In a Building, on a Mountain, near a Telescope, Hurtling Through Space

 

20180619_173034View of the Davis Mountains

Over the last two days, I have spent my time at the McDonald Observatory, touring telescopes, learning about the origins of the universe, and gazing into the cosmos. I have learned about the age of the universe and cosmic microwave background radiation, and how there is a giant telescope with 91 hexagonal mirrors being built to stare into the heavens 10 billion years back.

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Hobby-Eberly Telescope being prepped for the HEXDET Experiment

Awe is an understatement when one looks through a tiny eyepiece on a 36cm telescope and sees the Cassini Division, or a group of stars that look like someone just dropped diamond dust on a piece of black velvet. The awe extends to the surface of each of those 91 identical mirrors, as you watch a lithe and agile woman scamper and climb underneath them in order to take dirty ones out to be replaced with perfectly clean copies. Awe continues when you see photos of your heroes, Carl Sagan and Jane Goodall, Galileo and Neil deGrasse Tyson decorating the walls and declaring the power of imagination and the drive to determine the beauty and power of a great idea.

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Carl Sagan!!! 

The experience of seeing these giant creations of men and women has been nothing short of stupendous. I have decided, and inwardly declared, that astronomy is this wonderful, magic, perfect-as-is-possible discipline in which people combine science, math, engineering, imagination and art. I have seen a telescope from 1939 paid for by a kindly bachelor banker who owned a car but never drove it, who paid for a beautiful German atomic crystal clock but never saw it, and who bequeathed his books, including “The Social Life of Insects” to an astronomy department that had yet to exist. Today I was able to wander around a larger telescope birthed from the need for better technology and the funding of the space race…it is a giant, a megalith of steel, lead, glass and concrete. In it are 4 or 5 mirrors, depending on what its being used for, that bounce light up and down and back again, into the floor below, to produce spectrographs of distant stars. I listened to two students tell us about how they are looking for evidence of exoplanets using the study of spectroscopy and this giant instrument that literally beams light from distant skies down below their feet.

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Harlan Smith Telescope, McDonald Observatory 

I have learned that there is no center and all positions within the universe are the center, at the same time. I have learned that the universe has some sort of three-dimensional shape but that it exists on a plane of its own creation and has a fourth dimension of time. Is time, then, a construct? Or is it real? What is real?

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The Art in Astronomy is surprising and beautiful 

These last few weeks have been trying, terrible, and emotionally despairing times for many. Seeing, as a part of the 24-hour news cycle, that our civilization is in decline far deeper than perhaps we had thought leaves us feeling fraught and frayed. Seeing our fellow humans in pain and as humans, though, is a powerful driver in helping all of us see our sisters and brothers as just that. I am an optimist, despite the dark that seems all around. I like to think that at least we saw each other in these moments, and we reached out to help, and help we did, though we must continue. I think the power of extending a heart-in-hand, especially to children and their mothers, will never serve us wrong, and perhaps is a step in the journey to what might be right and better for all of us.

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This is our Sun, whose light is passed through and projected on a wall, and refracted using a diffraction grating. Isn’t it gorgeous? 

I generally always feel that I am exactly where I am supposed to be in any given moment. It is a strategy that helps me find gratitude and peace with what is happening. I also have been lucky, thus far, to land on my feet. I have been wondering today, especially tonight, as I sat outside a 36cm telescope and listened to it sing like a humpback whale as it re-calibrated itself, as I stared up at the stars and listened to the funny conversations of colleagues trying to take photos of the moon on their smart phones through the Dobsonian Telescope’s eyepiece, that perhaps I have been here for a few days to remember the greatness of the capacity of human possibility and imagination. There is no greater evidence of that than looking at these telescopes up close and realizing the amount of dedication and dreaming that goes into each one of them. I asked the facilitator what drives the design and fabrication of new telescopes, and she told me, “scientific goals”. I asked her what scientific goals are inspiring the new, almost complete Magellan Telescope and she told me there were so many that it was hard to think of all of them. How wonderful an idea is that? That there are so many dreams that a real expert in her field cannot even think of all of them.

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Struve Telescope, McDonald Observatory 

I love Langston Hughes’ poetry and this one really stands out to me tonight, my last evening in this building, on a mountain, near a telescope, hurtling through space. May it serve you, too. With love and hope, P

 

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

20180619_172618The McDonald Observatory grounds from my southwest-facing window. 

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Be Honest

What a loaded phrase.

What a practice. Can we, any of us, be truly honest with ourselves and with others?

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” – Virginia Woolf

Lately, I have been trying this out: this idea of being myself. I now understand that who we are, or what is important to us, is shifting almost constantly and therefore, our expressions of such self will also shift and change. For most of my young life, I felt like I should portray myself in one way, and hide everything else. I think I learned this from my mother, and from growing up in an immigrant family where success means everything and feelings are swept under the rug, or into the corners of coat closets.

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I have some strange health problems, that probably started when I was sixteen. I inherited a strange genetic immunodeficiency disease, most likely from my father’s side, that is named gammaglobulinemia. It manifests in many ways, mostly in my predilection for infections and constant arthritic-like pain in my hands, wrists, and hips. During my senior year, I had to take a rest cure for almost six months, and spent my days watching movies and eating scrambled eggs, wondering what would happen. During that time, the illness expressed itself in its most intense form to date, but here and there, it pops up, as if to remind me of my own delicate nature. I forget, or shove away, my actual nature almost on a daily basis, as if putting forth a calm and strong and independent persona will chase away the inconsistencies, the weaknesses, the sadnesses, the things about myself that I am afraid of.

A few weeks ago, I chose to do something different. I chose to go to a good doctor and to talk to people about how I feel on a daily basis. It is a huge change for me: previous to this, only those closest to me knew about my feelings of being in my body. Very few people know that I experience chronic pain that limits the way my body moves and feels in space. I took a chance recently and spoke about it, and realized, just as a I realized last winter, when I shared my life story with close friends in Maine, that those who care about you don’t hate you when you express weakness, but rather, they see you as more human, more like them. Today I sat in the woodshop and talked about my friends with another friend and talked about how I have an autoimmune illness and that’s why I feel sensitive a lot and have been going to to doctor a lot since the fall. My friend sat there and asked me, “so…your bones hurt all the time?” And I explained it: how my wrists, hands and hips hurt constantly. He told me that it was strange that someone who works with her hands so much has so much pain, and I told him the truth, that activity is one of the only things that helps with it. He said, “well, I suppose you would have given up on it a long time ago if it was the other way around.” I smiled and said, “well, I wouldn’t have been able to give up on it.”

I supposed there are great risks in the opening of the heart. What happens if people lean into you too close and pierce it, sometimes not in an act of malicious vengeance but just peering too close-in? I spoke with a studio-mate the other day about divorce and its long-lasting implications, and about how I feel at peace with it all finally, as if it happened a long time ago, a time I can’t really fully identify with anymore. She told me that her divorce is still taking its toll, ten years later. So we agreed that all of us experience loss, grief, decisions and their implications, in different ways, and no way is wrong or right.

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I feel like being honest and opening my heart, perhaps for the first time, is a great form of risk-taking, but it conversely feels empowering and creates a sense of confidence that I don’t think I have felt before. It’s a feeling as if my old pair of LL Bean shearling boots are on my feet all the time and that my toes are safe and warm inside sheep-y softness. Of course, self-doubt remains. Questions are tossed in my mind that range from: will they like me? What is wrong with me? Why am I so odd?

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I suppose, here, at the age of 35, living in my beautiful little house in Austin, Texas, that I am finally identifying with my special-ness, something that I was afraid of because I grew up in such a way that taught me that expressing my nature was wrong. But now, in baby steps, I am seeing that, what other people have said to me for years, might be true. Maybe I am an okay person.

Two weeks ago, I was eating a goodbye breakfast at Magnolia with my friend Martha: she was moving to Houston in anticipation of moving to Washington, D.C. One day she will be an ambassador. Anyway, I ran into a friend who I hadn’t seen since I left Austin years ago. This friend and his wife and soon-to-be baby moved into my old house in Hyde Park after it worked out so that I could offer them that little place for the same rent that I had paid. They still live there, and he was very vocal at how thankful they are to have it. His daughter lives there, too. A tight fit in that small house with periwinkle kitchen walls and a veggie garden in the back.

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Stranger in a Strange Land

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In life come moments of clarity. This vision is only offered, not commanded. Your choice is to live in a state of grace or continue in normality. No blame. Fear can be an awesome obstacle when a time like this is presented. You will make great advancement and find your truth if you discharge fear and deconstruct your doubts. – the I Ching

The first tincture was of redwood and honey, I think, and the second was a spritz to the face that smelled like roasted poblano and brought me back to San Miguel de Allende’s dusty, windswept streets. In an instant it was changed to a murky, chocolate-flavored stuff that reminded me in some ways of coffee grounds. The last was a smear to the face of something golden from a large jug. This all happened during a story-circle for this month’s Pisces Full Moon: a circle of story-tellers and singers.

Moments of clarity and feelings of grounding have been hard to come by since my return to Austin; I feel like the place that I once called home is physically here, but everything is so different, including myself. Last night I saw old friends who didn’t even know I was back, and it made me realize that I haven’t truly been “living” here but continuing my attitude and behaviors of passing through, of being a drifter in one place or another. This is amplified now by still being separated from many of my belongings who still lie quietly in Maine, waiting for me to bring them here.

Last night’s theme was one of homecoming, and the first storyteller told a tale of being from Austin and just coming back after being a long time away in a very different place. Hers was the desert and mine was a northern island, but the feelings were the same. She said that a place becomes you, and I think she is right: I think I have even written here how I felt that life in Maine made you feel as if you were the environment that surrounded you: everything so interconnected, changeable, beautiful, mysteriously dark. Perhaps she felt the same away about her desert far away.

Homecoming is this idea full of levels of complication that start with the reality that you can never come home again: that home is different and so are its people. In my case, this city has transformed and swelled so that it seems like it is bursting at the seams, liable to just pour outward in a great torrent of people, cars, and buildings. This town, to me, always seemed a little sleepy and slow, not like Bar Harbor of course, but it was a nice feeling to feel at ease in a place all the time. And now the pace seems so fast that it seems likely to get swept up in it and carried along, without knowing which way you want to choose to go.

Is life so full of chapters? Apparently so.