~I wrote this six weeks ago after what turned out to be the last time I’d be downtown, or in public in any way, in all this time. It seemed weird to share it when quarantine was first starting, but now it feels right.~
This morning I got off the train on my way to the library at Penn, where I like to work sometimes, just like I did when I was a student there some 20 years ago. I’d taken the train from my neighborhood to University City station, renamed in just the last month to Penn Medicine Station. To me (and I suspect to others) this is an annoying change, but then again I’m old enough to remember people who found it annoying to hear the area called University City, as if the universities there owned the place when really it was just West Philly, the city, which belongs to us all.
I have a lot of feelings about having gone to this university. To this day when the subject of college comes up I hope no one will ask me where I went, in part because the school has a funky (and well earned) reputation here in its home city for being acquisitive and bullying, and partly just because it feels embarrassing to have something so expensive—my fancy education, as an old friend once put it. But it’s also true that I have a deep love for the place. Learning things there was life giving; just about every class I took was as good—as rich and challenging—as any other. Even doing nothing but walking around the campus and looking at the buildings never got old. It still hasn’t. I still find it so beautiful there.
One of the things I love best about Penn is its anthropology and archaeology museum. I’ve been visiting the Penn Museum—staring at the spooky, elegant mummies resting behind their glass cases—since I was a little kid from the nearby suburbs. The Ancient Egypt rooms are kept dim to protect the mummies and I felt protected by this too, safe and cozy in the soft, enveloping darkness but down-deep thrilled at the same time. For years these images and feelings lived in my mind as hazy childhood memories, maybe something from a movie; it wasn’t until I was a college student enrolled in an anthropology course in one of the building’s classrooms that I made the connection: Holy shit! The mummy place is Penn! Realizing this made me feel lucky, like life had some magic to it—like if I paid attention, I could always find my way back to the places I need to be.
The short walk I make from the train station to the library takes me right past the museum. On this particular morning, despite my best efforts to feel cheerful, a prickly mood was starting to take hold. Who knows why. The start of a week of PMS, a looming therapy appointment, the stupid train, which was like a million degrees for some reason, all the jerks in this city with their stank attitudes; all of the above. I had work I was on my way to do but then I walked past the museum’s beautiful courtyard, with its fountain and massive iron gates, and my shadow self whispered, Let’s go see the mummies. So I went.
I have visited the mummies many times over the years, usually alone. It’s a pretty reliable pick-me-up. It’s partly the atmosphere in that building, I think, with its highly appealing 1930s Indiana Jones vibe, but mostly it’s the ancient civilizations. There is something so incredibly comforting about an ancient civilization. Reading about the people, thinking about them, looking at their stuff—it’s all a kind of balm for my fried nerves, my never-ending sadness and confusion. Cuz look! They had makeup too! And hair combs and food bowls and bracelets. Music and gods, weddings and funerals. Just like us. They were hopeful and scared, in danger and in love, just like us. They made all these pretty things and it wasn’t pointless, it helped keep them safe, helped them organize and understand their lives, just like our objects and rituals help us, at least some of the time.
And now all those people are gone. Long, long gone, the ancient dead, either withered to a hard husk in the desert sand or meticulously wrapped and lying in a massive tomb shaped and painted to look just like them. I like wondering what their lives were like, what it felt like to be them. I also like not knowing, the impossibility of it. If none of their stuff had survived I guess we’d never even know they’d existed, and it wouldn’t really matter, would it? We think we know so much but really we know so little, we’re just trying our best, and this not-knowing but still-trying unites us across time and place to all the ancient people, the ones we like to tell ourselves were primitive compared to us.
Sometimes I take my time and look at all of the museum’s exhibits—Central America, Africa, Ancient Israel—but today I zooted through the Middle East and went right to Egypt. I stepped softly into the dark hall, quiet and polite, the hush of their gods all around me. I looked at the cat statues and tiny pots of kohl, getting myself ready for the main event. When I finally made it to the smaller rooms where the mummies are kept I spooked around for a minute, seeing nothing but my own reflection in the glass. And when I was ready I made myself look in at the person lying there, and I heard myself whisper Hey, like to an old friend.