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?

All At Once

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Most of the time our feelings are produced by our thoughts. We think of a person or situation, and our bodies respond with love, anger, fear, regret, despair, disgust—there’s no end to the places our minds can take us.

But sometimes the obverse is true. For just an instant, we are brushed by a fragment of memory. We pause, transfixed, thrilled not by the memory itself, which never coalesces, but by our closeness to it. We scramble after this phantom, try to fix it in time. Too late. It was gone as soon as it arrived, like the rainbow flash of an abalone shell before the dark waves rush over.

For me, these sensations occur most frequently in the spring, as if the earth, in her exuberance, is churning up my secrets along with her own, reminding me that nothing is lost. Akin to deja vu, this experience involves more certainty than suggestion. We are not stirred by a sense of the familiar but seized by our own lives, summoned to wakefulness. For a second or two, we exist in a portal, the distinction between past and present indiscernible. That fragment of memory was not an idle daydream; it was a clue, a means to the truth. We live all at once and probably forever.

Photo credit: Doreeno via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

 

Strange Company

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As most of you know, I am a writer (and I say that with the deepest humility). Because I believe that everyone should give the world whatever skills they possess, modest or monumental, I have gathered twenty of my brief nature essays into a collection called Strange Company, which  is now available as an eBook for $2.99. If you don’t have a tablet, you can download the Kindle app or Adobe Digital Editions to your computer.

Do lizards fall in love? What do sloths think about all day? Why is the blood of a horseshoe crab so valuable? Do starlings flock for fun? Do turtles ever grow bored with their long lives? Can snails be fearless? Can a parrot be a therapist?

These are some of the questions that keep me up at night. Maybe you’re likewise in awe of the natural world, or maybe you’d just like a breather from daily events. Either way, $2.99 is a pretty good deal, right? And you even get photos 🙂

 

 

 

“A Sea Change” in The Other Stories Podcast

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Today I wish to give deep thanks to editor Ilana Masad for featuring “A Sea Change” in The Other Stories podcast. This story is part of my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS, published by Ashland Creek Press.

Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/daugaard/2687998731/”>DaugaardDK</a&gt; via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>CC BY-NC-SA</a>

First, Do No Harm

Memory. It’s a tricky thing. I’m not talking so much about our short-term memories: where are my keys? what did I come in this room for? I’m referring to long-term recollections, those shape-shifting phantoms that cannot be validated. When I get together with my sisters, we will inevitably discuss an event from our past, each of us spackling in what we remember until a revised sketch emerges. Our memories of these episodes are often incompatible, which should no longer surprise us, but does. At last, reluctantly, we allow these collaborative versions, figuring the truth is in there somewhere.

In the beginning of her book CAT’S EYE, Margaret Atwood compares time to “…a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of the other. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that…”  What a perfect description of memory: a still, fecund pond with murky green water. In near constant succession, images float into view, displacing those around them before sinking back down. Because none of us sees the world the same way, my pictures do not look like your pictures, and what is real for me is not real for you. Each one of us is walking around with a cache of fluid memories from which we derive our identity. Who we are is what we remember.

It’s a flimsy arrangement for sure, and little wonder so many of us flock to therapy, desperate for clues to ourselves. The blurred, random images that represent our lives are not sufficient; we want verification, confirmation, something more solid to stand on than the squishy bottom of a pond. Surely a trained professional knows more about us than we know, can tell us what is wrong with our pictures and lead us out of the mire.

I recently watched a video about the fragility of our minds and how easily our memories can be corrupted, either by natural causes, like stress and aging, or by the intervention of others, specifically therapists. In some cases, I can see the value of dislodging troubling memories; indeed we probably all have painful memories we wish we could break free of. Good therapists are born healers, and I have talked to several people who are endlessly grateful for the treatment they received. Other folks have told me that therapy did not help them at all, and some even regret their sessions, claiming that therapy only made them feel worse. One woman told me she felt lost afterward, unrecognizable to others and a stranger to herself.

Our ability to remember is what enables us to learn: we need our memories to keep us alive and comforted, and to remind us where we are in this world. There are many therapists out there. The best ones, aware of their extraordinary responsibility, proceed with caution and compassion.