The meaning of a dot

Clouds


At a photography club meeting last Saturday, a friend showed a dark, unusual image at the end of a presentation. I squinted at the screen, wondering what he could possibly be showing us, as Jeff asked the group if we recognized the photo. A few people did.

It’s Earth, he explained — our home. A “Pale Blue Dot” in the vastness of space. And then he read aloud a passage from astronomer Carl Sagan. It was one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever heard.

We talk about more than photos at our montly gatherings — though the subject is certainly steeped in photography. Pale Blue Dot is a picture of Earth taken from 3.7 billion miles away. Captured in 1990, you may have heard of it — but I’ll confess I never had. (This upsets my scientist fiance, I’m sure.) In the days since Jeff showed us Pale Blue Dot, it’s been ricocheting around in my mind . . . as has Sagan’s passage from the book of the same name:


PaleBlueDot

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”


Home. Our little sliver of the universe.

Sometimes thoughts are too big to begin to contain them. This is probably one. But as someone always prone to asking too many Big Questions, it’s gotten me thinking — and thinking — and I felt it worth sharing.

Even on the bad days, even on the tragic days, even on the scary days . . . I’m glad we’re all here. Together.


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‘Home Alone’ wisdom: Or why you should go ahead and use those crayons. Or wear the Rollerblades.


Of all the seasonal movies I remember loving as a kid, “Home Alone” — and its awesome successor, “Home Alone 2: Lost In New York” — stand above all the others. Though I’ve always considered myself a weird, too-philosophical-for-my-own-good sort of kid, “Home Alone 2” really helped solidify my role as an obsessive thinker.

I’ve heard some wise things in my day. Beyond the customary books that topple over with their enlightened principles, religious overtones and inspirational advice, I’ve formed my own mantras for getting through the day with (most of) my sanity intact. My favorite is “Be Here Now,” a thought expressed on a print I recently bought and plan to hang in my room.

No philosophical uttering has impacted me more than the thoughts of one Kevin McCallister, though. The warm words he exchanged with a bird lady in the rafters of a symphony in New York City have never left me. Lost and away from his family over Christmas, Kevin is shuttling around the Big Apple blowing his dad’s cash on private ice cream bars and plotting the downfall of two bumbling crooks still smarting from having been outwitted by the little guy the previous year.

When he’s not craftily getting out of crazy situations, Kevin is befriending random folks — and is totally wise beyond his years. Any 10-year-old able to check into the Plaza Hotel and keep up the charade for days isn’t your average dummy.

So I shouldn’t be shocked when Kevin teaches the brokenhearted woman one of the most important lessons of my young life.


Bird Lady: I’m just afraid if I do trust someone, I’ll get my heart broken.

Kevin: I understand. I had a nice pair of Rollerblades. I was afraid to wreck them, so I kept them in a box. Do you know what happened? I outgrew them. I never wore them outside. Only in my room a few times.

Bird Lady: A person’s heart and feelings are very different than skates.

Kevin: They’re kind of the same thing. If you won’t use your heart, who cares if it gets broken? If you just keep it to yourself, maybe it’ll be like my Rollerblades. When you do decide to try it, it won’t be any good. You should take a chance. Got nothing to lose.


I spend a good deal of time sifting through options until I reach just the right conclusion. Sometimes I’m so afraid of making a wrong decision that I do nothing — itself a choice. I try to be practiced and careful. Measured. An example of careful planning.

But that can be exhausting.

When I was 10 myself, I got an art set for my birthday. At least, I think it was my birthday — I’m not even sure anymore. We’ve gone through our childhood belongings countless times, donating to charity what we no longer want or need, but somehow this set has survived every purge.

Opening it for the first time and gazing in at the neat rows of colored pencils, pastels and crayons, I was euphoric. The possibilities! I thought. The beautiful possibilities! I was so enamored with this set that I never wanted to use it, and I certainly wouldn’t share it with my little sister. She just didn’t have any respect for my belongings, you know? (Younger siblings rarely do.)

When I wanted to color or design an art poster, I reached for my well-worn boxes of Crayola Crayons rather than the gorgeous, clean kit at my elbow. The colored pencils stayed sharp. The Crayons were unbroken and pristine in their packaging. Water never struck the watercolors, and no page was ever adorned in acrylic smears.

Everything was new, clean. Perfect and unchanged.

Years went by. I stopped coloring. Though I often talk about how I can’t wait to have kids so I can do stuff like draw again, guilt-free, it’s all a very long way off.

I think of coloring and I smile: I mean, who can dislike the electricity of changing a black-and-white image to Technicolor? It’s like owning the first color television on the block. Discovering Lucille Ball is a redhead. Following Dorothy as she swirls from Kansas and lands in effervescent Oz.

And then I thought, Why am I delaying my happiness? Why am I denying myself the free, innocent fun of something like coloring? Who cares if I’m 26. If I’m an uncoordinated artist with no talent for art. If I’m awful at staying in the lines and developing color schemes.

I wanted to color.



Katie found my art set, tucked inside a neat shelf in my mother’s crafting room. I’d purchased a set of color-your-own postcards on a whim this month and wanted to work on my project while watching “Christmas Vacation.” My fingers were itching to color, to blend hues and textures, and my sister slipped me a grin when handing me the set. “Well, you could always use this,” she said.

I opened it again — 10, 15 years later. The markers, usually the first to fade and wither, were my first target. I dotted the back of my left hand with purple circles, testing to see if they would still work. They’re all still capped. The markers mark. The pencils and crayons are still sharp, the ruler still nestled tight in its bed.

My set is clean and orderly. Planned. And though my instinct was to keep them just so, I swallowed it down. I fought it.

Why shouldn’t I wear my Rollerblades outside?

Why shouldn’t I press every Crayon down to its oily beginnings?



I colored one postcard, then another. Then I found a Christmas coloring book and drew in that, too. I pushed hard on the pencils, dulling them, and sketched long lines across blank sheets of paper. I mussed them up. I used them. I used them in a way I would never allow my measured, careful 10-year-old self to use anything.

It felt so good.

It’s almost Christmas and I’m tired, stressed, a little worried. Sometimes so much seems beyond my control — hard to explain, hard to process. Like everyone, I have the slivers of fears that wake me up at 5 a.m., tossing and staring at the shadows on my ceiling.

But I know one thing, something stronger than I’ve ever known: I don’t want to be the type of person who only wears her Rollerblades in the cushy comfort of her childhood bedroom. I don’t want to unearth an art set in two decades to discover I never created any art at all.

Use the crayons. Ride the bike. Take the trip. Eat the expensive chocolate. Drink the fine wine.

Enjoy your life.

“Embrace the bonfire,” a classmate wrote in my high school yearbook, “without fear of being burned.”

And that is all I want to do.