Gardening on Mars

 From, no permission necessary, though I feel the need to clarify that there's no way in heck I took this photograph. 

From, no permission necessary, though I feel the need to clarify that there's no way in heck I took this photograph. 

Dear Sherah,

The other night Pete and I went to see The Martian. He's been talking about it for weeks, and I've always responded with a casual "sure, sounds fun" without giving it much thought. Honestly it wasn't until we were on our way to the CocoaPlex in Hershey (adorable, right?) that I started to get nervous. 

I hate outer space movies. 

I don't like what this says about me, but I would so much rather watch a movie about, say, a woman cooking every recipe from of The Art of French Cooking in her Brooklyn apartment than watch astronauts do, well, anything. Gazing at the night sky fills me with enough wonder and dread to keep my perspective perky; anything involving telescopes and mathematics freaks me out. We took Anders to the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. a couple weekends ago, and I suffered an existential crisis in the half-hour IMAX special about stars, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. Which is to say that a feature length film about an astronaut abandoned on Mars is not my cup of chai, even when the astronaut is Matt Damon. 

We settled into our seats as the previews started, and I plugged my ears and averted my eyes for all of the horror films and most of the apocalyptic dystopian ones. It's not that I can't handle watching teenagers rise to a challenge that requires training in a sprawling underground facility, because I can; it's just that I can't handle it right before I'm going to watch a movie that will likely show someone clinging to the outside of a spaceship, untethered. 

The previews ended, and I leaned over and whispered, "I can't believe you talked me into this. You know outer space terrifies me."

He paused a moment, then leaned back in. "You do know that we're hurtling sixty-seven thousand miles per hour around the sun on a planet in outer space right now, yes?" 

My jaw clenched and my eyes shot open. I turned back to the screen and inhaled.

Despite myself, I liked the film. Watching Matt Damon grow potatoes on Mars using human excrement and spare spacecraft parts inspired me to try YET AGAIN! to grow houseplants. Beyond the gardening inspiration, I appreciated the cosmic exploration of human themes (notably lacking in that IMAX documentary), like loneliness and connection, depression and determination, the will to live and the willingness to lay down one's life. 

At one point a NASA official, struggling with the ethics of spending resources and risking lives to save a lone astronaut (Saving Private Ryan in Outer Space, if you will), says in an authoritative tone, "Space travel is much bigger than one person." To which another NASA guy answers with equal and opposite confidence, "No. It's really not." That piece of dialogue poses the question and the story posits its answer, which I interpreted like this: It's only by serving something bigger that our individual lives have any meaning. But as soon as we dismiss an individual life as a casualty, we render the bigger story meaningless. 

Speaking of stories, and meaning... 

I very much identified with your last post, and it reminded me of an interview I recently heard with Elizabeth Gilbert. She said that when she meets people who want to do something creative and they're not, they usually have good, legitimate, real-life reasons why. But if you dig a little deeper, she says, the real reason is always and only fear. Always and only fear, she repeated. 

In case you can't tell by now, I'm a somewhat fearful person. Some days more than others, I'm keenly aware that I'm gravity-plastered to a planet in outer space. ("We're driving a car IN OUTER SPACE!" I said as we pulled out of a theater. "WE'RE LISTENING TO MUSIC IN OUTER SPACE!") I'm not a brave botanist astronaut who volunteered for this mission; I just appeared on the scene, and now I'm trying to figure out the meaning and my place in it all. We all are, in our own ways, in our own stories. Writing is how I figure out the meaning part. I write because I can, because I like it, because (just say it, Joy) I'm good at it, and because I suck at higher level math. (Even when I'm not being cheeky, that last part is still true.) 

You adequately plumbed the often blinding, mostly illusionary fear of "what other people think about me." (I'm working on my list.) The other fear I have, the one driving the "I can't justify the time" dynamic that's hounding me with every single keystroke, is that it doesn't matter. I'm afraid anything smaller than the big story is just noise, that I'm just noise, that it's not worth my time or attention to create or connect. So when Damon said, "Yeah, I'm not going to die here," something inside of me jumped. He could have said, "There are much bigger things going on in the world than me. I'll do everyone a favor and stay quiet, eat whatever food is left, watch TV." But no! He drove a rover over to a 1990s communication device, fixed it, and made contact with earth.* He did it while accepting the fact that he was probably going to die in the process. So maybe - just maybe - I can stop coming up with excuses not to, you know, blog

My favorite reminder these days is "Do it afraid." Or to crash your soccer metaphor: if you can't punt the fear, dribble it. 

Next week, same planet, same field. 



* I asked Pete if the vehicle Matt Damon drove on Mars was a "hovercraft," and he answered by burying his head in his hands and then telling me I'm very pretty. So I'm going with "rover."