I stumbled across an article this week profiling the first people to travel to Mars. It hasn’t happened yet, of course. But a non-profit organization is currently screening applicants to be part of a four-person expedition to colonize the red planet. The plan is to depart within ten years.
The article interviewed a handful of the 6,600 person applicant pool, whittled down from it’s original 220,000. Among the myriad of intimidating aspects of this trip, all applicants have pursued the opportunity knowing that going would mean never returning. The article discusses this in general terms. But it quickly narrows the questions to matters of much greater importance: “Does it bother you that you’ll never again be able to have sex?”
A couple weeks ago I took a day to do some alpine hiking up in the mountains with a friend. It was bitterly cold; one of those days when you open the car door to get out only to slam it shut again with a: “’d-hell was I thinking?” When I’d rallied the determination to exit the car, I allowed for a day of renewing- albeit, cold- adventures. If I had a young son- perhaps four or five years of age- I’d tell him that there’s a lesson in that.
Towards the end of the day we broke off from the beaten trail to explore. We pushed through waste deep snow drifts and finally found ourselves standing on the edge of a frozen lake. Giant rifts in the ice swerved under our feet. The wind whipped into our faces. Looking up, I could see the mountain we’d just climbed, like a hand waving to the planets and stars which the coming nightfall would remind us were there. Mars being one of them.
My lips began to freeze. But I didn’t mind. Everything was cold and terribly beautiful.
At my bedside is a magazine open to another article. It concerns research on the affect of psychedelic drugs on end of life anxiety. Doctors have been administering calculated doses of psilocybin-the active ingredient in magic mushrooms- to terminally ill volunteers. As it stands, drugs such as LSD have been proven beneficial to people nearing the end of life. One researcher explained the endeavor, saying it allows patients to ‘transcend their primary (bodily) identification’ entering into ‘ego-free states.’ The experiences commonly result in profound acceptance of one’s fate.
I can hear Plato saying “I told you so!” from this side of the common era.
I’ve not got a terminal illness. Though, I suppose it’s safe to say that we’ve all been diagnosed, in some way or another. Inevitability is the elephant in the room called mortality. But, for now, it’s an elephant I can ignore.
All of this is to say that I know someday- perhaps sooner than I think- I won’t be able to ignore the elephant. Someday, he may stomp his foot and wake me from my sleep. Or perhaps fart and- humorlessly, unless I want it to be- tune me in to the poignant reality of reality. And even though I’m young, I can’t help but think about how bad it will smell.
Would it smell better or worse on Mars?
But lately, when I think of this, I think of standing on the frozen lake. And I think of how it felt to feel so cold and so alone. In its small, passive yet bitter way, it reminded me of all the wonder in the world. Wanderlust un-damned can lead to stupidity. But with a little bit of grace, I’m beginning to find that it carries one to rushing rivers of wonder. Wonder that overflows from the cup in our fragile hands. Wonder that will eventually drown us all.
And I found that wonder on the frozen lake, it’s cracks running beneath me like primordial tales I will never read. The cracks run into one another, merging, becoming one and moving apart again- like Adam and Eve, man and wife. Unless it’s on Mars.
I found the frozen world making love to its breaking apart and I wanted to hold this wonder, keep it, move into it, with it. But it was too cold. Still, I knew then what I hope I know when that bloody elephant finally gets my attention. And if I have a prayer for the four souls shipping off to the red planet, or the fading sixty-year-old embarking on his first and final trip, then this is it:
It is possible to feel cold and small and all alone and still know that the world is beautiful. ‘Thy kingdom come’ after all. And when you feel it, I hope you’ll pull your finger from the dam. And enjoy the ride.
I can’t think of a better thing to hope for them.
Except, perhaps, that the damned elephant would stop farting.