Small Step

The moon has never felt so close.

Irrational? Maybe. After all, this summer will be 55 years since Neil Armstrong took his first steps on our nearest neighbor. We’ve walked, driven, even played golf on the moon. And since then, we’ve remotely flown helicopters on Mars, peered into distant stars and black holes, and been serenaded by music played aboard a space station. After all that, shouldn’t returning to a bunch of rocks and craters feel old hat?

And yet, something about Thursday seemed special. No … WAS special.

For the first time since the ‘70s, an American spacecraft returned to the moon. No astronauts, not yet. Just a robot craft with a challenging landing, an uncertain signal and a few science instruments. Just that. And with it came the promise of a new start.

So much has changed, of course. New technology, new players. We’re not the only ones bringing spacecraft to the lunar surface anymore and everyone has had a lot of learning and re-learning to do. Especially since the folks who did it the first time are long since gone from the field (or from life) and their experience with it.

But we are learning. The drive is there again. And this time, instead of just a monument, it may become a stepping stone.

Oh, you could argue that Thursday remained an ordinary day for the overwhelming majority of us. We still had the same needs to fulfill and jobs to do, the same joys and stresses and looming headlines. My own attention to the Odysseus landing came as I was helping a family member recover from a stomach bug, about as un-science-fiction a task as you can imagine.

But in a real way, it put another crack in a wall that we build far too easily.

We tend to make our universe a very small place. I don’t mean the stars and planets, but the mental worlds we build around ourselves. It’s easy to tightly focus on our own routines and concerns, partly in self-defense against a media landscape that keeps threatening to overwhelm us with the troubles of 8 billion people.

But while some distance may be necessary for survival, it also becomes isolating. Over time, it can become a tunnel vision that limits horizons, diminishes joy and turns all but a select few into strangers. In tending our own garden, we look less and less over the garden wall.

No judgment. I do it, too. And that’s why I value the moments of wonder that turn my eyes upward again.

Suddenly, the universe is both big and close. Space suddenly isn’t something way out there, but close at hand, not apart from us but a part of us.

And once we lower our barriers, there’s a lot we can bring inside.

No one reaches space on their own. It requires a lot of teamwork and connection. That same sort of connection can strengthen us here on Earth, reaching to neighbors near and far, being and doing so much more than we could ever manage alone.

Sure, there are practical benefits from space exploration and plenty of people will write about them. But for me, at its heart, it goes back to those first words of Neil. When any of us makes just one small step outwards, it can become a giant leap for all of us.

May that hope always shine as brightly as our old friend does right now. May it always inspire us to look upward and outward and inward to find a larger world … and a closer one as well.

In a world where so much can weigh so heavily, it’s not a bad thing to let ourselves be moonstruck.

Behind the Words

Every once in a while, someone who’s new to this column will ask me what it’s about. My usual response is “It’s about 600 words, give or take.”

Ba-dum-bum.

OK, it’s a wiseguy answer. But not a wrong one. Over the years, this column has dealt with puns and politics, sports and sorrow, news of the weird and news from home. Many of the most popular have been about family – my wife Heather, our disabled ward Missy, our cousins and nieces and nephews and pets.

If there’s been one consistent theme, though – aside from my beating my forehead against the monitor until the words come pouring out – it’s that this column is about all of you.

Allow me to explain.

Long ago, I dwelt in a fabled land known as southwest Kansas, where the distances are vast and the people few. Within this land, there dwelt a sage known as Ava Betz, copy editor for The Garden City Telegram. And after I wrote my first weekly column ever as a newspaper reporter – a light piece on the beauty of words – it was Ava who came up to me to compliment me and pass on a bit of advice.

“You can write anything you want,” she told me, “but no navel gazing. Got it?”

“Got it.” And I did.

Writers spend a lot of time in their own head. It can be very tempting to not come out again – to cut out the rest of the world and make it all about ME, spending paragraph after paragraph on the beauty of your own belly button lint (figuratively speaking) without a thought to why anyone else in the world should care about your deathless prose.

But other people matter.

And “why should anyone care?” is the most vital question any writer can ask.

Let me revise that. It’s the most vital question any human being can ask.

Writers need readers. And writers who never give a moment’s thought to the readers’ world haven’t created a story. At best, they’ve created a still life, objects without motion, references without resonance. At worst, they’re posing in a mirror.

People need people. And people who never give a moment’s though to the other lives around them pass through an empty world – or worse, create one. Neighbors without empathy are just folks who happen to live nearby. Leadership without reflection is just preening, or maybe even bullying. Failing to recognize someone else’s pain is to not truly understand your own.

That’s one of the secrets that shouldn’t be so secret. We learn ourselves better when we see others more clearly. When we reach out, something also reaches in.

And together, we create a story worth telling.

It sounds easy. It isn’t. It means taking time to consider other perspectives and other hearts, and maybe having your own broken a few times. C.S. Lewis once wrote that “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” and when you try to find the things that tie your soul to another’s, you are committing an act of love. Leaving yourself vulnerable.

But you’re also making the world just a little closer. And yourself a little more alive.

In acting, a performer is sometimes derided as “only playing himself.” Actors know the truth – that every actor plays themselves, but the most limited ones don’t have enough self to play. You stretch yourself by breaking out of familiar patterns and experiencing those around you. By caring.

This is a space where we come to care. This column. This community. This world.

That’s what it’s about.

And if it’s also about 600 words – well, that’s a bonus.

You bet your belly button.