On Rooftops in Cambridge and That Elusive Feeling of Hereness

When they go low, you go high
MAY 2019
Cathy
W.
Brain and Cognitive Sciences

A long time ago, I climbed a roof here.

Though I should clarify and revise; this is, after all, an institute built on precision. Recently, a professor returned a response paper I had written with a comment that read, this is all very interesting, but this is a rigorous field, and you need to say exactly what you mean.

So instead, six years ago, I climbed a roof here at MIT, this one, at the end of a very strange summer. It was the last week of August, it was well after midnight, I was exhausted and eager, I was 18.

If you have never seen the Kresge auditorium, but you harbor secret dreams of scaling rooftops, know that this is a building that beckons to you. Its roof is domed and pale green and curves low to the ground. Metal joints arc across it like ribs.

To the undergraduates here, this climbing of buildings will be unsurprising and probably also passe. The undergrads here are young and spry and adventurous; by comparison I, at the tender age of twenty three, am old hat. But I came to that rooftop during months when I could be surprised by any kind of firm footing. I was working in an electrical engineering lab, where most days I tried to glue tiny strips of aluminum foil to sheets of plastic, and to avoid asking questions. For the whole summer in Cambridge, I had brought $200 and a week’s worth of T-shirts and a bedsheet that would turn out not to fit.

Back then I was so hungry and uncertain — I was there because I had read about an engineer in a magazine and emailed him out of the blue. When I arrived he asked a litany of questions about what I knew how to do, and I nodded at all of them. At night I lived on packets of Japanese curry, which I warmed in a rice cooker I found on sale for five dollars at Sears.

When I climbed Kresge I was with four other friends. We were all going to college — we’ll stay close and talk often, we promised each other up there. Earlier this year I came across the photo we took at the top. We turned the camera on ourselves, of course, but when I see this picture I think of the view looking outwards, the floodlights and the lit-up sculpture of the Alchemist with his knees to his chest and the jewelbox shine of the gym. We sat there on the dome, surrounded by the fact of our leaving, and laughed about how the whole world was shifting beneath us. We hung over the edge to look down at the ground. I can still remember how I felt, recklessly present — we were in this place, and it was all around us.

All my best and clearest memories of that summer, really, are of high-up places. Most were easy to get to — staircases, elevators, unlocked doors, all unexceptional except for the simple fact of their tallness. At a friend’s dorm, we dragged a couch out on a balcony and fell asleep there. At 7am we woke to a fire alarm and stumbled down to the sidewalk, half-awake and howling at jokes that I wrote down because they were so incredibly funny and that were completely unintelligible to me by 3pm that afternoon. Another time a friend snuck us onto a rooftop in Harvard Square and we leaned over the parapet, watching the cars go by in the night.

On my last day in Cambridge, I took the elevator up to the highest floor I could find at MIT and watched the sun going down through a window until it was dark.

---

At the start of this year, I talked to a friend in California. We did our undergrad out there together, and he stayed on for grad school. I asked him whether he was grateful for the continuity.

It’s still the same campus, he said, and then paused. I never used to work in the computer science building before, he said. Now I go there every day, and I stay until I go to the gym, and then I wait until the traffic dies down, and then I drive home.

I was startled — my life here in Cambridge is not like that at all. There are restaurants and movies and free tickets to the orchestra. The other day I saw a presentation on moving to Antarctica, and another on the neuroscience of tickling rats. I have four roommates whom I love so deeply that it shocks me, sometimes; a few days ago I came home to find one of them baking a fresh loaf of bread while classical music played in the kitchen, and I felt like I had walked in on a domestic miracle. I work in a wonderful lab. I work in a wonderful building. It is still early enough in my degree that I am pretty much excited all of the time, pretty much every day.

And yet.

Sometimes I forget that Cambridge is also a place unto itself. With secrets, with a taproot of history. Maybe this is a product of newness and change, but some days, walking home at night along unfamiliar roads, I feel like a stranger again here.

A few weeks ago I got a haircut. I told the hairdresser that I actually lived just by the borderline, where Cambridge runs into Somerville.

“I grew up in Somerville,” she said. “I loved it there.”

“I love it too,” I said, but she shook her head and said: “It’s changed so much, it’s barely recognizable anymore.”

Afterwards I felt guilty, as if I were just pretending to know where I was. It’s been many years since that summer after high school — since then I have rarely felt as I did then, adrift in every direction, and I did not feel that now.

Still, after I spoke to the hairdresser, the next days had something of the same flavor: as if I were missing something I wasn’t sure how to look for, here without being here.

One day I woke up with the conviction that I needed to start by returning to tall places. There was nothing to do, then, but go and find them.

--

I went to a hill.

As tall places go, it was a really excellent one. The peak of Mt. Auburn is at the center of cemetery, which is not actually morbid, but instead strangely serene. Up top there is a stone tower with a parapet and a spiraling staircase; from its ledge you can see the river and the outlines of Boston and Cambridge, all those spires and skyscrapers and homes. I had meant to go for weeks, but then the weather turned cold, and I took classes with deadlines, and started research with deadlines, and eventually I wasn’t sure I would go until I did.

What can I say? It was nice, I had known it would be nice. On the day that I went, there was a pair of women taking photographs, and a couple holding each other, and a boy with a backpack hanging onto the rail while his father listed off names of distant buildings, some of which I didn’t know. As I looked out I felt a shock of nostalgia, and then a little disingenuous — I had come partly because I wanted to write this story, and was already shaping an outline of what I would say.

While I stood I tried to write down the importance of tall places and came up with 20 things that had all been said before. The clarity of your own smallness; the way that over any balcony, the world feels both more distant and more present, immense and startlingly here. Perspective, I thought stupidly. It felt so simple and literal and also, true.

In the months before coming to graduate school — when I was not sure, in fact, that I would come — I ate dinner with a group of prospective students and a professor who worked in computer vision. He was a smart and funny man, prone to saying smart and funny things.

“All of my students think they have great new ideas”, he told us, “But I always tell them the same thing — you have to start by going back to the pixels. How can you look for anything new before you know what you’re looking at at all?”

Much later, sometime around the first month of grad school, it finally occurred to me that he might have been talking about more than just pixels. Ah, I thought suddenly — I get it now! — and then promptly forgot it for weeks. Sometimes I suspect I've been forgetting and rediscovering this my whole life, that each time I can only hope to remember it again: how lovely it is to come back to a high up place, how lovely and necessary, looking out at all the familiar and unfamiliar terrain ahead.