Optimism by Paul Crenshaw

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artwork of planets - mixed media

This morning I wanted to buy a book about space travel, but the cold outside depressed me. Even the library seemed too far away for any expedition, so I stayed in bed remembering summer nights looking up at the stars. All the world seemed wild in those days, when I understood so little of everything. In our sixth-grade science book men with initials and credentials after their names suggested that when the sun grows too close for our comfort we might colonize Saturn’s moons. Mars might hold some semblance of life, and even Jupiter, more than one 70s scientist theorized, could harbor a safe haven under its gaseous clouds.

Other things those scientists said were that the seas with all their size could house a hundred billion homes. That in some future architecture we could build skyscrapers to scrape not only the blue sky but the stars we once craned our necks to see, imagining what it might be like living somewhere else, far beyond our own eyesight. We might build ships that could sail to distant solar systems, and what child has not imagined meeting an alien evolved from something other than apes, something so strange as to be wondrous?

In science class I learned that the earth’s core was as hot as the sun’s surface and that some planets were so cold that even the air was ice, but in that hopeful time those scientists assured me we would overcome whatever problems the future presented, and when the maintenance men painted the rusting gym equipment bright red I believed them.

All science was hopeful, it seemed. Roy G. Biv taught me to memorize all the light we can see, and the planets were no more complex than My Very Entertaining Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas, those mnemonic devices designed to help us understand the world outside our windows.

Even the impending nuclear war was no problem, approached scientifically. If we had not yet advanced enough to make it to Saturn we could live deep underground, at least until we found a way to clean up the radioactive mess, which made me wonder, looking out the winter windows, how cold the world could get when struck with fire. We would harness the power of the Earth’s insides to create our haven, and here I imagined a hobbit-hole, safe from nuclear harm, though I did wonder, hiding under my covers, why we didn’t just use the fire of nuclear fuel to warm us.

But now driving to the library 40 years later through the honk and exhaust of the cold morning traffic, I’m reminded we’re running out of room. The Kansas sky is big above me, but in the ground below me missile silos aim their spears at the stars, and satellites circle all through space. The oceans are too plastic-filled to find homes, and my middle-aged skin feels too tight, like a promise I’ve been waiting on since 1979. Last night at the symphony I listened to a hundred and sixty people singing Handel’s Messiah, the Hallelujah chorus banging off the curved walls and coming back down to us. In the words there reigns a hope for the future, which made me wonder when I became so pessimistic. Maybe I’m still waiting on those promises, because instead of the mysterious cosmos I once fantasized about, I can only envision a declining earth. On social media every day I read about what a ruin the world is turning into. Some man in Florida sells crystal meth in an energy drink and I know about it in Kansas the next day. A colony of bees collapses in Australia and suddenly we’re worried about all life on earth. The seas are warming, and scientists wonder now whether we’ll even be able to stay here, much less reach out to the stars.

I’m not saying there’s nothing to be worried about, but surely something of that once-envisioned future is still possible. I lived through all the fear and failure of the 80s too, the movies in which missiles launched from the Kansas prairie or secret codes led to nuclear countdowns, but recently scientists have found a way to produce a mineral that eats Carbon Dioxide, which could be a way to curb global warming. A drawing on a 73,000 year old rock might be the earliest human art, showing how even in our infancy we wanted something to outlast our own lives. Water has been found on Mars, reigniting dreams of colonization, and the oldest stars at the heart of the universe, scientists believe, might mark our beginning.

What I’d like to believe is that those scientists in the ‘70s were right. In looking to the future I’d like to believe some of those words I heard last night escaped, and when they reach the vast blackness of space someone will hear them, someone just learning that Saturn has over 60 moons, each as wild and varied as a note of music. Some alien child is drawing, right now, pictures of a planet he’s never seen. His own planet has somehow survived the wars and rumors of wars, the corporations and capitalism, and the houses he draws—small white squares with a triangle roof, round yellow sun tucked in the corner above the black birds winging their way overhead—will seem wild and wondrous when he shows it to his parents, who will hang it on whatever passes for a refrigerator in that world. And then they’ll walk out into an atmosphere we might never understand and look at the night sky, humming in all its vastness. The father will point out a distant speck of light.

“Some day we’ll go there,” he’ll say, and for the rest of the boy’s life, he’ll believe it.

Meet the Contributor

paul crenshaw writerPaul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collection This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press. His second collection of essays, This We’ll Defend, about his time in the military and beyond, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Tin House, North American Review and Brevity, among others.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Joe Plocki

  1 comment for “Optimism by Paul Crenshaw

  1. As your piece strives for balance between the fantastic possibilities of space above and the deadly nuclear weapons below, what I appreciate most is that your eyes don’t glaze over. Instead you hitch a ride to the stars on Handel’s Messiah, look back, and restore your sixth-grade hopes with a fresh perspective.

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