Academics as Architects: How to Build a House

I used to dream of becoming an architect. Quite literally. I would conceive of geometric buildings which defied all natural laws and then wake up to sketch my creations. My earliest memories of drawing hotels and other-worldly homesteads is around the time when I was eight years old. I liked structure; shadows; lines; shapes. I think more than anything, I liked playing with the concept of home.

I moved around plenty in my early youth. Sometimes this left me longing for the spatial stability of that “This is the home I grew up in” narrative which so many of my friends told. Now, I feel most comfortable in the newness of exploration, and houses unbuilt, and places where I haven’t lived yet. This comes with realizing that the only home we ever truly have is our body: the physical form that takes up space, moves us through the structures which we inhabit, and into the professional or interpersonal positions we occupy.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki writes this short but expansive stanza in his essay called “In Praise of Shadows”:

“In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.”

The parasol here is what I see as casting a foundation. Postgraduates may do this alone, or maybe the groundwork was laid with a supportive family, or by a privileged secondary education. The pale light of the shadow is the determination to see a project through.

Many tertiary students attend a university far from home. The postgraduate experience has reminded me how we can quickly spend more time in the university than we do in our houses. As a postgraduate, you finish a degree in at least two years but sometimes up to five (or seven if you stick around for a postdoc). There’s an intimacy and proximity in pursuing postgraduate studies together, not the least because we spend a wealth of time in the same space.

Ultimately, we are all building one another’s houses. Stay with me on this:

Imagine for a moment your life as a dream; a plan… You are the architect. You have an idea of which stairs need to lead where, the type of windows you want to gaze through at the world, and which areas in your life you’d prefer to keep private. As I have engaged in my higher degrees, I encounter peers, professors, groundskeepers, cleaning staff, administrators or undergraduate students who actively build me up or (hopefully, unintentionally) break bits of my house down. This allows me to understand myself better through my strengths and points of weakness; areas where I need to put in work; humility to ask for help when I need it.

Research groups are to the postgraduate experience what architecture firms are to the industry of construction. They have a particular niche; a style of design they like to follow; shared interest in brainstorming new projects. Still, opportunities to collaborate across research groups or even across research institutions can build the strongest houses.

Over time, just as in construction, each academic scholar gathers the knowledge of how to build from the ground up. Their expertise is shaped with experience and through making mistakes. So, my unsolicited but honest advice for anyone laying the foundation for a postgraduate degree or path in academia is this:

  • Know enough about the type of house you want to build that your vision is clear.
  • Work with people who have skills where you have space to learn.
  • Accommodate using new materials or adjusting your planned budget and timeline.
  • Remember that things will likely go wrong, and you may need to return to the drawing board.
  • Keep building your house, and one another’s, one brick at a time.

Somewhere between a childhood dream and placement on the waiting list for the Bachelor of Architectural Studies, a natural human process occurred: I changed my mind. I had experienced compromised health for some years, and my problem-solving side nudged me into a pursuit of understanding the human body. I’m still fascinated by structure; shadows; lines; shapes. Biology is the architecture of deities, and even architects look to the natural world for sustainable solutions. In following my own advice, I embrace both the biologist and the architect within – ever ready to return to the drawing board again.

Allow yourself the freedom to grieve

“… In the end, maybe absence is just an invitation for something greater: a chance to leave the dead alone, to put new flowers in a vase. All this lack just leaves an opportunity to atone, to adore.” – @hammuraber

Life is a series of moments between birth and death. Across all cultures, the beauty of how life begins and ends is acknowledged differently. Death could be celebrated as a rebirth, or a divine returning. The constant is that life – at least as we experience it – begins and ends.

Life is also an amalgamation of cycles: cellular division from one cell to two to four and eight; infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and senescence. The great golden glow of sunlight, the 28-day moon dance, and the celebration of a year every 365.25 days all reiterates the cyclical nature of what it means to be alive.

To be in symbiosis is to be in association with another. In this breath, symbiosis is a constant reconstitution of matter: organisms borrowing molecules from each other; fungi doing the ever-important work of decomposing organic materials; new life sprouting from the substrate of what once was…  What an honour it is to be in association with the world around us – to be born and know that our fate is to return to the ground that facilitates our liveliness. I welcome the reality that this may be the ultimate freedom: not that death is a part of life, but rather life is a part of death.

Please do not think that I reduce the heartache and weight of loss to be light, or bearable, or even tolerable. Loss can feel cruel. You spend your time building a sandcastle made of memories, laying the most meaningful ones as bricks in towers where they are surely safe. Without warning or consideration, grief – with the impact of a tumultuous tide – disintegrates every instant of joy you have ever known. I imagine grief is where life and loss are in symbiosis.

Grief is embedded within the death of a loved one, but also in the change of seasons or feeling the end of a long-term friendship. I have lost stored data and grieved nostalgia’s absence in flipping through photographs. You may need to grieve the job you dreamed of but weren’t offered. Even as we adopt new behaviours, we may grieve for ourselves no longer being the last to leave a party. Mourning is akin to a mirror of celebration.

The neuroscience of grieving supports that grievance may be considered a type of learning. As you acknowledge how much adaptation is required in accepting one’s new reality, it makes sense that this is learning how to find peace in mourning. The attachment pattern needs to be reworked as the brain reconstitutes a new symbiosis with the subject and context of bereavement.  This adaption engages networks of the brain involved in self-soothing, emotional processing, remembering, and imagining the future.

Psychology derives that there are seven stages of grief. Though these criteria have value, I maintain that to stage grief implies that the experiences are not personalized, cyclic and profoundly overwhelming. Grieving is non-linear. It unravels without time, without a clear beginning or end. It washes over the griever in waves.

It is common practice to relish milestones like birthdays or victories. We may even celebrate freedom of movement, expression, choice… On paper, the South African constitution outlines these freedoms as human rights. Why then, do we often shy away from grieving transparently; rather, convinced that we must be our own lifejacket as we struggle to stay afloat?

I offer myself this: “Allow yourself the freedom to grieve.”

Create freedom for yourself around the why and how and when. Let the pragmatic thinker be soothed as you exercise your birth right to feel. Engage on the ritual of remembrance that comes with grieving, for active participation in honouring what you have lost yields the immortalization of love and memory. It births a capacity to recreate.

In grief’s ebb and flow, we are not free from temporary suffering. We are not free of emptiness. Rather, the freedom comes from feeling our grief completely – without time, without a clear beginning or end.