The Lonely Planet

Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

There’s a long stretch of highway between the place where my parents live and my old hometown which rambles past old forests and hills. I found myself driving it this past December time and time again, getting lost in my thoughts as traffic lines whizzed by in one long, continuous, yellow blur underneath the cold, gray New England clouds. I would drive it again later at night, accompanied only by stars which held vigil for the sun to return.

Galileo, when he looked through his telescope at the very same skies, once noted that “the only motion which is observable to us is the one which we do not share.” In other words, when two objects are moving in the same direction, it appears as though both are standing still. I wonder if he ever realized his thoughts about space and celestial bodies were just as applicable to the space and persons around him.

Sometimes I wonder whether the reason why Galileo had so many enemies was because people worried about what it would mean if we weren’t the center of the universe. Suddenly, life would become confusing and mysterious. Its basic structure about understanding our importance in light of everything else would be twisted around. We needed to figure out what was up from down.

Do you ever think that the Earth feels lonely in her journey around the sun?

I wonder if it’s the same reason why people don’t like hanging out with many people that they used to when they were younger. They fear what their friendship meant if their companions don’t travel in the same old paths that they once did. Old stomping grounds become abandoned fairgrounds. Whole cities built and maintained once by the bonds of friendship are lost to and reclaimed by the forest of the unknown.

I’d been traveling back to catch up with old friends and tie up loose ends. But most recently, I’ve been spending some days sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table and listening to her tell stories. She’s trying to write her memoirs, you see, but writer’s block had frustrated her. And so, I sat and listened to her as she partly read, partly narrated, stories about her coming-of-age and into young adulthood as the daughter of a Japanese Imperial Army officer around the time of World War II. My particular job, if you could call it that, was when she would pause to search for what to say next, I would ask a clarifying question about some time, place, person, or event.

The day would begin after I would walk in and unbundle myself from all of the layers I had wrapped myself with before taking out a pen and a notepad and setting them beside a teapot full of green tea. Most times, they would rest unused unless I heard something so remarkable I didn’t want to forget it. In those moments, I would sit up from my chair, jot one or two words down, and return to the position that I was in before.

Erik Erikson describes the last stage of psychosocial development as the crisis between ego integrity versus despair. It’s when a person begins to look back on their life and reflect on whether or not the choices they made were worthwhile and meaningful in light of the impending void. It’s why so many of the elderly tell stories, they want their lives to mean something. And, personally, I think that stories are one of the best gifts that the elderly can give.

When I was younger, my grandmother would tell my brother, my sister, and I the same stories. We would sit, listening intently as she described growing up in what would become North Korea after a successful military campaign by the Japanese Imperial Army to colonize it and later escaping as refugees when the communists invaded. But these stories were just entertainment for our young minds. Their purpose, to us at the time, was merely to keep us out of trouble when my grandmother babysat us. But I realize now that in each story was wrapped a part of herself, a small diamond in the rough. A passing light in the night sky.

I think the reason why we didn’t value her stories as much was because she was always there and always available. As a small child, I could not understand the amount of maneuvering that my grandmother did to get where we were then because we all were going in the same direction at the same speed. Our extended family shared in the same day-to-day narrative.

Perhaps it’s the fact I have to drive further than when I was younger. Or, perhaps it’s because I’ve grown to appreciate the wisdom and experience that the elderly have to offer us. Perhaps it’s because living away from my family has made me value the time I have with them more. Whatever it is, this past winter break, time at my grandmother’s house has been substantively different.

Perhaps it is because my orbit has differed significantly enough that I can finally look upon that of my grandmother’s and appreciate her own long Odyssey through space and time. However, it’s one thing for a person to leave for a time. But what happens when a friend’s orbit takes them away from us indefinitely?

Even though it was I who left on a plane for another place for another time, I feel like it is my family and friends who are spinning away with frightening speed. Galileo was right: we all are in the everyday motions of living our lives. It’s only when we begin to take a step back or begin to live into another story that we see the motion of others. It is the motion that we do not share in. It is not our story to live. But when we listen to the stories of our fellow travelers around the sun, we might be able to catch something now that we might have missed before. We might catch a new side of someone that we glossed over before because we assumed we knew them as they traveled with us.

Try as I might, I don’t think I have the capacity to begin to comprehend what looking at life from death’s vantage point is like.

Some truths can only be discovered after living it out.

Some truths need to be unpacked over time.

Some truths are not for the young to know.

But we can still listen. If we lean in close enough, perhaps from across an old kitchen table and two cups of tea,  we might be able to see the motion of our friends. And in knowing the distance between them and us, accepting that some paths are not for us to follow but simply to watch through the lens of a telescope, we can love each other’s lonely planets still all the more.


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