Friday, November 16, 2007

"To infinity, and beyond!"

I don't even like Toy Story, but that Buzz Lightyear line got stuck in my head, and now I invariably think of it whenever I hear anything about space travel or astronauts. I couldn't help imagining Lisa Nowak chanting it to herself as she drove across the country to kidnap her rival.

It also tends to pop up during more sublime moments, such as last night when I looked up at a star-filled sky. We're not exactly in a dark sky preserve here, but there's still little enough artificial light that we can see plenty of stars on a clear night, and we get a glimpse of the Milky Way every now and then. Last night was spectacularly clear, and tonight should be almost as good. I hope it holds for the weekend, when the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak. One of my favorite memories of our time here is standing in the front yard in the wee hours of the morning, watching the Leonid meteors before heading off on a trip to San Francisco. I remember feeling incredibly lucky to be out of Chicago (much as I love it), where the stars are always muted by the lights of the city.

After watching the star show last night I went to bed, and just as I was dozing off a pair of coyotes started calling very near the house. My dogs stirred but didn't bark, so I could really listen that eerie crying, primal and earthbound. It was like a counterpoint to the sense of--yes--infinity that the stars inspired. I thought about how that moment in my head, of the coyotes meeting the heavens, pretty much sums up the essence of being human. We're earthly animals ourselves, incapable of transcending our instincts or the limits of our bodies; and yet we can conceive of transcendence, we can comprehend a reality that we cannot perceive directly.

That's our blessing and our curse; and, I'd argue, the source of our principle pleasure, too. We love to wander around the territory where the abstract meets the concrete. It's the birthplace of the big three--art, religion and politics. We're forever trying to force the two ways of knowing into transaction. We give cash prizes for art, we try to make God explain the earth, we construct elaborate ideologies around the most mundane human behavior.

The shotgun marriage goes bad a lot of the time: case in point, the War on Terror, in which the pet ideals of freedom and democracy have gotten hitched to old-fashioned blood lust. But most of the time, it's good clean fun. It gives us the concept of the holiday, when we share earthly pleasures with our gods. If you're a Christian, it gives you transubstantiation, and if you're a Hindu, it gives you Tantric sex. (Nobody said life was fair, Christians.)

And I guess it gave me this post. Somehow I got from the tag line of a mindless cartoon to an idea about the nature of human existence--puny though it may be. I'm sure you've made that trip, too, probably arriving someplace more profound. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go look at the stars...

Photo from Science@NASA


Anonymous said...

This is a fine essay indeed. Remarkable.

BitterGrace said...

Thanks, Bozo. Alas, the meteors didn't seem to amount to much this year. I got out before the fog rolled in Sat. night/Sun. morning, but I just saw one faint flash. Still, it was nice to be out there.