Eons of Lifelessness

Some nights, when I’m taking out the trash and the lunar light beams through an empty sky so brightly it casts my shadow on the lawn, I admire the moon’s gloomy surface as if for the first time. That ancient wonder. I am not surprised that this heavenly body has inspired veneration since the dawn of worshipers. 

As I study again the familiar pattern of craters another thought recurs that threatens to paralyze my mind with awe: we have walked upon that lonely surface.

What was it like, not just to rattle through the stratosphere hoping your vessel will hold up, not just to watch the firmament blacken as if the whole earth was fainting, not just to watch out the window as the only home you and every creature in this corner of the universe has ever known shrinks into a marble and drifts spaceward, not just to witness that silent host approaching and expanding until it fills the window, not just to embrace the vertigo and reorient to a new up and down, not just to hope your module doesn’t smash into the surface and kill you after coming this close, but to finally open the latch, descend the ladder, and push the bottom of your boot into the powder?

Was it like sand? Powdered sugar? Something in between? Buzz Aldrin said it was “fine, talcum-powderlike dust.” 

What did it feel like to step forward, like a child on a yard of untouched snow, and to trespass a surface undisturbed by humans for all eternity? Would you have felt like a guest? This isn’t your home, but whose is it? You can’t be a guest to no one.

Aldrin, in the same interview, says, “I think the visual scene was described by my words on first landing—‘magnificent desolation.’ Magnificent for the achievement of being there, and desolate for the eons of lifelessness.”

Eons of lifelessness. 

I’ve seen oceans, the Grand Canyon, the stars in the wilderness, and I’ve felt the awe that renders you useless for all else but gazing. How long must this feeling have clung to those astronauts, and how difficult was it for them to remember they had come to work and not to worship? “Mission” was the right word, insinuating the ambition of modern man and the reverence of pilgrims.

Imagine tracing over the monochrome horizon with your eyes and telling yourself this isn’t a dream. Imagine the silence. Nothing you do makes a sound in the vacuum. You know the science, you expect nothing, but still you glance up from your work now and again to make sure what you just heard was radio static and not a warning from the haunted farside.

As you romp around the surface collecting samples and snapping photos you see pebbles and rocks and boulders, hills and valleys hewn of violence—furious meteorites that barreled in from who-knows-where, set in motion by who-knows-what. Asteroids from the belt, of course. Still the mystery nags at you. You wonder: how long did they travel before they arrived? Is one coming now, even just the size of a grain of sand, and will it ram through my helmet at 160,000 miles per hour with no forewarning? Unlikely, but who’s to say it couldn’t happen? If this place is anything like home, it’s possible for it be friendly, cruel, and random all in the same moment—friendly enough to welcome you here safely; cruel enough to execute you with a bullet from an impersonal space sniper; random enough to have squeezed the trigger by a collision of asteroids at the far end of the galaxy a thousand years before you were born.

You look over your shoulder into the eternal midnight thinking you might see your destiny before it arrives. Then you remember there’s no atmosphere and there would be no friction or streak of light as it raged toward you. Only a dazzling and silent explosion as it made impact and killed, cremated, and buried you in the same nanosecond.

Back to work. You scoop up basalts to bring back home, the remnants of long-dead volcanoes. As you look across the surface you consider the ugly rubble at which every human has, at some point, directed their gaze. How many eyes have looked upon this dreary rock and hung their hopes and disappointments upon it? How can it be that a thing so common to all of humanity has been touched by only you? For all of the things the human race keeps from each other, this is one thing they have always shared and always will. And here you are, walking upon it, touching it, learning it like a child learns a shoreline.

How can it be that at one time you were a child, comforted only by the embrace of your mother, dependent upon her for every part of survival, and now you stand upon the moon! How can it be that you were the chosen child of a million generations? Billions of hours of scientific pondering, experimenting, revising, and discovering all rest upon your feeble shoulders. How could it be you?

When the shuttle has landed back on the carbon planet and the first interviews are over and you’re back in your house lying in your bed, you look through your window at the celestial light and have a thought you can’t shake:

Was that real?

Do you know it any better now than you did before?

You realize that while you have seen something no one else has seen, you’re not any closer to comprehending it all. You are like a child who, after seeing the ocean only in pictures and going to one beach on one day and feeling the waters of the Pacific around his ankles, clutches seashells and hangs his drowsy head as Dad drives home.

The moon stares back at you through the window, throwing the sun’s reflected rays upon your face, hushing you like a child to sleep.


See also:

  1. Buzz Aldrin interview.
  2. Project Apollo Archive. – The source of all photos in this post. High-resolution Apollo imagery scanned by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, available to the public domain.
  3. NASA’s Asteroid Fast Facts.

$10,000 Every Day

Imagine that every day you wake up with $10,000 in your hand, and from the moment you awake, the dollars disappear at an unchanging pace. You know that at the end of the day they will be gone—all of them. You can’t spend any more, but you also can’t save a single penny. Everywhere you go, no matter what you’re doing, the bills fall from your hand. They are magic bills, they vanish when they drop.

Every day of your life, you have awoken with another $10,000 in your hand and not a single dollar left from yesterday. Yet, as miraculous as this is, because it has happened so frequently, and because every other person in the world has the same experience, you start taking it for granted. Some days, you watch the entire stack of bills disappear into your phone screen, or into your bed, or into your pantry, and it honestly feels pretty good. Other days you spend a little on friends that don’t really care about you and more still on amusement that could have been free.

One day, without warning, someone you love spends their last dollar, and though you knew this happens to everyone at some point, you didn’t feel it until you saw it happen nearby. Then a thought arrests your attention: what is my remaining balance?

You scramble for an answer. 

Google: “how many dollars does the average person have”

Results: $273,750,000

A half-relief assuages your anxiety just enough for you to sleep at night, and with sleeping and waking and the continual replenishing of the $10,000, you slip back into a fog and dream once again that your money is infinite.

Years go by. Suddenly there’s an area of work or study that begins to demand a portion of your cash, but you’re happy to give it. A little later, you meet someone, and they demand their share too. Then comes a child, and you watch as the biggest portion of daily bills yet begin to fall on that kid’s head. 

By this point you’ve come to see something upsetting. Not everyone has the $200 billion Google mentioned. Your soul rattles under the realization that no one can actually know their balance, and that there have been many days when you spent every dollar recklessly, and though you couldn’t have known it then, you now have things you want to buy, things you wish you had bought already—expensive things that will require every remaining free dollar. A quiet frenzy takes over your mind.

You know you need a budget, so you make one and plan to watch it relentlessly but before the day is over you’ve deviated. You’ve heard there are ways to potentially increase your balance, like eating healthy foods and exercising consistently, so you set out to build the habits but they only last a month. Discouraged, and wanting a little daily therapy, you pour huge portions of your dollars into social media, Netflix, house projects, and friendships that make you worse.

Before you know it the kids are out of the house, the career is over, and you’re unable to do the things you once dreamed of doing. So you sit and watch the last bills drain from your hand, and you wonder when the glorious day will come that your balance finally runs out.

***

We wouldn’t treat money this way, so why do we do it with something infinitely more valuable? There is no “free” time. There is only time spent with purpose and time wasted.

It’s not a waste to do nothing if you’re doing nothing on purpose. On the other hand, some “productive” things are dressed up distractions.

Spend on purpose. You’ll never know your true balance.

Bookstores Make Me Wonder What I’m Doing With My Life

Walking into a bookstore isn’t simple for me. It’s therapy, and it’s my favorite kind of store, but it also raises existential questions, like:

How many books am I going to read before I die? 

I once asked an associate at Barnes & Noble how many unique titles were in our location. He said about 9,000. If I wanted to read every book in my local Barnes & Noble, and if I live 70 more years, that would equate to 128 books per year. More than ten per month.

What if I only live to be 85? That would require a pace of 163 books per year. It’s already clear. I’ll never read the amount of books in a single store.

My realistic pace is much slower. I’ve read more books this year than ever before, averaging 3 per month. This would put me at a humble 1,980 books when I’m 85.

Standing in the Barnes and realizing that I will only be able to read a quarter of this amount of books in my life if I’m supremely diligent illustrates what I‘ll be able to do with my time, or more painfully, what I won’t.

Not all of those 9,000 unique titles interesting or even good, but some of them are time-tested art which millions of people have found insightful on the human experience.

If all but the good stuff was thrown out, leaving a purified book store of only the best works, this still doesn’t solve all my problems. This is just one bookstore! How many other books are in this world that would illuminate my understanding and leave me speechless? There are words on a page in a book right now that would shift the course of my life, and I will never read them.

I mourn this. I’m greedy for knowledge. I want it all. 

Then I calm down and start to wonder something else.

Which books will I end up reading? 

How can I possibly determine which ones to put on my tiny list? Fortunately, people have been thinking about this for a long time and making lists. But which list?

The Art of Manliness has a good one. They also have a series of posts on the Libraries of Famous Men, like Theodore Roosevelt. A writer on Medium, Joel Patrick, pulled reading lists from the Harvard Book Store, Amazon, the Art of Manliess list above, and 5 other great sources, and hired a virtual assistant to comb through them and find the overlapping books. You can check out his ultimate, refined list here. I’m currently trying to follow this list, but I keep getting distracted with books that are more interesting in the moment.

When I’m standing in the bookstore there’s the thought that towers above them all:

How much work is represented in this room? 

A bookshelf is a skyline. The stacks of books are just as quiet as the view of Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn. For all we know, some of the chapters in those books took as long to write as a floor of a skyscraper took to build. Behind every book is the sweat and blood of an author who showed up to work every day for a long time, which is to say nothing of the life experiences that shaped them from their birth until they picked up their pen.

There the books sit, humbly holding all that knowledge, never shoving it in your face, only beckoning you to search it out. I love the silence of the bookstore, but in that silence I hear the diligent labor of the creators yelling at me and calling me to account.

What am I doing with my life? I grow impatient if a video edit (I create videos for a living) takes 30-40 hours. Do I have it in me to spend months or even years creating something that will for most people only be seen at a distance? Am I capable of the long push it takes to make something significant? Will I ever flip the switch from a habitual consumer to a habitual creator? Not if I waste my time.

Time is the most precious thing we have and we always say we’re trying to kill whatever excess parts of it we find. Giving an hour to a scrolling feed out of mere compulsion is tragic.

As I ponder how significant it is to create a book, how much toil and vision is poured into each one, a counterbalancing thought appears:

Most of these books will be forgotten. 

Some in a few months, some in a few years, some in a few decades. How many will last into the next millennium? Apart from a few best-sellers and classics, most of the books currently in the bookstore are new and by this time next year will have been replaced with more new releases.

Of course, the length of existence isn’t the only measure of meaning. If a book is beautiful, it’s significant. But time is a sieve of importance. Every year that goes by leaves a little less in the memory of the living.

There comes a point when you realize all those mental exercises about what you would do if you only had a year left to live aren’t sentimental. They’re painfully real. Someday we’ll be startled to see that the time we’ve wasted isn’t coming back.

I love bookstores, even if they overwhelm me.

Is Anybody Honest Anymore?

One of my life goals is to be ready at all times to look like a total idiot. I want it to be instinctive to say, “I have no idea what that is, can you explain it to me?” rather than to give the impression I know more than I do.

Isn’t it refreshing to be around people who ask you questions, who listen more than they talk, who aren’t afraid to admit ignorance? These are my favorite people in the world. 

The worst people in the world know it all, and they always make sure you know that they know it all. They would never let you suspect for a second they don’t know what they’re talking about. They would never look you in the eye with a face that says “I respect you and wonder what you have to teach me.” 

This is unfortunately not rare. The longer I live the more I wonder, where have all the honest people gone? Where are the people who are open and fascinated and curious and consumed with thinking about everything and everyone but themselves? 

You can’t find these people on demand, and when you find one, don’t let go. 

But you can be that kind of person, and it’s not as scary as it seems.

When you start admitting that you have no idea how most of the world works—that everything from the electoral college to cooking a good meal seems daunting and confusing—you begin opening up. When you’re open you can learn. When you’re open you’re accessible to people. And you need people, not only to explain things to you when they have the knowledge but to empathize with you when they don’t. They will be so relieved to realize that someone else feels the same way they do.

This breeds connection instead of competition. Everyone feels lighter. We both can breathe. 

Try it: put your ignorance out into the sunlight—paste it across the tallest billboard. Be the first person to say with no embarrassment, “I don’t know!”

All that influence and respect you were trying to get the old way just might fall into your lap.