space

The Passenger Thinks Aloud

A couple weeks ago, I flew to Portland from Nashville by way of Chicago. I went for work, and now I’m back. I apologize for the lack of Beard updates, but between my cross-country shenanigans and Logan’s fatherhood which is actually a thing that can legitimately take up your time, we just haven’t been able to make it work. But we’ll get back on schedule somehow, mostly because we’re proud of the site. We’re happy with what we put out there most of the time, and we’re especially happy when it makes someone else happy. Or reflective. Or less stupid. Any impact will do.

I knew the flight would be long, so before leaving I stocked up on several podcast episodes, both backlog eps from my favorites and a few new shows I’d been meaning to try. I’d heard great things about Song Exploder, so I found a few episodes I knew I’d like based on the artist featured and downloaded en masse.

I got through a few before arriving at the Long Winters’ John Roderick talking about the song “The Commander Thinks Aloud.” I rested my head on the stiff cushion and listened to John, which I do regularly on his podcast with Merlin Mann, “Roderick on the Line.” It’s hilarious, and smart, and all the things two people talking to each other should be. Logan and I should take notes.

I listened to John talk about the song, both from a technical perspective and from an emotional one. He described what went into recording the instruments and what philosophy guided the lyrics. The song is about the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, in which a crew of seven were killed upon reentry as their shuttle disintegrated. In the interview, John reveals that what the commander is thinking aloud is (and I paraphrase) that all he wanted was to bring back a message. A message that says, “I saw the everyday minutia—boys and girls in cars, dogs and birds on lawns—and from up there, up in space, it was simple. It was borderless. Up in space, we humans were doing our best work. We were taking it all in and understanding what matters. And I wanted to tell you that.”

But he didn’t get to. There was a problem. The astronauts knew something was wrong, but not to what extent. That’s because NASA knew to what extent, but wouldn't tell them as they believed the crew couldn’t risk the fix. So they all had to hope for the best. And upon reentry, the ship burned up and splintered apart, killing all aboard. And the message was lost until John sung it to us.

Song Exploder ends the episode by playing the song you just heard about. By this point, I had lifted my head forward to gaze out the airplane window. Stretching for miles I saw an undisturbed, thick blanket of clouds save three giant scars upon its surface. Mounts Hood, St. Helens, and Rainier rose up to remind me of the earth below. They challenged my moment of forgetting where I was, my desire to imagine that I was disconnected from life on the ground. John began to sing in my ear, over and over, “The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up.” I realized I was crying steadily, for the joy of the borderless miles, for the death of the crew years ago, for the people down below who I loved or knew or did not know, for the minutia of my own life. I wanted to tell anyone, everyone, how perfect the snowy peaks and blue sky and marshmallow clouds were, way up here. That’s all I wanted to bring home to you.

31

I turn 31 next week. It’s fine. It wasn’t fine last year. 30 was a milestone I felt completely unprepared to reach, one which pitted me against my self-doubt and unsteady outlook on the future. I was in the midst of a divorce, which didn’t help matters much. I was already struggling with the idea that I’d accomplished very little, while others my age were set in careers or thriving in their hobbies or starting families. Meanwhile, my life was being rearranged and I didn’t feel like I had tangible things to offer the world in exchange for a safety line. I, in my mind, had very little to show for the 30 years I’d been walking around, taking up air and space on sidewalks.

Turning 30 was hard.

31 isn’t shaping up to be troublesome. Rather, it feels insignificant but also exciting. And what’s odd, it feels exciting in the face of its obscurity. I read an article today giving more details about how exactly the six-mile-wide asteroid crashing into the earth killed the dinosaurs. The intricacies of the ripple-effect were fascinating, but they gave me pause. “Wow,” I remembered, “I am quite small.” I am one among seven billion, all of whom would have likely never evolved had a big rock not hit a bigger rock floating in a vacuum filled with trillions upon trillions of rocks and gases and wondrous pockets of absolute emptiness. I am less than a grain of sand upon the biggest beach I can imagine.

And I’m happy.

I’m surrounded by goodness in the midst of my life which hasn’t, for the majority of it, felt all that meaningful. And maybe it’s not. But I’m meaningful to a small group of lovely people—a partner and friends and family and the best dog, yes, better than your dog, I know I know, you don’t believe me but this really isn’t a competition so don’t take it personally—and that makes a life. We are wonderfully made in our relationships.

So while I’m not making the difference I imagined I would be in the world, and I’m not where I thought I’d be had you asked me a decade ago, I’m exactly where, and who, I should be: a flawed person, important to some, dedicated to making the most out of the short time I’ve been given. With my few gifts and talents, I can make my relatively insignificant mark on the world around me, drawing a small doodle that may not last beyond my lifetime. But it will be significant to those I so dearly wish would see it that way. They love me, and I love them. It took 31 years, but I finally learned something worth knowing.