If I Die On Mars

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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.

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A Mild Revolution

There’s a small bird that’s taken up residence beneath our apartment’s open window. I became aware of its existence slowly, the way one becomes aware of the sun setting. I was sitting at my desk and heard it chirping, not even a few feet away from me. The sound didn’t register at first though. But then something like annoyance started to creep into my head, as the noise distracted me from my thoughts. I finally looked up and went to close the window, almost angrily. But then I saw it’s tiny body, a red head flowing into brown wings. It looked back for a moment, but then turned and with a chirp was gone. So I kept the window open, waiting to hear it again.

I had been thinking about death, a random and grotesque admission but I’d cooked dinner that night so it warranted contemplation. Of all the worlds’ wonders, Annie Dillard writes, quoting the Mahabharata, the most wonderful is how no mane believes that he himself will die. But I try to believe it, to embrace the wonder of my own mortality. But then I am angry to be distracted by life, even as it greets me with cheer.

Sometimes it is hard for me, as I imagine it is with most people, to feel like anything more than a traveler in this world, a lone figure with a briefcase waiting for a train to arrive and carry me to the next life. Others will come and stand by me for periods of time, my friends, family, and wife. But one by one, at separate moments, they too will depart. And if the scene flashes forward 30, 40 maybe even 70 years it will show me, standing alone, patiently awaiting my departure. And that is when I ask myself: What do I now bring? What do I have to show for my efforts?

For some time in my youth, I wanted to be a soldier. I read of wars afar, tales of heroes conquering villains and believed that the pull of a trigger would bring finality to some sort of accomplishment I might call my own. Today I sit down by my window and I put my fingers to another task of self-deception; I will never change anything. Not, at least, anything that wouldn’t have been changed without me.

An artist steps back from his painting and declares, “I have created something beautiful.” But a tree was destroyed to make his canvas, and in the springtime the forest is denied the beauty of its blossoms.

Unless the Lord builds the house, the Jewish poet stated, the builders build in vain. My finger strikes the key and I cannot listen above the clicking of my own efforts.

The highlight of my recent days has been in the early hours. I awaken before my wife and go sit on the couch in our family room, the overstuffed one we found cheap online. I posture myself against the armrest, in a position of just enough discomfort so as not to fall back asleep. Then I read my Bible for a little while but mostly I just sit. I don’t even pray. I just sit.

This is the most productive part of my day, when I rest in the presence of eternal beauty.

“I want a revolution now,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote in her prayer journal. Then she qualified: “a mild revolution.”

I want a revolution, too, sincerely and desperately with every ounce of my being. I want something for my briefcase as I pace about the train station, something beyond a pass to the next stop. I want to hear the simplicity of a bird chirping on my windowsill and know that this too shall pass into something marvelous something worthy of seeing. I want to know that wonder.

“Wherever you turn your eyes,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “the world can shine like transfiguration.”

And so I try, I turn my head from the task at hand and I announce it to the world: can you not see that I’m trying? But the answer comes in the stillness of an early morning that the revolution has happened; it took place while I was asleep. It is finished. I need not try but accept; accept the wonder with stillness and a grateful heart.

For only when wonder has worked its way on the human heart is it capable of surviving the diseases of apathy and narcissism to which it is prone.

To good news, of course, is that the train is running on schedule. And when it arrives, at just the right time, I will pick up my briefcase and board. Once there I will sit with my briefcase on my lap quietly; I hope to find a window.

For then, of all times, I am certain: there will be much to see.