Tuesday, August 13, 2013


The other day, I emerged from my house and spied a massive spider web strung across my entry walkway, from the Japanese Tree Lilac to the Rose Mallow--an appreciable distance. The bulk of the web was off to the side nearest the Tree Lilac, thus enabling us to pass under it without harming this remarkable display of fortitude. Returning from the grocery store, one of our neighbors greeted us: he did not wish us to walk into it, so he destroyed the web. 

A rush of conflicting emotions short-circuited my ability to respond: how very thoughtful, but...oh my gosh! You destroyed her home! I felt a pang of sadness, and thought of Charlotte (yes, E.B. White fans). The next day, the web reappeared, but I could not get a decent picture of it in the sun. 
Today's violent early morning storms erased all traces of it. I wonder what happened to Charlotte. Was she washed away with the torrent of water rushing down the street and side-walk? Did she cling to the underside of a Tree Lilac leaf and thus survive our "emergency alert" producing storms?

That perfect "arch" across my walkway evoked a "memory" of sorts.

For twenty-five years (4 July 1906 - 7 December 1931), a majestic and (in my opinion) unusual arch stood in front of Denver's Union Station. Greeting arriving visitors, the arch proudly offered a hearty "welcome" in large font across the main, decorative massive steel beam which was supported by two square columns, and flanked on either side by two smaller entryways.

Yet the arch received its name from the word that appeared on the other, city-facing side: Mizpah (מִצְפָּה), a Hebrew word meaning, in its simplest articulation, a watchtower.

It makes some sense, for the grand arch, "wider than a basketball court is long," stood watch over thousands of passengers entering and departing the Mile High via rail service.

But its more nuanced, substantive meaning derives from Genesis 31: 44-49:

"'Come, then, let us [Laban and Jacob] make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.' And Jacob said to his kinsmen, 'Gather stones'. So they took stones and made a mound; and they partook of a meal there by the mound....And Laban declared, 'This mound is a witness between you and me this day'...and it was called Mizpah because he said, 'May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of sight of each other.'"

Mind you, this tale of Jacob and Laban is one of deceit; hence a "watchtower" or "policing presence" seemed quite necessary. But how Mizpah came to signify the emotional bond between people who are separated by geography or by death (the word is often found on Jewish tombstones) is thus beyond me, unless of course we equate this watchtower with commitment; commitment with integrity; integrity with trust; and trust with connection. Talmudic scholars: please advise!

No matter: Denver's Mizpah Arch stood as a physical testament to the very bonds of love--romantic, filial, Platonic, or otherwise--that make us human and embed us in community with each other. Indeed, Mayor Robert Speer's dedication evoked that deeper meaning: the arch, he declared, "would stand 'for ages as an expression of love, good wishes and kind feelings of our citizens to the stranger who enters our gates.'" Obviously, his words were not that prophetic. (A small group of very influential--read: wealthy and politically connected--Denverites are trying to resurrect the arch, though very little movement seems to have been made since a 2009 fund-raising event.)

Architectures of transition--our arches and arbors and pergolas and hallways and tunnels--matter. They help demarcate and link different spaces, and, through their function of connection, help define zones of activity.  But they matter for a much deeper reason.

These architectures of transition also are a particular kind of space in and of themselves and thus deserve more sustained reflection and attention, and command respect we otherwise fail to give them. For passing through them, we transition: we connect and separate simultaneously. The American artist James Turrell understands this. I think here of his "Skyspace" at the Live Oaks Friends Meeting House (in Houston) and his tunnel of light (formally, "The Wilson Tunnel") at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where I worked for two years. [A superb, brief video with views of both can be found here.]

The transition is simultaneously a movement (an action), and a space (a thing). Only in stillness are we able to understand both.

I think of Charlotte (the spider) and her home (my improbable arch), and I stare upon my arbor, and I wonder: Denver's Mizpah Arch had it just right. Our architectures of transitions are at their best when they force us to stop, if only for a moment, and acknowledge and pay homage to our very human propensities to connect and love, to separate and distinguish, and to ease our movement when we need to move.

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