Thursday, December 15, 2011

grand scale, small scale

   "Mum, check this out." I leaned over and peered at her laptop screen which displayed a view of earth from the Voyager spacecraft as it was exiting our solar system - the well known photograph, unknown by me until this moment, entitled "Pale Blue Dot." It shows earth as a tiny, partial pixel against the vastness of space - a dust mote floating in a beam of sunlight - and of course, Dr. Seuss's brilliant Horton Hears a Who comes to mind. An image pops into my head of the dust specks floating above me in the morning sunlight as I lay quiet in that moment before volition, and I imagine listening for the tiny voices... "We are HERE! We are HERE!"
   For me, it brings into focus the reality of the simultaneous co-existence of enormity and insignificance - we are both/and, not one or the other. Each life, each pebble dropped into the wave function of earthly existence, is the most important - the only thing that matters, AND it is completely insignificant in the hugeness of "reality". It's like a camera zooming way in and way out really fast, so that you see the detail immediately juxtaposed with the wide angle. Like Schrodinger's cat - which is both dead and alive at the same time until you open the box to check, we are the center of the universe, AND a dust mote. There's a great moment in the movie Kingdom of Heaven, where the crusader Balian asks Muslim commander Saladin what Jerusalem is worth. He answers, "Nothing," and with a gesture of dismissal, strides away. A moment later he turns, grips his hands into fists and breathes, "Everything." He didn't change his mind, he simply grasps that both are true. It is also like the baby in the manger - on that night, in that place, his birth was absolutely insignificant, AND the pin-sharp focal point around which so much human history has whirled. Every child born is just one of billions, another squalling babe, AND the aggregate of events upon which the future will turn. This duality is built into the fabric of the universe - and when people start to grasp it, like my college friend who called to recount that while stuck in traffic she became suddenly aware of the utter, underwhelming ant-like existence she leads, we call it an existential crisis. Some can't balance these two realities. Coming back to the pale blue dot, I think that without this reality there is no balance - without awareness of the smallness of ourselves, humans tend to get carried away with self importance. Here's what Mr. Sagan had to say...
   "There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world." 
   If this photograph was to be displayed on every classroom wall to be pondered daily by young minds, would it bring the world's future generations together? would it cause an end to individual striving? Would it cause a new philosophy of life to be widely adopted on our little dust mote? Would it be just another NASA image that's world-view shattering and yet has no effect on our daily lives? 
   The sun is rising, glowing pink under the blue cloud cover. Two fellow earthlings (deer) just passed by outside my window on their way to whatever important events fill their day, as unaware of my importance in the grander scheme as I am of theirs. I think, however, that we each do have an inkling of the insignificance of ourselves, as they stroll through the snowy field under a gray sky and I sit here on my couch watching them, protected by a wooden structure, connected to a mountainous landmass, spinning on a rocky planet around a middle aged star on the edge of the galaxy.... preparing for an annual human ritual of rebirth we call Christmas Eve. 
   "Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." - Carl Sagan
 "We are HERE!"

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"you can't worry if you're singing."

   It's 6 a.m.  I peer out the front door as I come down the stairs ... it's still full dark outside but I can see the new snow covering the step in the glow of Christmas lights from the other side of the house.  In the half-light of the window candles, I putter over the tea pot, and spooning the tea into the ball I notice it feels overly cold... colder than the 64 degrees I've been keeping my heater at this year to save some money. ($4.25 a gallon - sheesh!) When I glance at the heater the little yellow lights says 52, which means the power must have flicked last night. I peer out the big front window through the not-yet-sunrise darkness and see the huge spruces across the street, visible against the dark sky because of their newly snow-covered branches, swinging and tossing in an obviously mighty wind. the heater, fill the kettle, burner on high... I pull both throws around me and settle on the couch to watch the growing light illuminate our newly winterized world as the house slowly re-warms. I feel a small pang of guilt for our bird - parakeets ARE tropical.  Poor creature, what was I thinking?  
Blanketed - watercolor - 3" x 3"
   Snow removes the color from the landscape and replaces it with values, such that what was just yesterday a big blob of variegated green (those stately trees across the street) is now an intricate study in black and white with every every branch and twig limned by its perfectly sculpted cloak - 5" of heavy, wet loveliness. The colors of full summer are lovely, but the values of the winter landscape are truly, deeply beautiful. 
   Last night during the holiday concert, (we wouldn't have a "holiday" concert without Christmas, but we call it a holiday concert...) which was amazingly well attended (thank you supportive community!) one of the last pieces we sang was a counterpoint melody to Silent Night, and our director arranged it so that throughout four verses, first the counterpoint was introduced by itself by the men, second the women sang it as the men ooo-ed Silent night quietly underneath, third the men sang Silent Night against the women, and for the last time through, the entire chorus sang only the counterpoint and the audience sang Silent Night, led by Sue, our director. Well, when it was the audience's turn, they heartily started singing full voice, and all the beautiful voices around me on the risers filled with the counterpoint and I could just hear this amazing swelling of the entire building with perfect harmony and it was so overwhelmingly beautiful I started to choke up. Since any kind of decent singing effectively ends when choked up, I blinked back tears and looked down at my music. I struggled between trying to tamp down that feeling of all consuming joy and amazement, or to just enjoy the now - and feel it wash over me... but I wanted to sing too, to be a part of it, not a spectator. So I looked up at the big window at the back of the balcony, the one with four individual lights giving it a cruciform shape, and out into the deep blue of the night sky beyond the walls and started to mouth the words, focusing away from the emotion just enough to say the correct words with my croaky, choked up voice, but also listening outside of my self, so I could hear all the voices and our one big voice of sound of joy. Humans do amazing things.  Kind of like the crickets in spring. I bet some of them get choked up too.