Mementos and Memory

at 12:35 AM

I just visited the Cabrillo College archaeological field school high in the coastal ranges. The students had been camping for weeks and were field-hardened, everyone knowing their tasks, moving as an organic whole to sift through the site that was thousands of years old. Representatives from the Ohlone stayed with them the whole time, camped and ate and educated the students as they worked together to explore the ancient human history in this now remote area.

What archaeologists look for are the pieces of our lives that stay, works of stone and shell, concrete and glass. What we want, however, is the ephemeral. We're not just interested in what someone hunted, we want to know how they hunted, in groups or individuals, during the summer or spring, near villages or on long treks.

We want to know about ceremony and family structure, about the forms of entertainment that brought ancient people joy and the artwork that carried their reverence and hope. The artifacts are stopping points on the way to something deeper, and all of our efforts are bent towards that deeper meaning.

The irony is, of course, that most of our lives are ephemeral. Our greatest moments often leave nothing behind -- our memories carry the only proof that an event occurred. We have precious few physical things that mark truly important events: the brass baby slippers, the wedding ring, the casket. Unless we write it down, our lives evaporate around us, with only a handful of other people as witnesses.

The other week, I was crossing a parking lot with my two-year old daughter. She stopped and noticed my shadow for the first time. She gasped with surprise and said "That's daddy!" I pointed to her shadow and asked her "Who's that?" She gasped with even more surprise and said, "That's Caitie Belle!"

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And as she reached out, she watched her shadow hand take my shadow hand.

With a Perspective, this is Mike Newland.

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