Many thanks to Ginosko Literary Magazine for publishing the “What We Are Given” in their latest issue. You will find this essay on page 122 of their PDF file. It a deeply personal essay about the years my partner’s mother lived with us.
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: there, gone, there again.
I could never do that, hurtle off the planet and soar into space. I can trust my body to freeways, airplanes, certain medications and surgeries, but no way am I leaving the atmosphere. 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.
What they did mention was 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 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 billions. That this particular star happens to keep us alive, held in breathtaking orbit, 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 attest. It is an immediate and ecstatic revelation: We Are One.
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 frigid darkness around them.
Despite their training and valor, astronauts must feel enormous relief, at least at first, when they are 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? When they gaze into the night sky, does it beckon them back? When they walk among us, are they lonely?
We glimpse some common object
or catch a stray scent,
and we are hurled back,
arriving in our past
the same instant we are retrieved,
as if the mind,
noting the discrepancy,
Memories are not snapshots
waiting for us in the brain’s dark folds.
We live them again,
one neuron sparking another
and another, the original band
reunited, setting a flimsy stage
on which we reappear.
This happens so fast
that sometimes we don’t know
where we went.
All we are given is the receipt:
a teasing brush of joy
we try to keep
and lose at once.
An osprey dives over and over,
as many times as it takes to stay alive
and become incidentally superb.
Driving down the road near my house
I see them flying, a stunned fish in their claws,
as if nothing could be more ordinary
than a bird bringing home dinner.
Wings or brains,
we work with what we have.
I can’t snatch a meal from the ocean
at 50 miles an hour,
but I can plant a garden,
make stories out of thin air,
learn the difference
between an aspen and an alder.
Minute by minute,
even I can be splendid.
My questions, unanswered, hang in the heat. I want to know why change comes hard in the Deep South, why generation after generation accept the religious precepts they are handed as if each day were not studded with evidence that their god is neither just nor caring. I want to understand why making continual excuses for a cruel and capricious deity is easier than living without one, and why a skewed omnibus written thousands of years ago is considered an instruction manual today.
At this point, humanity appears to be a failed experiment. We have not learned to co-exist or curb our numbers, and the scale of our pollution has tipped the balance of life on earth. If there were enough of us committed to saving our species, we certainly could. Our brains are up to the challenge. Scientists could develop the means and the rest of us would only have to be decent human beings. Without the wedge of religion, we might achieve this. With minds to better our world and hearts to better ourselves, what do we need with deities and dogma that only drive us apart?
Alabama legislators just passed a bill that makes abortion a Class A felony. Women in this state have been stripped of the rights to their own bodies regardless of their situation. This legislation was approved by 25 white males and one female, the state’s governor Kaye Ivey. In contrast to her Christian rhetoric on the sanctity of life, Ivey opposes gun law reform, believing that Alabamians have the right to own assault weapons.
250,000 children live in poverty in Alabama, and the state ranks 49th in infant mortality. Meanwhile, firearm mortality rates put Alabama in the country’s top percentile.
If this bill becomes law, the consequences are obvious. Welfare programs will be forced to expand. More children will become victims of abuse. Impoverished women or those fearing exposure will have babies they don’t want and are not equipped to raise. Others will seek abortions out of state, adding to the risk and cost. Reputable doctors will discontinue their services while those with more dubious skills will set up facilities in unsafe locations and charge high prices. People across the state will exist in a miasma of secrecy and dread. All because 25 men and one woman decided that a woman’s body does not belong to her.
I don’t know how Governor Ivy reconciles her religious speak with her views on private ownership of semi-automatic weapons. I don’t know how she can allow adoption agencies to discriminate against the LGBT community. And what I really don’t understand is how a woman can take away the rights of other women and consider herself a beacon of virtue.
From her desk in the state’s capitol, Governor Ivy signed a bill—much easier than looking into the face of a frightened, desperate woman and telling her that what she wants does not matter, that you have eliminated her options. If you’re going to play God you need to keep a safe distance, as far as possible from reason and accountability.
Sometimes they are not dead.
Sometimes they just live far away,
and even if you stopped by for a visit
what words would persuade them
of your betterment, the worth
you finally achieved?
What could they do but listen and nod,
knowing what they know?
I wish to thank the editors of OPEN magazine for publishing my poem “A Few Words for My Father” in their new issue.
Open: Journal of Arts & Letters has as its primary ambition to gather, publish, and popularize notable contemporary writing and other fine arts and to promote the work of its contributors to a varied and discerning audience in the English-speaking world and beyond.