Of The Hill
I was going to start this differently. I was going to say that most firsts don't really stick with me, that most of them are lost to the fog of memory, but, in looking for examples of things I didn't remember, I started remembering them. It turns out I do remember the first time I drove a car (at 12, in a parking lot, dangerously), the first time I tried coffee (at 15, waiting tables, ecstatically), even the first time I realized I was going to die (at 6, in bed, hysterically).
Firsts are special, and our brains seem to recognize this, even if we don't always take the time to check in with them. Firsts set the tone for a relationship, they dictate, more than we care to admit, the terms and conditions for how we connect to something, how that thing shows up in our mind. When I first started listening to electronic music I was in the first few years of college, an optimistic sponge, and a small part of my brain is taken back to that place whenever I hear it. When I first met a girl I would later fall in love with I was in the back yard of a bbq joint in Detroit under puffy white clouds, and that kind of setting, even now, is still tinged with possibility.
Firsts are opportunity and terror and wonder and anxiety. They are the start of a new line, the moment the pen touches paper, the wave before it collapses.
As a thirteen year old, a surplus of acne and confusion, I sat on a bus in southwestern Pennsylvania, rolling toward another first. I had been attending sleep-away camp in the finger lakes for several years by then, this was my last year as a camper and as part of the privileges conferred to us we got to go on The Trip. For the counselors running it, the trip was a meticulously planned, week-long excursion around upstate NY and Pennsylvania that took us to amusement parks, sports games, hiking and camping adventures (and whatever else was within our budget and would get us worked up enough during the day that we would actually go to sleep at night). To the campers, however, the events of trip were a total surprise, kept from us in the most utter secrecy. So as the bus swayed down windy back roads of appalachia towards Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Falling Water, I sat in ignorance.
At this point in my life, it's rare that I meet people who aren't at least familiar with Falling Water, it's an icon and one of the first things people reach for when looking for an example of Great architecture. But as a thirteen year old kid, it hadn't yet reached my sphere of cultural knowledge. When I was very young, my grandparents would cart me around to every museum in the tri-state area (a practice which I am now very grateful for) but I had apparently classified them into two categories: fun, hands-on science museums and beautiful but disconnected art museums. Art only existed within the white walls of the gallery, unreachable in any tangible way. Art was beauty that I would be able to see but never touch.
You can't drive right up to the house, the parking lot is about a quarter mile away, so you end up arriving on foot, acutely aware of the environment around you. We walked in a big pack down the trail, not totally sure what to expect. The house itself has become so outsized in my memory, but it's not actually that large. Wright himself described it best: "No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other." As I walked around the site, I experienced hill and house being happier for the other. As I stood in the house's great room I felt the distinction between inside and outside fade. As I ran my hands along every deeply considered detail of the house, I saw the beauty that, up until this point, I had only ever seen in a museum. Except I could touch it. And not in just a tactile way, there was an attainability to the beauty that I had never experienced before, a sense that there was a way to bring beauty out of the gallery, into the real world. There, in that place, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to do this.
Now, the way I've attempted to achieve that "this" has varied: the obsession with architecture that followed Falling Water soon gave way to industrial design and industrial design soon gave way to digital interactions, but the core of what I felt on that day has never wavered. There's a beauty in the world, not just in the gallery, a beauty that can be touched and lived every day, a beauty that gets lost if it isn't fought for, a beauty that reminds us there's always more beauty if we know how to bring it out.
On the surface, I left that place just as awkward as I had ever been, but under the skin, I left that place changed. I started to see differently.
And to this day, whenever my faith wavers, whenever I think about giving up, I go back to that summer day in southwestern Pennsylvania, that place with house that was of the hill, that moment of realization. And I keep going.