*Not just because it is her birthday (well, technically not anymore since it’s after midnight), but because my amazing friend Pam continues to inspire me, I dedicate the following to her in thanks for the encouragement, the hope, and example of bravery she always provides me. This one’s for you, Pammy Cakes!
We Are Made of Stars
It’s a little after 1:00 am and I’m half watching Mankind: The Story of All of Us that was featured on the History Channel. The voice of the narrator sounds like McSteamy from Grey’s Anatomy, but it’s a different actor (I Googled). I’m thinking about fate, even before I arbitrarily selected episode 2 of this particular series and it only makes me feel more like a pawn in a game of chess. This game of life, if you buy that to be an apt metaphor, is so much bigger than any of us imagine, or even stop to think about when we feel like things aren’t going our way. “My way”–as if any one of us really has that much push or pull in the grand scheme of things. And yet we still endeavor to control situations with our small, feeble grip on where our lives are actually headed. It is futile and yet part of our human condition to forge and force our way through life when it could end before I’m even done with this sentence…
Oh, still here.
It’s humbling to realize our insignificance and yet it is impossible to discount that all of us living together here aren’t meant to serve some purpose, even if our short lives are not even a blip on the radar of history–and not just our own anthropocentric perspective–but from the beginning, I’m talking Big Bang. Just one of the many paradoxes we live in and struggle to make sense of. Can any one man hold the magnitude of the universe in his head? Go on, try it. It’s unfathomable. We don’t even fully understand it, not even if you’re Einstein or Stephen Hawking or some astrophysicist in his lab, chugging RedBull night after night and convincing himself that he’s so close to a truly accurate calculation that describes the expansion and potential retraction of the universe. As if numbers can signify all that the heavens represent, what they mean to us both individually and collectively, how they hold us down here and suppress us even as their grandeur, when visible, gives us that incredible sense of freedom if we’re lucky enough to live in a place, like I do, where the night sky is so expansive, you stare too long, it leaves you as breathless as this sentence if you read it out loud.
This episode I’m intermittently watching is about iron. It’s reminding me of a book that was made into a National Geographic series called Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jarred Diamond who contemplates the roots of inequality among humans based on a number of factors stemming from their geographic locations and access to certain materials (I’m obviously simplifying this–I highly recommend both the series and the book, and if you know me personally I have both so please feel free to ask to borrow.)
My mind wanders even further from this idea of iron, and hence steel, and now I’m thinking of Andrew Carnegie. You’re probably thinking I watch too many history documentaries. But, if you care to continue along to find out if there’s a point to these ramblings, consider this quote the McSteamy voice just told me. I paused to write it down:
“Born in the heart of an exploding supernova star, iron forms the earth’s molten core. Larger than the moon, hot as the sun. Without it: no atmosphere, no magnetic field, no life. The fourth most common mineral in the earth’s crust. “
You might wonder what this has to do with anything, but I would argue that is has to do with everything. Me and you, the places we live, the types of relationships we form, our culture, the buildings we live in, our attitudes about life…
How did I get here? Well that’s a loaded question, but I mean, for this purpose anyway, how did I end up surmising that iron has anything to do with any of the myriad examples I just gave? Abide by me just a little bit longer.
If you’ve been reading this blog on the reg, you probably know that I’m a bit obsessed with nature and culture, particularly how we understand these concepts in our highly urbanized world. I wrote a whole thesis on it for Christmas sakes. I should probably be busy editing that monstrosity instead of publishing a blog post that no one might ever read, but as I’ve said, the things we do aren’t always as logical as we’d like to think they are. To hell with logic, I say.
Anyway, why iron? It is a great example of what I’m always arguing–nothing is really unnatural. The Chrysler Building? Totally natural. Even the Coke Zero I’ve been drinking while writing this (gasp!) isn’t something aliens dropped off. It’s not extraterrestrial even though it might be eating up my insides. How can anything be unnatural if it’s all made from the stuff we’ve been given on this planet. It is simply reformulated, that’s all. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be cognizant of a real attempt to do things “naturally” in ways that benefit our planet and ourselves. Yes, I sometimes drink Coke Zero, but I don’t drink non-organic milk and I always recycle. Gees. But seriously, I am all for going back to the basics. And I’m only drinking this Coke Zero today because I’m hung over (still) and I was craving carbonation without calories. Swim suit season is upon us. And that’s about as logical as I get.
Okay, the iron! So after the Bronze Age when people became more sophisticated with extracting metals to make tools and weaponry, iron was a big deal. (No, I won’t digress into how iron products are made.) It essentially changed the way people lived and certainly made warfare a lot bloodier. If you lived in an iron-rich region you definitely had the upper hand. And here’s where I make a flying leap from that tid bit of Jarred Diamond’s argument to Andrew Carnegie–Pittsburgh Steel magnate. Carnegie, I’m sure most of us know, took iron and carbon to create an even stronger material: steel. Imagine what the New York City skyline would look like without steel? It simply couldn’t exist. Thanks for the skyscrapers, Andy! Pretty cool. But here I do need to digress for a second or several. We got the steel thing down, but let’s remind ourselves again, what’s carbon? And here I turn it over to Wikipedia:
“Carbon is the 15th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. It is present in all known life forms, and in the human body carbon is the second most abundant element by mass (about 18.5%) after oxygen. This abundance, together with the unique diversity of organic compounds and their unusual polymer-forming ability at the temperatures commonly encountered on Earth, make this element the chemical basis of all known life.” (my own italics)
How extraordinary. We are made of the same stuff as skyscrapers. We are made of stars. When we die, our bodies (until people started putting them in those ridiculous caskets) go back into the earth and can become something completely different. I realize this process takes a lot longer than I’m going to make it out to seem, but just imagine for our purposes that maybe you’ll be part of a new building that becomes the epitome of an architectural style that doesn’t exist yet, or a fossil fuel in a guy’s vehicle that transports him cross-country to see that girl he decided, on a whim, was the one he couldn’t live without. Or maybe you’ll just be the graphite shaft on someone’s new golf club, but maybe you’ll get him or her that hole in one and they’ll treasure you forever. I call this Catholic reincarnation. (*note to self: Make a will that says I don’t want a casket like a Cadillac. Wooden box or cremation, please.)
I’m clearly no scientist and a novice historian at best and perhaps my oversimplification of the processes above might annoy some who know more about all this than I do. But like I said when I started out, I’ve been thinking a lot about fate and about the purposes we serve in each other’s lives. Last night I celebrated my dear friend Pam’s birthday and we had a conversation over our Pinot Grigios that went somewhat similarly. Not the iron part, but the relationship part, particularly the relationships we have with ourselves. We talked about how so often we have to keep ourselves in check because when things go “wrong” we jump to find the solution somewhere else. People often end up in relationships because they think that will fulfill them. Sometimes people define themselves based on a skewed vision of how they think other people view them. They think that they need to fill their lives with a job, or house, or car because that says something about their status in life. We’re all guilty of this at one point or another. Unfortunately the most important relationship we’ll ever have is the one with ourselves, and too few of us take the time to nurture that one. If you cannot be happy alone, I’m convinced you will never be happy in a romantic relationship. If you can’t be with yourself, why would anyone else want to? Immediately this causes an unnatural dependency on the other person and a recipe for disappointment, and dare I say divorce.
Later in the night when Pinot Grigio turned beer and birthday shots, our earlier conversation came back to me when Pam generously brought to my attention that I, as I so often do, was putting my energy and attention where it didn’t need to go. My friendship with Pam is one of fate I’d say. As unlikely a pair we may be, she has taught me a lot about life that I didn’t know I already knew. I know that we both will continue to have trials and many more errors, but if any of us do have a purpose on this planet, I think it might be to take care of each other, to benefit from the company of others without having to depend on them. But in the best friendships, you know you could and at times you should.
I also think the only real push and pull we have in this life is with the relationship with ourselves and that the bonds we make or break with others is based on the former. Maybe the guy I have a crush on doesn’t see me that way but could use my company because he’s going through a rough time. Maybe my life-long friend betrayed me because she bottles up her unhappiness and unleashes it in the wrong way and directs it at the wrong people. If I keep in mind the perspective that I know myself, know my limits, know the stuff I’m made of, maybe all of this is okay. Maybe it’s just all push and pull and if you’re strong enough, you can take one for the team or turn a negative situation into a positive one.
What I mean to say through all of these disparate thoughts is this:
From the raw materials of the earth to the happiness we spend so much time looking for in our lives, everything we need is already here. All of the answers to our questions lie within ourselves–we only need to unearth them and sometimes rework them. Life is full of wonder and I’m sorry for those who choose to live it at a distance from what it really is, relentlessly looking outward for the things you can only find within. The next time you feel lost or disconnected remember this: We are made of stars. Really! We are.