Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.
– Edgar Mitchell, USA
Consider the Overview Effect. Coined by Frank White, it’s the term used to describe the shift in perspective that astronauts experience when they see the earth from outer space, our marble planet spinning in darkness. The first post-launch words of the Russian astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in outer space, the first to go beyond our planet’s gravitational pull were simply: “I see earth. It’s beautiful.”
It is impossible to have this view of earth while we are on it. From here we see a sprawling sky. From there, a thin line of atmosphere. Here we walk on solid dirt and pavement. From there- the fragility of our suspension. Here boundaries and walls. There, connectedness. While the moon and the stars were at the forefront of early exploration, it was, perhaps surprisingly, the first views of our own home, that were most mesmerizing.
Overview. Perspective. A cognitive shift in awareness. “Near…Far…” in the voice of Grover from Sesame Street. But I am contemplating, not a cosmic shift, but a relational one, the intimacy and distance between two human beings. Sometimes, we are too close to see a person, usually a person we love. At the benefit concert honoring my husband a few weeks ago, his image was on a huge screen- many huge screens actually- throughout the evening. There were well-known musicians on a stage speaking of him- sometimes recounting stories unknown to me. There were posters and tickets and an auction. Overview. Death will give you the cognitive shift you did not ask for. Memorializing someone after they’re gone will do that for you without your permission. Collecting hundreds of letters right after he died so that I could put them all together in a book for my daughter to read one day, hearing from co-workers, bosses, childhood friends, and relatives from every stage of his life- also had this effect. Because there he was, not in part, but in the fullness that many years and many different relationships, each one unique, professed. There he was- complete and completely unreachable.
At the concert, I watched our daughter stare at the photos of him on the large screens and meet the musicians that were his friends. I wondered who the man she was learning about was. While overview is beautiful, love, I was certain, resides in proximity. Despite my efforts to present him as a round character- someone with failings and struggles as well as brilliance and humility, will he always seem to her- distant, unknown, unchartered?
In contrast to the concert, the final images that I burned into my mind in those “early-after” days are intimate and everyday. It is hard to connect these images to the man portrayed at the concert- like trying to connect the domesticity of the houseplants in the bay window above my kitchen sink with the green patches on this spinning sphere of a planet. An image of him from behind (I lay in bed), scratching his head while sitting at his computer, his knee bouncing slightly; another of him coming home late from work in a green jacket with a backpack on, walking in the bedroom exhausted, letting out a deep breath- to which I got up and gave him a long hug- backpack still on; the image of him doing dishes at the kitchen sink but swaying from foot to foot because he had to pee: “Just go to the bathroom,” I’d said. I kept going over these ordinary images in my head to check that I could still see them. Amid the larger memorializing that was going on, particularly online in news articles or in comments by fans of the well-known singer he had been touring with- people who had only seen him play on stage once or twice- these pictures in my mind were the trail back home to the real man that lived in my house, shared my bed, and played with my child.
The images I wanted our then 21 month old to hold onto were also of the more everyday variety. They were the five or six memories I knew she had for sure as a 21 month old- so I wrote them down on a blue index card kept in the kitchen drawer- the blue and red balloons he got her while we waited in the car, the little game he played with her letting her bend each of his fingers down until he made a fist on her first airplane ride, the words he spoke as he lifted her up on his legs like she was flying. I would review them with her daily at breakfast or dinner, which now seems kind of insane, but such is grief. And at age seven, she still remembers all of them. I’d like to think that even though she may be remembering because I asked her the questions- her answers link back to the original memory somewhere in the neurological crevices of her brain or in the knowing of her body. I tell myself, the self I see five years ago full of sorrow with my blue index card at the kitchen table, “Don’t worry- she’ll be fine. She will know. She will know.”
A friend recently told me that Roland Barthes said in “The Empire of Signs” that Easterners see distance as intimacy while in the West, closeness is seen as intimacy. The distance of the overview effect does not necessarily mean superficiality or even lack of intimacy. Seeing someone with space around them, seeing a life once it has ended- also reveals many things, some of them quite intimate. For example, my husband always spoke about his struggles at his office day job at an advertising company, but when I saw the VP of the company just after the funeral in the parking lot, she told me it was “just the opposite.” Those were her words- that he was in fact extremely competent and amazing at his job. I had always thought he’d found his first apartment after college because a friend from Berklee had found it first. But later, after he died, that friend of his told me that he had found the apartment through my husband and followed him there, not the other way around- the opposite. He was always grateful about it, he said. And those words he said while flying Audrey up on his legs- the ones that I had said were silly, I later read in one of his journals that this was something his friend’s dad did for his son, and that as a child my husband had longed for someone to do it for him. It made a lot more sense when I read that. They weren’t silly words at all- the opposite- sacred words. It made me sorry I did not know that when he was alive. I did not know these things- these contrasting details only revealed in the overview, in the distance.
“Or is it inevitable- no wife really knows her husband?” To be a wife is an intimacy so close, one can’t see; as, close up to a mirror, one can’t see one’s reflection,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in her memoir. Yes, I believe this is true. In the intimacies, in the close-up, the awe of the overview effect is hard to grasp. Without it, there is unknowing. Both, it turns out, the intimate and the overview are necessary. One is not more true than the other.
With those we love the most, those with whom we share a bed, a shower, a kitchen table- it is usually the closeness we have- and the distance we lack. Mothers and their babies are so close it takes infants a while just to become aware of their separateness- that they are not one being. But we don’t need death to achieve this distance. There are ways to create this space. Even one night out without her baby and that mother will return and see the whole sphere. When Audrey was a toddler, we were together 24 hours a day. She was so mature, sometimes I would find I’d forgotten how small she was. But all it took was some time away- and this: while she was at my parent’s house, I would call and speak to her on the telephone. I would hear her baby voice on the other end of the line, and be astounded at the sound of her small voice. “She is just a baby,” I would think, somewhat ashamed that I had envisioned her so much older, that I had lost sight of her in our daily proximity.
While my husband was touring and things were often tense between us, someone suggested he write me letters from the different cities on the tour. We had mailed handwritten letters when we were first dating- despite how often we talked and saw each other- every day! Receiving letters from him while he was on tour made us closer again- despite and because of the distance between us. He wrote about the tour, cities and things he was seeing and how he wished we were there. He drew cute cartoon characters. I saw him again. A couple of years ago, I bought a small wooden mailbox for our house. Audrey and I painted it and if the red flag is up, it signals the other person that there’s a note or letter for them. Even though we’re in the same house, the letter creates space. It helps us to see each other again.
While I’ve been thinking about all of this, I show Audrey a short video on The Overview Effect while she eats breakfast one morning last week. As the documentary scans over the earth-she comments that it looks like the inside of a computer from so high up, “like a microchip.” I adore her analogy and it reminds me of Dickinson’s interchanging of the cosmic and domestic in one of her poems:
Perhaps I asked too large—
Perhaps I asked too large—
I take—no less than skies—
For Earths, grow thick as
Berries, in my native town—
My Basket holds—just—Firmaments—
Those—dangle easy—on my arm,
But smaller bundles—Cram.
It is a paradox like most precious things in life, that intimacy can create distance- and distance can create intimacy. But sometimes, like Emily, one can hold the skies in a basket over your arm, the familiar and the galactic meet. It’s not that one is better, but that they fill the empty spaces in one another.
In Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful book, “Housekeeping,” the narrator and her sister, whose mother had died, asks their aunt, what their mother was like,
“Oh, she was nice,”Sylvie said. “She was pretty.”
“But what was she like?”
“She was good in school.” Lucille sighed. “It’s hard to describe someone you know so well. She was very quiet. She played the piano. She collected stamps.”
What the narrator and her sister wanted was not mere facts, but they wanted a portrait, a story- something to transcend mere words and the cold vastness of space. Story. Art. Love. These transcend. The stories I tell my daughter round him out; they aren’t memories on index cards- they come to me organically. They arise in our intimate daily life as they originally did and shine in this context. It was not so much the things the artists at the concert said about her father- but just the songs- the music they played. It is love- not just the photographs I show her, but the look in my eye as I speak of him, not just the words I say about him, but the silence surrounding them. At the age of three or four, she often knew when I was thinking of him just by the expression on my face. “What are you thinking about? Are you thinking about appa? (the Korean word for dad), she would say.
In a lovely story by Scottish writer George MacDonald called “The Light Princess,” a curse is put on the princess as a baby so that she has no gravity. She floats everywhere, and even worse, the lack of gravity is representative of an overall frivolousness in her character. She laughs at everything, and is unable to feel deeply. The antidote, however, to her lack of gravity- what brings her back down to earth- is love. Isn’t this always the way?
Love lends gravity- and then it also lets go. What makes the earth so beautiful in its overview is both the recognition and the lack of recognition-the foreignness- at once. It is a haunting beauty. At their best, our relationships can be like this. One can look down from the darkness and think as Yuri did, “It’s beautiful.” I don’t believe my daughter would see the beauty of her father at an event like this, even through story and song, if she didn’t already intuit him as hers, as the astronaut knows the earth- as home.