Adramatic and good thing happened on an inconvenient day in early April. The sun came out for the second day in a row. This being northcentral Ohio and “spring” being more a description of a coiled wire than a season in these parts, you will note the reason for the drama. This dramatic appearance of the sun happened on a Tuesday. As days go, a Tuesday is no better and no worse than the other days of the week. But Tuesday is also a work day and, as work days go, Tuesday is generally my busiest. Yet, the long unseen sun—producing, as it did, just enough warmth to remind the weary body of a long neglected part of the soul—turned the mind (to say nothing of the heart) toward a cause that may be just as worthy as yet another day laboring for the common good of mankind. The sun and the warmth reminded me of my iron horse, Isabella, and how much I like to ride.
Now, there is much good talk in the preceding pages of architecture
—thoughts on the best and most fitting construction of buildings, houses, regimes, and even souls. A home should reflect the soul of its occupant; public buildings the soul of the regime; and a good soul should reflect good order and justice. Yet, sometimes it might seem that this talk is too austere, maybe even severe. Let me just say that I don’t want the edifice to be off kilter, to be tilted in a direction from which it cannot recover its balance, so I add my own art to the effort of righting the building. I am reminded that a well ordered soul needs some release from its toils. It needs, as Winston Churchill famously noted, a hobby.
So when confronted with this glorious day in April, I called the office and told them that because it was so lovely, and because I was feeling especially good and healthy, I was not coming to work. I told them to do things as well they could without me and, having a fine staff, I labored under no pretensions of indispensability. I further said that if anyone asked where I was or what I was doing, they should just tell them that I was stealing time from a deep place. They knew, of course, that this meant I would take the first ride of the season, and God only knew where I would go and when I would return.
I opened the cold garage and, discarding Isabella’s winter blanket, I gently rolled her out and cleaned her up. It was good to see her. Although she was strikingly beautiful even in her sleep, I was worried that she wouldn’t fire up right away. I was wrong. Immediately, she began to purr, the V-Twins quietly throbbing. I do like that sound, especially after four quiet months. As she warmed up, I threw on my riding clothes and dropped a cell phone, a good book, and a couple of candy bars into the saddle bags. Then I headed southeast.
I felt the warm air meet the cold, smooth road as she collected herself and then stretched out. She started moving. If she was remarkable in her stillness, she became exquisite as she started to express herself fully, her power resonating through the quiet morning air. The only sounds I heard on the gentle, curved, rural Ohio roads were the whistling air and her large cylinders working, all at a fine languid pace. Everything was right with the world, and the soul felt refreshed, rejuvenated, and alive.
We had no destination. We were moving through the air, not in some box or cage where one only sees still snapshots of a world floating past. We were engaged with the world but always moving. Everything became connected and of a piece. It felt as if we were floating in both natural and in man-made beauty. We saw forests here and soon to be cultivated fields there, a beaver here, a domesticated creature over there, a lovely house here, a schoolhouse there, and a courthouse in the town square. There was nothing out of place, everything in balance, everything in that symmetrical and simple American way, the shape of both things and men. Nothing unnatural, nothing unnerving or monstrous was encountered anywhere. Even the work of art I was riding was simple, symmetrical, and balanced. Now, as I crawled out of my own long hibernation, we fit, and it felt wonderful.
When I have no destination, when I ride for the “thing-in-itself” or, for the sheer good of the thing, I always head southeast. I aim her somewhere between Marietta and Gallipolis, and I never go wrong. I take a road, and then fade east, then west, then toward the river again. I follow the good rolling roads, and I never get lost. The roads are smooth and under used and the creeks are clean and the birds are loud and I look for deer that are inclined to share a road that was made only for me.
At some point I began heading back. I don’t remember what inclined me to it, but I was ready. And so I finished my version of what Thomas Jefferson (the architect) called his “roundabout,” his planned walks in Monticello, a place he designed and constructed for his own leisure and reflection. My roundabout is longer, and I need Isabella’s help, but it has the same effect. It rests a mind and body usually at work, not through idleness or in stagnation, but by exercising other parts of itself in something other than the usual
I returned home as the sun began also to move toward other horizons. I remembered that I had my Lincoln class to teach that evening. Happy now to turn my thoughts to something else, I arrived refreshed and led the students in conversation covering Lincoln’s understanding of the Union and why it was worthy of the saving. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day—balanced,
measured, and even exacting in its precision. The students would never have known that I had played hooky all day if I hadn’t told them. But, seeing something good and even useful in it, I did tell them. I talked with them further about why I always thought about becoming an architect (but couldn’t quite do it) and on how work and leisure are connected, and about the difference between a good that is earned and a gift.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.
Click here for a PDF version of the Spring 2008 edition of On Principle.