The Things We Carry
April 2017 | by Beith Burton
When I was young, say 9 or 10 years old, I expected to grow up and spend my career days aboard a starship bound for some distant solar system. Now that I near the completion of my career days, I often think of how that journey might have turned out. Voyager 1, which left earth in September 1977, is, at the time of this writing, over 20.6 billion miles away. Since I graduated high school not long after 1977, I will use Voyager’s timetable as my own: by the time I graduated high school, Voyager had just passed Saturn. The year my niece was born, Voyager flew by Neptune. And 5 years ago, just after my 48th birthday, Voyager left our solar system and entered interstellar space. Voyager is traveling about 10 miles each second. It is now as far from earth as about 3 times the distance between earth and Pluto. Where it is now, I’m sure there must be many things to see, but there’s not much there to visit. As Carl Sagan said, “Atoms are mainly empty space. Matter is composed chiefly of nothing.”
Light, which defines the unattainable limit of travel time, speeds past at more than 186,000 miles each second. If my imaginary space job were on a ship that could travel just under the speed of light, after 40 years of travel I might now be entering the Trappist-1 star system you’ve been hearing so much about lately, the one with seven potentially earth-like planets. But on earth, I would have been gone about 284 years. A generation lasts about 30 years, so while I was gone, almost ten generations would have passed. I would have been away from the earth longer than the USA has been a country, but within the timeline of the first settlements of immigrants to the east coast of North America. If I were a famous space traveler, perhaps the first, or in a group of the first, the citizens of the USA might remember me the way we remember George Washington or Henry Hudson. I might have some legend associated with me, but no one would know much else about me. No one would have much of an idea who my parents were. If I had descendants, no one would be very interested in them, and they would not gain much profit by having been related to me. In the custom of my day (your day), you might say I would have become “a leaf on the wind.”
Six years ago last month, a massive earthquake in Japan that triggered a tsunami with waves that were 30 feet high. To the people who lived on the northern coast, it was as if their closest loved ones and friends vanished. They lost their homes, their apartments, their jobs, their loves–their entire world in the course of one hour. When the nuclear plant exploded, there was no time for mourning, or even for standing in stunned silence. To survive, they had to launch themselves to an entire new world in less time than it would take to launch a rocket into space. In an hour, their world was gone, and they were on their way to a new world, where they knew few others, if anyone at all. To make matters worse, the radiation that contaminated a large portion of the northern coast of Japan has a half-life of 30 years—a generation’s time. Some say there are parts of the coast that may never be habitable by humans in the foreseeable future. The people who knew themselves by these areas, who made their homes and their lives there, have since become travelers in space and time.
“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
On a farm in Otsuchi, one of the hardest-hit areas on Japan’s northern coast, there is a phone booth. Inside sits a disconnected rotary-dial phone. Thousands of people have made pilgrimage here since the tsunami. It has become a place where they can talk to their loved ones.
I watched the NHK documentary about this “phone of the wind” recently. Some who came to call allowed the filmmakers to listen while they spoke to their lost relatives. The callers seemed to remember everything. Some dialed the actual phone numbers of their loves, slowly and contemplatively. They talked about what their loves were doing the day of the tsunami. They asked their loves how they were doing. They told their loves about what they themselves were doing now, what had changed, and how much they missed them. Some blamed their loves for leaving them, or asked their loves why they had been left behind. Their griefs seem enormous burdens. They wept openly as they talked to their loves, and again as they put down the receiver and left the booth. Many who did this returned to call again and again, saving up their messages even as they found new ways to start over with their lives, tentatively, hesitantly, and burdened with grief and suffering.
As I wept, hearing these people express their grief, I marveled at how they seemed to create their loved ones, physically, out of the booth air. They closed the booth door and summoned their loved ones in front of them, using their own bodies, calling them into being with their voices and their remembrances. They created happy moments, even as they wept. They asked after their loves’ well-being, creating them from non-being. They invoked them through their fingers on the rotary dial; through their gestures and their expressions. Later, they told the film crew how they lived for their loved ones now; how they live so that the memory of those they love will not be lost to time and space.
As I look back over the years since dreaming of being a space-traveler, I have often felt disappointed that progress has not been speedier, that the pace of discovery in the real world has not matched the timeline set by my imagination.
But now, when I wonder at how slow our progress to the stars has become, I think perhaps it is because we have not found a path through the universe that will hold not only ourselves, but our loves. I have begun to believe that even though we speak of alienation, loneliness, and our need for solitude, we never travel alone. Perhaps, in our plans to launch ourselves over vast distances, we must add our loves and learn to balance the equations: on one side, our joy of loving and our longing for new vistas; on the other, the weight of our grief and the responsibilities we have to future generations. Scientists say that when you travel at the speed of light, there is no travel at all—you are there and then you are somewhere else. When our equations begin to balance, perhaps we fill find our strivings, too, will cease, and we will be in the place we long for most.
This excerpt from Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot was inspired by an image taken, at Sagan’s suggestion, by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. As the spacecraft left our planetary neighborhood for the fringes of the solar system, engineers turned it around for one last look at its home planet. Earth appears as a tiny point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size.
“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” -Carl Sagan, A Pale Blue Dot
Beith Burton works in a machine shop and an art store, and still dreams of space travel. In middle school she and her father went weekly to the planetarium at the very top of Thomas Jefferson High School to watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and she hasn’t been the same since.
Beith’s father contributed to the design of the very first weather satellites launched by NOAA, and designed an antenna made of a broomstick, a window screen and wire to receive the satellite’s pictures. When he put a tracker on the antenna to follow the satellite across the sky, Beith’s mother received complaints from several mailmen who believed the antenna was spying on their movements as they delivered mail in the neighborhood.