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At night, it was different

At night, it was different

Friday night I am in the dark bedroom and see the shape. For a moment time is in multiples and split across itself, the past two weeks erased and the future I thought I was returning to played out correctly, and it’s Friday night and the cat is on the bed as she always is and everything is fine. Then the universe reasserts its weave and it is light and shadow and the sheets pushed in a bunch.

I am not freaked out, or sad, or suffused with light, or thinking of grace. I don’t know what I am besides exhausted and alone to the point I’ve started laundry so something moves with sound. I text a friend. I know it’s just patterns and memories, what the unconscious inner child that doesn’t understand time wants to see. She says they could be more. She’s a big believer in energy and emotions left behind.

This passage from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World has stuck with me:

My parents died years ago. I was very close to them. I still miss them terribly. I know I always will. I long to believe that their essence, their personalities, what I loved so much about them, are–really and truly–still in existence somewhere. I wouldn’t ask very much, just five or ten minutes a year, say, to tell them about their grandchildren, to catch them up on the latest news, to remind them that I love them. There’s a part of me–no matter how childish it sounds–that wonders how they are. “Is everything all right?” I want to ask.

Sometimes I dream that I’m talking to my parents, and suddenly–still immersed in the dreamwork–I’m seized by the overpowering realization that they didn’t really die, that it’s all been some kind of horrible mistake. Why, here they are, alive and well, my father making wry jokes, my mother earnestly advising me to wear a muffler because the weather is chilly. When I wake up I go through an abbreviated process of mourning all over again. Plainly, there’s something within me that’s ready to believe in life after death. And it’s not the least bit interested in whether there’s any sober evidence for it. (p. 203)

In a book about UFO cults and other conceptual sleight-of-hand, the passage struck me as earnest and human. It has a kind of forthrightness Sagan and others like him are accused of lacking. “This is about humans being human,” he says in the next paragraph.

I still wonder what we wonder about. In a previous chapter, Sagan provides the example of a dragon in his garage. You ask to see the dragon and he shows you, but swinging the door up only shows an empty garage. Oh, the dragon is invisible. There’s a funny exchange: you propose putting down flour to catch footprints, but the dragon floats in air. An infrared gun to sense its heat won’t work because the dragon is heatless. (Those who’ve taken a physics class should find that one particularly funny, I realize.) Well, throw paint on it. That won’t work because the dragon is non-corporeal. Sagan’s point is, what’s the difference between a floating, heatless non-corporeal dragon and a dragon that isn’t there? I didn’t re-read the entire text, but most of the book is his application of Occam’s Razor to common spiritual claims and UFO abduction myths.

I am older now and see how people can find this smug. Science itself begs its own questions. String theory proposes all of reality is made by nearly infinitely small rubber bands vibrating at different frequencies. Even empty space is a riot of creation and destruction overrun with virtual particles and possible realities. The multiverse—an infinity of universes just like our own, another infinity slightly different in infinitely different ways, and then the wildly different–is implied, and this idea has gained more credence by the cosmologists and physicists and their atom smashers ever since I read about it in middle school. But how can any of this possibly be tested? If, as quantum mechanics insists and as we understand as “true”, and observer and observation create reality, can any test mean what we think it means?

At the health food store, I buy a bottle of mineral complex. Big capsules contain grainy powder of magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, other minerals. Nobody would argue that the pills, the powder, was alive. I swallow them. In a few hours hopefully I didn’t blow my money and some of the minerals are floating around inside me, being incorporated into me. Magnesium goes into bone, phosphorous and potassium into nerves. Maybe some of it is used to store new memories, learn a new thing. Is it alive then?

Science is not faith, but a form of knowing and all knowledge has limits. Near the speed of light or at the very small Newton doesn’t work any more and our ability to understand what time and space are simply stops. I am sure there is an infinity of things we cannot know.

I don’t know what I saw. Earlier, on the phone, friends told me it would be all right, again that I did all I could, I did the right things. I don’t know. I couldn’t help Koshi when she got sick, just like I couldn’t help my other cat three years ago. I am exhausted and the place is empty, and when I try to sleep the washer goes out of balance, keeping me from sleep to open it and move the clothes around. The future I thought I was coming back to has changed. Back with Matt in the seventh grade we stayed up late wondering what reality was and what it would be like to walk on a comet, and that late talk was deep and amazing and a little awful too. Billions of years is a lot. Billions of years from now there won’t be cats, or humans, but there will probably be comets, and everything we learned will only be a speck of what there is to know.

Sagan published The Demon Haunted World the year he died. If he got that ten minutes with his parents, I wonder what that would have been like. They might have surprised him, catching him up on all he was going to miss out on. I bet that dragon laughed to beat the band.


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