THE THREAD | Telescope days
A few weeks ago I called for my three kids to come join me on the couch. We clustered together around my laptop just as the NASA scientists began their live coverage to unveil the first images sent back to Earth from the James Webb space telescope. One of the scientists referred to the telescope as a time machine, and I knew right then that I was in trouble. I struggle enough to comprehend the cosmos, and I already knew that this new telescope is able to see so far into the depths of the universe that we can observe light as it first existed billions of years ago. Sitting on the couch, I quietly prayed for my mind to expand enough to understand how such things work.
The first is an image showing hundreds of galaxies, all of them lit and scattered across the screen. All different colors, shapes, and sizes. “Each shape of light you see,” says a scientist, “is another galaxy with hundreds of stars and planets just like ours.” There is no empty space, the scientist points out. We used to think that so much around us was emptiness, but everywhere we look is now filled with new galaxies, stars, and planets. Everywhere we look now is dust, gas, life, light, movement.
The next scientist points out a cluster of young galaxies. “These galaxies,” she says, “appear as they first came into existence 10 billion years ago. See how they look like they just popped into existence, like popcorn?”
My five-year-old daughter is on my lap and begins laughing. “Popcorn!” she squeals. “They pop, like popcorn!” Over the past year she has learned how to pull the stool up to the counter and put a popcorn bag into the microwave. She stands there and listens to the sound of each kernel bursting into white puffs. She pulls out the bag, dumps it into a bowl, and then delicately holds up each popped corn kernel one at a time before placing it on her tongue. “Pop!” she laughs. A galaxy of laughter.
The next scientist explains how the telescope sees back in time. I strain to understand and I am not alone. My sons chime in, “But . . . how does that work?”
I swear I get the gist of it: Light takes a long time to travel across space, so the light arriving at the lens of the telescope is from events that happened long ago. We can now see more clearly what took place long before a seeing eye was even a remote possibility in the universe. Wild. We see it now as it appeared then, but only through tools that have existed mere decades. This is where my mind goes a bit numb. I am beginning to grasp things, but I also remember that I can’t know everything. I choose faith that what I see is profoundly worthy of my attention and devotion in this moment, comprehension be damned.
And anyway, I am desperate to see the past with a better perspective.
Three days ago my family was in the minivan for a 14 hour drive back home from vacation on the Greenbrier River in West Virginia. We were tired and cranky and gas was expensive and our bellies were full of fast food and each of us just wanted desperately to be left alone, which was impossible for at least another four hours. We just had to get through the entire state of Missouri, border to border, and nothing will sour the mood in a moving vehicle like driving through St. Louis, Missouri.
That’s when another argument broke out, but this time in the front seat between the two people who were supposed to keep things together and somehow be in charge within the high-speed rocket of this maroon Honda Odyssey.
There’s a way of looking back at the argument, as if it were just one image revealing every word, gesture, and heavy sigh, all held within a large collected cluster of anger and misunderstanding. It appears that way in my memory: just one disastrous disorderly mess of words and feelings and looks.
But I can also imagine how each of our utterances occurred in a moving vehicle along a highway over the course of 30 minutes. I imagine that each word or phase we spoke was somehow caught and held at the precise location where it was uttered, suspended in space along the highway, like a word bubble above the pavement. I imagine I can swivel my position from looking backwards only at the disorderly cluster, and instead view it from a side angle, so that the highway and our words are stretched out along a line in front of me.
It was near the St. Peters, Missouri exit where she said, “I was just trying to have a conversation, but I feel like you don’t . . .”
And it was at the bridge crossing Camp Branch River where I sighed heavily and said, “Forget it, just forget . . .”
I can see now the progression. I can see. If I can only remember the details of it: How one harsh word begat the next, how one misread cue paved the way for a long road of misunderstanding. There’s much to regret in moments like that, especially when there are three children witnessing careless words hurled at the person you love the most. You hope that they might hang on and see further down that line, as the words progress and become calmer. You hope they see further back in time, to the good memories where more breathing and silence and apologies and peace occur. A slowing down to allow room for thinking before speaking, for breathing before thinking, for heartbeat before breathing.
It’s hard to know which angle is best. Hard to know which perspective to take. Hard to know if there’s a bigger picture, or just a chain of events, or cause and effect, or just a cluster of disorder. Hard to know if, from a certain angle and with enough time and distance, there might even be something redeeming or beautiful.
If I could see back before the argument began, I might remember the song we were listening to, the harmony we sang together in the same front seat just hours before. I might remember our daughter hollering for us all to look out the window at the cows and chickens. I might remember the moment over lunch asking each person about their favorite memory of the trip, and all of us answering some variation of, “Just floating down a river together.”
The next scientist stands before the image of hundreds of young galaxies and says, “Einstein was right about the warping of space and time. The gravity of these clusters is distorting and warping our view of what lies behind.”
It’s hard to see straight.
Eye strain. I strain. I can’t even comprehend the person two feet away. Yet everywhere we look is now filled with new galaxies, stars, and planets. Everywhere we now look is dust, gas, life, light, movement. Everywhere we look, another chance to recall, to see: we are floating down a river together.