Harlan posed a hypothetical question to me the other night.
If I could, would I get on a spaceship with him and spend the rest of our lives exploring space, visiting all the other planets, finding out what’s out there? We would leave earth forever, say goodbye to family and friends, but we would have each other and we would get to see space! We would uncover the mystery of what’s out there! We would feel the heels of our boots touch the surface of Venus and Mars!
“No,” I said. “No way.”
Immediately. No thought necessary.
“Why not?” Harlan asked.
“Well, I couldn’t leave Aidan,” was my first response.
“Yeah, that would be tough,” he said. “Okay, Aidan comes with us.”
“Still,” I said, “no.” I could never leave earth and its pleasures, I told him.
“Well, sure,” he said. “We would miss people, our family and friends, but I feel like as long as I had a long goodbye with my parents… They would understand. We would be exploring the universe.”
For me, it wasn’t just the people. It was everything else earth offers us, too. I’d want to eat chocolate. I’d want to do yoga.
“You could eat chocolate! You could do yoga!” he said. “Right there in the ship!”
That wasn’t what I meant, exactly. I have to be able to do all the things I do here: the good, the bad and the mundane. I want to spend my life eating chocolate and doing yoga, but also running errands, riding a bike, baking cupcakes, taking naps on Saturday afternoons. I want to talk to my friends on the phone. I want to swim in the ocean. I want to watch Aidan sleep at night, which I guess I could do on a spaceship, but I also want to watch him go down the slide at the playground.
It’s even more important that Aidan get to do these things. I’ve spent 40 years swimming and reading and feeling chocolate pudding melt in my mouth, but what about Aidan? He needs to play soccer and watch Star Wars and run around and around and around the playground with some kid chasing him. When he gets older, he needs to learn to surf and eat sushi and ride a rollercoaster and have his heart broken by a shy girl with blue eyes and no good reason. Some day he’ll climb a mountain and play the electric guitar and read Ulysses. Or he’ll go to med school or write a sci fi novel or have kids of his own.
I want my baby to get to experience all of what earth has to offer. That’s why I could never take him away on a spaceship. Even if the adventures he had there were cooler than anything I could imagine doing on earth, he’d have no one to share them with but Harlan and me and that wouldn’t be fair.
Plus, Harlan is obsessed with space. The other day he told me he thinks about it all the time. It makes him feel both insignificant (for obvious reasons) and incredibly special, because we live on the only planet known to have conscious life forms, and how insane to think about the chain of scientific events—flukes, really—that had to happen to let us live and breath and think in even the simplest fashion, let alone the complex, sophisticated ways we have learned to live and breathe and think.
I love that Harlan thinks about those things. I love that they leave him in awe. But when he was telling me this, I was making Aidan’s lunch and, frankly, I was just as interested in spreading peanut butter on bread as I was in what he was saying. I was just as interested in spreading just the right amount of cherry jam over the peanut butter and licking the delicious excess off the blunt knife.
Maybe there is no one thing I am as passionate about as Harlan is about understanding the universe and its mysteries, well, besides Aidan. After my sweet-faced boy and the rest of my family, the things I love most are writing, reading, watching movies, lying on the beach in the sun, diving into the waves when it gets too hot, shooting the shit with my girlfriends while drinking margaritas or red wine. But I would go stir-crazy if I spent the rest of my days doing any one of those activities. What I treasure is life’s variety, its unpredictability, its habit of going from crappy to magnificent in a flash.
I want to be able to kick a pine cone down the sidewalk until it hits a bump in the concrete and flies suddenly and cockeyed into the street. I want to be making my way to the library and, feeling a sudden urge for chai tea, go to a coffee shop instead. I want to watch the wind making the yellow leaves of the trees around me flutter and feel it chilling my nose as my paper cup warms, almost burning, my palms. I want to blast the radio and sing at the top of my lungs when a great song—Beat Surrender or Young Americans or I Am the Walrus—comes on. I want to be so full of love for my son that it almost chokes me one moment, and the next screaming, “I’m DONE” and meaning it when he’s supposed to be in bed but instead running around the house, throwing things and laughing like a madman.
I would like to see Mars close up if I could call my sister afterwards and tell her about it. I’d like to visit Venus if I could come home afterwards to slide into slippers and tuck my son into his bed, watch an episode of Breaking Bad and curl up under my dumb comforter with the feathers that always bunch up down by my feet. Maybe it’s sacrilegious to say, but the next day, as mindblowing as it would be to explore the stars, I might prefer waking up late and going for a hike in the woods or spending an hour on the elliptical machine at the gym watching A Fish Called Wanda. Not because those things are so great, but because they are the small things that make my life mine—and because you never know what might happen along the way.
In my life on earth, I treasure both the familiar and the sublime—and the way the familiar sometimes ends up transforming into the sublime. Hearing my son giggle as I run a warm washcloth over his small feet every night is as wondrous for me as gazing up at the millions of stars in the black sky and wondering what other worlds exist out there.