For about twenty years my office has been behind the last door at the east end of a very long hallway located on the third floor of a university building in South Bend. The hallway walls are more or less white, and the many office doors are a pale wood grain. There’s not much art to speak of there, and when office doors are closed no natural light enters the space for many, many, many yards. There’s no window in the east section of the hallway, no window in the central section, and just the one large window at the end of the west section. Eighty-seven paces from my office door, then, due west along the pale wood and white paint corridor, one window faces west. Windows pour light into a space, but not when the window is 87 paces away. I put that window out of my mind until something ephemeral happened there at my office door.
I learned the word ephemeral when I took an interest in book publishing. In that business, things like bookmarks, flyers, and posters are called ephemera. They’re fleeting, they’re not meant to last. It’s the books they announce and celebrate that are meant to last. The bookmarks and posters add a fleeting bit of pizzazz to the book launch party. They’re ephemeral.
South Bend has no shortage of ephemeral beauty. I hope you know, for example, the graceful, intricate, grand-in-any-season Twyckenham Bridge. On a clear evening, but only in August, the rays of the setting sun come just right along the St. Joseph River and fill the deep interior ribbing of the bridge with orange light. For a few minutes the beauty of this beautiful bridge is greatly multiplied. Ten minutes later, you missed it.
And even our bland office corridor has had its fleeting beauties. If our colleague Chuck stayed late, when he guessed he was alone, you might hear him whistling melodiously as he walked down the hall. And at about five pm many days in that hallway, tall Harvey would come pick up tiny Eileen from her office and drive her home. Because her vision had faded over the years, he’d walk her down the corridor at the slowest pace, at her pace, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Something so gentle there, so faithful to the wedding vows they exchanged decades earlier. His legs were so long and her step was short and tentative, but they relaxed into conversation as if nothing could be grander than walking your sweetie to the car at this or any other pace that your one shared life would allow. Those good colleagues are all gone now, and fewer and fewer of us can conjure up their ephemeral beauty.
And the bland corridor itself? One day in about 2002, just by chance, I walked out of my east office just before sunset. I was 87 paces from that one window in the west. Everything else was neon and white paint. Oddly, at my office door I found myself standing in orange sunlight. The hallway now revealed its fabulous secret. On the equinox, like an ancient temple, it pointed directly at the setting sun, and light streamed along its full length for a minute or two. Since I am retiring, cleaning out my office, I made a point of visiting at sunset the other day, on the equinox. The fast-growing campus trees, I see, are getting to be a problem, blocking out the sunset. Standing in even that momentary sunlight, it turns out, was a fleeting pleasure.
Music: "Quitting Time" by Roches