The Sadness Scale, As Measured by Stars and Whales

It’s easy enough to find, sadness, for there are so many stories of it disseminated on social media we might all stay quivering in our small rooms for as much time as we have left. In only the last week, besides the politics and polemics, the pipe bombs and opioid epidemic, I’ve learned that we live on a world where sunlight causes cancer, and a large number of Australian koalas have an STD. I’ve read that several times in our long and polluted history we’ve managed to catch water on fire, and everyone you see today is someone who just hasn’t died yet.

I know there are enough nuclear weapons in our arsenals to keep the earth burning for a thousand years, long after all the time capsules we’ve buried to speak to our future selves should have been opened, and there’s a thought, how often we record ourselves, through pages or pictures, for posterity, afraid as we are of endings.

The nearest any other planet ever gets to Earth is around 160 million miles, and no one knows how big the universe really is, nor how it began or where it ends. No one knows if the voices we spoke back when we were crawling out of caves are still rebounding into space, still hoping someone hears us.

Most laugh tracks were recorded in the 50s, which means you’re hearing dead people laugh when you watch a sitcom to ease the tension of your life or political leanings. That star you saw last night is likely dead too, and out of all the sweeping of the universe we’ve never found a sign we’re not alone: not a signal or song from any planet, and despite the vastness of space it’s a little depressing to think how alone we are as we careen through the void.

One day your mother put you down and never picked you up again, and your children will never again be as young as they are right now. The smell of fresh cut grass is the grass trying to heal itself after you’ve cut it, and that smell after a rain is the way the world really smells, which makes me wonder why it can’t always be like that, why we have to wait and wait for what we really want and afterward wish it were still that way.

There’s a whale in the Pacific Ocean that sings at such a high frequency no other whales can hear it. Scientists have been monitoring it for over twenty years, and for all that time it’s been alone, still hoping someone is listening. Speaking of singing, every year on the anniversary of its arrival the Mars Rover sings Happy Birthday to itself, millions of miles from anyone, and if that doesn’t send some wind sweeping across the ocean of your insides, I don’t know how to reach you.

It seems every day there’s a new loneliness loose in the world. Last week I read about a turtle whose shell had been fractured so the zoo made a wheelchair out of Legos, and watching it crawl around I cried like a child, that here was something so beautiful it hurt, like my grandmother in the days before she died saying she didn’t like the color of the curtains in her hospital room.

There’s also the unbearable sadness of school shootings, the systemic violence and oppression, the men who grease the wheels of government with their greed, but even without the wars and the worry and all the horrors we hear every day, we carry too much weight with us. Our thin skins can’t even keep out the weather, much less the changes in our atmospheres. I try to remember the last time I picked up my grown daughters and I might as well be searching the vastness of space.

Still, the search is worth it. Out there, past the bright unbroken stars of what we remember, is what we do not know. And somewhere in the asteroid belts of our lives lie the fragments we are forever trying to piece together, to understand what it means to walk around on this good earth.

There’s the warmth of your mother’s hand on your forehead, the coolness of the other side of the pillow. The fresh spill of snow that means no school today, the brightness of the world when we get just a minute to look at it. The tickle of carbonation on your upper lip from the Sprite right after a swim the year you turned eleven and learned about girls. Or boys. Or football or music or whatever you learned that year, still skipping across the hot summer cement, before acne and awkwardness set in.

And even that wasn’t so bad, remembering the way your date looked at Prom your junior year. Or the way your whole small town stood and cheered when your basketball team ran onto the court to the tune of whatever song was popular then or the way on summer nights you circled town like the stars spinning in the night sky or the way everyone told you to stay cool when they signed your yearbook.

At the end, I bet you’ll remember the sound of the garbage truck on the street in the morning with something like nostalgia. You’ll remember your first wife putting on her make-up, mirror still steamed from the shower, before all the growing apart began. You’ll see again your father, and I’ll remember the last time I held my daughter, the time I put her down and never picked her again, except to say, when she was overwhelmed by all the anger in the world, that I was still here, that whatever happens my voice will still be searching for her through space.

I’m trying to see stars the same as when I was a child, wondering not what’s out there for me, but just what’s out there. I’m trying not to imagine dead solar systems but that light still leaks from them long after they are gone. I want to smell the air after the rain and be thankful for that moment, no matter how long we have to wait for it. For every injustice in the world there is a spider crawling up a waterspout. For every anger, an echo. For every wrong, a right now.

You’ll never be as young as you are right now, which makes right now the best now. If our parents put us down and never picked us up again it’s because the weight of their worry grew too much, the same as we’ll be unable to carry our children to completion, the same as we’ll be unable to walk with them into the wherever.

But what beauty it will be to hear those long dead live again, not the pre-canned laughter of some stupid show but what waits for us in the wherever. I hope if we do end up burning the earth aliens will see the smoke from the fire and perhaps make different mistakes than ours. Or none. Or all of them, and learn, before they begin the burning, and when the light of our fire gets to them, they’ll see only a night sky, our planet perhaps a little brighter against the darkness.

And sometimes I think of that whale and realize he’s still singing, even if no one else is listening. It’s beautiful, that song, the way it moves through the water of our bodies, where we are all alone. And the Mars Rover, singing to itself as well—someone programmed that. Someone marked the milestones in its metric or electric or whatever it is the Rover runs on, years maybe, or lines drawn in the Martian soil to measure its days so far from home, so far from where it came into being. I don’t know what the song sounds like, but I know it is good. It is sad and slow and sweet, and it echoes all through the universe of our small hearts.











Paul Crenshaw

Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collection This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University 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.

Contributions by Paul Crenshaw