I stumbled into the classroom nervous and jet-lagged, hoping to keep a low profile and not disturb the lecture. This was difficult to do, considering there were only thirteen—now fourteen—of us, plus the archaeology professor. A cancelled flight the day before meant I’d be a day late to Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, a day late to field school, and a day late to the budding friendships and connections that I had let play out in my mind on the long flight here. I was met by the program director, who greeted me with a smile and confident warmth, cupping my face in her hands—“You missed nothing, you must be so tired, so famished. Here, take a seat, and class, welcome Paula. She’s had a time of it, please be especially kind.” A touch and assuring words. The soft welcome brought unexpected tears—a realization that things would be ok.

We’d start our days early, loading hardhats, steel-toe boots, water bottles, and our sunscreened selves into dusty tweleve-passenger vans, and make our way to the Etruscan burial ground outside of town. We’d work through the morning, break for lunch, and return to shovel, pickaxe, trowel, and brush until dinnertime. In the evening after long, cold showers, we’d lounge in the town plaza with cheap Italian beer and cupfulls of gelato. We’d gossip about potential romance between classmates, and make plans for weekend getaways—each of us itching to make something of our summer and ourselves.

That July was filled with realizations, and like any good travel experience, the month offered discovery, challenge, and growth—new tastes, new friendships, new words and phrases, moments of loneliness and questioning, times of wonder, humility, embarrassment, and courage. While specific memories of the dig have faded, there’s a collection of moments that I continue to ponder.

Our archaeology professor was a young, soft-spoken postdoc who lectured with a thick Italian accent in a lilting, almost sing-song way: The Etruscan potter realized the bowl from native clay.” “The tomb was realized in the 2nd century, B.C.”  “Use your shovel to realize a shallow pit, but switch to a trowel once you hit the rock wall of the tomb.”

Silvia’s use of the word “realize” caught me off guard: I assumed “realize” to mean discover, uncover, or come to understand. Silvia (deftly working from a knowledge of three languages) was using an alternate definition. She meant “realize” as in form, make, build, compose: “Use your shovel to make a shallow pit.” The slight moment before taking this semantic jump has stuck with me even now, five years later.  

Perhaps there is something inviting in this pause—to think that we can discover rather than make, build, produce, do. Maybe the Etruscan potter came to understand the bowl from native clay—alongside hours of study and observation, messy, muddy hands and countless failed attempts. Perhaps the act of making is less dependent on our genius, our ability, or our skill and more dependent on small, simple actions—on paying attention and noticing.

In his book The Active Life, Parker Palmer reflects on our preoccupation with the idea of making in our everyday discourse.

Clearly, we regard ourselves as the manufacturers of nearly everything under the sun, including things that we cannot possibly make. I suppose we can make a deal or make a mark. But can we really make things right, or make peace, or make love?…We seem to regard much of the world as raw material that waits passively to be given shape by our own designs and energies … Unless you write all of this off as “mere language” (and I do not believe language is ever mere), you have to conclude that we unconsciously imagine ourselves as the ultimate makers of nearly everything, including our own lives.

The words we use carry power—how we perceive and use “make” is very much wrapped up in our tendency to believe that life hinges on our own agency and agenda. Silvia’s “realize” continues to be my reminder towards discovery and understanding rather than an individualistic constructing of some “thing,” whether it be a dish, a hole, a life.

And so that July, with shovels and pickaxes, trowels and brushes, we slowly realized our way into making—into knowing—something of our summer and ourselves.

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