The Space Between

My sister and I grew up in Cambridge, Paris, and London, in homes whose walls were hung with framed maps and charts. One of my father’s prized possessions is his collection of antique Baedeker guidebooks, and their elegant red spines lined the walls of any living room we’ve ever had. The first step in any family trip (of which there were many — a standard Christmas present in my family was the promise of a trip) was to consult the guidebook and the map and determine a course. For my father, maps contained both certainty and romance, a clarity about direction and a whispered promise of adventures ahead. To believe in maps as passionately as did my father requires both a commitment to order and a conviction about the importance and reachability of the destination.

The map was also about the travels of a life, broadly defined. Early on, through some process much more implicit than explicit, I absorbed his message that happiness and success came from following the path of highest achievement. I navigated from point to point on a very clearly delineated map: from one externally-validated achievement to another.

My father is a physicist. He has a master’s degree in Physics, a PhD in Engineering, and an abiding trust in the ability of science, logic, and measurement to explain the world. He has a looseleaf notebook filled with derivations he has worked out for fun. The pages contain diagrams and formulas, all carefully noted in his brown fountain pen script. My favorite is the hand-drawn image of the circle around Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. Dad’s idea of fun was trying to determine the angles between the various side streets that lead into the circle. During our family’s first overseas adventure, Dad sat up at night in our tiny apartment with the heavy, dusty velvet curtains, chewing his pipe as he worked out how to break down this new city in the mathematical formulas he knew so well.

Dad had a second message that he returned to over and over again, a theme whose directive would weave itself around the emphasis on maps and science into a complicated fiber that twined through my childhood. That was that I needed to find the thing I was truly passionate about. Even as he defined the map that I ought to follow, he implored me to pause in my ceaseless rush to the next great thing to figure out what subjects lit my intellect and heart on fire.

For my father, this passion was the history of Europe, and it provided the other pole that defined my childhood. For all of his unshakable, PhD-scientist-trained belief in the rational, my father also respected, even worshiped, the power of that which defied reason. The ways that European history and art — wars, crusades, cathedrals, tapestries — manifested humanity’s wonder in the face of that truth that exists beyond logic fascinated my father. He stumbled into this passion during his Fulbright year in Germany, and his interest propelled our whole family across the Atlantic not just once but twice.

Dad’s abiding faith in the life of the rational mind is matched by his profound wonder at the power of the ineffable, the territory of religious belief, that which is beyond the intellect. I grew up in the space between these two seemingly opposite poles, and instinctively understood the ways in which their paradox could be understood as both opposite and utterly meshed.

From Dad I learned that at the outmost limits of science, where the world and its phenomena can be understood and categorized with equations and right and wrong answers, there flits the existence of something less distinct. The finite and the infinite are not as bifurcated as it’s tempting to think, I learned, and the way they bleed together enriches them both.

My Dad, the man who worked out derivations for fun, has also stood next to me in cathedrals in Italy, looking up at stained glass rose windows with frank reverence on his face. For all of his stubborn rationality and fierce belief that everything can be explained, he also suspected, I think, that some things could not. In fact I think for my father, despite how trained and steeped he is in the language of equations and proofs, the parts of the human experience — often expressed and experienced, for him, through great cultural gestures — that cannot be captured by the empirical are the most meaningful.

In the spring of 1997, my first year out of college, Hilary, Mum, Dad, and I went to Italy for a week. We traveled to several different cities in Italy, but the one I remember particularly vividly was Assisi. On a brilliant, sunny day the four of us had lunch at an outdoor café in the shadow of the cathedral. We laughed, remembering “ADC,” another damn cathedral, our childhood shorthand complaint about yet another visit to yet another gorgeous European relic. Hilary and I tried to make a list on a paper napkin of the cathedrals we had visited with Dad, and soon realized we had no idea.

Dad looked at us appraisingly across the round metal table. He sipped his glass of red wine, his eyes holding a challenge: what did we remember? We remembered how often Mum, with her tendency towards vertigo, waited in the courtyard of a cathedral, people watching or reading as the three of us climbed untold steps. Hilary and I would look for her from the top of the various churches’ spires, waving wildly, trying to get her attention. Hilary reminded me that I liked to count the steps as we went up, and often snapped at her when she asked me questions, pleading with her not to make me lose count. I remembered how Hilary and I insisted on lighting candles in every cathedral we visited, slipping coins into rusty boxes labeled with hand-written signs whose language and handwriting were both foreign, selecting a white, waxy taper from the neat stacks. These minute details we remembered. The sum total of the cathedrals we had visited, and their names? We had no idea.

After lunch, newly reminded of the number of historical, beautiful relics we had not appreciated, recommitted to really keeping our eyes open, Hilary and I trailed Mum and Dad into Assisi cathedral. It was midweek and while we weren’t alone in the space, it was not crowded. We moved slowly through the dim hush, necks craned to look up, admiring the frescoes and stained glass windows. As we walked towards the back of the church we heard the faint sound of a choir singing, and I realized the voices were coming from downstairs. I looked at Hilary, smiling, knowing that she, too, recognized “Abide With Me” from our years at St. Paul’s Girls School in London.

In silence, the four of us descended the first staircase, the singing growing louder as we did. In this lower level the choir was visible behind an ornate metal grille. The ceiling was lower than upstairs but the space was still majestic, walls covered with ornate frescoes and gold-limned paintings. Another, narrower set of stairs stood across the long room and I headed down them, eyes flickering to Mum and making sure she noticed that I did so. The stairs led to the crypt, where the ceiling was markedly lower, the decoration simpler, and the space lit entirely by candles. I flashed briefly to a tour I’d taken of the catacombs under Paris with my Dad when I was six, where the rows of skulls had terrified me. I could still close my eyes and see them.

Down here, the voices from the choir from upstairs were hushed, haunting, a distant chanting. Candlelight flickered on the frescoed walls. I stood still, looking at the walls, feeling the smell of mold and incense and centuries that seemed familiar and unique at the same time. I felt something inside me dislodge and I began to cry.

I was overcome with tears and a torrent of emotions I could neither understand nor tame. Embarrassed, I tried to wipe the tears from my face, shaking my head as though I could dislodge whatever had descended on me. I noticed that a couple of tourists across the crypt were whispering to each other, looking at me. What was going on? The tears flooded down my face faster than I could wipe them away with the quickly-soaked sleeve of my cotton shirt I felt a hand on my shoulder and whipped around, startled. It was Hilary. I could see Dad over her shoulder, crouched by the candle-circled tomb at the other end of the crypt. Hilary’s eyes were full of questions but she just smiled and whispered, “We’ll be upstairs.” I nodded, unable to speak for fear that I’d start wailing. I turned away and feigned that I was looking at the fresco on the wall so that Dad wouldn’t see my wet face.

That day, in the crypt at Assisi, was the first time I felt that creature stirring inside my chest, that sensation that I’d observed so many times playing across on my father’s face. The world both shrunk and yawned open that day, as all at once I saw the shimmering possibilities that existed beyond the world of clear-cut achievement and the challenges of reconciling that with the path I was already headed down.

Dad introduced me — never explicitly, but through the example of his passions — to the fact that something can be true and its opposite can also be true. Dad was the one who taught me about life’s ability to hold two poles in one hand. Even more, he taught me that often life insisted on that. That day in Assisi was the first time those two poles collided inside of me: I was following the map, believing utterly in its ability to make the world clear and comprehensible to me, barreling straight into my second Ivy League degree, and yet something inchoate, something deeply buried was making itself known. Something beyond the reaches of this logical understanding of the world was agitating in me, and beseeching me to pay attention. It took me years to understand that the whisper of that voice was more important than the external world’s clearly-defined map, to understand how to make the two coexist in a peaceful way inside of me. Dad’s deep but deeply buried spirituality underscores all of his adamant belief in the life of the rational mind, and from him I learned that these two ways of being in the world could — even, should — coexist. And now, almost 20 years later, an MBA and a writer, I continue to live in the fertile, complicated space that my father first defined for me so many years ago.

Lindsey Mead writes regularly at A Design So Vast. You also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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