Senescence

Civita, walking up the bridge


Venice, walking over bridges

Certain organs—the cerebral cortex and the heart, for instance—are replenished every seven to ten years. When the individual cells that comprise them cease to divide, they die and are replaced with new ones.

If we live to a certain age, we experience several such series of cellular rebirth. Though we as organisms may grow old, parts of us are newly born even up to our death.

Some believe that this phenomenon, known as senescence, developed as the body’s defense against cancer. The down side is that the replacement cells aren’t as resilient as one’s original cells—they may be newer, but not as strong in the face of atmospheric damage or bombardment by free radicals.

Over time, these cells are not replaced at the same rate, or at all, and those we do manage to retain are less able to fight off attacks. It’s said that senescence is never actually the cause of death, though it certainly paves the path toward it.

This concept raises several questions—is senescence the driving force behind our intrinsic attraction to old things, old relationships, old buildings? Are we genetically programmed to believe that foundational elements are somehow more real or stable than those that follow? Does mixing old with new dramatically change the nature or composition of a person or thing?

And, while time and age may not themselves be killers, how can we revere the luster they bring while simultaneously dreading the ultimate result?

Thoughts like these continue to bubble to the surface as I prepare to return to Italy in a week. I’ve been re-reading notes from last year’s adventure with a bit of my own combined enthusiasm and dread, wondering how I’ll feel about Civita—the ultimate crumbling, ancient body—upon my return.

I know that I’ll reconnect with a feeling of awe when I finally reach the bridge, perhaps pausing for a moment before I pull my suitcase up the great incline to my stone house at the top. Yet, I fear that, while I may find it beautiful, I may not find it as meaningful: the bedrock of last year’s transformational moments in Civita may be replaced this year with newer yet more mundane experiences.

I think that’s why I’ve felt twinges of cold feet about this year’s trip, at least in part. In the face of other misfires—the dismal results of a summer Italian class that was too advanced; the incompatibility of Iole’s and my schedules, which don’t permit us to meet Venice—I’ve heard myself confirm several times that this year simply isn’t last year.

Then, I began to question whether having the same experience would really make me happy. It might be comfortable and familiar at first, something to look forward to, but recreating the past wouldn’t leverage anything that I learned last year. Though it might be pleasant, it wouldn’t challenge me to grow or thrill me with surprise.

Returning with a foundation of memories and building something new upon them—even if my experiences aren’t identical or as impactful—is the way towards a richer evolutionary patina, I think. It’s impossible for anything to remain the same forever: there’s a fine line between preserving something beautiful and stagnating into ruin a la Miss Havisham.

Instead, I’ve decided to consider the unique discoveries of this trip as the infrastructure for the next trip, and so on. Though I’ll be tempted to do so, I hope not to compare last year with this year in terms of “better” or “worse,” but as an evolution from one chapter to the next. There is power and strength in time-honored places and well-worn memories, but becoming enamored with, and ultimately mired in, the past is a disservice to the present.

Naturally, this won’t prevent me from visiting old friends. Perhaps we’ll create new experiences together that weren’t possible without having laid the groundwork last year.

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