SIX DEGREES OF BEING SMALL.
The medieval followers of Aristotle, first in the Islamic world and then in Christian Europe, tried to make sense of the moon. It was suggested in Antiquity that the moon was a perfect mirror; its markings were reflections of earthly features.
On Sunday July 16th 2000, the longest-lasting lunar eclipse in 140 years was said to have occurred. The moon plunged for almost two hours dead center through the shadow of Earth. The earth’s shadow has two parts: the umbra, the dark space directly between the earth and the moon, and the penumbra, the weaker shadow that extends outward like wings off the northern and southern poles of the planet. Lunar eclipses are considered total when the moon passes completely into the umbral shadow.
It was said to have been bright red from the vantage point of Oceania, Australia and some places in the Middle East. I have seen pictures since, a globe of fire hovering upon the sea.
I was determined to witness this. It would only happen once in my lifetime.
We are defined by our smallness and our even smaller composite parts. Appendages and internal organs. Vestiges and embryonic slough. We hold our newborns to our breast. Epics have been built on metaphors for the heart. Yet we are continually in a process of regeneration. The skin we’re now in will one day be part of a fine cosmic powder, adrift in a spray of butterfly dust. We exhale argon and carbon dioxide. Our next breath will contain more than 400,000 atoms of the argon that Ghandi breathed throughout his life. In one year, our own breath will return to us – call it karma – having circumnavigated the planet. We are continually in the process of inhaling ourselves. We are breathing in the Last Supper. We are breathing Christ. And Michelangelo. And Hitler too.
We are breathing.
The intensity of a lunar eclipse depends on how much dust and cloud is present in Earth’s atmosphere. Total eclipses tend to be very dark after major volcanic eruptions.
We are small.
We navigate a jagged torrent of stars. We dig. We carve. Are we moving into or away from our shadows? We pass through looking for another side. We love. We hate. We procreate.
But Why? Perhaps to keep the body whole. Perhaps so we can say, look, I am here, this is my planet, this is my city, this is my body, this is the result of my work. Or simply, this is my space, my darkness, my light. Or is it random, a lifetime strung along a narrative of a thousand acts of kindness, equaled by a thousand random acts of terror? I wonder.
It’s so goddamned noisy sometimes. It’s so bloody bright out there. Someone right now is losing a limb. Someone is skinning a cat alive. A baby is soaring into a garbage heap. The oil fields are burning. A country is being tyrannized. The Anti-Christ is afoot. Yet so many people are making love. What’s the point?
How small can we become before we are no longer here, before we disappear into the darkness, before the composition of our parts becomes irreconcilable?
Here are six degrees of being small.
one: conception (12:47am- moon enters penumbra)
I once had a young gothic princess friend. Let’s call her Kay. Kay and I danced by ourselves at retro bars. We danced in the twirling bright lights to techno music. Sometimes we were high from a white powdery drug called mescaline that we bought from a gorgeous French model called Majou. One night Majou and I went to an after hours bar. I sold five cigarettes to make three dollars for the cover charge so we could get in, but he was hot and the bouncer was a girl, so she let us in without having to pay anyway. I felt that my entrepreneurial efforts were extravagantly wasted. That’s always pissed me off.
Kay had long red hair and could run very fast. When she smoked pot, she says she felt nothing extraordinary. There was order to her chaos. When I smoked pot, I heard doorbells ring and couldn’t ever get the spider webs off my hands. I needed her. She was my dearest friend.
One hot summer afternoon Kay called me to tell me she was pregnant, more than two months along. She was crying, which is a significant point because she never cried. Kay never cried at anything. Not even when things were bad in Junior High. Not even when she was sure no one loved her. Once, we took some of her step-dad’s weed and rolled it inside our report cards and smoked it on the banks of the Nechako River. This is particularly funny because it was meant to be an act of rebellion, but we both always made Honour Roll. We stared out across the milky water. The stiff blue paper burned. We inhaled. We exhaled. She didn’t cry.
But she cried when she found out she was pregnant. Holy shit, she said, or something like that. I can’t remember exactly. It was more the cadence of her voice, strung weak as a thread in the wind. She was adrift. There was nothing to hold onto. A baby was growing inside her. The baby was small, a fetus really. Her periods stopped under the cycles of the moon.
Kay and I were twenty-one. We traveled a little ways across the Pacific, through the Gulf Islands then farther into open sea. A doctor waited in the city. You had to go to the city to have an abortion so far along. We stayed with my mother in her house in the valley. My mother helped us – as mothers often do – but she would later tell me she thought it was wrong.
Hardness overcame Kay.
But she seemed enthralled with her own despair. She sat by the window on the ferry and gazed out at the islands, gently rubbing her belly. I wondered why my pants were getting tight, she said.
Are you sure you want to do this? I said.
We exist on the premise of Immaculate Conception. Everything. Everything. Only happens once.
“An ineffable explosion, trillions of degrees in temperature…created not only fundamental subatomic particles and thus matter and energy, but space and time itself” (Marcus Chown).
I believe Christ was the first subatomic particle created, in a manner of speaking, when the universe began. And later, a star ripping across the sky. And later still, a man.
two: love (1:25am- first shading visible)
I believe it’s in the interval just before our most horrendous acts and the acts themselves that true love presides, the moment before you do the worst thing you’ve ever done and the thing itself. Before the knife hits the flesh. Before the fetus is cut out. The moment before eclipse.
It is such a small space in time. To love.
Quantum theory suggests that the universe was created 10 -43 seconds after the Big Bang. “The Fire of Creation began with the sun filling the sky, bursting into the star-pricked blackness of space with a pyrotechnic spectacle of shifting, scorching images” (Brian Swimme).
I believe if love existed outside the context of an equally appalling hatred – or rather, lack of love – the universe would implode. About 13.7 billion years ago, the universe was compressed into the confines of an atomic nucleus. This was the moment before creation, before the Big Bang. Before space and time.
Before love. And hatred too.
I would not have done what Kay set out to do, I tell myself. But then, I have done other things I will never forgive.
Sometimes I dream I am a mother. But always in my dreams my babies are small non-human things, or they are human but miniature manifestations of human. I recently dreamed that I was mother to a small orange kitten. I found it inside a rabbit cage on a porch. A rabbit was gnawing at it though the wire. I picked up my kitten and held it belly up cupped in my hands upon my lap. I loved it, but it was a kind of despairing love because my kitten had patches of fur missing, and its eyes were incredibly small and looked cloudy. I thought if I touched its eyelashes they would crumble.
It loved me too.
three: hatred (1:57am- partial eclipse begins)
I believe it is also in the interval just before our most horrendous acts and the acts themselves that hatred presides, the moment before you do the worst thing you’ve ever done and the thing itself. Before the knife hits the flesh. Before the fetus is cut out. The moment before eclipse.
It is such a small space in time. To hate. We turn it on ourselves, our bodies, in an effort to remove the enemy from inside.
The night before the abortion we sat on the deck overlooking the park. In the distance- beyond a knoll of green grass and a fringe of Willow trees – a lake gleamed under moonlight. Just then a mother raccoon and three baby raccoons emerged from the darkness and waddled across the lawn. It was uncanny, one of those coincidences that leans toward synchronicity – magic – as if an event was enacting itself in triplicate before our eyes in order to counter a more singular act of annihilation.
Life counters death. Nothing can be created or destroyed. That kind of thing.
Kay lifted her shirt to expose the slight curve of her belly.
Feel, she said.
I could have sworn I felt a movement, something like a small fist, or perhaps it was the movement of the raccoons in the dark that persuaded me to think so.
One might argue that hatred is the embryonic slough of stellar decay, what happens when we attempt to annihilate an equal and opposite other – a proton, a star, a soul – only to find the process has long since been in progress for us. Hatred is perhaps our futile attempt to rediscover its equal and opposite counterpart. It exists on the periphery of divinity, to the left of light, to the right of darkness, just a little off center of a perfect eclipse.
We stab it in the throat or heart. We slice it up the middle.
four: sex (3:02am- total eclipse begins)
In the beginning it was neither dark nor light, but now, as Swimme says, we are children of the sun, accumulating cosmic energies and transforming them into matter. One small part coalesces with another in order to create a whole.
Perhaps it’s an instinct – part of the cosmic plan – that kicks in the older you become and ushers in a sense of mortality. A voice nods unintelligibly in some obscure direction just off your periphery. It rests a hand gently on your shoulder and urges you forward. It whispers. This is not about love. This is about creating from your own physiology an example of what you are in the universe, a template, a rough carbon copy, a proton, an electron, a version of yourself. Go. Procreate. You will never be alone.
And it feels good.
One night, months after the abortion, I got up in the middle of the night and saw two figures moving in the dark. It was Kay and another man we both knew, the two of them straddled together on the couch. She was riding him. His hands grazed her white back. Her red hair was on fire. Their bodies eclipsed the light of the moon shining in through a window behind them, and I did not think it then, but now I do, how everything leads simultaneously toward destruction and creation at the same time, how from our greatest acts of pleasure an equally post-coital darkness ignites.
We begin again and again.
five: war (3:56am- mideclipse)
An eclipse like this one would not occur again until sometime after the year 3000. Its duration was brief, the moon kept moving, and the night sky re-aligned itself. But in the interim, a war between light and darkness was fought.
I walked outside on July 16th and there was nothing but a dark ridge of clouds. A light rain fell.
The future unfurls along a string of cosmic beads. Will this future be regarded one day as a multitude of many small wars or one enduring one? What will the moon look like then? And conversely, the sun?
In eleventh grade a holocaust survivor came to visit our class. He was an old man, but he was not as old as I had expected him to be. I had expected him to be so old as to be near death, somehow only remotely human, as if his untold terrors had happened to another similar man in a lifetime so far from mine they might not have happened at all. But there he was, a byproduct of war, dressed in a brown suit and tie and carrying a small black case, as if he had decided he would carry his memories with him in a physical vessel because to keep them in his mind would be too dangerous.
A person can be torn apart by certain things, like a star ripping a rift across the cosmos, thus forming a portal, a gateway, a galaxy, sometimes a black hole. It is better to carry it beside you. It is better to keep it small and identifiable. It is better to give it a name than to keep it inside.
The universe has not forgotten the gash we’ve carved into her, the chronology we’ve assigned her, how we shook her from her coalescent sleep and sent her scattering across a new continuum. And the old man had not forgotten what had happened to him either.
Inside the case was an antiquated slide projector reel and an assortment of slides. We turned out the lights and watched as one by one he explained the meaning of each frame, most of which bored me. I don’t remember what he was talking about, but his accent was thick. He came to a picture of a Nazi officer dressed in SS uniform. The officer sat casually in a lavish looking office, which was decorated with rich leathers and ornate furniture. I recall the look of confidence on the officer’s face, or perhaps it was pride, and his stature and good looks.
The old man paused on this frame and became quiet. As he was speaking his voice broke, and he could not speak anymore. We paid attention.
You see the lamp in the corner? he said. The shade is made of Jewish skin.
The universe was once a solid nucleus. We are the product of an old and gigantic stellar collision. We are the product of opposites. We are the product of minuscule accidents, matter pitted against anti-matter. In the beginning, “for each billion pairs of particles that were created, one was spared annihilation due to particle-antiparticle collisions” (Swimme). Whatever was left after these small collisions occurred was the constitution of the universe, of which we are a small part- our bodies and minds, our skin.
It’s the same with men. Every Christ has an Anti-Christ. Every Jew had a Hitler. Islam has America.
War is the most crass representation of what one person might do to another- on a quiet street, let’s say – if an irreconcilable difference comes between them. Each party believes he is right; there are infinite degrees of perspective. But from the point of view of a moon-dweller, our lunar eclipses will be solar instead. The moon dweller will see a disk of the sun partially concealed by Earth. From within the umbral shadow, he will witness a total eclipse of the sun.
We look outward, blinking. The flesh is thick from so deep inside the womb. But what lies beyond that layer of skin but a sphere of electrons and a vaguely identifiable lamplight?
six: death (4:49am- total eclipse ends)
I imagine a black blanket pin-pricked by a multitude of lucky stars. I imagine a childhood science project, my creation of the solar system in a box covered with tin foil – and inside, darkness and planets hung from wire.
Sometimes I dream I am a mother. In my dreams my children are getting even smaller. I once dreamed that I was the mother of an inchworm. You know, the little green worm about half a centimeter long that moves along the surface of a leaf by bringing the back end of itself all the way to where its body begins, so inch by inch it goes, in and out again. If I ever have a baby in real life I will love it as surely as I loved that worm. This is true. But the horrible thing is, my babies in my dreams- whether they are inchworms or miniature people or kittens and so forth- are always slipping through my fingers. So many times I have lost them completely, in the folds of a blanket or in the fibers of a shag carpet, and sometimes I wake up sweating because I am sure I have squished my baby into nothingness against my own skin. I am so big, you know, and inchworms are so small. And while this is strange – no doubt – there was no mistaking my love for the thing.
When the universe was one hundredth of a second old, neutrons began to decay. This allowed electrons and protons to combine with other particles. “The cosmos began: in a single Big Bang, matter coalesced, and the stars turned on” (Swimme).
I believe that’s love.
We are tortured by our singularity. We don’t know what to do with our children because somehow we know they are in the end not an indication of our communion with all things, but rather an indication of our infinite isolation. There will always be another chromosome to splice, another cosmic collision, and so, we begin again.
We unfurl our suckling progeny into the dirt. Dust flies. We breathe. We are small.