It's funny how morning radio can set the tone for the day.
Recently, I was listening to the story of Felix Baumgartner as I was getting ready to go to work. Baumgartner is an Austrian extreme athlete who was aiming to break the sound barrier in a supersonic skydive over New Mexico. He was planning to jump from a capsule floated 23 miles into the stratosphere by a huge helium balloon, and Chris Evans was getting very excited about it all. All schools should stop what they were doing and watch history unfolding, he thought - and all workplaces, and everyone, everywhere, really, should gather around the nearest TV screen and remember where they were and what they saw.
Later, as I drove to work, Chris Evans was getting even more over-excited as he carried out a phone interview with Buzz Aldrin. Now a sprightly octogenarian, Aldrin was talking about his memories of the moon landings, his former colleagues, Neil Armstrong and the surreal thought that he had been there. Brought back rocks from the Moon and seen the Earth from far away - far away enough that it looked like a blue ball. How did he get himself fit enough to be chosen for the Space Program, Evans asked- a fitness which had clearly helped him into healthy agedness? Aldrin replied that he had been a decent College athlete - a pole-vaulter - but that in preparation for the Space Program he'd worked on getting fitter still. A pole-vaulter, I thought, incredulous. The pole-vaulter who shot for the Moon, 384,399 kilometres away. A leap of calculated faith of somewhere around one light year, faster than the speed of sound. Driving to work that morning, I felt inspired and awestruck. If leaps like that were within the scope of human possibility, then I could accomplish something too. Something smaller. Light years from glory, freefalling into quiet insignificance, though somehow meaningful...
Next morning, things had changed. The helium was deflated and the sound barrier remained unbroken. Strong gusts of wind had made the attempt impossible; it had been postponed, then postponed again, and as I'm writing it still hasn't taken place. Chris Evans was just a tiny bit shamefaced, saying it was possibly just as well that people had not heeded his advice, and that the world had not stood still and held its breath while the freefall record plummeted towards being broken. As I drove to school that morning my heart was lifted by music instead: as I overtook a line of cars around a local roundabout, I was turning up the volume on an Undertones song from early childhood memories, smiling to myself, amused at how surprised my colleagues would be at my choice of song.
The gravities of living get us all. Whether it's the extreme athlete's supersonic freefall, or the employee who arrives at school buoyed up by song or story, only to have their spirits flattened later on by pointed criticism or casual cruelties, it's a universal thing. The athlete or the spaceman flies high - the sonic boom sends shock waves to the ground, and history is rewritten. And yet something so simple as the weather can halt it all, just like it has an impact on the everyday things that everybody does, which pose no threat to speeds of light or sound. Our blue ball planet is anchored by its weight, taking its place in orbit, and suspended as though on invisible wires of gravity. Far away to gain perspective all at once of our world's brilliance and its insignificance, earth's astronauts float free in weightlessness. After a tough day of all the gravities of reality, weightlessness sounds like some kind of magical ideal - and yet the facts are there to tell us that it's difficult to adjust to, it has medical disadvantages and isn't a state for which we were designed...
Star-gazing. Perseids. Meteor-showers. The magic of the night sky is something dizzying, especially when you try to understand that what you're looking at is so very far away that the speed of light won't let you see what's there, but what has been. When we shoot for the moon we might fall among the stars, and as we wonder at the brave new world of light we will be drawn, as inexorably as the tides around our shores, back to the reality of our own world by our lives' own gravities.
This is what happens when we dream of greater things. Of breaking barriers, freefalling into what might not seem remotely possible... Our gravity pulls us back to earth. Reality intervenes, whether it's through the let-downs and the limits of our lives, or something just as simple as the weather. Our gravities keep our planet in its orbiting place. Our world continues. Lives go wrong. Go right.
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