Are you ever confounded by the passage of time? Not the simple passing of hours that segments each day, but significant time. Like when you look out over the ocean and remember that those waves have been meeting the shore for untold millennia; or when you find a tombstone from the 1800s; or when you hear a favorite song and realize it’s already twenty-five years old. In those moments, a type of soul-inertia can set in, a simultaneous smallness and weightlessness of spirit. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, a feeling of insignificance slips in.
My quest for solitude—a scant commodity, given that we have three kids (which I’d never, ever, ever give up for any reason), and I have a full-time job (which I can’t give up, at the moment)—often leads me downtown, to Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It was there, very recently, that I was confounded by time. The current big-ticket exhibit, Rome: City and Empire, is filled with dozens of art objects from antiquity, and wandering among 2,500-year-old marble sculptures can definitely cause that soul-inertia to rise.
But unlike standing beside the ocean, no feelings of insignificance beset me. And I think it’s almost entirely because of the portrait bust pictured above. I wasn’t diligent to record its title or provenance—a rare lack of meticulousness on my part—yet I remember its impact. Note the scar on his cheek. And the deformity of his ear. He is imperfect, and also there is something common about him (though I know only the wealthy could afford the extravagance of a marble likeness). He’s flawed in ways that the nearby bust of Octavian is not. I remember reading that the portrait above was produced at a time when realistic representation was the standard, whereas the sculptor of Octavian would’ve been more interested in rendering the emperor godlike. It’s understandable that a dutiful sculptor should render an emperor godlike. After all, Romans believed their sovereigns divine. However, it’s the flawed old man with a gashed cheek and a crinkled ear that resonates as human. It is he who helps ward off feelings of insignificance in the face of unfathomable time.
It’s the first day of spring, i.e., the vernal equinox, and on a near-distant hillside at the southern edge of Nashville, just above the walls of limestone exposed by dynamite blasts from when they built I-65, tufts of green have appeared, almost as if overnight. I see them while I eat half a granola bar in the solitude of a vacant office, inside the 70s-era, four-story, castle-like (minus the towers, crenellations, and medieval fenestrations) brick building which houses the reference lab where I burn a weekly forty. Bark flapping on a river birch, which I see from a different window, resembles the toss-and-lift of preening bird wings.
Spring has its beauty, but it also means the heat is coming. It means flower beds need a new layer of pine straw, weeds need spraying, and the lawn needs—gulp—mowing (I cringe every time I hear a neighbor’s mower crank up; I delay this chore as long as possible, but it’s like some of my neighbors just can’t wait). So I’ll be spending the next few weeks trying to figure out how to pause these milder temperatures, and how to make the redbuds and the dogwoods hold onto their blossoms a little longer.
Seventy-one lifetimes. Or at least seventy-one of my lifetimes. That’s how long it’s been since the earliest would-be Italians lived in huts of wood and thatch in small villages on land that would become the heart of the Roman Empire. But I’m no historian. All I’m qualified to do is publicly ruminate on the 3,000-year-old burial urn that I saw near the entrance of the Frist Center’s current mega-exhibit: Rome: City and Empire.
The text placard states that the urn held its owner’s ashes, but what happens to ashes over such a long period? Do they disintegrate? Or does the wind lift each one up and out of the urn—single particulates, one by one, until the vessel is empty? Maybe three millennia is enough time for such arduousness. But the urn was buried, so does that mean the poor man’s ashes are mingled with the Roman soil still? Beneath the ruins on Palatine Hill? His spirit may’ve roamed the statued avenues of high empire, swirled up fluted columns and pierced the pantheistic heavens, drunk on the triumphs of his ancestors, but his body was bound to the same ball of rock and dirt that will one day lay claim to all bodies, whether ashen or buried whole. We’ll never know if the 3,000-year-old spirit, once free of his earthly matter, was relegated to an underworld of dubious torment, or if he was free to fly the expanses of empire, never stopping long until he reached Elysium, where he stretched his ghostly limbs in Lethean fields.
But isn’t it just like art to connect us to a 3,000-year-old person? We know instinctively that whatever his social position, whether peasant or patrician, he had loves and losses, pains and ecstasies, talents and flaws. Maybe he was educated—whatever that meant back then—or dumb as the ceramic that would house his remains, but the indisputable thing is that he shares with us—across seventy-one lifetimes—a humanity that is triumphant by sheer force of its existence. The urn says, “Here I was.”