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There was a feature story in the paper this morning about Rome’s most beautiful cemeteries, and Keats’ grave was featured as a “literary pilgrimage.” I became inordinately excited because I’ve read so much of his work that I feel like I know him personally, so I’m sitting at the table reading the article and thinking, “Oh, my gosh, someone I know is in the paper! How cool! I’m so proud of him!” And then I had to stop because no, Keats was walking around 200 years ago and as far as I know, I was most certainly not walking around 200 years ago.
Though if by some happenstance I was around 200 years ago, I have to stop for a minute and pat myself on the back for looking so good at my age.
This is what happens when you get attached to history. You forget you weren’t actually a part of it. If you’re nerdy like me, that seems like it would be a sad realization. In reality, it’s one of my favorite feelings in the world.
Think about it: we can identify so strongly with certain figures that time ceases to exist, and suddenly, we’re there with them, writing odes with them, painting highlights and shadows with them, delivering speeches with them, walking barefoot with them. True immortality comes when you find the ability to see that human spirit is the only being in this life capable of transcending the decades and reaching out and forward to its fellows, one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years later. And when we reach back, we realize that we are not reaching for Victorians or Elizabethans or Romans. We’re reaching for people, our people, who breathe just as we do and hate and fear and laugh and love just as we do. They are no different from us. They are us. They’re simply positioned at a different part of of the timeline, and one of life’s most beautiful rewards is discovering your ability to move fluidly across that timeline and connect with someone whose body may have expired but whose spirit is vividly, beautifully, eternally alive. You know it is so because you sense it in your own life.
For me, history has never been consigned to the past. It has never been statically pressed between the pages of books. It has always been alive: forever unfolding, forever dynamic, forever in conversation with itself, the present, and the future. Suddenly immortality becomes a tangible abstract.
Keats wrote of the nightingale, “Thou wast not meant for death, immortal bird, / No hungry generations tread thee down.” The same can be said for us. We were not born for death. We were born to live with and for each other. We were born to hold eternal conversation with each other, across the decades and centuries and ages. We live because others have lived before and for us. And that is one of the most beautiful realizations in the world.