Deep sea, dark nightBy
My brain has been alternating between sea and the sky. On the one hand: the planets, the stars, fire and ice, minerals and swirling gasses, all suspended in infinite darkness. Lifeless as far as I will likely ever know, though it must be said that the limits to what any of us can know is mind-boggling; I have read that if you hold a single grain of sand up against the night sky, the patch of sky it covers — almost nothing to our eyes — contains 10,000 galaxies, each a swirling mass of cosmic dust and dark matter and up to a thousand billion stars.
Speaking of stars: we are made of them, all of us. Stardust is in our bones, in the blood that pushes its way through our veins. (I stop to consider this, to see if I can grasp the magnitude of it, but the truth is, I can’t even quite make sense of it. Not really).
On the other hand, there is the ocean, teeming with life. In the deep of the ocean are speckled seahorses, their prehensile tails anchored to technicolor coral. Dazzling sea nettles, trailing feathery boas and wispy streamers behind them. Bioluminescent octopods, a mile below the surface, their suckers flashing firey red as their tentacles unfurl. As much as 70% of life lies below the ocean’s surface, perhaps as many as twenty million species in all, not one of them even remotely aware of drooling dogs or iCarly or a leaf of kale or Benjamin Moore’s Hawthorne Yellow or the smell of decomposing leaves on an afternoon in late autumn.
Here on earth, terra firma, things happen: dogs frolic, sun breaks through grey clouds, a young child wears a tutu like a shirt and belts out a song about a faraway friend, people come together at a table, dictatorships crumble. There are other things, too of course: the earth shakes, streets flood with water; a white pickup filled with empty chicken cages strikes a building and explodes, decades-old toxic chemicals sink deep into soil.
There is not enough dignity; there is far too much strife.
No particular comfort comes from looking skyward or sea-ward. Already, the coral reefs are dying at an alarming rate, sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and choke. Give it enough time, and none of that matters anyway; in some-odd billion years, the oceans will boil away, the planet will be sucked into the sun, the sun itself will collapse into a white dwarf. Stop to consider any of these things for too long and a person might start to question the value of brushing her hair, of watering a thirsty plant, of loading the the same damn dishwasher night after night.
Still. A child wearing a homemade fleece dog costume might, one afternoon while you are considering this very thing, walk into the room and curl up next to you. She might ask, knowing full well the answer is surely yes, “Mom, can we watch some jellyfish?” — or sometimes, “Mom, can you show me something about Pluto?”
She lives during an amazing time. She can watch it all, with a few clicks of her mother’s fingers. One click: a siphonophore snakes through the ocean’s depths, like a glowing centipede performing ballet, its chain of bells opening and closing in rhythm. Another click: there is a solar flare, bursting out from our nearest star; we can see it in real-time, days before the rays themselves arrive on earth. Another: a great cluster of red starfish, carpeting the ocean floor. Then another: Mimas, a moon, suspended beyond Saturn’s hazy rings.
The images she sees, this dressed-as-a-dog-child, are matter-of-fact for her. Nothing out of the ordinary. There is the floral armchair in our living room; there is the window; beyond it a pine tree; and here, just like the rest of it, is another planet entirely. Ho hum. It’s hard to explain what a miracle these images are, that they come to her by way of a remote-controlled robot, tethered to a ship with six miles of fiber optic cable, or a school-bus-sized spacecraft, dodging moons and traveling at 70,000 miles/hour — 870 million miles away, yet whose signal can somehow reach us in just over an hour.
Some days we view the sky, others the sea. She is a little more drawn to the ocean, and frankly so am I. Space is a deeply lonely place, even with a child snuggled on your lap, even when that child wears a tail and two floppy ears.
Her older sister might walk in, cracking gum. On a good day, this older one might ask. “What ‘cha doing?”
She might squint at an image for a moment. “Cool,” she’ll say, with a shrug. Chances are, she’ll wander back out of the room at that point — off to finish homework or sneak a moment with a game on the iPhone. On a good day, though, she might think the pictures warrant a few moments of her time. She might lean over the side of the sofa, rest one arm on my shoulder. On a really good day, she might even sit down. (I’m careful, then, not to explain too much, to let the images speak for themselves).
Maybe, for a moment, we are all mesmerized. Just for a moment.
The older child won’t last long. She’ll quickly depart, pick up the phone, bounce a basketball, write a story called something like “The Thumb Suckers Support Group,” featuring all of the younger siblings she knows. A while later the younger child, too, will let herself down from the couch; it’s time to remove her dog costume, to put on a witch’s dress, to begin experimenting with the power of a magic wand she created with a stick and ribbon. I’m the last one there, but I remain for just a little while longer.
I have a million things I should be doing. I should start dinner I should return an email I should walk the dog I should call that person about having that coffee finally I should put the Goodwill donations in the back of the car I should start packing tomorrow’s lunches.
But not yet. Not just yet. Seadragons are dancing; moon jellies are drifting by. Above us, right this moment, Omega Centauri glitters with the power of 2 million stars.