I’ve spent the last few months, bloody knuckled, in the dirt, excavating ceramic vases that are thousands of years old.
The thing with ancient ceramics is this – you don’t know if they’re just old jelly jars, or old 1-800-FLOWERS vases, or if they’re someone’s Queen’s grandmother’s urn. When they first catch our eyes, they’re just something a bit shiny and odd sticking out of the dirt.
I have reason to believe that these particular vases are from an ancient civilization, given my exploratory digs. Our team predicts that a deep understanding of their origins and purposes might change how we see ourselves as humans.
You may be wondering what COVID-19 has to do with archeology, and concerned that the work I’m doing doesn’t sound essential. You may be asking yourself whether I’m wearing a mask or doing proper social distancing.
All valid concerns.
But never fear – you’re just in the midst of yet another of my gumby-stretched extended metaphors. This time about introspection, and not involving food, which is rare for me. I love food. Though I guess I brought up jelly. So, okay, we’ve incorporated food. Check.
Speaking of, back to the topic at hand—COVID-19 quarantine has written me an unprecedented blank-check grant for introspective archeology.
What is that, you ask?
Well, ask my mum.
I was talking with her the other day, and she was like “I feel like you just hide out sometimes, alone, so no one can push you…”
And she’s not wrong. I do hide out so no one can push me. But it’s not because I just want to be a lump of flesh, luxuriating in leisure (sometimes I am, but this is not my main purpose), it’s because I’m on a mission.
This is my first ungraded year – for 20 years of my life, 4/5 of it, I have been told what to do, how to do it, and evaluated on how well that went, by other people. K-12, college, and an in-progress Master's that I'm taking a year away from. Now I’m on my own, and I have to figure out what to do, how to do it, and how well I’m doing—for myself.
I have been tasked with nothing less than excavating enough of my past to put all the pieces I can find back together. I do this to understand what was going on in the past, so I can figure out what I’m doing in the present, so I can direct my todays, which I’ll be living into tomorrows for the unforeseeable future, until my heart stops beating, my nerves stop buzzing, and air stops filling my lungs.
I am under no illusions that I will solve every question of mine by the time that happens – ancient board games come up lacking instruction papers, no one on the team knows if that ditch I found was a baptismal font or a urinal, and we may never know exactly what color dinosaurs were – but where it is possible, I am in the business of figuring out as much as I can.
And just like not all people are meant to be literal archeologists – not all people need to use their quarantine time to ruthlessly navel gaze, painstakingly carving a porcelain vase out of sandstone with nothing but a particularly robust toothbrush.
Not all people must, but I feel called to. There’s some sort of matrix of desireing to do stuff, and the axes include: “I want to do it” and “I must do it.” Good projects must at least hit the first. Great projects hit them both. Some roll from one into the other. For me, introspective archeology is both. I work from compulsive self-interest, trying to understand the world, take the curriculum embedded in the body I was born into.
I thought this was egotistical—wrong, somehow—for a long time. I now think, for me at least, it’s essential. It’s part of what I was put here for. And it might be a little egotistical. That said, it’s also courageous. The unexamined life, while perhaps worth living, is not terribly interesting to me, and can be wildly painful. When I’m not paying attention, I’ve found that just living will do the digging anyway. Life will absentmindedly shove a pick axe through my foot, and if I’m not paying attention, I won’t have a clue where the pain is really coming from.
Here’s a snapshot from somewhat-recent endeavors:
Wow. I have such strong feelings about some of my friends. Is that a shiny glint of something in the dirt.
That could complicate everything let’s never say anything. Permitting is gonna be a nightmare.
This feels bad. I’m getting all distracted by their awesomeness and I don’t know if they feel the same way. I really want to see where that shine is coming from, where it might lead.
Are you just lonely? Do you just really want to make a significant find, and now you’re seeing things?
No these feelings have been around in some form for years. This is real. Local intel says this digging location is legit.
What if I mess it up by saying something? But we’ve learned from past excavations that most pots are way harder to break than we think – especially when we’ve dug up similar ones.
I have a policy of telling the truth about my feelings to people who I trust will hear them in good faith, even if I fear awkwardness, because I have a dogged belief that we need to say kind things and speak gratitude, and say hard things and risk conflict, even if being grateful means admitting we needed the thing we’re thanking someone for, or when setting a boundary means experiencing someone’s emotional reaction to it.
It’s really hard to admit specifics. It’s one thing to talk about how artifacts are nice. It’s another thing to identify that some part of me needed to see the beauty in her shoulders running into her back while they pulled down a window, or that some part of me needed to hear the crack of emotion in his voice as he read me his favorite novel, or that compliment they gave, off hand, that was just what I needed to hear. But these noticings, these pottery shards of attention, are what love is made of.
Are you really in love with these people? Are we sure these are pots?
Yes. And we're defining "love" flexibly, because how it is normally defined is exhausting and narrow. Of course I'm in love with them. I'm in love with everyone. Just ask my old Sunday School teachers. God is love. God is everywhere and everything. So of course I am in it. I'm in the universe. God's the universe. They're part of the universe. Therefore, of course I'm in love. And maybe? There are lots of ceramic shiny things.
And what does that mean? What civilization are they from?
I want lots of their attention, I want to interrogate them about their own introspective archeology because I heard they might have found Atlantis, I want to hear their voices, I want them to like me, I want to be affectionate toward them under mutually agreeable circumstances.
Are those things love?
I like to think of them as symptoms of love. Just like glaze or clay shards are indicators of pottery.
So you want to marry them?
Not now, nope.
So you want to date them?
Carbon dating is imprecise. We can get within a few thousand years, but that is not helpful here. We have that rough estimate, and we have these specific observations: I honestly would be super game to stay up late talking and get to know each others faces and talk about our thoughts on relationship and connection and tell lewd jokes and talk about aspirations, and lick our wounds, and celebrate our wins, and say what it is that I find wildly wonderful about them. But like, do I need to monogamously talk with them and be even more distracted by their existences? Does this piece need to be acquired by my museum, or can we leave it here, in its home, in context, even if that means I may never see it again? Do I need to pine and have a mutual contract of aspiring to marrying them, or to eating a steady diet of candlelit dinners, or participate in other admittedly somewhat alluring but honestly unnecessary things we call “normal?” Is there a ways you can do with with well-negotiated expectations, solid boundaries, and good self-care that doesn’t create co-dependence?
D. None of the above.
So how do we love them, then? How do we get these vases out of the ground so we can actually see them?
Dig with a toothbrush – gentle, don’t push, don’t expect more than you can get, don’t expect too much at all, or anything at all, if you can manage it. You might hope to get a museum quality piece destined for center stage at a permanent exhibition, but the second hope turns into expectation, well, it’ll just make finding a tiny fragment or a damaged piece painful instead of exciting. So expect nothing, live frugally on surprise. Fear is different than love. One is a bonfire you can sit by after a nice day of digging. One lights you on fire, and it’s hard to practice love with the smell of burning hair as background noise. Fear and love are two related but different things. One is an emotion, fleeting. The other is a fact, solid.
Each time you have gut-checked to make sure you’re digging out of love, not out of fear or expectation, you may earn another permit to keep digging. You also might not. Expect nothing. Get consent. Get a permit.
As you dig, sometimes what you thought was a vase isn’t a vase at all. Sometimes it’s a plate. Sometimes it’s a roofing tile. Sometimes it’s a love affair. Sometimes it’s a gorgeous friendship. Just because it’s not what you thought it might be doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of attention. And just because you think it’s a roofing tile right now doesn’t stop you from finding out years from now that it’s actually an ancient ash tray, or part of a precious and sacred plinth.
A note on digging – some people will be very frustrated with your budding interests in archeology. You may dig up your mother’s backyard before realizing that permitting is important. In that process, you may find worms, and bottle caps, or nothing others might note as significant discovery. You will be thrilled, at first, though, to find anything! You will find richer fields – an old arrowhead on a trail, an old bottle by the road, maybe the remains of an old dump in your neighborhood, maybe a time capsule in the yard of your school.
But mostly people will think you’re a bit nuts for digging around in the dirt.
One of those people, some days, will probably be you.
It will feel pointless sometimes. You will break expensive tools. You will break artifacts by choosing the wrong tools. You will get better training on what tools to use for what jobs. You will build a team with research skills, and better techniques, and you will learn from them. You will teach others what you’ve learned. And someday, if you’re lucky, you’ll get one, or two, or many monster-sized grants for extended work. You’ll have rich ground and good company.
You’ll get silence, and solitude, and enough stillness to really pay attention to the work at hand. That’s what I’ve gotten in the past couple of months, bless them.
And curse them—it will sometimes be grueling work. It will rain and be muddy, it will snow and your fine motor skills will be shit, it will be sunny and the tip of your nose will burn until it blisters, and peels, and bleeds. You will cry. And all the while your mother, your father, and some of your friends will be wondering what the heck you are doing playing in the dirt.
It might not actually be now that you find something revolutionary – in fact, odds are, you, too, will feel a little insane, a little out of control, wondering if this is some quixotic quest to try to lure secrets out of a sandbox. Maybe this is the first time you have ever dug, and you are in your bottle cap days. Or maybe this is a dry spell plateau amidst an illustrious career. But you will have days where you will find your versions of gold and secrets, and those days will drive you on.
You may hear about family griefs, may start tracking celebrations, may find hidden caves in shallow relationships or gas leaks in deep ones.
You may hear about how your mother used to hide between two coats out in the fields after chores on the farm she grew up on with a book, and you will learn that that’s why she has never asked more of you than your whole heart, and your soft, sturdy way of being in the world—she, too, is an archeologist, and understands the need for silence and time alone in the dirt.
You will find echoes of things that you know are part of much larger systems – a brick becomes a room, a room becomes a hallway, the hallways reveal more rooms, and a just like that, over the course of months or years, minute by minute, bucket of dirt by bucket of dirt, sometimes, a brick becomes a palace.
The path to the palace leads to a gate which leads to a square which leads to a town which leads to a civilization. And the brick. The brick goes the other direction too. The brick leads to a brickmaker’s imprint which leads to a soil sample which leads to a unique signature of sand from another region nearby which may lead to more bricks, more rooms, more palaces. There are never guarantees, but there are always possibilities. And you will become more attuned to them, above all.
Even though you will never find all there is to find, you will debunk misconceptions (even as you create new ones), and most days, you will feel wildly glad that you did the excavation. You will get good at it. You will go from unconscious incompetence, rooting around in the weeds, not knowing to get a permit, not knowing you’d majorly fuck up what you were trying to unearth when you went at it with a spade,
To conscious incompetence—you know what you’re doing isn’t always working, but you keep going anyway, even though it’s scary and uncertain
To conscious competence—you’re getting better, but every stroke of a brush or whirr of a Dremel needs your full attention to avoid disaster
To unconscious competence – that long promised feeling of being able to operate an enormous excavator, while talking on the phone to a friend, without worrying you’ll accidentally knock over a priceless marble statue, at least not this time around.
Godspeed on your excavations my fellow archeologists. It is not an easy thing to learn to do. It is exhausting work that looks a lot like faffing about aimlessly in the dirt, looking for old things that some say are best left alone. Stake out your sites. Label them well. Put up caution tape around big holes. Tell people you love that you may be gone awhile, off digging in the foreign lands of your mind, the places you were scared to go because you weren’t sure if you were going to like the food, let alone find anything. Go. Go. Go. Be brave. Wear an Indiana Jones hat. Do the best you can. If you break things, know that even old artifacts can usually be restored. There are special skills for that, too. You may even learn some of them if you are brave enough to admit it when you break things, and ask for help to fix them. The main thing, if you feel the call, is to dig. Some people won’t feel that call. They are not odd, they are not wrong or right, and (sorry to say it) you are not special. You are simply an archeologist. Finally, some people can’t listen to that call right now even if it’s there – they are not lazy, and they are still part of the club. Mind your own projects.
If you can’t dig right now, or don’t want to, we’ll have your back. You run the hospitals, the busses, the grocery stores, the shelters. You walk the dogs, feed the families and attend the board meetings. We’ll make sure that when you are ready you will have some beautiful art to come see, some beautiful history to come learn, some gorgeous humanity to come witness. We love you. Thank you.
And to my fellow archeologists, keeled over in the dirt, covered in dust, sweat and blood and wishing you could get decent coffee or a sit-down meal at your favorite place, wondering if people are right in saying you should be more conventionally productive, that you’re mad for thinking you might find Atlantis. You are not lazy, you are not crazy, you are gorgeous, and magnificent, and loved.
Rest when the sun is low, and when it’s up—keep digging.