Know What Matters

A day with Beaky

A day with Beaky

When you leave Florida driving north there is a stretch of highway in Georgia that is littered with billboards advertising everything from the adult superstore to the second coming. The spectrum is as breathtaking as it is comical.

I’ve driven this stretch three times during the past several months and each time I wonder what an archeologist from some distant future might deduce about us if this stretch of highway was the only remaining fragment of evidence of our culture. A few years ago I spent a day in Herculaneum, the other city buried with Pompeii on the day that Vesuvius erupted. Like Pompeii, it was remarkably well preserved. We have so much writing from that time, we have eyewitness accounts, we have museums stuffed with artifacts and art. While I walked the streets of Herculaneum on that hot summer day, I read about the social norms, the exercise practices, food preparation, infrastructure, and what we assume a normal day was like. I also read, based on the placement of the bodies, what that most unusual day, the day the world ended, must have been like. There was a timeline of events. All the while I couldn’t help but wonder if our study of their culture could only reach the superficial, the top layer, the economics. We can sort through the garbage and garner much about daily practices. To study is not the same as knowing. What we know is minute when compared to what we do not know. The timeline told me little of the terror. It told me nothing of the love. The economic statistics told me less than the plaster cast of the old couple huddled together, arms wrapped around each other on their final day.

I recently watched a short TED talk by Ric Elias who was on the plane that a few years ago landed in the Hudson River. He talked about his thoughts as the plane went down, what he learned about life when he faced his death. He was surprised that there was no fear in dying but there was great sadness for all the things he would miss, all the relationships he would leave behind. He learned from that experience that the only thing in his life that mattered was being a good father. He also decided to clear all the toxic relationships and never again participate in negative energy. He said that he gave up being right. I thought of him as I drove the billboard gauntlet a few days ago. The archeologist from the distant future would glean much about our economics and ponder our obvious confusion. She would write studies useful for the tourists that would travel halfway around the world to visit the site of a once thriving community. The tourists would walk the stretch of ancient freeway, gape at the billboards and speculate about our addictions. But they would know nothing of the people who everyday drove that stretch of road with their families, or about people, like me, who drove more than a thousand miles to spend a day or two with a 93 year old woman named Beaky who can tell a story better than almost anyone I’ve ever known.

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