Last year, I lived in Doane Hall. Nearly concealed by trees, tucked away in a corner of the campus of Eastern University, Doane is the oldest residence hall. Rumor has it that it was once the servants’ quarters in the late 1800s when what is now a college campus was a wealthy Philadelphian’s estate.
Doane has character. When you enter, you will see a grand wooden staircase, inviting you to proceed through the winding hallways of the building. On your right, you’ll see a large lounge with a fireplace. Unused now, of course, due to fire hazards. But if it’s a particularly shimmery night, if you feel especially whimsical, sometimes you can picture the house that it was before it became a residence hall. There are enough vestiges of the past in the interior of the building to allow it.
My favorite part of living in Doane, however, was not the interior. It was the walk from Doane to the rest of campus. You follow a brick path that zigs and zags — down a hill, up eleven old wooden stairs, through the woods, along the top of a stone parapet of unknown purpose, and then. The view often took my breath away. You emerge from the woods, and you stand on a landing overlooking the lake. Two symmetrical stone staircases curl away from each other and down to the ground from the landing. They lead to two stone gazebos (the pillars of which are very handy for hanging hammocks, I might add) where I spent many an afternoon reading, journaling, pondering, watching geese, and gazing at reflections. Eleven more stairs, concrete this time, lead up from the landing to Walton Hall. Last year, this was my morning commute, bed to breakfast. And it was more – it was my living space.
I returned from my time abroad to find that I had been assigned to a dorm that I never would have chosen. It is a new building, and it looks more hotel than home. I ride the elevator to the fourth floor instead of walking up creaky stairs, and the door to my room shuts automatically. My window overlooks the turf field, the gym, and a parking lot. My morning commute from bed to breakfast is now a mostly concrete one, from my building past the tennis courts and the baseball field and the gym, over a bridge, past the library, and so on. It’s the other side of campus that I see now. My path never crosses the stone parapets or the lake anymore. I no longer have reason to go there. Doane really is far away from everything. So my living space now is an athletic complex.
I don’t dislike where I live. But the space we inhabit does shape us. I don’t see the sunset over the lake like I used to, and that used to matter to me. I don’t see the woods and the lake in all seasons, trees aflame with color, lake frozen solid, the budding of new flowers. Instead, I see athletes practicing a lot, which is fine, but it doesn’t really matter to me in the same way that the sunset does, or the flowers. I live on the same campus, but it seems that I inhabit a completely different living space. No longer are my thoughts and reflections enhanced and jump-started by beauty and nature, because though I am so close, I don’t see it anymore.
One obvious reason I fell in love with Oxford was the aesthetic. It’s hard not to feel alive in so lovely a place. Gerard Manley Hopkins described it as a “Towery city and branchy between towers; / Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked, river-rounded.” And that seems to be the perfect description. It is a city full of bells, sandstone, spires, trees. Out of all the cities that I’ve seen, it remains the loveliest. Choral and orchestral music floated along the wind to my ears as I cycled by churches where prayer had been valid for hundreds of years and will continue to be for hundreds more, despite what the alarmists might say. In Oxford, it was clear that beauty meant something. This doesn’t seem to be so clear in many spaces. For four months that felt too good to be true, Oxford was my living space.
I applied to be an RA next year, and I was placed in Doane. I will host tea in my room, and I will hang beautiful pictures of various living spaces. My hall will be full of words and colors. I willl imitate how it feels to walk the path through the woods from Doane to Walton as the seasons pass.
The synthetic evergreen “grass” of the Sprinturf field, I am sad to say, is not quite alive.
But the woods are.