The International Space Station is making bright, low passes through the late summer night sky this month. On a cool, clear night, I watched its smooth, stately progress from west to east - seemingly just at the top end of my street.
I so love watching the ISS: seeing that tiny, steadily-moving light, tracking its plotted course like the embodiment of logical thought. It's mind-blowing to think that there are people up there, carrying out experiments in space travel and science. The photos and videos posted by Commander Chris Hadfield from the ISS last year often felt oddly moving: the world seen from far beyond the clouds, the inevitable reminder of our tiny insignificance. The navigational line of the ISS's progress feels like the narrative arc of an unconventional omniscient narrator, for an era when 'playing God' feels oddly out of date.
Those instants of watching that tiny, moving light are instants when I can focus my constantly moving mind. That imagined, unimaginable distance from our jangling concerns seems to unite those million fragments into one. On the ground, our lives each forming their own tiny jigsaw piece, our viewpoint comes from who and where we are. Trying to visualise seemingly overwhelming issues as the tiniest running stitches in a world-sized topographical tapestry slows my thoughts to standstill, and for once I'm in the moment, thinking, watching, trying to understand it all.
I'm not good at being 'mindful' of the moment that I'm in. I'm good at the 'what if', 'what next', at second-guessing and at analysing a situation until it cries for mercy and then tries to run away. When I joined the flood of tweeters commenting that they'd seen the ISS, someone asked me if I'd got a picture: I realized that I'd been so caught up in the moment that a photo was the last thing on my mind. And maybe I can learn from that. I go for a walk by the sea near where I live: there are photographs. I spend some time with my husband: we might pause to take a selfie. To my shame, I've even instagrammed my coffee once or twice. Sorting through dusty boxes of old possessions in the loft this week, persuaded to take my student days cassette tapes to the dump, reminded me that so much of the stuff that we hold dear is quite ephemeral. The cassette tape albums which I've now either gone off or downloaded... the mix-tapes from friends I no longer know... the songs recorded from the radio, like everybody did back then, catching a few words of DJ patter above the opening chords: these things are like the clothes gone out of fashion, which might still fit but which you'll never wear again. Are endless photos of moments of inconsequence the same? When will I want to look back at 'great cups of coffee I once drank'? How many sunset or seascape photos do I need? Am I just wasting moments when I could just live, through trying to store them digitally to relive when things go dark, only to discount it later and move on?
Even when I was young, I was spiritually much too old for music festivals. But I did watch some of Glastonbury on TV, and music, mud and fashion-weariness aside, I was struck forcibly by one universal trend. Huge crowds watching Dolly Parton or London Grammar or Kasabian: each person holding one arm aloft, their mobile phone extended to photograph or film. Seen en masse, at the distance of TV, it was astonishing. It seemed as if all these considerate people had tolerated mud and downpours to give their little smartphone pets a grand day out: as if the phones, not their owners, were watching the musicians. People say that watching music on TV isn't the same as being there, live, but I was really only one remove from the festival-goers, watching through their smartphone screens. Perhaps the comfort of my darkened front room offered me sufficient distance to recognize what I've done myself: spent so much time recording an event that it's almost as if I wasn't there at all.
Lou Reed's Satellite of Love is a puzzling song. It was on one of those student mix-tapes: one I kept. Maybe a man whose girlfriend has cheated on him finds comfort in watching a satellite which has gone 'up to the skies'. Watching the arc of the ISS reminds me that the million little dramas of daily life are nothing. Things pass. Times change. Taking a photograph doesn't make a moment special any more than instagramming a coffee makes it taste any different. The best thing to do with a coffee is to enjoy drinking it. The best thing about a moment is being in it.
Things like that drive me out of my mind...