A younger self’s definition of a retirement project.

Another discovery I made scanning the basement shelves led me to the OED to look up the word dwell. What I found surprised me. The first meaning—to lead into error, mislead, delude; to stun, stupefy—is traced back to the year AD 888 and King Alfred’s Old English version of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, written in Latin in AD 523. A century after this regal etymology, dwell has come to mean—per one of the ninety riddles in the anthology known as the Exeter Bookto hinder, delay. Two hundred years further on, to tarry has been added to its denotative repertoire; also around the year 1200, the modern meaning beings to swim into view: to abide or continue for a time, in a place, state, or condition. Another two centuries will pass before the usage to dwell on, upon is cited, in a translation of Lanfranc of Milan’s treatise on surgery. Only in 1520 does dwell assume the sense of to occupy as a place of residence, to inhabit—empowering Milton, some one hundred and fifty years later, to ring all kinds of resonant changes on the word’s several meanings, changes that have echoed in our ears ever since. As any reader of Paradise Lost knows, Milton was a poet who dwelt on things.

In any case, the discovery alluded to above that prompted my lexicographical inquiry was connected to my spotting Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building on a shelf to my right as I sat at my basement desk. I’d always had a great admiration—fondness might be a better word—for this book, and I wondered if I had ever tried to express it back in the day when it caught my fancy. So, with a little guesswork and a good deal of riffling through old print editions of A Common Reader, also relegated to the basement, albeit in regimented archival boxes, I came upon this entry in Catalog No. 161 (October 1998), recommending both Timeless Way and another Alexander book, A Pattern Language. I had entirely forgotten the content of what follows, but I was charmed to salvage it so serendipitously:

The project I have outlined for my retirement years is the composition of a discursive dictionary, in which a few score versatile, vivid, favorite words will engender essays in which I’ll order all I’ve learned, guessed, forgotten. I keep a notebook of inspiring vocabulary for potential inclusion in this alphabetical apologia, and I edit it occasionally to concentrate my plans. One word that entered the list early, and remains near the top, is dwelling, for it contains within its connotations elements of construction, endurance, and attention, themes of great personal import. It captures in its different parts of speech both the comforts and labors of a home and the root activity of the imagination. Christopher Alexander’s two magnificent books—ostensibly, and valuably, focused on architecture, building, and planning—have taught me as much as any I’ve read about dwelling in all its aspects, explicating with ingenuity, invention, curiosity, and a poised practicality many of the meanings the word encompasses. 

I first came upon Alexander’s works more than a decade ago, when my wife and I returned from a walking tour of Umbria. Sauntering from hilltown to hilltown, we had marveled at many things, not least the distinctive beauty of each town. The author’s provocative theory of architecture, elaborated in these rich and philosophic volumes created with the help of his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure, gave me words to describe the animated at-homeness I experienced in those small Italian cities. I was intrigued especially by Alexander’s idea of the evolutionary “pattern languages” that animate the most humane built environments, those places which “have that breath of sudden passion in them, which whispers to us, and lets us recall those moments when we are ourselves.” The self, I would venture—and Alexander’s elegant, epigrammatic, comprehensive attentions to the art of living encourage such leaps between concepts and categories—relies on its own pattern language, built of recurring activity, thought, emotion, and intuition. The more flexible that language, the more eloquent the life it dictates. For what is the imagination but a language of patterns? But I’m getting ahead of myself, to that book I’ll be writing in my twilight years. Suffice it to say that the two books offered here are among the most arresting volumes I have ever encountered, and you’ll never look at a window, a doorway, or a street in the same way once you’ve spent time with them. Alexander and friends have taken upon themselves the task of revealing how architecture can house so much life, and of putting their discoveries to work in the design of rooms, buildings, communities. In the process they offer inquisitive readers a reflective education in nearly everything under the sun.

Now that those then long distant twilight years are fast approaching, if not already here, I’m glad to be goaded by my younger self to add another quixotic literary project to my list. If I could find that notebook, it would speed things along.

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