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Monthly Archives: June 2011

A Little Faith

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It’s staggering to think about.

It’s difficult to comprehend.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine.

And yet it’s true.

Human beings look back in time every night.

Every night we look up at the heavens.  The stars we gaze upon are thousands of light years away from us.  By the time the light from those stars reaches our eyes, what we see is a remnant – a snapshot – from the past.

The mind-boggling photos from Hubble show the births and deaths of stars and solar systems and planets, but the pictures we see are not as they are in our present.

I remember the first time I grasped this concept and how enthralling and heart-stopping it was. I have always been consumed on some level with the universe and astronomy.  In no small measure this was due to the enthusiasm of my father and uncle.  As a child we’d look up at the Moon with a basic telescope and I could not believe how clearly you could see the craters on the Moon’s surface.  We’d follow satellites with flashlights in the deepest, darkest night while camping.  They’d talk to us about the statistical reasoning behind the assumption that we are not the only intelligent beings living and breathing and blogging…in our galaxy, let alone the universe.  They tried to explain the theory of the expansion of the universe, but alas I still can’t quite wrap my head around that one…how can everything that exists expand into nothing that doesn’t exist?

All of it, every bit of it, is wondrous to me.

One night when I was around 10 years old, my father and I were sitting on the front porch on a warm, summer evening.  We talked about the stars and he reminded me that because we lived in a city what we could see was “nothing”.  He wanted me to remember the night we were driving home through a very rural area from a party, and how he stopped the station wagon on a lonely little road next to a field and opened the back hatch.  My sister and I were sleepy, cranky.  Remember, he said, that I told you all to be silent, and to just look…up.  And he reminded me that we gasped “wowwww” and were indeed silent.  And he reminded me that the sky was nearly white from the brilliance of the stars and planets and star-dust, to the point where you almost couldn’t see the blackness of empty space.  And he reminded me that even that particular night couldn’t convey the enormity of what lay beyond our planet.  I told him I remembered.

There was a breeze, a beautiful night on the porch.  My father then pointed to the schoolyard across the street.

“You see over there?” he asked.

“Yes.” I said.

“If a spaceship from another planet landed there and asked me to go with them, but I could never come back…I would go.” He said matter-of-factly.

“What???”  I was stunned.  Hurt even.  I didn’t believe him and I argued with him that ultimately he would do no such thing.

He explained to me that he would forever miss me, my sister and mother…everyone he knew and loved, but that he simply could not – would not – pass up the opportunity to see things that no human being could even begin to imagine.

It upset me a great deal to hear that from him, but even then I understood it in some small way.

We are but specks.  I knew it then and I know it now.

As a child might say, we are Horton’s Whos.

While most rational-thinking people can believe that we are almost certainly not the only intelligent beings in the universe, we still have no proof that we aren’t.  We keep looking, searching for evidence that we aren’t floating around – all alone – in the blackness of everything that ever was or will ever be.  If I think about it long enough, it’s terrifying.  I don’t want us to be alone.  No one wants to be alone.

There are but a mere handful of human beings who have gone into space and were able to see with their own eyes the Earth, and an even smaller handful of human beings who have walked on land belonging to another celestial body and gazed upon the Earth.  What must that be like…feel like?  Clearly the pictures they take help convey to us the grandeur of our planet, but I think in no way can they adequately instill into us our…aloneness.

I will never understand why human beings as a whole do not seem to comprehend this.  Why don’t we?  As far as we know…know…we are alone in all the universe.  We’ve created religion to help sedate our fear that there is no rhyme or reason to our existence, that we’re not all just happenstance and the blind-luck of molecules and atoms and proteins converging in just the right proportions.  I believe in God, I feel God…and I don’t think believing in God and science are mutually exclusive.  But I do believe that “religion” as a concept was given birth to by people who wanted to feel as if there was a “father” taking care of us, somewhere…just out of sight.  Children do not like to be left alone.  Even if they can’t see you, they want to believe you are there – ready to help them, comfort them, save them.

All you have to do is look around.  In a world filled with so much beauty and wonder and love, there exists so much destruction, and sadness and war.  I know, I know…it’s so “hippielib” of me to say…but really…why??  We kill and hurt each other over land and money and oil.  We destroy with callous disregard the very place we live.  And much of what we fight and kill each other over harkens back to God, and religion, and ideology; which God is the right one, the RIGHT protector and creator?  Which God should we put our faith in?  If it’s the “wrong one” you’re penalized over your poor choice.

What are we doing?  All we know is each other.  All we have are the other finite number of human beings on this planet.  This Earth is our only home.  Why can’t we accept, that for now, maybe forever, this is it…that everyone we know and everything we see around us is all we get?  How can we not take care of it all and each other as if we are each others protectors?  Instead of putting our faith in only God, or only in the hope that we are indeed not alone in all the universe, where is the faith that we can take care of each other?

I am struck by the similarities of the statements from astronauts all around the globe who have been uniquely privileged to see our planet from the vantage point of space.

For those who have seen the Earth from space, and for the hundreds and perhaps thousands
more who will, the experience most certainly changes your perspective. The things that we
share in our world are far more valuable than those which divide us.
– Donald Williams/USA

Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I
saw majesty – but no welcome. Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin,
moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the
human drama and comedy. That’s where life is; that’s were all the good stuff is.
– Loren Acton/USA

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended
like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round
meant until I saw Earth from space.
– Aleksei Leonov/USSR

The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space.
As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a
marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object
looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall
apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God
and the love of God.
– James Irwin/USA

My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.
– Edgar Mitchell/USA

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin
seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been
told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.
– Ulf Merbold/Federal Republic of Germany

A Chinese tale tells of some men sent to harm a young girl who, upon seeing her beauty,
become her protectors rather than her violators. That’s how I felt seeing the Earth for the
first time. I could not help but love and cherish her.
– Taylor Wang, China/USA

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth.  I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth.  I didn’t feel like a giant.  I felt very, very small.
– Neil Armstrong/USA

The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful.  Maybe we can make it that way – the way God intended it to be – by giving everyone, eventually, that new perspective from out in space.
– Roger B. Chaffee/USA

They speak of our fragility, how we must cherish this tiny little speck of a planet, defend it, and how seeing it from above instilled in them a sense that divinity must have played a hand in our creation, so awesome and inspiring it was.

I believe that every single leader of men and women and nations should be made to view Earth from above.  No, not just from above…from the Moon.  They should be made to stand alone on our beautiful yet lifeless satellite and view the only home the entirety of humanity has ever, ever known.  And in utter, catastrophic silence take in our complete, as yet unproven…aloneness.  They should be made to watch, and listen, in staggering awe until they feel…faith in humanity.  A faith perhaps born only when one realizes that there is quite literally – no other option.

Who then might become the protector in their eyes?  How then will they feel about killing and war and destruction?  How then might their instincts to “take care”, no matter how small at the outset, expand exponentially?

I hate the thought of a young girl somewhere on a distant world looking through her telescope with her Dad, the light from our planet finally reaching her eyes…from a time gone by…and thinking how beautiful a light it is – not knowing it was snuffed out long ago.  And that we did it to ourselves.

We desperately need perspective.

And a little faith.

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15 Minutes

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A long time ago, in a lifetime far, far away…I was 14 years old.  It was an unusually warm, October day during my Freshman year in High School.  I was a cheerleader and we were practicing on the football field.  I distinctly remember being hot wearing the white, short-sleeve, wool sweater with the big blue “R” on it.  It was snug, and scratchy – being wool – and fairly uncomfortable.  We had been warned by our coach not to wash the sweaters or skirts, or to get them soaking wet, ever, or they would shrink to a Barbie doll size and we’d have to pay for them.  They could only be dry-cleaned.  They were cute, old-school uniforms…complete with pleated white and blue upper-thigh-high skirts and yes…saddle shoes.  Boy, how I hated those clown shoes.

I only lived about five blocks from the school, and three blocks from the football field.  Practice that day was right after school and it was still fairly light outside when it ended.  I should have been home within a few minutes, but I had forgotten one of my books in my locker.  I ran back to the school, got my book, and walked out.  It had been a really beautiful day.  It was one of those Fall afternoons when the nearly setting sun glowed enormous and orange, and the warmth made the scent of the season’s change hang potently in the air.  It was my favorite season.

But in the ten minutes it took for me to run back to school, retrieve my book and walk out again – thick, dark, puffy clouds had gathered low in the sky.  I had no coat, no umbrella and the raindrops were beginning to fall.  Huge, round, cold raindrops.

Before I even reached the street it began to pour.  A hard, steady fall of cartoonishly-splashy drops.  I started to run.  And panic.  I was carrying my math book, and even though the very word “math” made my muscles tighten in tandem with heart-palpitating dread, I didn’t want my book to be ruined.

However, the real panic was reserved for my cheerleading uniform.

************************

My coach, well she was an…odd woman.  She was also my English teacher.  I didn’t much care for her, and she didn’t much care for me.  She was hard on me both in class and in practices.  She made “examples” of me in class, and not in a good way.  The most recent talking-down from her had come in class when she made me stand up and display my hands in order to show everyone that nail polish should never be chipped and old-looking like mine was.  Another was when she read one of my journal entries to the class as an example of “how not to write”.  She made us write in those things every, damn day.  The horror.  And one day she asked us to write about what animal we’d most like to be and why.

I felt like she was sitting at home drunk and thinking up crazy shit for us to write about and it annoyed me.  I’d been a “writer” literally my whole life, so I wrote what I thought was a brilliant thesis on how I’d be a “seal”, and explained why.  It was ridiculous, albeit I felt very well-supported and elaborated upon.

She knew I was writing it as a joke, and a joke on her at that.  Still, she couldn’t prove it.  What animal would you be…puh-leeze…so juvenile. Regardless of my convictions as to her lack of teaching skills, she then had me read it in front of the class.  Everyone laughed at the flowery language I used to describe how much I’d enjoy having warm blubber, eating live fish and swimming simultaneously, being able to dive to great depths with a single breath and how I felt in a past-life I might have been one.  She told the class it was disingenuous, it hadn’t come from the heart.  What did she know?  Maybe I really LOVED seals.  Eh…she rightly called me out.  I rolled my eyes and couldn’t have cared less.  I liked making people laugh so it was a win-win for me:  they laughed and she couldn’t embarrass me.  So…we had that kind of relationship.

Still, I was a good girl, and my uniform couldn’t get soaking wet.  Or she’d have my ass.

**************************

I crossed the campus and reached the street.  My heart was beating wildly, I was panicking.  I could feel the uniform clinging to me with its scratchy wooliness.  I couldn’t see any cars or people on the street at all.  It was like everyone had advance notice of the torrential downpour but me.  I ran and ran, thinking to myself that the less soaking wet it got the better.  I ran through puddles I tried in vain to avoid, then slipped and almost killed myself trying to jump over one up onto a curb.  My meticulously permed and then blow-dried-to-perfection hair was now just long, wet curls.  I was whining aloud periodically…”Shit!…oh come on…Shit!”.

I ran two blocks that way.  So scared of what would happen to my uniform, my book, that I’d get in trouble, that my parents would have to pay for new ones.  When I got to the beginning of the third block…I stopped at the park which still exists at the end of the street I grew up on, close to the football field.

I just stood there.  Breathing heavily.  Book held loosely in my right hand down at my side.  I brushed the drenched hair from my forehead, put my left hand on my hip and leaned on my right leg.  I remember it all so clearly.  Then I shook my head, leaned forward and yelled out “HAH!”  I think it was to the Gods.

Then…I let go.  I just had to let it go…the stress and panic of ruining my book and my uniform.  There was nothing I could do about it.  I had no control.  I simply had to let it go.  And when I did I felt so, incredibly…happy.

The rain was cold but I wasn’t.  I felt warm and I felt liberated.  I was alone on the street, possibly in all the world; just me and the rain and everything else that ever was.

I ran some more, toward nothing really.  Not toward home or school or shelter of any kind.  I walked in circles.  It suddenly felt so good to be drenched and free of my immediate worries.  I felt strong.  I began jumping around.  I jumped with both feet into a puddle sending mud and muck up my legs, inside of my hideous shoes.  I laughed out loud.  I yelled aloud at no one, and no one could hear me.  I felt powerful.  I wiped the rain away from my eyes and realized I was breathless from laughter.

I stood in front of the park and looked down my street with its big orange-leaved maples hanging over on either side touching at their tops to create a beautiful tunnel.  And then I walked…straight down the middle of the pavement.  No people, no one.  I felt free.  I carried my book close to my chest with my right hand and I swear to you I could not stop giggling.  I zig-zagged back and forth between each side of the street, up onto the sidewalk and back to the middle of the street.  No one was watching me.  No one could hear me.  I was alone, and I loved it.  I walked back to the park and then started to run again.

Mid-way down the first of two blocks toward my home I stopped and leaned over with hands on my knees, book under my right armpit, to catch my breath.  Water was running off of my face and the back of my neck in a torrent.  The pelting water from above was loud…I couldn’t hear anything but its pounding on the ground and parked cars on the street around me.  It felt like minutes, but in probably only a few seconds I lifted my head and looked up, still breathing hard.

There was a familiar car right in front of me.  I hadn’t heard it approach at all.  It had stopped and not hit me, which was nice.  I didn’t flinch.  I didn’t stand up.  I squinted through the sheet of water and insanely fast-moving windshield-wipers to see if I could determine who was driving it.  It was my Mom.  She beeped and held her hands up as if to say “Get in the car!”

I knew she or my Dad would come looking for me.  Still, I didn’t want anyone poking through this bubble I was floating in.  I walked to the passenger side window and she leaned over and slowly rolled it down.

“Hi!”  I exclaimed, smiling.

“Oh my God, get in the car!” she yelled.

“No…please…please.  Let me just run home.  It’s okay.  I want to.” I pleaded.

My Mom sighed, irritated that water was pouring into the car.

“What?  No, you’ll get soaked…and sick!”

I shrugged and said “Too late.”

I expected my mother, usually very forceful when it came to protecting my health, to protest and demand that I get inside.  But she didn’t.

She paused and said, “You’re crazy.  But okay.”

I love her so much for that.

I smiled and walked past her car as she slowly drove the opposite way.  I turned and watched her round the corner and drive out of sight.

Then I ran again.  I kept going until I got to the grade school across the street from my house.  I walked up onto the black-top of the school yard and looked West.  As torrential downpours are wont to do, they come on hard and fast…and abruptly end.  The rain was slowing and it was clear with an orange glow on the horizon.  It made me feel sad.  I didn’t want it to stop.  I didn’t want the moment to end.

I turned and looked at my yellow-bricked house with the crab apple tree in front.  I tilted my head.  It looked a little different to me somehow.  Smaller.  Suddenly…impermanent.  As the rain subsided to a drizzle, I crossed the street and went inside.

************************

All told, from leaving my school to walking through my front door, it was about fifteen minutes of my life.

But it was the first time I remember having the feeling of surrendering to a higher power, of having no choice but to let go of expectations and fear and consequences.  It was the first time I remember truly feeling free, and feeling alone in the world.  It was the first time I remember feeling peaceful and joyous amidst “chaos”.

There have been countless, much more important and life-changing fifteen minutes I’ve lived through.

But of all the fifteen minutes in all of my life, I remember very few with such clarity.

It was fifteen minutes of nothing.  But it meant everything.

What I wouldn’t give right now, nearly 29 years later, to be able to achieve that letting-go moment once again.

I’ve thought of that afternoon many times during the course of my life.  It’s stayed with me.  In some small way, it began to change how I viewed my life and my place in the world from that point forward.  I felt bigger, less afraid.  More…grown-up.  And it reinforces for me to this day that sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference.

I will always encourage my children to experience those kinds of moments, but I know you cannot manufacture an indelible memory.  They simply…happen.  They spring forth from nothingness into somethingness.

I’m betting my mother remembers very little, or nothing, of that afternoon.  Other than me possibly recounting it to her at some point, she’d have no reason to remember it.

I can tell you that I look very forward to the day when each of my children asks me, “Mom, do you remember that afternoon…you know, when I……?”  I’ll think back and try to remember, shake my head and say sweetly, “Nope”.

But I’ll smile, my heart will swell, and I’ll hope they had their fifteen minutes running in the rain.

******************************

Then again…maybe my mother smiled to herself as she watched me in the rear-view mirror.

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