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Spaces as Shadows of Memory

By Courtesy of Shanivi Srikonda
By Shanivi Srikonda, Crimson Opinion Writer
Shanivi Srikonda ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Quincy House. Her column “Nooks and Crannies” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

As I walk through Harvard Yard to travel in between classes, I sometimes think about the large expanse of grass that the location is notable for: How many Harvard students has it felt treading on it as a shortcut when the paved paths get too full? How many generations of grass have persisted through the Cambridge snows? What has it seen?

Thinking about the memories of the things around me, I eventually start thinking about my own — the vignettes of a childhood that’s grown blurry around the edges: the colors the leaves used to turn in the neighborhoods I grew up in, my favorite days of elementary school. Growing up is a process of breaking and putting yourself back together with new pieces you find as you age.

Like the dramatic motions of tectonic plates, this process of breaking and coalescing into something newer is world-shaking — after all, you only experience childhood once. In putting yourself back together, what memories do you end up remembering, and which ones do you inadvertently discard? Can you even choose?

Though we cannot relive a particular memory or moment in time, being in a specific place can help us remember what we felt there, the fleeting moments we experienced. Physical spaces act as shadows of memory — not quite allowing us to relive specifics, but rather giving us fuzzy outlines of what was before. We cling to this as we get older, grappling with the paradox of experiencing new things while trying to remember old ones. Our memories, too, are colored by hindsight, dulling once-sunny days as we leave behind the rose-colored glasses of childhood.

The pandemic has completely redefined our relationships with physical spaces. Places that once seemed casual and inviting are now scented by the anxiety of catching a new variant; our eyes have learned to model the mechanics of respiratory spread in a confined room.

However, this redefinition can allow us to create a better post-pandemic world when we hopefully and finally see an end to our current viral circumstances. Improving shared spaces means shaping better experiences for the people that interact with them. From fixing inequity in access to greenspaces as a means to improving both pollution and health, to making spaces more accessible and attuned to the specific needs of people with disabilities, to eliminating hostile architecture, there is so much we can still do to make shared spaces more equitable for everyone who interacts with them.

We are in an era where so many venues of collective experience and memory have been forever changed — from shutdowns and reopenings of community centers to isolation from family during lockdowns to political instability. Many have also been touched by significant trauma. Experiencing individual grief is already difficult, so how does a nation — or the entire world — mourn?

Realigning ourselves to be more collectively compassionate, attuned to the needs of a larger community as opposed to solely individual-focused can allow for shared healing, an affirmation that despite the larger upheavals of living, we are still connected to one another. Centering and increasing shared spaces in a post-pandemic world could be a great place to start, in addition to improving already-existing community centers as a way to increase positive experiences and thus positive memories associated with that space.

Dear readers, in this last column piece, I leave you with a challenge: The next time you’re in a shared space, one filled with joy and hope, appreciate it in its entirety. The mental snapshot you take of that moment in time will decrease in clarity as time passes, but the value you found in that space — and similar shared spaces — need not.

As you walk through old hallways, think about the memories that are etched between the bricks, about how your added presence in the space contributes to its collective memory. Think about those who will come after you, and how that space can be made better for them. If spaces are shadows of memory, then may they invoke more joy than sorrow.

Shanivi Srikonda ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Quincy House. Her column “Nooks and Crannies” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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