The Lost Years

Stranded on the side of the road in the Palouse

Over the past eight months, I’ve heard Tom Kundig reference a period of his life called “The Lost Years” quite often. He spent much of that decade exploring the outdoors, deepening his skills as a climber and skier, unsure of how far he’d go as an architect or if that was even the direction he would ultimately pursue as a career.

Though his father, Moritz, was an architect whose friends included a circle of accomplished artists and craftspeople that Tom grew up with, he felt compelled to define his own path. Rather than accepting this heritage as a birthright, as some might have, Tom questioned it. He felt so drawn to science and tectonics that he needed to test himself — to arrive at architecture on his own in order to know that this was really where he was meant to be.

When Tom discusses his work today, he talks about built structures as frames for nature. At his UW lecture last Monday, he moved his pointer around the screen, which depicted an idyllic wintery scene from Mazama, Washington, noting that, “This is why you come out here,” before circling the award-winning cabin that he designed, “not this.”

After hearing his personal story, I realized that Tom and I have much in common, in addition to the strong influence that Astra Zarina and Omer Mithun had on our lives. He mentioned that, though he became a registered architect at 24, he didn’t feel like that he was “practicing architecture” until he was 36. 

Having finished my first book at 36 after moving towards and away from writing several times, I feel the same. 

Tom’s “Lost Years” remind me of my own early wanderings, wavering this way and that between science and writing, real estate development and design, travel and language — the whole time questioning where I wanted to –or thought I could– take it.

Looking back, these meanderings were essential to becoming the practitioners we are today — as was our self-doubt and even the resistance we placed in our own paths. In rare moments, I wonder if those winding roads were necessary — they make me feel somehow behind

When those thoughts arise, I remind myself that all anyone can do is shape the future, not lament the past, which –for better or worse– has brought us successfully to the present. Even those choices that we might not make again or the extra twists and turns have contributed some richness to the tapestry.

This morning, as I reflected on the phrase “The Lost Years,” I diagrammed the eras of my own life, surprised that they did indeed form measurable periods held in common by distinct themes. After my own “Lost Years,” which spanned over a decade, there have been two distinct four-year cycles, the second of which I call “Demolition and Adaptive Reuse” is now coming to a close.

The new year will herald the beginning of the next great era, whose name will be revealed only near to its completion. It has become clear that “Hidden City Diaries” is the vehicle for and physical expression of that shift — the jumping off point for whatever happens next. 

On that eve of that transition, I feel exhilarated to have finally recognized my path, just as Tom found his. One could say that, while it seems to have come later for people like us, it has, in fact, arrived right on time.

It came when we were ready for it.

Rumbling at the bottom of my gut is a Christmas Eve-like impatience at the impending good: encountering new people who will influence me, diving deeper with cherished supporters of old, meeting unforeseen challenges with previously hidden resources, and discovering surprising beauty and richness in places I would never have thought to look. I even look forward to the skinned knees that I know I’ll have from time to time because they, too, are part of the process.

These weeks ahead are a gift — a slice of time in which I can watch the last four very formative years fossilize into the past. What had seemed like a far-off or impossible future –my life as a writer– will crystallize before my eyes from the adjacent possible into the present. 

The impatient part of me, the one who daydreams dangerously far ahead, wonders how I’ll remember this time when I look back years from now, when these periods of intense questioning will seem vague and gauzy, perhaps even slightly misguided. 

That’s just how time bends: eventually, all of our years become lost — along with the potency of our stories, struggles, and experience as human beings. We lose our old selves, our memories, until something historic like a song, a journal or a letter reminds us of what our lives –what we– were like.

That is why I write — not to spin yarns or sell a million books, but to capture, preserve and connect with the precious natural resources of the human experience.

While I do write for self-discovery –a reason to explore the world, to reflect, to inquire– underneath all of that, writing is a means of locating this trail of breadcrumbs from the past to the present.

Writing lets me return to extinct moments abandoned in all stages of forgetting, from memories that have been merely smoothed out to others completely misfiled or inaccessible, trapped in amber.

Within that, there is another type of “lost years:” the times when significant things occur that go unrecorded. They’re lost forever under an ocean of ever-focused waves of the present, caught in the undertow of the growing past that tugs on our heels from the dark below.

Like Tom sees his work as frame for nature, so I see my words as a tuning fork for experience. One by one, I seek out notes that attract and sing universally, aiming to capture tones of importance in a symphony so big that it takes a thousand notes from as many stanzas to even begin to tap into it.

Without each other, these human lives we share are intrinsically lost, which is why as a species we’re so intent on finding and being found — whether through science or nature, architecture or words.

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