Sunday, November 8, 2015

Staying in Orbit

I grew up in a small town. The kind of place where I could see the stars in the sky when I was walking home from friends’ houses, or when I looked out my bedroom window, the lamp turned off to kill the reflection of artificial light against glass.

I appreciated the beauty of the stars. I’ve never been a scientist, and while I’ve had a passing curiosity about how things work, I’m just as often content that they do, and if there were to be a show of lights in the sky, more stable and quiet than fireworks, but no less magnificent, then who was I not to look on in wonder?

In middle school, I grew consumed with The X-Files. I loved the extended mythology and the way in which horror and optimism intertwined--that the trauma of watching aliens abduct his sister could galvanize Fox Mulder to chase after them, to buck systems and convention in favor of what he knew to be true. He knew, and he wanted to believe.

I didn’t know, but I, too, wanted to believe, and alongside what I can only assume was a generation of kids looking for flying saucers, I imagined one day I might see something.

And this interest in seeing and believing took on a greater urgency, maybe just because The X-Files was newer and cooler than the Start Trek: The Next Generation episodes I had already watched for years. Space seemed to readily accessible on TNG, not a struggle but a foregone conclusion, not a mystery but simply the way things were. I don’t recall Captain Picard ever looking out at the stars, even as his ship maneuvered across a field of them.

And perhaps that’s why, a decade later, I would grow enamored with Firefly--a show in which space travel was a given, but nothing was ever easy. It was a show about a ragtag crew just trying to make ends meet, in over their heads when they stumbled upon secrets The Alliance--which I fancied not to be so different from Star Trek’s Federation, or the government agencies the Cigarette Smoking Man was a party to--didn’t want to see the light of day. Moreover, there was theme song and it’s iconic refrain: You can’t take the sky from me.

In this unlikely, unsurprisingly canceled series, Joss Whedon somehow recognized that which is most appealing about space for dreamers the likes of myself--the vastness of it. The ability to disappear into it. The wandering, against all probability and intended mission (or prime directive).

I moved to Baltimore at the age of 24. I’d visited my share of big cities prior to that point, but it wasn’t until that six and a half year stretch that I grew more or less accustomed to starless nights.

One of my last nights in the city, before the move to Oregon, I listened to “Recovering the Satellites,” the title track from the 1996 Counting Crows album, and it set me off thinking. Adam Duritz references getting back to basics and somehow, on that listening I recognized something small town in his voice and in the lyrics--about the way small town people look out on the night sky and let their minds wander. On the bridge, Duritz’s voice soars, narrating a girl who “sees shooting stars and comet tails. She’s got heaven in her eyes.” Moments later, he goes on to sing the lyrics that have always resonated with me most of all: “We only stay in orbit for a moment of time. And you’re everybody’s satellite. I wish that you were mine.”

And I reflected on the many times I had identified with that lyrics—first when I learned that my middle school crush was moving out of state at the end of the school year, then in the fleeting nights of summer camp, then in the lead up to college graduation. Again, 30 years old and thinking of the friends I’d miss most after I left Baltimore and how little time we had left in orbit with one another.

When you see someone everyday, there’s a piece of you that expects it won’t ever change. But then a simple change of schools, jobs, towns, states, or sides of country can change everything. Before you know it, the people you took for granted had might as well be a galaxy away. And there you stand, without a transporter or shuttle in sight to help navigate the light years.

So, given the opportunity, I still like looking at stars, just like I did in childhood. Less so, now, in speculation about what I might find. More in consideration of who might look up at that very same black back drop and see the same formations of burning light. Who might remember my name at the same moment their faces cross my mind.

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