New Eras

By ASHA THANKI

In the early 1990s, as fighter jets flew over burning oil fields in Kuwait, the star wars of the Cold War relegated to recent memory, astronomers questioned the apparent emptiness of the outer solar system. There had been a long-standing presumption that the outer reaches were entirely devoid of the matter—the planets, the asteroids, the moons—that existed in abundance closer to the sun. What if, instead, out in that deep and dark expanse, items existed but only fleetingly? What if the gravitational pull of larger planets cut the lives of smaller objects short? Was it possible that there were more beautiful things to explore? But without the technology or means to prove it, the presumed void remained just that—a void.

In August 1992, my parents were not yet my parents, but my family was slowly being crafted around the not-yet of me. They had their lives plotted out like a constellation, a series of steps to follow to attain their definition of success. A marriage, a move across continents and hemispheres. Job, house, kids. Golden retrievers. All these plans wrapped up like a neat little bundle of ways to make it in America. As my parents plotted the purchase of their first and only house in a suburb of St. Louis, astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu were in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, on top of a mountain, gazing through a 2.2-meter telescope. What they witnessed through that lens changed our understanding of the universe forever: Six months before my older sister was born and brought home to that first and only house, Jewitt and Luu published a paper suggesting that a distant object spotted during their time in Mauna Kea was the inaugural detection of an object beyond Neptune. This object, officially named 1992 QB1, existed in the Kuiper Belt, the heretofore hypothesized home of comets streaming furiously into our world.

The experiment that seemingly affirmed the Belt’s existence almost didn’t happen. In an early moment of doubt, then-graduate assistant Luu had asked the more seasoned Jewitt why they should take on this research project when no one had done a similar one before. Without the mistakes of prior researchers to learn from, the likelihood of success was incredibly minimal.

Jewitt, who, as a graduate student with a why-not attitude, had recovered the path of Halley’s comet for the first time in seventy years, offered what must have been for him a typical response: “Because if we don’t, nobody will.”[1]

I wonder about that moment, about the weight of Luu’s question and the equal but opposite weight of Jewitt’s answer, the depth of a path that hadn’t been previously cleared. When you spend your life pioneering, do you forget to consider the immensity of the task?

***

Cosmic, adjective. From the Greek kosmikos, which comes from the root kosmos, meaning both order and universe.

Humans once looked to the sky and determined that the apparent emptiness contained a metaphysical sense of order—of rules, of discipline. We expected the void to hand down commandments, to send avatars down to earth, to solve for us what we could not solve. We wrapped our tongues around words that connected the void to gods—celestial bodies both angels and asteroids. We gave it a power that appeared equal parts astronomy, astrology, and religion.

I was raised in a religious tradition with no true concept of Heaven, but I remain fascinated with the language that connects sky to god. To look to the heavens could simply be a desperate plea on a starry night; to see Heaven there is to accept a divinity in those same constellations. My fascination is so great that sometimes I forget what I believe. Sometimes I, too, feel a tug toward the stars, sure their alignment will one day divine the exact time of my wedding, whether or not I am a good match with the person I love. Isn’t it strange that we use that verb, to divine, even as we harbor some sense that the zodiac and fate are disconnected from the mythology of organized religion? Both religion and astrology serve the same purpose; it’s easy to blame my flaws on a god or on my horoscope, on the path that the gods and their stars have placed me on.

My obsession with the Kuiper Belt, with notions of fate and the divine, takes hold decades after Jewitt and Luu’s first glimpse of it on Mauna Kea, as I contemplate questions of who I am, who I’m “supposed” to be, and who I will naturally become. I find myself debating whether to keep my steady job as a consultant or abandon my income to pivot paths and devote myself to writing for three years. To try my hand at the thing I’ve been uncertain of for so long. I want the skies to tell me I am making the right decision.

I’m unsure whether I’m just smitten with the beauty of our cosmos or whether I truly believe a god or the stars will be able to give me a concrete answer. I spend eight months questioning my decision, wondering how my path will in fact unfold, and somehow in the middle of it all, I end up in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s rolling green hill country six thousand feet above sea level, where I stare at the sky and read the Milky Way. A friend, whom I love, had traveled with me to visit another friend we love, and as I take the hands of these women who set order to my meager universe, I wonder at the pureness of a joy like that, of a reunion like ours on an island halfway across the world from any place I call home. If asked, then, I would have looked to the dark expanse and named it sacred.

One month later, when I search the yellow-tinged sky from the vantage of a New York City apartment roof, I find nothing that offers me comfort. This, as I consider my possible trajectories in a city of so many writers who have left their day jobs for their passion. I stand among them, sure, but am not yet one of them. Here, there are no hands of platonic loves in mine, no stars to show order or remind me of a god. No sense of pleasant surprise. The city has too much light pollution, I tell myself. The stars are hidden behind clouds. I am simply too tired today to be curious. I wonder if I am meant to live in New York in the first place, and then I wonder if anything is meant at all.

***

In January 2006, NASA launched the probe New Horizons into space. It would reach Jupiter thirteen months later—just as the U.S. housing bubble would burst—and continue on. By the time New Horizons reaches Pluto in July 2015, Barack Obama would be elected president (twice), the U.S. would pull out of Iraq, and I would attend college some 800 miles from home.

Three years later, in the final weeks of New Horizons’ final mission, during which it beelines toward the Kuiper Belt, reports circulate that Saturn’s rings are being pried apart and tugged downward by gravitational pull, resulting in “ring rain”—a hailstorm of the ice particles that once encircled the planet’s belly, shrinking the seemingly eternal ring system’s projected life span down to 300 million years at best, 100 million at worst. There it is: the generations-old image of bronze discs encircling the golden planet, brought down by—what, exactly? I scour the internet for evidence of human contribution to this cosmic disaster and come up with nothing but articles on space junk that are less dire than what I’d hoped to find. I want, viscerally, to be able to place the blame on us, to know we miscalculated, that our mistakes led us here. I can’t wrap my mind around the possibility that this is a naturally occurring event. It would almost be easier to believe some god had charted this path, that the divine order includes erasing such a staple of my understanding of our solar system. If the blame does not lie with us, I want to pin the faults of the world on something otherworldly.

For most people, the Saturn news comes and passes without a ruckus, attention instead focused on New Horizons’ flight path. Reports of the probe’s success romanticize its journey. Here is a machine created by the smartest of our species to offer insight on our planet’s very beginnings. The mission, the feeling of going where no human has ever gone before, evokes something divine, something larger than us. I feel it, too, in my bones, and in the language used to describe the mission: “New Horizons will again interrupt the distant solitude,” writes one journalist in the Financial Times, “to redraw the borders of the known world.”[2]

Technology progresses, humans explore, fragments of machine drift off to mingle with planets in an “eternal orbital loneliness.”[3] Meanwhile, the knowledge of the future loss of Saturn’s rings was enough to send me spiraling. I felt like a child confronting mortality for the first time, and perhaps that’s exactly what it was but on a much larger scale. What was the point of anything if there was no rhyme or reason to the universe? If the things we knew and loved could just disappear in a moment, or in eons that felt like moments? Maybe that’s why it’s comforting to place our faith in a set sequence, to believe that even as time goes on, the species we lose and cities we see destroyed here on earth are part of a plan beyond our knowing. That someone or something else is responsible. How many things that we do not yet know are destroyed or lost even as we seek the answers? Tempus edax rerum, wrote Ovid all those centuries ago. Time, devourer of all things.

***

In his short story, “You Go Where It Takes You,” Nathan Ballingrud describes the introduction of two people. A young girl hesitates to approach a stranger, who remarks,

She’s like a thousand different people right now, all waiting to be, and every time she makes a choice, one of those people goes away forever. Until finally you run out of choices and you are whoever you are. She’s afraid of what she’ll lose by coming out to see me. Of who she’ll never get to be.

It can feel as though the bundles of our lives are packaged for and offered to us at every junction, as though one decision determines the next set of choices available to us and so on, forever, a Bandersnatch of lives we could have led. I wonder how many moments we miss by not wanting to choose, how many loves we lose by not wanting to move forward or backward. I want the skies to make these decisions for me—to feel with certainty that the riskier choice will work out, or that the safe choice is the right one, because someone greater than me has determined it so.

In 2012, as New Horizons puttered onward from Jupiter to Pluto, my seventeen-year-old self agonized over the cascading dominoes of these choices, fearful of choosing wrong. How do you apply to universities, I thought, or choose a path when you’re not sure who you want to be when you grow up? I stripped myself down to the barest of my bones; I read in their marrow what traits I had that would be valued by others. I went with the safe options, the ones I assumed would be deemed most worthy of validation. I thought I was taking myself out of the equation, putting my future in the hands of something like fate. If I wasn’t really making the choice, then I couldn’t be responsible for any eventual unhappiness with the decision.

And what happens later, when you’re grown up, and you’re still unsure? Six years later, as New Horizons approaches the Kuiper Belt, I sit before my boss, bracing myself for ridicule as I announce that I will leave my comfortable, reliable work in public policy to pursue creative writing. Later, over the phone, an ex asks me if my undergraduate degree really had been worth the money if I am pivoting so drastically. I find myself crying at this questioning, my confidence shattering under the pressure to be one clearly defined and palatable thing.

It is only later, on a call with one of the women I love, that I feel whole again. When she tells me my choices make sense, when she validates for me that I can, indeed, be writer, dancer, student, teacher—that I don’t have to choose, that every option can exist, that I should switch back and forth between my passions so long as I truly want to. That I make more sense to her with this decision, not narrowing who I am at all, but expanding it.

Was that a lie? Is this the underlying anxiety—that we have the ability to dream but fear that making the choice to be one thing destroys all other options? Is this why we need to believe our lives are fated? Because we need to believe, when we fail, that we were in fact never meant to be that person we tried to inhabit? It’s easier to let go of what could have been if we believe the constellations of who we are supposed to become have already been charted.

***

In the process of choosing the next bundle, I relearn to describe myself. This time, I try not to make myself so streamlined, palatable. But how can you answer the questions of your past that have already fallen to the wayside? Am I a violinist even if I haven’t picked up the instrument in three months? In six? Am I a writer even if I do not write each day? There are things I want to say I am, but I am uncertain of the truth. What lives on within me? Where is the line between is and was?

I read poetry by Solmaz Sharif and grow fascinated with the aorist verb tense. Is-was. The default, the indefinite. Her description is better than any dictionary’s that I find:

To know, for example, that in Farsi the present perfect is called the relational past, and is used at times to describe a historic event whose effect is still relevant today, transcending the past

To say, for example, Shah dictator bude-ast translates to The Shah was a dictator, but more literally to The Shah is was a dictator

To have a tense of is-was, the residue of it over the clear bulb of your eyes

This tense envelops my mind like vines. I see it everywhere—in sacred text over and again, the Mahābhārata now a story outside of time. I see it in my mother, who is-was a girl who dreamt of flying around the world and is-was, also, my mother, a housewife, a homemaker who crafted most of her existence around her family. 

When my mother turned 50, she examined the bundle that she had been given. She questioned it for what might have been the first time in her life; months later, she was flying around the hemisphere, a newly minted flight attendant. Somewhere in her, her fourteen-year-old self was living on, experiencing the realization of a long-ago dream. For forty years, my mother had only ever known what had been pre-mapped: the move across continents, the job and house and kids. Here was a detour she did not know she could take until she did, a jump over to an adjacent constellation.

I am fascinated with the girl my mother was before I knew her, and how that girl became the same woman who bore me. To understand her fully, I have to rid myself of the idea that she was ever purely my mother. I think of how lucky I am that I get to know her fuller self because she decided to uproot her bundle and replant elsewhere. I think of what has been destroyed: our family’s former sense of normalcy; my understanding of my parents as pure, god-like beings; my ability to predict where our lives will lead. There is no longer a need to determine the weight of past or present relevance; my mother can be—now and before—exactly who she is. So, too, can I.

I read about the things that we humans have destroyed. The Dead Sea is slowly depleted, an alien landscape appearing in its stead. During a government shutdown, Joshua Tree National Park is filled with trash, the trees themselves severed in strange acts of vandalism. Mauna Kea—the site of Luu and Jewitt’s first Kuiper Belt observation—is itself a sacred space to native Hawai’ians, a remote mountain further desecrated with the construction of each new astronomy facility. And yet, all of these places still are, even as they suffer from and are essentially changed by human mismanagement.

If this is what happens here, then what of our galaxy? I wonder about the things we never get to see in the present tense—the things that take light years to arrive at earth—and find solace in the aorist. A star is-was in the sky. A planet is-was orbiting the sun. The Kuiper Belt is-was undisturbed.

Fatimah Asghar writes of experiences untethered to time in her poem “Kul,” focusing on the titular word for both yesterday and tomorrow. One stanza reads:

Tomorrow means I might have her forever.

Yesterday means I say goodbye, again.

Kul means they are the same.

I think of the choices I made at seventeen, the slow narrowing of choices throughout our entire lives. I wonder if that girl is still somewhere inside me. I find comfort in the idea that each choice—each context, each life—might exist eternally, untethered to time. Even now, when I close my eyes to meditate, I return to that singular moment when I chose to be in the hills of Nuwara Eliya, the cramp in my neck and cold breeze on my cheeks, and I feel a sense of divine order.

***

On New Year’s Eve, in the last hours of 2018, New Horizons speeds past a small object inside the Kuiper Belt called Ultima Thule. Everything goes exactly as planned, though it takes nearly seven hours for information from the probe to travel at the speed of light to mission leaders at NASA.

What will change, now that we know something exists in that deep and dark expanse? New knowledge rarely changes our understanding of the things we think we know best. Even as Saturn’s rings rain down upon it, I only see the planet with its beloved bronze discs cutting across its center, an image frozen in time.

I wonder, for the ones who know me best, which version of me they see after all this time. Am I for them like my mother is to me, both new and familiar, someone more fully herself? In long friendships, memories blend together. The women I love are then and now and once and will be. I look to the stars and wonder how old they are, wonder how long ago they were, but the fates of those stars don’t matter. For now, it is enough that they are.

 

[1] Davies, J. (2001). Beyond Pluto: Exploring the Outer Limits of the Solar System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511536090

[2] Anjana Ahuja, “A New Year’s space voyage to the end of the world,” Financial Times, December 30, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

 

Asha Thanki is a writer and dancer based in Minneapolis with roots in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in Platypus Press’ wildness, Catapult, The Nashville Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Spectacle, and Hyphen. She also edits for the Baltimore Review.

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