In 1965, two scientists by the name of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were attempting to set up a large communications antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey. But their efforts produced an annoying background noise, a “steady, steamy hiss that made any experimental work impossible.” They did everything they could to make it stop: re-wiring circuits, fidgeting with knobs, unplugging plugs; their efforts culminated when they climbed into the dish itself and scrubbed it clean of all dust and- get this- copious amounts of bird poop. Still, the buzz continued.
As it turns out, Penzias and Wilson had inadvertently discovered microwaves from the edge of the known universe, 90 billion trillion miles away. These two men had succeeded in “looking” deep enough into space so as to find cosmic, background radiation left over from the origin of the universe itself.
“Oh, so it wasn’t bird poop?”
I’m having my (annual) mid-life crisis. It started while I was waiting for a friend to pick me up from my apartment; we’d arranged to go biking together. He was late so I idled around the parking lot, glancing at my phone, nodding to people walking by and tried desperately not to look like a prom date that’s being stood up.
Even though it was just a few minutes, I felt as if I might go insane without something demanding my immediate attention. My mind raced to corners of contemplation that scared the bejesus out of me: what a perfect day- how many of these do we get in a lifetime? And what is a lifetime really? What’s the purpose of it? Of this? Of conscience existence? Of everything?!
And I thought of those scientists, a half-century ago in New Jersey, who were scraping off bird poop, inadvertently ridding themselves of discovering the edge of the universe.
We humans like to attach time to things: obligations, appointments, jobs, events, calendars, all of a linear nature, all to help us comprehend our own niche in eternity. I’m no different. I wake up and I go to the office; I come home, work out, make dinner, read a book, watch some TV, balance the checkbook, brush my teeth, swap pillows while my wife’s in the bathroom (we both have a favorite pillow but if I swipe it before she’s in bed she really doesn’t notice) and I go to sleep.
This is life, my life. And I love it. And if you gave me the chance I wouldn’t change anything (except perhaps my pillow). Just the notion that I could feels like da Vinci asking me what alterations to make on the Mona Lisa. But then I find myself in a moment of stillness and I realize how little of this life I conscientiously live.
My wife and I picked strawberries this afternoon. She was smiling, it was sunny, and our fingers were pink with juice from the ones that were a bit too ripe. She held up our crate of berries and I took a picture, for posterity, social media and the hope of setting glaze on this particular moment in our time together. And I thought that perhaps, someday, the sun might shine like this forever.
These are the moments of peace and stillness, moments of conscientious existence that comfort and terrify me, moments when thoughts ricochet in my head, making a sound that mystifies and terrifies at the same time.
So this is the part where I get preachy and talk about how I resolved to be more present in every moment and we walked hand-in-hand to a lifetime of carpe diem-ness. But I didn’t and we’ve not; if you must know, when we got back in the car we began quarreling about the air conditioning.
Life is a journey- a linear one, because that’s all we know how to live. We’re born, scrape our knees, lose our teeth, earn degrees, fall in love, write poetry, get promotions, take medicine, build homes and swing-sets and pass on the best of our wisdom and lottery of our genes to another generation. Then we retire (to Florida, God help us) and things come to an end. We move always forward, aching for the immortality to step into the universe beyond our own.
So, at the end of it all, maybe I’ll find myself sitting around in a body that barely works anymore. And I’ll feel like all of the time in the world is behind me, pushing me towards the edge everything I know. And, if I can, I’ll hold for a moment and stop to look back.
But there’ll be nothing to see, because it’s all beyond and here now, around me and with me. And it will be something beautiful, something which, before now, was completely unknown.
And all this time we thought it was bird poop.