Dying on Mars

Martian Sunset

Credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

I don’t read much about the Mars One project because I’m too jealous of those who might actually go. I know, I know: the whole idea is a crackpot one and there is a very real chance that the project will never actually get of the proverbial ground. But if I’d been younger, fitter, and with skills more suited to the mission…I would have auditioned. Because to be part of that particular journey…just the thought of it takes my breath away. I’ve written previously about some of my thoughts on space and its meaning to me and I don’t really know what more to say about it. But the recent news about Mars One contestants as well as my watching a number of VSauce videos on YouTube about space and the upcoming release of Public Service Broadcasting’s album The Race to Space (which I highly recommend listening to), have me thinking about space a lot tonight.

And death. And how we think about our own deaths, and what we imagine might be a “good” death. For some, a good death would see them surrounded by family, for others it might be in the pursuit of extreme thrills or adventure. Others might simply desire a soft and kind exit, dying quietly in their sleep. If given the chance (which, realistically, I won’t be), my good death would be to die on another planet: to be part of humanity’s reach for the stars. Many might see those vying for the possibility of a one-way trip to Mars as odd and be puzzled by the apparent willingness to forgo family and friends for an arduous and uncertain journey that would certainly end in death—and probably sooner rather than later. But to stand on another world and to be part of that particular legacy? I would most certainly take that opportunity. Finding purpose is a tricky business and maybe I’m being naive to think that a journey to Mars would finally achieve a sense of purpose for me after so many years of struggling to find my own meaning to myself. Still, I can’t help but think that such a journey would indeed give me a profound sense of purpose and accomplishment.

However, I also know that a sense of purpose and meaning are not invested upon us by outside forces but are something we create for ourselves. In the grand scheme of things, being part of a mission to Mars is no more important than teaching someone to read or caring for a sick relative or writing a poem or creating a YouTube video or painting a “masterpiece” or helping a stranger or being kind or singing a song to an audience of one or loving someone or agitating for human rights or protesting war or thinking deeply about something you love or knitting or sharing food or dancing. In the face of deep time and deep space, all our achievements, all our legacies, all our accomplishments will be forgotten because the universe is really fucking huge and we are really fucking tiny…no, scratch that, microscopic…actually not even that, we are infinitesimally, inconsequentially, unbelievably smaller than the smallest thing you can even begin to imagine when placed against the size of the universe. Hell, space makes even the speed of light seem puny.

(For an example of this—and to get the barest fraction of a visceral sense of the size of things—I highly recommend checking out this video that simulates the journey of a photon leaving the sun and traveling through our solar system. Yes it will take 45 minutes and yes, it will require some level of patience that most of us don’t have these days with our need for constant stimuli, but I promise you that your time will be well spent. Especially so if you can watch it on the largest screen you possibly can.)

Our purpose and legacy, no matter how large they seem are ridiculously small when measured against the future, but that does not diminish their importance to us as we live and breathe and scrape and claw at existence for the short, short time we have. Purpose and legacy might be meaningless words to the universe, but they fill our hearts and minds with excitement and desire. Thus, while I know that in the long run all is forgotten in the heat death of the universe, I can’t help but struggle with my own sense of purpose and the legacy of what I will leave behind.

I will, hopefully, one day find my sense of purpose and make peace with my life and my accomplishments. Yet there will always a part of me that wishes I could stand on another planet.

Even if I was to die there.

No Great Epiphanies

P1190021 While I technically have a week to go for Road Trip 2013—heading to RI, Maine, New Hampshire, & Vermont tomorrow—in a sense this return to my apartment marks the ending of the main event. New England will feel more like a coda now rather than an organic part of the trip. I was not planning on returning here until the 15th and it feels a bit odd to have interrupted what was going to be a solid month of being away. Still, I needed the break and couldn’t afford motels anymore and so I did what made sense. Though I still feel like I’m in travel mode and am living lightly even in my own place. I plan on doing some laundry today, unpacking what I don’t need for the next week, repacking the car, getting a few travel provisions for tomorrow and maybe watching a movie. If I was hoping that this trip would solve anything in my life—and to be honest, at least a little part of me was so hoping—I would be let down. However, while I experienced no great, life-changing epiphanies, I did have a few thoughts that might be worth noting. – I am so amazingly grateful to Joya and her family for bringing me to Kauai in 2005 & 2006. Just knowing that it exists and that I feel like I feel about it means a tremendous amount to me. Even if I don’t move there in 2 years, the desire to finally rest myself on that island gives me a certain kind of purpose and peace that I don’t know if I would have without those two trips. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you Joya, Erin, Cliff, & Ellen. – The west is heart-achingly beautiful. States like New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming stop my breath in the same way that certain women do: women who are hard, emotionally jagged, proud, and dangerous. Those lands entice, seduce with their examples of naked power, their huge skies, their promise that you are only one small action from possible death. Here, bullshit and poseur-y will gain you nothing. Thrilling and strangely peaceful, these places (and those women) are made of extremes and violent clashings where the sky and the land contend with one another with little regard for my tiny, human life. Bliss and radiance, parched and poisonous death. Yet, that said, I do not believe I could live there, for all its beauty and intensity. I am learning—slowly, slowly—what I need for happiness. While I will always be attracted to and by the stomach-dropping, adrenaline rush of an extreme landscape that promises defiant ecstasy through definite danger . . . I am not suited to such a lifestyle. – I am capable of having a fight with someone I care about. Not a physical fight, but one with words. This capability is entirely human and natural, but one which I have avoided for a lifetime. The experience felt awful and I am unsure what the fall-out will be in the long run, though I hope not too negative. Still. I engaged when I wanted to run and argued when I wanted to sulk. So that, is . . . something to be proud of? Maybe? – Movement distracts. Takes me out of myself and allows for a more grounded me. As much as I love stillness, I find that movement clears my head—thought I must be in a certain amount of control of the movement for this to be so. I need to find a way to preserve that feeling when I am at home. To see myself as always traveling. As always moving. I am no more trapped by this apartment, this university, this city, this state, this lifestyle, than I am “trapped” by the car that takes me, in the proverbial blink of the eye, to Phoenix, LA, San Simeon, Watsonville, Palo Alto, Merced, UC Davis, San Carlos, Fallon NV, Wendover UT, Big Springs NE, and Gary IN. This moment, this now is of my own choosing. Each moment, each now, I choose to continue as a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh. The world does not choose for me. Conditions make it easier or harder to make certain choices and I do not have the ability to choose to do anything, go anywhere. I am bounded by my previous choices, my body, my genetics, my freedoms, my capabilities. Yet, just because I do not have infinite choice, does not mean I have no choice. >D’you know like we were saying, about the Earth revolving? It’s like when you’re a kid, the first time they tell you that the world’s turning and you just can’t quite believe it cause everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it. The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles and hour and the entire planet is hurtling round the sun at 67,000 miles an hour and I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me. Clinging to the skin of this tiny little world and if we let go… – Doctor Who, “Rose” – I am blessed that I know many people in many parts of this country that will welcome me with open arms and open hearts. Joya, Dave, Doug & Judi, Kellen, Wendy, Noelle, Patty, Joy, Sarah, and Kris: Thank you. To all those friends I did not get to see this time around, thank you for the knowledge that you too would welcome me. Peace.