To telescope, we begin with 300 words, then slice the word count in half for each successive section. We stop when the numbers stop dividing evenly. Looking around and beyond us, this week we telescope “space.”
My twin brother and I had a planet-themed birthday party the year we turned five. I liked Saturn best; its rings felt feminine and delicate amidst the masculine cast of cosmic bodies that made up the solar system. The rock planets lacked whimsy—my beloved Saturn was sand-colored and suede-smooth. My mother decorated two themed cakes of Saturn and Jupiter, and we hid geodes in the yard. We’d spend the next ten years finding them.
In that time I lost love for Saturn, cultivating wariness and hatred in its place. I could hardly look at space without feeling stripped of the protective dysmorphia of human ignorance. There are colors that evade the cones in my eyes, and my words aren’t in sync with my mouth, and the answers to our existential questions probably aren’t within the scope of my limited comprehension. I can’t discover the colors I’ll never know just by screwing my eyes, yet I twist my mind like a philosopher trying to give myself place and meaning beyond worthless speckdom.
It was a trivial daydream, sudden as a whim, that indoctrinated me into the cult of Jupiter.
To fall through Jupiter would be like suspension in custard—endless miles of buttery tones and vanilla scent. It would be like death by window sun, when you feel your consciousness grow light and porous and you think, If this is death, I’m not so afraid, and you catalog the circumstances for when you’re old and wracking your failing brain for the perfect euthanasia.
From what I know of the planets, even if the atmosphere of Jupiter was something a spacesuit could handle, the winds would pulverize a person instantly.
It doesn’t suit me to know this. I lament the day I began to think rationally about space.
Because she’d spent her life folding herself into the narrowest possible construction, with her limbs bound densely together like an army figurine.
This is where the dissonance came in. Because she’d done all that. All that, and she was being told now that even the narrowest construction was a bit too much. Distance and space were the words used. Space wasn’t something put between oneself and a rational, manageable thing. Space was a structure erected between glowing gas stars and un-amicable divorcees.
Beyond the dissonance, it hurt. Space, even at her total best. Distance, even when she’d pressed herself in half seven times over. To get any smaller, she’d need to start shearing.
There was also the possibility of expansion, of blowing open into a wrinkled expanse of total personhood, to become the explosive sort of person that truly warranted space.
That would take care of the dissonance.
I’ve been able to parallel park since before I could fully drive. It’s geometry, it’s persistence, and it’s the willingness to keep an impatient thirty-year-old man in a serious little Toyota waiting at my back while I ease up to the driver’s side mirror of the car in front and point my bumper toward the curb, straightening up.
I face my friend in the passenger’s seat and fish for accolades with flashing teeth.
If I were anything beyond incompetent at poetry, I’d write one of those poems that form shapes, and I’d have it in the shape of a donut, or something else connoting “space” in a profound, abstract way.
My first crush took hold when I was in the seventh grade. She was a year older and thought my posture was “cute.” She said it was funny how I slouched; she would come up behind me and roll my shoulders back. “Pretend your body is on a hanger.”
I wanted so badly to train myself to stand up straight for her. I practiced daily in the mirror at home, but my stubborn spine would always revert within minutes. Never could I manage to override my instinct to shrivel.
At the end of the year, when her class graduated, we were all given yearbooks. She signed mine with a message: “Don’t slouch!” As I write this, my back aches—I still slump forward in my seat, still hunch over when I walk.
When my senior-year English teacher explained the concept of physiognomy to us during our unit on The Scarlet Letter, I was skeptical (I still am, and wow, that book was dry). But I feel that somehow my slouching has seeped into my interiority. It manifests itself subtly, in the group conversations during which I remain silent, never bold enough to sneak a word in, too calculating, until someone looks at me with pity and asks what I think. Or in the music played at half volume in the shower out of fear that it will resonate through the walls. Or in the blank page and the blinking cursor, staring me down, daring me to try.
No doubt, I’m afforded plenty of space, and I’m sure that I take up more of it than I realize. But there’s a difference, it seems to me, between afforded space, indulgent and soft, and space that one opens up for oneself—space that’s rough around the edges, handmade. I long to unfurl.
My mother and I sat on the hardwood floor. We were trimming photographs for a scrapbook when I pricked my finger with the scissors. Barely a nick, but my six-year-old brain was highly imaginative. Distraught, I pleaded with her for aid, stat—I was bleeding out. She looked at me with feigned concern, suppressing a smile, and kissed my finger. Unconvinced, I refused to resume cutting until I received proper care. She rolled her eyes and said, “You know, physics says that the scissors never actually touched you. Something about spaces between electrons—you’ll learn this someday.”
I thought she was kidding—a twisted joke in light of my grievous wound. She sensed my resentment. “No, I’m serious. You can get cuts, sure, but nothing ever really touches you.”
I took that wisdom to my game of tag at recess the next day. It didn’t save me from being It.
Like many children, I wanted to be an astronaut. I imagined seeing Earth’s roundness amid the black. Earth observed, Earth as the object.
But Earth is only ever the subject. Even in space, we grasp for control: spaces must always be filled. Galileo named Jupiter’s moons after the Medici, a sycophantic plea for patronage—and one that worked, for who could resist the temptation to own the heavens? Elon Musk privatizes the cosmos. We applaud.
Carl, my closest childhood friend, often forgot spaces between his words andsotheylookedlikethis. His sentences panted for air, always communicating. Space is order; space is rest. Space is necessary. But lack of space is the stuff of creation.
When I was a child, nothing fascinated me more than space. When I wasn’t wearing out our family’s VHS tapes of the original Star Wars movies, I was thumbing through any number of library books about black holes or constellations or supernovae. My favorite part of the curricula of Nashville’s public schools was watching videos about space shuttles. Every year, the classification of Pluto as either a planet or a “dwarf planet” was fiercely contested, with elementary schoolers taking sides in a debate whose viciousness and lack of information would rival the fiercest of today’s Twitter feuds.
My fascination with space came to a head when I was ten and I first discovered Star Trek: The Next Generation. Back then, my favorite part of the show was the semi-frequent appearances of the young Ensign Wesley Crusher as he tagged along on various adventures of the adult officers of the Enterprise. Though he is widely disliked by most Trekkies—already not the most relaxed groups of fans—I found myself loving the character and any episodes where he was featured. Wesley was a shy and awkward kid who found it difficult to relate to people his age, but he was also smart and good at impressing or even building relationships with adults. It became clear that Wesley Crusher was a supercharged version of me, the version of me who could live in space if I both were more talented and had been born a couple hundred years later.
When I go back and watch TNG today, space is the least interesting part. Mostly, I just like revisiting my favorite characters, seeing them deal with one another, proving Marx right when he said that human problems will always transcend the technological.
On the heels of the American moon landing of 1969, the great poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron wrote “Whitey on the Moon,” wittily denigrating the appropriation of taxpayer money for spaceflight despite the overwhelming material challenges facing Black Americans. More than fifty years later, SpaceX became the first private company to send astronauts up to the International Space Station. At the beginning of pandemic ravaging our economy and exposing our inability to care for one another on a mass level, at least we could open up our laptops and watch Elon Musk’s rocket light the sky on fire.
Almost a year later, as Joe Biden continues to avow his lack of support for a Medicare-for-All system, I think of the end of Scott-Heron’s poem: “You know I just about had my fill/Of whitey on the moon/I think I’ll send these doctor bills/Airmail special (to whitey on the moon).”
My freshman spring, I took AST 203: The Universe, colloquially known as “Stars for Stoners.” In a lecture hall that seats 150, I never saw more than forty-five people present for a given lecture. I tried to pay attention, thinking that the course might give me writing material, helping me expand my consciousness. When my efforts failed, I wrote poems in the margins of my notebook about suffering trees and the coming spring.
Space, the final frontier, they say. We should remember that, when you get down to it, we really know nothing about ourselves, much less what’s happening here on Earth. Maybe we should just stick around here awhile longer.
I must have rearranged the furniture in my room ten times over the first few months of quarantine. Each time, I’d try to erase and recreate the contours of meaning that the space had formed in my mind, a futile attempt at reflective catharsis. The line of sight of a poster, how the sunlight fell onto my desk during yet another humming stretch of computer meetings—taken as fact at first, proof of the indictment of my square foot confinement, but with a little wishful thinking and non-scuffing floors I could trick myself into believing things could feel new again. The world had not shrunk down to the four beige walls I faced all day in Chapel Hill.
Just another game to play with myself. When walking the path between Frist and 1879, I used to do something similar, marveling at how the same physical buildings and landscape could render themselves so differently in my brain over time once they’d taken on the tinge of memories forged there. I’d flick through different colored lenses and superimpose the past as I looked out at the present: campus cast in dazzling, enticing gold on visits before officially matriculating; stultifying yellow stupor during so many months of dread sophomore year. The weather and lighting probably caused some of the difference, but, beyond that, something about the hues and how they painted those spaces in my mind became as real and inseparable from those spaces as any long-laid path or building.
So much of that vividness is lost now. With worlds that fit neatly in the center of our desks, we’re told that location doesn’t matter that much: work, play, and connection can all be done from a standstill. A life and head in the cloud(s), glossing over just how much spaces actually hold.
There’s a Japanese word called ma, which refers to the importance of negative space. Rather than seeing space or emptiness as a lack of something, ma views it as a source of possibility and potential yet to be fulfilled. Somewhat relatedly, behavioral economist Amos Tversky is attributed with saying, “The secret to doing good research is to always be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”
At Princeton, everything’s an optimization: laptops are brought to brunch, and each move is a strategic consideration. The numbers overflow so frequently that the register stops counting properly. But across the world during the longest break, there’s suddenly nothing to my days but to clean a bit and walk the dog around the glassy lake by castle grounds. It’d be cliché to speak of meaning, but sometimes things really do need space to be able to come together.
The thrill of watching city lights disappear from view through a plane window is that the world collapses as it expands, seeming both tiny and endlessly expansive. Last summer, even with flights banned, my understanding of space warps in another way. Constellations of individual experiences and traumas shared through online networks illuminate jagged, previously unknown dimensions of the world. What “us” and “home” mean to me get reconfigured: painful, necessary reminder to zoom out, out.
Last March, a pointillist tableau scattered into millions of individual pieces, floating in self-contained worlds removed from context. But everything obeys physics: enduring forces of gravity and attraction, always at play in the space between two points, beings.
She would have liked to pretend that she was alone on the spaceship, but she wasn’t alone. There was a dull thudding of the main engine, the omnipresent chlorine-like odor of the plasticky walls, the plasticky walls themselves, the methodically flashing video camera mounted firmly on the upper left wall. And he was there too. Even when they had sex they weren’t alone because they were both there and so was the dull thudding and the chlorine-like odor and the plasticky walls and the video camera with its night vision that they pretended was faulty or else why would they turn off the lights?
Perhaps because they were both married to other people with two children each. Perhaps because they found each other likable as people but unattractive as bodies. Perhaps because in each other’s arms they felt themselves even more unattractive than they were. Perhaps because they had little better to do than to turn the lights off, on, off again. Such is space and such is life, she sometimes declared, but never aloud, because otherwise she’d be declaring it to everyone behind the video camera, too, and she was an introvert. She preferred to communicate with only small groups.
Hadn’t they told her that was a good thing? Introversion and space? Hadn’t they told her that her fundamental lack of desire for frequent and large-group human interaction would be an asset when she was floating between 200,000 and 250,000 miles away from Earth with no one around except some guy from Indiana with an astrophysics PhD and an obsession with Monty Python puns? That they had now watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail together seven times in seven months would have meant something if they weren’t in space—what that something was she supposed it was too late to find out.
What kind of man are you—that is, other than some guy from Indiana with an astrophysics PhD? She had wanted to ask him this when they first met sixteen months ago in the cafeteria at the space center headquarters, but it was too soon to ask. First, she had to find out what kind of woman she was, and whether she could live for nine months in a floating box between 200,000 and 250,000 miles away from Earth, no matter her companion.
But in reality, she could only find out the answer to that question by going off and living for nine months in a floating box between 200,000 and 250,000 miles away from Earth. Or at least she supposed she would find out the answer to that question; they still had fifty-nine days left in space.
Fifty-nine days—sometimes it seemed like tomorrow and sometimes it seemed like a lifetime. But tomorrow would just be fifty-eight days, and hopefully her lifetime would be longer than fifty-eight days.
Sometimes she wondered if they actually watched them from behind that methodically flashing video camera. Of course it was all recorded. But did they sit there and watch? Or did the recordings spool out into the ether, to be stored away in some cloud-storage drawer, to get crusty with virtual moth balls and await the too-curious eyes of some seventeen-year-old intern from some STEM school in some New England town who had never even masturbated with his pants off?
And then she remembered the stars, and how the stars she saw were ancient, and how she was watching their pasts, their endless sensuous galactic dances, and how she found them beautiful—the stranger, the more unfamiliar, the more beautiful.