Sunday, July 20, 2014

Awe and Wonder

There are certain days where everybody remembers precisely where they were and what they were doing. Dates like December 7, 1941, 9/11 and the dates heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK were assassinated. I remember the Sunday morning when Mt. St. Helens erupted and half the sky turned black as coal while the remainder was a brilliant, cloudless blue. I remember the sinking of the Andrea Doria, even though I was just a child. There were others, like the abortive attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran that happened just before my birthday one year or the famous low-speed chase featuring a cast of what seemed like dozens of police cars and one white vehicle carrying an allegedly suicidal OJ Simpson. Each one brings up memories of where and what and also how it felt, or how I did, anyway.

It's funny but it's so easy to remember tragedies. Oh, it's extremely simple to remember the day I got married or the day my son was born, but on the whole, I notice that most days and events that I remember are personally tragic or that affected millions who had no direct connection to the people most involved but who had some sort of strong reaction to the event. And then there was July 20, 1969.

It's been 45 years, but part of that day is engraved on my memory. My new husband and I were visiting my family at home, a sort of saying goodbye because we were moving west, me to LA to stay with his parents and him to a tour in Vietnam. That afternoon we were visiting an elderly cousin, my beloved Aunt Mabel, who, contrary to the practice of turning off the television when company arrived, kept the set on because something momentous was going to happen and she didn't want to miss it. Neither did we, truth be told. So we visited with one eye on each other, one on the screen until...

It happened. Down a spindly ladder came one large, booted foot and then another, slowly taking step after step. We saw the shape of a space-suited man emerge from the edge of the screen and, in one heart-catching moment, place one booted foot on the surface of another world, a seemingly empty, dusty, rocky place with a black sky for a background and a monotone gray-brown for a foreground. We continued to watch and I remember turning away from the screen to see Aunt Mabel's rapt face, totally involved, totally amazed, and with wide blue eyes full of wonder. It's a memory I will keep forever.

Think of it, being born in a time when cars were so scarce as to be almost non-existent in some places, like where Aunt Mabel grew up. People still got around mostly in wagons or on horseback, or they walked where they needed to go, like church. She'd watched many things over the course of her many years, even made a bit of history of her own by leading the effort to rebuild Patrick Henry's last home and law office  which had fallen into ruin. Seeing her reaction to a man landing on another planet, even a planet as close and familiar as our moon, was like nothing else except the memory of the face of a small child looking in a toy store window around Christmastime. Kids don't look that way now, but they used to, and that's just how Aunt Mabel's face was, full of awe, wonder, joy and amazement.

When we finally could tear ourselves away from the television we had a nice visit but I don't remember any of the conversation or much else about it. I don't even remember my own reaction to what I'd seen. While I wasn't used to people landing on other worlds, I grew up in a different time than she, and while it was exciting and inspiring, it was another event in a world that had become increasingly complex and confusing. Now I look at a tablet computer and remember when the Dick Tracy comics featured a wrist radio that seemed as alien to us as --- well, I don't know what today's kids would consider unthinkable. Or do they think anything is unthinkable? I really wonder what, when they have reached their 50s, 60s or 70s, will they look back on and say "I never thought I'd live to see the day when..."

We remember a few joyous events when we look back on our lives but we remember the tragedies and the destructive events. Maybe we should look for more of the joyous ones, the celebrations of achievement whether ours or someone else's. Maybe we need to work a little harder so there are more of those awe-filled moments to remember. Would we feel that way if we learned that poverty, hunger, plague, Alzheimer's and cancer had been eradicated and that as of a certain day and time, the world was no longer a home to one or all of them?

When I was growing up we never thought of space travel as a reality but, while it is still not common, it is almost routine. I wonder -- what will become routine if not common in the future. We have a lot of problems in this world to overcome, so I'm wondering what we will consider important enough to focus on and actually do something about. Or will we just continue to think of them as someone else's problems to solve while we sit at home and watch people on the other side of the world set world records or protest some inequality--or maybe land on Mars?

I guess it's up to us to make our own awe and wonder and memories.

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