my life took that Grandma was aware of, was that I would soon be entering the Historic Preservation program at Columbia’s architecture school. When I told her of my plans, she said that Grandpa, who had owned a lumber yard and was a self-taught architect, would be proud. She insisted that I lay claim to his old drafting table, although I can’t claim a single bit of his design talent, and from a back room she retrieved sets of Grandpa’s blueprints for the houses he designed and built for his (my) family. To the degree that my being a preservationist is genetic, a large portion of those genes come from Grandpa, and an equally large portion from Grandma. I know that she is just as much to blame because of the fact that those blueprints were folded in a box labeled “blueprints,” one of many labeled boxes in her house, and that her immediate response to my announcement was to reach for her journal. Grandma was the archivist of her own history and, therefore, of mine.

Today, then, seems a fitting date on which to begin this blog. storybuilding is not a journal per se, but a means of preserving my own experiences and thoughts, not because I assume their worth to anyone else but because I value them for my time spent. Here is where I will store stories and write about adventures that occur, ideas that occur to me — usually about preservation, and its intersections with literature and art — and perhaps occasionally, just for the record, what I ate for breakfast.