To Boldly Go

Recently I watched a video featuring astronauts. They were trying to express what it feels like to see Earth from space. One astronaut was fascinated by the way he could raise a thumb to the window and block out his home—the oceans, the rain forests, the Sahara, the Alps. Seven continents and eight billion people. Taxes and mortgages, sins and mistakes, secrets and shame. There, gone, there, gone.

I would never want to do that, hurtle off the planet and soar into space—it is simply too big, too empty; the average distance between stars is 20 million million miles. I am riveted by my own backyard and the wonders that await me each day. Butterflies emerging from hardened husks, lime green katydids the size of staples, 20 lb watermelons sprung from half-inch seeds.

Nor do I have the mettle required to pit my warm beating heart against the frigid reaches of space. I thought it was odd that none of the astronauts used the word “panic” in describing the sight of Earth through a porthole. A single glitch and their space ship could become space junk. They must not reflect on that; their minds, like their bodies, must be in excellent shape.

My father was a NASA scientist who developed several of the tests performed on would-be astronauts to determine their space-worthiness. In particular, he studied the effects of weightlessness on the human body. In 1960, he spent a week floating in a water tank in a rubber suit. Urine tests showed that his body began steadily disposing unneeded muscle and bone. The research provided proof that astronauts on long-duration flights would need to engage in rigorous exercise to prevent physical decline.

The International Space Station is a technological masterpiece, the pinnacle of human enterprise, a status at odds with its lifestyle limitations. There’s not much glamour in strapping oneself into a bunk each night or squeezing dinner from a plastic pouch. Beyond these character-building exercises, there is the physical toll. Without gravity, fluids in the body travel upward, resulting in headaches, nausea and a constant feeling of pressure. The heart, veins and arteries weaken, as do the muscles—crew members need to exercise at least two hours a day on specialized equipment or lose what they may not regain, like bone. High carbon dioxide levels, needed for optimal equipment performance, make the eyes burn. Bathroom breaks are probably the most challenging aspect of cosmic living. Astronauts must hover over a $19 million potty—it resembles a wet-vac—and, in zero gravity, send their feces into a tiny lining at the top; accidents are not uncommon. Since space toilets are not emptied every day, someone is obliged to don a rubber glove as needed and pack the poo down. When critical mass is achieved, the problem is shot into space and burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.

While viewing the earth from an alien’s perspective may be the highest privilege we can accord our own, I imagine there must be a fair amount of grumpiness and boredom inside the space station. With no doors to close, privacy is out of the question. There are no spouses to hug, no children to adore, no puppies to pet or flowers to plant. There is only that haunting view of planet Earth and a hamster wheel of daily tasks: cleaning filters, checking support systems, updating equipment, collecting data—on themselves and the endless darkness around them.

More than one astronaut on the program I watched mentioned how organic the world appears, a blue ball of ever-flowing energy, with swirling storms and flashes of lightning. They spoke of the planet’s stunning fragility, the “paper thin” layer of atmosphere barely hugging the surface—our only protection from cosmic destruction. There was footage of the damage we’ve done, the scars and erosions and clear-cutting so startlingly evident from the clarity of space.

Out there, the sun is not the sun as we know it, not the dependable orb that gloriously rises and sets, but just a star, one of trillions. That this particular star happens to keep us alive, held in breathtaking orbit, at precisely the right distance and angle to maintain myriad forms of life, is an imponderable bit of luck.

The cosmos stretches in all directions, swallowing space and time. To be there in that black forever is to see infinity. And to see the earth from this other-worldly place is to see its plight. There it somehow is, the blue planet, our only home in the universe. One of the astronauts used the term “Spaceship Earth,” because that is how he sees us, a vast crew with one destiny. Scientists call this perception of oneness the “overview effect.” It does not dawn on you gradually, the astronauts said. It is an immediate and ecstatic revelation: We Are One.

Despite their training and valor, astronauts must feel relief, at least at first, when they are safely back on terra firma. Above them is the sky and sun and moon, each where it should be. And here is that old friend gravity keeping everything in place. When they walk, I wonder if they feel the pull of the earth. Does the weight of their duffle bags surprise them? Some of these travelers have been aloft several months—do their wrinkles appear all at once? Did their skin age more or less? What are they most ravenous for—sex? A grilled steak? A queen-size bed?

But what I really want to know is how they manage later, when they are fully restored and back in their Nikes and Nissans. What do they think of war, the stock market, hair loss, teeth whitening? Do they miss that lightness of being when they were floating free of earthly burdens? When they gaze into the night sky, does it beckon them back? Having seen the big picture, are they lonely among us?

New Essay in bioStories

Many thanks to editor Mark Leichliter for publishing my personal essay “Letter to a Phantom” in the latest issue of bioStories. Mark has been kind enough to accept several of my essays and he is indispensable in suggesting edits that make them stronger. It is always a privilege to be featured in such a fine journal. If you enjoy this piece, I encourage you to “like” and “share” it on the links provided and follow the magazine.

From the bioStories website: bioStories offers word portraits of the people surrounding us in our daily lives, of the strangers we pass on the street unnoticed and of those who have been the most influential and most familiar to us but who remain strangers to others. We feature essays from an eclectic variety of viewpoints and seek out writers of literary excellence. We particularly look for work that offers slices of a life that help the reader imagine the whole of that life, work that demonstrates that ordinary people’s experiences often contain extraordinary moments, visionary ideas, inspirational acts, and examples of success and failure that prove instructive. In short, we believe every life displays moments of grace. bioStories wishes to share pieces of these lives and celebrate them.

View the pieces of the lives presented here as portraits, sketches, tributes, memories, remembrances … pieces of lives that enrich our experience for having shared them. We ask writers to, as Toni Morrison has said,”Imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar.” Share a life. Introduce us to someone we don’t yet know.

New Paintings

It’s been awhile since I posted any artwork, so here are a few photos of some recent work, most of it in collaboration with my woodworker/scroll saw maestro wife. I am doing more and more commissioned pet portraits–canines are much in demand.

New Poem in Star 82 Review

Many thanks to editor Alisa Golden for publishing “A Christmas Poem” in the new issue of Star 82 Review. 

“Star 82 Review is an independent art and literature, online and print magazine that highlights words and images in gemlike forms. Each issue features flash fiction, creative nonfiction, erasure texts, narrative art, postcard lit and poetic storytelling featuring subtle humor, humility and humanity, the strange and the familiar, and hope.”

Write A Letter

Write a letter to your younger self,
they urge: It’s cathartic.
Be kind, be supportive,
guide her gently toward better choices.
Fat chance she’d listen.
Pearls of wisdom, cautionary tales–she heard them all.
And what, precisely, to offer?
Don’t settle? Don’t worry? Stay out of the sun?
I wouldn’t listen to me either.
If I took another tack,
told her she was strong
and worthy, capable of anything,
she’d only shrug and look away.
Not for a minute would she have imagined
a soft landing in her sixties,
four-bed/two bath, a steadfast spouse.
In any case, who am I to interfere–
she got me this far, didn’t she?
Better to leave her hurtling
into plight and fervor and folly
so that she can show up here
and astonish me.
“See?” she would have said.

Now Where Did I Put My Sex Drive

“Hot flashes?” my friend said. “They don’t bother me. They’re mostly gone now anyway. And the other stuff—dry skin, weight gain. What can you do? No one stays pretty forever.” She paused, frowned at the drink in her hand. “But the thing that does bother me? Loss of libido. I gotta say, I have a grudge against that one.” She looked at me. “It’s excessive, don’t you think?”

I blinked at her. I knew what she meant. Of all the subtractions that come with menopause, loss of desire has to be the saddest. “Makes you realize what biological beings we really are.”

She nodded. “It does, doesn’t it?” She was a silent a moment. “You know, I don’t think I miss the sex so much as I miss the need for it, the appetite. Why should that get taken away, too?”

“Maybe it’s a kindness,” I offered. “Maybe we lose our desire because we’re no longer desirable.”

“Well, that’s brutal,” she said. “But you’re probably right. Nature thinks of everything.” She looked up into the tree that shaded our table. “Damn men. All they lose is their hair. Bill still wants sex—not as often, but it’s there. It’s retrievable. For women it’s like a door slamming shut.”

No, I thought, not slamming. More like closing, quietly, so quietly you don’t notice. One day it occurs to you that sex has not occurred to you.

You might chide yourself, resolve to put mundane matters aside and focus on love. The problem, you think, is fixable, laughable, temporary. There is the destination, clear as day—all you need to do is show up. Only you can’t. You’ve lost the map. Occasionally you forge ahead, determined to prevail, and occasionally you do, arriving at a finish line barely worth the effort.

I do know of one woman, 84 years old, who claims she is still interested in sex, who would jump in the sack “in a hot minute” if she found an appropriate suitor. When she told me this, I laughed.  “I’m not kidding,” she said flatly.

“Lucky you,” I replied, wondering if having a sex drive in your eighties is a lucky thing. Finding a willing and able partner would certainly be lucky.

This woman is exceptional—most of my female peers have shed their amatory lives and moved on. Yoked to the plow of destiny, we have found other ways to entertain ourselves: birding, gardening, charity work.

“The Change,” people used to call it, ominously. It was an event discussed in whispers, a bane that befell our mothers and aunts. I wasn’t sure what it meant, only that I didn’t want it to happen to me. Odd that the transformation still came as a surprise.

Focusing on the compensations can be helpful, like my newly-sprung ability to notice the ways I’ve been blessed or spared. I can tell you that most everything I see now has significance, that I ache for this beleaguered planet every day, that I can no longer regard a caterpillar on my cabbage without considering its right to be there. Each day I can feel the thrilling edge of something I have yet to learn.

Still, I mourn my libido. The loss of it, after all, is a sort of death, an ash-filled urn in the top of my closet, alongside those size 6 jeans I will never wear again. I am, as nature would have it, changed. What is there to do but shove on my sunhat and go out to the garden, tend to other lives as assailable as my own.

Lichen

Bonded to a boulder,
living on air and random rain,
a forty-year-old lichen
claims a thumbprint of space.
Centuries from now it will be
the size of a dinner plate,
will still be young
when the millennium turns–
not that age applies
to a thing designed to override death.

Maybe this doesn’t sound
like much of a life:
stuck on stone, nothing to do
but make more crust.
Or maybe it’s a thrill a minute,
living up to all that potential.

I would like to find out,
to lie on a sun-warmed rock
and give myself up,
to become with steady assurance
all I was ever meant to be.