24 September, 2010

A Desk With A View

A few weeks ago while enjoying my morning ritual of walking through the New York Times (online edition) and pausing for whatever catches my eye, I noticed a reference to a continuing project: “Windows on the World – A series in which writers from around the world describe the view from their windows.” I liked this idea and resolved that I would make a similar effort with my colleagues on campus. What do you see out your window (or skylight for some)? How do you interpret it? What do you think about as you look (stare?)?

I approached others who shared an interest in writing, and they were encouraging. As a first step I needed to try it, of course, and what follows is my first draft. I suspect the piece I shall ultimately share will be quite different, but I shall start by taking the easy road – just an inventory accompanied by first impressions. It will be too literal for what I really want, but it’s a start. And isn't it always best to begin at the beginning? What comes later will … come later. Not a bad plan.

My office has an incredible window. Through what is essentially an eight-foot-wide picture window, one looks northward. In the distance and across the Mohawk River rise the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. On this day in late September, the leaves on the trees are
just beginning to tease with hints of the riot of color that will soon explode across my horizon. It is difficult, however, to look at those hills and not think about the enormous expanse of time required first to build them into brash young mountains and then wear them back down until little remains but the wisdom of age. With further reflection, of course, it’s hard not to ponder the similar but briefer cycle that is my own life.

From my desk and gazing toward those hills, I look across a huge expanse of green lawn containing practice fields for soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse as well as the baseball diamond and a football stadium. These usually lie vacant during the hours I work, but occasionally if I remain until very late in the afternoon, they begin to come alive with energetic young college students practicing all of those skills that their coaches repeatedly insist are essential for a successful life. Aside from having a healthy body and learning to persist or be a team player, I must admit I have never quite understood what those essential skills are. I do, however, like such busyness, and it’s a reminder of enjoyable afternoons I spent playing baseball many years ago and very much earlier in my own life's cycle.

Nevertheless, I also like it when those fields are empty, especially in early morning when they are covered with dew and long shadows cast by scattered trees partially blocking the best efforts of a rising sun. That’s the Hour of the Birds - American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) mostly, but soon hundreds and hundreds of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) will stop over on their long journey southward. We’ll say our good-byes, but they will return in a few months just as they have for millennia – reminding me once again of the amazing cycles of life on Earth.

Closer to me are a couple of large boulders – each supporting large bronze plates containing the names of those who stopped by the college for a few - some for many - years before retiring from sharing themselves, their experiences, and their accumulated wisdom with generations of students. I have to wonder if I will be remembered by the students to whom I so willingly gave all that I could. Will I be remembered by a college for whom I did the same for all or parts of five decades? William James has offered that “The best use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts life.” So I wonder, “Did I?” Would it not be a way, after all, to stretch my personal cycle many years beyond what is normally expected?

And closest to me is The Tree. For nearly a year I have photographed The Tree almost everyday - always from the same window, the same visual angle, the same resolution. What is emerging is a compelling illustration of the cycle of life as The Tree begins our year by offering us the deep rich greens of summer’s bounty. Before long, however, we are shocked by a thousand branches clad in the bright oranges of autumn - followed all too soon by those same branches, now bare, standing in stark contrast to winter's snow. Soon enough though, hints of newborn green begin to emerge from the many mists of spring.

What an incredible view I have from my window! One has to wonder how on earth I ever get lectures prepared or examinations graded. That, I fear, is a mystery almost as great as the mystery behind the many cycles that provoke and entertain me from day to day, week to week, and year to year.