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.”
A solitary consciousness, crying out from the surging swell, but using no words: this is the nature of the quiet desperation at the heart of human experience. Does the loneliness sneak up on you? Are you uncomfortably made aware, on the morning commute, of the unavoidable isolation of being conscious? It seems an irony befitting a race that sees its death approaching from earliest youth, like a mountain that anchors every landscape view, no matter where you stand.
But even if we couldn’t see death’s approach, would we do things any differently? It’s a legitimate question. I don’t know that I would watch any less or any more Netflix, or indulge any less or any more in the things I routinely indulge in (hello, Reese’s cups). Would I bother writing? Or is there something about that pale horse and its bony rider that compels me to document these ranging thoughts; to labor away, in the pre-dawn hours, at fiction and at memoiristic meditations on the poetry of Rilke? Probably, on some elemental level, there is something of the dread behind these efforts.
Yesterday I was driving home from my eldest son’s piano lesson, and the sunset caught the trees in such a way that the part of me that responds to art welled up of its own accord (the “of its own accord” part is necessary–it’s how I know I’m in the presence of great art). My first impulse was to take a picture, but I was driving, and I knew that my phone couldn’t capture the true essence of the sunset anyway. So then I thought about how often our first impulse in the presence of beauty is to try and capture it, and then I was hit with the sadness of our inability to do just that. Isn’t there just so much that we wish to do, but we can’t? Beauty can’t be bottled, and there aren’t enough Instagram filters to make an experience communicable to another person. There’s a tremendous sadness in this.
In one corner of the large, rectangular room, cousins in their twenties reconnect, while in another, the parents of those same young adults slip into the easy familiarity–brothers, sisters, and in-laws, all privy to the old jokes and family stories; thoughts of those who’ve gone on but whose presence remains, bittersweetly.
Even if I was a blood relation, however, I’m not sure the easy familiarity would come, or rather, when it does come, it never stays for long. I’m rarely at ease anywhere outside my house or the few coffee places I haunt. Over the course of my thirties, solitude became the preferred milieu, despite a fairly sociable teenage and young adult life. I suppose it was the growth of the writer inside. You can roll your eyes at that if you want–it’s fine. I’d rather you not let me see you do it, though, for civility’s sake. Yet this is something that any artist understands: the necessary loneliness. You reach a point where you either give up the call or accept that if you’re going to accomplish anything of value, artistically speaking, then you’re going to be trudging that path alone.
It’s Thanksgiving night, and I’ve found a comfortable chair with a full view of the room. A few settle nearby–wife, brother-in-laws, father-in-law–those who are naturally close. But across the way is an energetic demographic with whom I won’t share a word the whole night. Some of them, I won’t even make eye contact with. I wonder if they see me as the misanthrope in the corner, which is kind of amusing, but also not exactly how I want to come across. Nevertheless, we can’t control what others think, right? Everyone is friendly; everyone is thoughtful and warm–paragons of virtue, in fact. And I am content to be a spectator, thinking about my various projects, thankful for those I love and for those who love me. I am often alone, but I am never lonely.