Above it all

Your Secret Admirer

photo of columnist Geraldine Ang

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To the two fearless guys who were casually having lunch on a ledge of Doe Library’s facade, nearly twenty feet off of the ground:

How did the two of you even get up there in the first place? Which one of you came up with the bizarre idea to clamber up one of our iconic, centuries-old campus edifices to enjoy a couple of sandwiches?

Bizarre, I say, but also absolutely brilliant. It must’ve been so much fun up there, with the warm sun splaying across your faces and the afternoon breeze carding through your hair. I can practically see the most wonderful view of the Glade and the surrounding buildings from up high, fine white walls and dewy green grass all glowing gold beneath a grand sun. I bet it was worth the climb.

But perhaps it is the climb itself that is the most important part. That painstaking act of stretching an arm up as far as it can go, then desperately searching for some sort of purchase. Once those fumbling fingers finally latch onto a stable hold, we must find a way to pull ourselves up, to temporarily escape the inescapable law of gravity, and move on to the next step.

Then we do it again, always reaching out as far as we can.

We’re primates after all, descended from ancient apes who clambered up trees for food and for protection. Our closest animal relative today is the chimpanzee, about 99% of our DNA aligning perfectly with this agile, tree-loving creature’s. Take a closer look at your own disposable thumbs, thick palms and jointed limbs, and you’ll realize that your decision to scramble up the face of Doe Library might not be so absurd after all. We are naturally built for scaling great heights.

But I’d like to think that our inclination toward climbing extends beyond a physical aptitude for it. I don’t think I could’ve made it all the way up to your precarious lunch location, Campus-Climbers. My climb is a bit more metaphorical.

It did actually start with a tree. A painting of one, at least. Vincent van Gogh’s Mulberry Tree, to be exact, painted in 1889 in France, but now displayed at the Norton Simon Museum in California. This is where I saw it for the first time on a family trip, with its swirling, golden branches blazing above my tiny, 8-year-old figure. The swift strokes seemed to tumble right out of the canvas, brushing my cheeks with featherlight kisses. The warmth of the fiery leaves blasted over the rest of my face. I had always liked art, but before this sunlit moment, I had never known that you could feel it.

That billowing tree became the first ledge on my climb into art history. I devoured hundreds of books on Van Gogh’s iconic style, then moved onto James Whistler’s mastery of atmosphere and Haegue Yang’s innovative forms. The local university’s art museum became my safe haven. I am now working toward a degree in the history of art department, hoping for a professional future in archival and curatorial studies.

The two of you must be on your own scholarly climbs as well, along with the rest of us. We hang on throughout endless assignments and all-nighters, determined to reach careers in medicine, media, politics and thousands of other incredible fields. We strive to make our way to the top of the world, and — for those of us still holding on to our idealistic visions — make it into a better place.

Even though our individual goals might be vastly different, we are all moving in the same direction — up. We are all subject to the perpetual human instinct to ascend, to improve, to reach for the stars.

Of course, it’s not always sun and sky. The endless assignments and all-nighters I mentioned before have truly begun to pile up for me in my first midterm season. Art history honestly isn’t as fun when I’ve got hundreds of dates, artist names and cultures closing in on me. Climbing is exhausting work, littered with sore muscles and bloody bruises. And the higher you are, the greater the height of a potential fall.

But here’s one last thing about The Mulberry Tree. It was painted during Van Gogh’s stay at the Saint-Paul Asylum in a precious period of improvement in his mental health. As he wrote in a letter to his brother, engaging with the other patients at the asylum was his main comfort, showing him that he was not alone in his struggles. The sweeping branches of his painted mulberry tree curl out like a comforting embrace.

So, despite the dizzying height and stinging scrapes, please never forget that you’re not alone. Sometimes it’s not another rough ledge that you must reach for, but another’s warm hand instead. Sometimes you can be the one twisting your head back around and offering a hand to those behind you.

Because being above it all seems like it could get rather lonely. As the two of you have already seemed to realize, the view is a lot nicer when you have someone to share it with.

I’ll meet you at the top, Campus-Climbers.

Geraldine Ang writes the Wednesday column on human connection. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.