Around the Island

Jennifer’s Journal: Starstruck

The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff; we are a way of the universe to know itself. — Carl Sagan

When I was 12 or 13, I’d often sneak into my older brother’s room when he wasn’t there.

I can’t recall what my original purpose was that particular time. After all, I was sneaky by nature. Perhaps I was purloining one of his sweaters again (oversized sweaters were the fashion), or poking around for some blackmail material, maybe.

In any event, for some reason, for the first time but not the last, I was led to stand up on the bed, open one of the small casement windows that were lined up under the eaves and, with my forearms resting on the sill and my head and shoulders projecting into the cold, clear air of that winter night, I looked up at the stars — diamond bright stitches in the deep black sky.

I could’ve as easily stood in the driveway and seen pretty much the same thing, but up there, looking over the roof tops, it was like I was stitched to the sky, too. I could feel a visceral tug, as if there were an invisible filament connecting something inside me to one of those stars. I felt very small, yet somehow immense at the same time. It was definitely an odd sensation to feel for an insecure adolescent girl whose thoughts had tended more towards unrequited crushes and her depressing dependence on Clearasil.

But that night, I guess what I felt was wonder, awe, but what I gained was a new perspective.

Go figure.

Of course, like most kids, I was no stranger to the idea of outer space and aliens. I went to the movies on Saturday afternoons, not to mention TV’s “Million Dollar Movie” after school. Either alien creatures were invading us from other planets, or Earth creatures were being irradiated into monsters by nuclear bombs: “War of the Worlds,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Them,” “The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman” — and of course no alien was ever better-looking than Michael Rennie in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

It was the 50s and 60s, for goodness sakes, and alien invasions had long since become a stock metaphor for the state of our anxious, post-World War II world. While we Boomers were being tranquilized by television and terrified by the chronic threat of nuclear war, I guess our parents nonetheless pinned their hopes on the promise that technology would somehow save us — “The Battle of the Titans.” Our side would win the race for space, for weapons, for dominion over the planet and beyond, and then we’d be safe. 

So here we are some 50 years later, pretty much the same, but more exhausted. I think one reason is that we’re starved for that sense of awe and the perspective it could give us. We need the space to step back, to let in some air and light, but instead many of us have allowed technology to shrink infinity to the size of a screen. We’re shackled to our little rectangles, with only the illusion of connection to hold onto. Some of us clutch those devices like binkies, never holding them more than 6 inches away from our noses, consulting them obsessively. Why? To reassure ourselves that we’re “here?” Except we don’t seem to be sure where “here” is.

In an article entitled “Sky High” in the April 18 edition of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, the author, Brooke Jarvis, relates what she and many residents of the Pacific Northwest experienced at about 9 p.m. this past March 25. Hundreds of videos made by awe-struck witnesses captured slightly different versions of what appeared to be “a single streak of light, fracturing outward into a shimmering cascade” across the night sky — but not from outer space. Turns out it was a SpaceX rocket that had malfunctioned and its cargo of satellites became a “startling spray of fireballs” as they re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

What riveted Jarvis’s attention were the spontaneous reactions caught on those homemade videos. Some people sounded amazed, some fearful, some exhilarated and others “carried such incandescent awe that I don’t how to describe it,” she wrote, “other than to say it infused their voices with tenderness. What they said was quite ordinary … but it was also alive and overwhelmed and reverent … [with] a depth of feeling … for how fully they’d allowed themselves to be overtaken by the strangeness of this unknowable and humbling thing far above them.”

Carl Sagan says that humans “are a way for the universe to know itself.” Maybe the universe is one way for us to know who we are. And according to Einstein, “A human being is a part of the whole called by us ‘universe’…”

So maybe “here” is home.