People fade. This topic drifted through my head all weekend, sinking at times into forgetfulness, then carried by currents into different subconscious zones, rising unexpectedly to bob at the surface for a while. I’m not talking about the gradual forgetting that happens by successive generations after we die, I’m talking about the out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon that happens very much while we’re still alive, the one that’s going on right now. Think about folks you knew in grade school, folks you’re not even friends with on social media–haven’t they faded for you? If and when you remember them–and that’s a big if–they’re as you last saw them, paused in youth or young adulthood. The truth is we rarely have significant reason to remember most the people we’ve forgotten, and that’s largely okay, I think. But then there’s the occasional someone we never thought we’d forget–a best friend, a former love, an adult that seemed like a third parent. Of course you remember them–who they were, what they meant to you–but it’s in a detached kind of way, like the way you remember a character from a television show you watched religiously.
This would hardly be worth writing about if it weren’t so strange–the way someone essential to our happiness twenty years ago is now such a non-factor as to almost never arise in thought. I guess it’s sad, or is it? I can’t decide. I do know this: it’s completely natural. Whether sad or not, it’s something as natural as eating. I’ve thought about lost relationships on occasion, wondering if I should mourn them or maybe try to recover them. But, tellingly, there’s little motivation to do either. Is this a flaw in my character? (Don’t answer that.) I suspect, too, it’s part of an emotional healing process. Except the rub in the healing theory is that often there’s little actual desire to heal. When things end naturally, often our response is simply to let them. Or in more famous words, to live and let die.
A long commute can be nice. What I consider long is thirty minutes or more, which is what I graduated to when we moved from the urbs to the burbs. My morning drive morphed from three miles into twenty-seven. Indeed, when it was only three miles, I’m not sure I even qualified as a commuter. Doesn’t the term imply a lengthy drive? Anywho, what a drab topic, right? What can happen in that thirty-to-forty-five-minute haul is the real meat of this blog post.
Within that climate-controlled space, my tires a coarse whisper on the pavement, more music at my fingertips than was ever possible at any point in the history of the world, and the solitude inherent in traveling solo—within that space, I’ve written poems; I’ve witnessed the condensation of a bison’s breath on a frosty morning; I’ve seen cascades of ice clinging to walls of limestone, and sky so wide that eighty miles-per-hour felt more like flying than driving. Significant passages of my Masters thesis were hashed out on Interstate-65. All that time alone with my thoughts was bound to produce something.
However, there’s a different side to the commuter life: I’ve also seen a windshield covered in blood; a woman sobbing so hysterically I wondered how she could drive; and wide swaths of rolling pastureland cleared of trees and leveled for the construction of office buildings, whose utilitarian aesthetic insults the natural beauty it replaces. The other night, I was jarred by the sight of a fully-lit construction site, not far from where I drive past the two bison every day. What an incongruity in a place that otherwise would be supporting cattle. Now they’re abusing the night sky, too, I thought.
Yet I know accidents happen, and hearts get broken. I know we need office buildings. I know that, as a family who moved south of town a few years ago, we’re partially responsible for the progress that is disrupting the landscape. All one can really hope for then, at the end of the commute, is that transcendence outweighs dullness, and that beauty reinvents herself, after she’s taken a hit. For mortality is always on the road with us, and sometimes he rides our bumper.
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.