*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.
I came across the audio from this presentation on a TED Talks podcast one sleepless night. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone speak so candidly and yet eloquently to the psychological danger inherent in the expectations of being a creative person, i.e. a writer.
I’ve shared this with a bunch of people and posted it to my Twitter, but if you missed it and are at all creatively inclined, I urge you to spend 20 minutes of your day listening to Gilbert speak and maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel a little bit of the weight of the world lifted from you as I did.
Okay, so it is technically Friday in my timezone. But in light of the Instagram and Twitter trend to share a little blast from the past on a particular day of the week, I decided to post an old tid-bit I wrote last winter about the winter before that. Huh? Just bear with me, it’s late. Oh, that and we’re supposed to get a massive amount of snow here in the coming hours, so I felt this piece particularly appropriate. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow”…too late?
I moved to New York City in December of a year that was so desperately cold in our northeasterly corner of the country that it was painful to be out of doors and standing still. The cold that winter encouraged movement—walking, exploring. I thank the weather of that long season for forcing me to get to know Manhattan. I could not stop. But the snow banks got so high on the street corners that year that the brim of my knit hat prevented upward glances and so I’d often forget during these walks that I was actually in Manhattan. I could have been on the polar icecap where barrels of Christmas tree trimmings warmed the makeshift shops of tarps and two-by-fours that sold over-priced trees and pre-decorated wreaths for the holidays. But the prices here always bring you back; they are your GPS (as if you didn’t have the app on your iPhone). But in the case of a technological malfunction, just look at the receipt. Oh, twenty-five dollars for a salad and a tea? I must be in New York.
One of the paradoxes of the city is you never really have to leave your apartment if you seriously choose not to, yet the city draws you out. That or the size of your apartment. Cabin fever does actually exist here; it comes in the form of square footage. But you can have virtually anything delivered at almost any hour of the day. Admittedly, this gets old after a couple days with the realization that life is constantly buzzing around out there, even in the cold or the heat or the pouring rain. Looking around at the empty Chinese food cartons and pizza box that you are too embarrassed to bring down to the recycle bin on the ground floor, you realize you’re in danger of becoming that person. Like the abominable cat lady that never leaves her apartment. The Miss Havisham of the Upper East Side. As my best friend Bryn would warn me, too many days in my apartment could put me at risk of being the old single lady with too many candles instead of cats—“it’s the new sad thing,” she tells me. “And, Jac, it’s a fire hazard. Come on, get dressed. Let’s go to Bloomingdale’s.” I do have a lot of candles. But I’m still young-ish, right? Luckily, I never really took a liking to cats.
Regardless of any attempt to ignore the outside world, after days of greasy food and a Keeping Up With the Kardashians marathon (like you’ve never watched it!) I will peel off those ratty old sweats, put on the trendiest clean outfit I have in my closet and emerge onto the street with the swagger and resilience of a true New Yorker, like Carrie Bradshaw.
Life in New York City will inevitably distort your sense of time if you ever decide to leave the island and join the real world. It is kind of like Alaska. Who the hell knows what time it is. Anything that requires a specific time constraint is associated with things you wish you didn’t have to do—work, class, that dentist appointment you keep rescheduling. Perhaps nighttime Melatonin supplements should be made mandatory for New Yorkers in a place where any respectable dinner or event doesn’t begin before 9pm and you can stay out on a Tuesday night until 4am when other people are getting ready for work on Wednesday. You pass each other in the hall of your building—me with last night’s make-up succumbing to the gravitational force of the earth and the businesswoman in 4A in her neatly pressed suit passing briskly by as she looks at me with eyes of judgment through her designer frames. Maybe she’s just jealous. I’m going to order a grilled cheese and a large fountain soda for delivery. She has a meeting with her boss in an hour and hasn’t had a carbohydrate since ’05. So, there.
(But I can not pretend to be one of those fashionable New Yorkers. It is true, I still sometimes meet my sister for dinner at 6pm for the early bird special under the guise of happy hour.)
There is rarely ever a moment in New York City when all is quiet except for the occasion of a snowstorm. There comes a moment when the city falls silent and all that was grey and old becomes new again. Thanks to global warming, we haven’t had a storm yet this winter and I long for last year’s blizzards that nearly shut down Manhattan and made us all slow down a bit, if only for a moment. But instead of shutting down completely, the city becomes like white noise—the static of an old box television set when the antenna loses signal. Remember those? After living here a while, silence actually hurts your ears until you remember Oh, yeah, this is what quiet sounds like. This year it snowed one time. In October. Considering last winter’s record-breaking snowfall and sideways buses parked on patches of ice and snow up and down the avenues of the city, this is not a welcomed change but a fear of apocalypse. I can’t help but wish the snow would come again like a cloth and cover up this place, and all its brutality, with a clean, white sweep. And with the melting waters wash away our iniquities. Especially mine. Will we ever find ourselves immaculate and new again? “Not with those tattoos you got,” I can hear my Dad replying.
I do miss last year’s snowstorms when my sister would let me borrow her car and leave the city to visit my parents upstate. To those from New York City, New York ends when you cross the Tappan Zee and find yourself heading up the Thruway past Yonkers, or cross the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey and head north on Route 17 and cross the state line again. From essentially anywhere north of the Bronx, you’re upstate. It’s only after you’ve spent some real time in small towns like Greenwood Lake, New York that you realize how large New York is, and how small you suddenly are outside of Manhattan. I would feel as if the swiftness of my sister’s sporty black Mercedes Benz was a time machine taking me back on four-lane highway to childhood. I would also feel incredibly out of place in a car I’ll never be able to afford in my college sweatshirt and sneakers that, like everything else for the past few years, I’ve been paying for with graduate student loans. Nevertheless, as I would find myself north enough for the wintry mix of the city to turn to robust snowflakes, they’d suddenly whiz by in the darkness like beams of light, as if Patrick Stewart was back in the role of Captain Picard taking me through the galaxy on the US Enterprise. He played a fantastic Macbeth on Broadway a few years ago, by the way. I went alone and sat in the third row.
And now, with the promise of a winter snowstorm far behind, I do look ahead to summer, of swimming and fireflies and hot dogs—those little tiles in a mosaic I can’t really bring into focus. Perhaps this is because what I’m really doing is looking backwards. I’ve learned that memory is a tricksy figure that distorts reality by blending what you think you remember and supplementary versions of the story you get from other people, from history books, old photographs, and maybe an occasional trashy TV show.
Outside the familiar sound of police sirens and commuter buses descend down my street from First Avenue and my neighbor is blasting something on TV in a language I don’t recognize. These have become the sounds of home, but I do long for white noise.