When I was in my early twenties and living in Rome, a friend of mine there said something I never forgot. Mauro, who I only knew for that brief year, took us to his favorite little-known bars and cafés where we ate fried squash blossoms stuffed with fish. He showed us the best nightclubs on the river and embodied for us the Roman stereotype of pride, pleasure, indulgence and yes, laziness. He explained to me once, in a reassuring tone, that Romans had done their work 2000 years ago. They had built civilization and now it was their birthright to sit back, relax and charge admission to see the ruins of their fallen empire while they enjoyed the leisure their ancestors had earned for them. He must have seen on my face that I was grappling with this idea because he interrupted himself to say in his thick accent “don’t worry Klea, someday you too will be able to sell tickets to see the ruins of America”. Sage advice from an ancient empire to a modern one.
This implies so many things that are contrary to how we, as Americans, live: that achievment and ambition is not individual, but genetic, ancestral, and spreads forward through history, equaling-out over time. That there is a deep acceptance of entropy and decay that in no way lessens the height of the achievement. Decline is not failure, but part of the process. Because the goal is not to maintain and hold power, but just to have held it once, like a mountain that you summit and then descend, satisfied to tell the story. How humane this vision of success is, how much kinder to the power seekers than the expectation that we must eternally be scrambling up the incline.
In America we have never accepted decay, evidence of it makes us uncomefortable. And we haven’t yet existed long enough to be forced to embrace it. Newness and growth are valued above all else. This new-world ideology cannot last forever because the past builds up beneath us and eventually we have to live amongst its ruins, its layers painted and repainted, patched over, but still the substrate for the present.
Ever since this conversation with Mauro twenty years ago, I have taken pleasure in imagining what the relics of this moment will look like millennia from now. Which will disintegrate, which will survive and how will they be interpreted? This thought comforts me, it is a reminder of impermanence and of how long time is and how small now is. As Trump’s brief reign crumbled and hoards stormed the capital, I thought of Caligula’s collapse and the cautionary tales it left behind.
Sometimes I encounter objects that instantly strike me as future artifacts – their character both mysterious and storied. My kids and I like to wander and scavenge on our walks along the scrappy edges of our urban nature. We pretend we are archeologists from the future looking for evidence of the present. I picture my great great great great great great great granddaughter excavating our objects, removing the soil from the surfaces with a soft brush, her fingertips exploring the unfamiliar textures and deciphering their meaning.
Last week we found a few gems amongst the industrial debris at the edge of the bay. Some were smaller pieces of architecture that reminded me of Pompeii, which I packed out on my back in the baby carrier (the baby was perplexed why he had been replaced by chunks of cement and now had to walk). Then there was a large piece of cement from a sidewalk or wall, into which someone had carved the words BLACK LIVES MATTER. This mantra that feels so urgent and so of-this-moment had somehow already been put through the mill of demolition, removal and resurfacing in a new context. Its fractured shape and lichen-covered words gave it the appearance of an ancient artifact. This object’s afterlife has already begun while the ragged present it represents is still unfolding. How quickly the present turns into history. My daughter and I made a charcoal rubbing of it, like early archeologists did to record their finds. Sitting there between marshland and industrial ruins I felt engulfed by a hopeful vision: we are looking backward from a thousand years in the future at evidence of a juvenile culture that had not yet found it’s footing. A barbaric place of battling tribes, in which the most basic truths had to be shouted, painted, carved into concrete to remind humans that we are all equally human.