Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot was inspired by an image taken by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. As the spacecraft was departing for the fringes of the solar system, it took a final photograph of the earth.

Voyager 1 was about 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away, and approximately 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane, when it captured a portrait of our planet. Caught in the centre of scattered light rays (a result of taking the picture so close to the Sun), it appears as a tiny point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

~ Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Holding Pattern

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

Life these days reminds me of the film, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character becomes stuck in a time-loop, and he is forced to live the same day over and over again. There is so little variance in daily life under COVID; it all feels the same. Our social circles are tiny, if not non-existent; we meet with colleagues via Zoom or Teams and rarely see people in person. Many of our activities occur within the walls of our own homes. I sometimes feel like a passenger gazing out of the window of a plane, circling above the airport, waiting for permission to land: waiting for “life” to start again.

We recently marked one year of living under COVID restrictions, and despite the many challenges, I have been reflecting upon the unexpected benefits. I can take my daughter to school in the morning and I am here when she arrives home. I no longer make the commute twice a day; and it is an easy transition from ending work to beginning our evening routine. My workplace has fully adapted to online collaboration, something which normally would have taken another decade, or more, to come to fruition. Our lives generally move at a slower pace. Less driving. Less commitment. Less rushing.

My main source of joy at the moment is spending time outside with friends and family in nature. We cannot currently do any of the things that we would normally do, such as travel, gather for dinner, or attend events, so the outdoors has become our playground. There is something so nourishing about being outside together. We hike and explore in sun, rain and snow. All it requires is a pair of waterproof hiking boots, a warm jacket and a trail app. My daughter has also become quite the little walker, so it is something we now look forward to doing together. There is so much beauty to discover in our local area, surrounded by trees, water and sky.

I have also discovered the joy of cold swimming. This global phenomenon gained traction at the start of the pandemic when people sought new ways to connect and combat depression. Coldwater therapy is known to support a range of health benefits, such as promoting good mental health, boosting the immune system, enhancing circulation, reducing stress and inflammation. I am hooked. I regularly meet with my friend for a weekly plunge in the ocean and it is always a fun and memorable experience. Not only is it a wonderful opportunity to catch up but my body feels electric all day after a swim.

Although “regular life” currently feels like it is on hold, I am grateful for the opportunity to discover new ways of spending time with loved ones, despite the restrictions. Nature is a remarkable phenomenon that should not be taken for grated. This pandemic has taught me to appreciate each and every day and to seek joy in unexpected places. I have also been reminded of how precious our natural surroundings are and how we all need to work together to actively protect these gifts: both for ourselves and for generations to come.

Returning Home

When I was eight years old, I fell off of a jungle gym backwards. I was resting against a rope, at the top of a ten-foot gangplank, and it suddenly gave way. I dropped to the ground, like a rag doll, and I hit the back of my head on the concrete below. After the initial shock of impact, I caught my breath, and I stood up in a daze. There was no one around. I was completely alone. I stumbled four or five feet forward and then I dropped to the ground.

I was surrounded by a warm, all encompassing bright, white light. I was the light and the light was me. I had no body. I was fully immersed in a gentle and loving embrace and filled with an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. It felt like returning home. I was exactly where I needed to be; and I never wanted to leave. There was no sense of “I”, or a life before, just an indescribable happiness. After a period of time, an awareness grew that I could not stay, and I had to go back. I was then jolted into my body. Everything went black and I was filled with pain. I woke up on the ground and I crawled towards the house for help. It took many years for me to realize that I had not fainted that day. I had experienced a brush with death.

As described in this Scientific American article, near-death experiences, or NDEs, are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia or shock. Approximately one in ten patients with cardiac arrest in a hospital setting undergoes such an episode. Thousands of survivors of these harrowing touch-and-go situations report of leaving their bodies, and experiencing a realm beyond everyday existence, unconstrained by the usual boundaries of space and time.

NDEs share broad commonalities: becoming pain-free; seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel and other visual phenomena; detaching from one’s body and floating above it; or even flying off into space (out-of-body experiences). They might include meeting loved ones, living or dead, or spiritual beings. A jarring disconnect separates the massive trauma to the body and the peacefulness and feeling of oneness with the universe. 

Death requires irreversible loss of brain function. When the brain is starved of blood flow and oxygen, the patient faints in a fraction of a minute and the electroencephalogram, or EEG, becomes isoelectric, or flat. This implies that large-scale, spatially distributed electrical activity within the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, has broken down. Like a town that loses power one neighbourhood at a time, local regions of the brain go offline, one after another.

Given these power outages, this experience produces the rather strange and idiosyncratic stories that make up the majority of NDE reports. To the person undergoing it, the NDE is as real as anything the mind produces during normal waking. When the entire brain has shut down because of complete power loss, the mind is extinguished, along with consciousness. When oxygen and blood flow are restored, and the brain boots up, the narrative flow of experience resumes.

Until this point in my life. I have not shared my NDE story with many people; and from those I have told to date, I have generally received one of two responses, open and curious or utterly dismissive. In the end, I share my experience in the hope that it will be of service to others. I know what took place that day and it was real. I can clearly remember it now, even thirty-seven years later. It is beyond logical explanation. It was an expansive, spiritual encounter: not a simple trick of a traumatized brain. Having recently lost a friend to cancer, and facing the imminent death of two family members, this conviction provides me with a lot of comfort. “Life” continues on after a physical death occurs.

I recently watched the Surviving Death series on Netflix. The first episode explores NDEs and I think that they did an excellent job investigating the concept. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend that you check it out.

A season for giving and receiving

For the past ten years or so, instead of purchasing gifts for the adult members of my family, I have chosen to donate to charities over the holidays. I also love to pick out special books for everyone, from a locally owned independent bookstore, but the main gift remains the donation.

This year, I am targeting funds to support a family in my community through the Giving of Good Food holiday fundraiser. It provides them with a fresh fruit and vegetable box, on a bi-weekly basis, for a year. Food security is a chronic issue, but it is particularly difficult during a global pandemic, and especially challenging for children.

For me, this act of giving is in keeping with the spirit of the season; it promotes connection and love. It chooses to consciously step away from consumerism and towards gratitude. It is bigger than me and you. It is about us.

If you are able to give this year, please consider donating to a cause that is meaningful to you, or shop locally to help keep businesses open. If you do not have money to give, but you are emotionally available, take a moment to open the door for a stranger, offer up a smile, listen to a friend, or provide words of encouragement. These small and consistent gestures of kindness can be equally as powerful.

“The most treasured gifts in the world are kind words, spontaneously given.” Dean Fred Hargadon

If you are in a place of needing support over the holidays, please allow yourself to ask for it, and to receive what is offered. I hope that your community wraps around you like a warm blanket and keeps you close in its embrace. It is important to remember that we belong to one another.

Small things with great love

“Not all of us can do great things but we can do small things with great love.” ~ Mother Teresa

As a human being, with the unique opportunity of spending time on this small, spinning planet, I feel a deep desire to be of service while I am here. I want to leave things better than when I arrived. This is a tall order to fill and it can often leave me feeling lost and unsure about where to start. How do I, as a lone person, help to influence meaningful, positive change?

This quote from Mother Teresa is often a touchstone for me. Although it can be overwhelming to pinpoint how to make a momentous difference, it is relatively simple to identify small, daily acts of kindness and courage. These tiny acts often have an unexpected impact and cumulatively add up into something much bigger.

Today, I am showing up by voting. In April of 1917, B.C. became the fourth province in Canada to grant women the right to vote in provincial elections and to run for provincial office. The following year, the federal government in Ottawa passed similar legislation, enabling women to vote in federal elections and be elected to the Canadian House of Commons. It is a great privilege to have this right. It is one that many women fought for and I have a duty to exercise it.

Although it can sometimes feel like one vote is insignificant in the greater scheme of things, it is not. It is a powerful tool to wield. All of our voices count in a democracy. We decide who represents our values and our families. The government in charge does this through passing policy and law; they spend the tax dollars that we pay into the system to deliver the services we count upon every day. If we do not show up, we are effectively silenced. When we place our vote, it is like adding a single drop of water into a collective wave. Before we know it, it transforms into a tsunami of change. We can do great things together, one small act at a time.

Baby steps

Eighteen years ago today, I walked down the aisle on the arm of my father, bright eyed, hopeful and deeply in love. I made a vow, in front of my friends, family and community to love and honour my partner until death do us part. I meant it. Every word.

All these years later, I sit here on my back deck, on a beautiful sunny August evening, not so different to my wedding day, and I reflect upon where life has taken me. It is four years since the end of my relationship. I am a single, independent parent, trying to figure out how to date online in a time of pandemic. My ex is remarried and expecting a baby with his new wife any day now. Everything has changed.

If you had sat me down at age twenty-seven, as a young bride, and told me where I would be today, at age forty-four, I would not have believed you. Even if I had believed you, I would have crumpled with despair and worry about what lay ahead of me.

I imagine what I would have told my younger self, if I had had the opportunity. Here are a few thoughts that came to me:

  1. Symbiosis: A relationship is not about caretaking or merging with your loved one, at the expense of yourself. It is a sacred coming together of two whole individual human beings who choose to orbit one another with symbiotic love and respect. Cherish and protect what makes you unique. Cultivate and share your most authentic self. This is true love.
  2. It takes two: You cannot make a relationship work on your own. No matter how hard you try, you cannot row a boat with one oar. Once the other person has given up, there is nothing more you can do. True loneliness is living with disconnection. Put your life vest on and jump.
  3. Integrity: You are so much more resilient than you think. When faced with the unthinkable, ask yourself: Even in the midst of this chaos, who do I want to be?” Then simply focus on doing the next right thing. Take one baby step forward, then another, and another. Breathe deeply. Keep on moving and stay rooted in your own integrity.
  4. Curiosity: Although you do not know what lies ahead, it is not all scary and frightening. It is just unknown. Be curious and open. Ask for help when you need it. Trust in the love of your community. Most importantly, remember that everything you need comes from deep within yourself. Love. Acceptance. Joy. It is all there. You just need to believe it and stay connected to your inner knowing.

Most of all, I would tell myself, “I love you and everything is going to be ok.” Or as John Lennon famously said: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” Although my marriage did not turn out as I imagined, every experience along the way brought me to where I am today. Painful as much of it was, I would not change any of it. There is no looking back: only baby steps forward. I am excited to see what my future holds.

Life in this Moment

I have been at home with my daughter for four weeks now due to COVID-19. School is cancelled for the foreseeable future and I am working remotely. It is a very strange existence: one in which human contact is limited to the phone and internet. There is almost a complete lack of physical interaction with the outside world: except when I venture to the grocery store once a week. Even that could be ending soon, as some local stores are starting to limit shopping to online orders and delivery.

My ten year old child has not seen her friends for over a month. She is celebrating her birthday on Monday with a Zoom party. I cannot even imagine what this strange reality is like for her. Children thrive on play, exploration and imagination. As she does not currently have access to her peers, I am attempting to fill the void. We are enjoying daily games of hide and seek and impromptu dance parties.

That being said, I am struggling with trying to work full time and also support my child’s learning and emotional needs. It is hard for her to understand why she needs to spend so much time on her own, with self-directed activities, and we have been butting heads more than usual. It is easy to fall into a familiar pattern of feeling like a failure but I have been trying to remember to be realistic and kind. There is no right way to get through the current situation. I just need to do my best and apologize when I lose my temper.

As we navigate forward together in this “new normal”, I am taking note of certain things:

A Slowing of Time: In our house, we have shifted from living a busy, frantic schedule, to adopting a slow and even daily rhythm. There is no more commute or rushing to activities. There is just pockets of time unfolding within the small space of our home. I am finding it easier to transition between work and home activities with much less effort than usual.

Heightened Awareness and Gratitude: I have a deeper understanding of the contribution and sacrifice that our front line workers make every day. Not only the amazing health care and emergency services professionals but the grocery store clerks, garbage collectors, delivery truck drivers and mail carriers. Each of them is integral to the success and functioning of our society, both during this crisis, and every other day. Every night, when we show up at 7pm to applaud and make noise across the province, I do it for all of them.

Global Interconnectivity: There is nothing that we have in our society that is not reliant upon contributions from other parts of the world. From the medicine in our pharmacies, to our food supply, and manufactured products, we need each other. No country is an island. We are a global community.

Importance of Movement: Taking the time to move my body each morning is essential for my mental and physical well being, especially right now. It clears my mind and provides me with fuel for the day ahead. There are a number of free resources and trials available online that you can do at home. Some of the ones that I am enjoying include: Beach Body and Do Yoga With Me. My favourite trainer is Autumn Calabrese and yoga teacher is Fiji McAlpine.

Time in Nature: Despite COVID-19, spring continues to unfold around us. Crocuses, tulips and daffodils are pushing their bright heads through the ground. Delicate pink buds are appearing on the trees. Hummingbirds are trilling their mating calls to one another. Life is teeming. It is now warm enough to return to the garden and put my hands in the soil. I am enjoying the gift of the outdoors and feeling the sun on my face.

Time with Loved Ones: Although I miss seeing my friends and family in person, I have noticed an increase in connectivity since the crisis started. I have been using FaceTime and Zoom to call people that I have not talked to in months. We host Friday and Saturday night group gatherings. We make impromptu calls. With more time at home, and a lack of distractions, it is bringing people together more than ever. There is a renewed appreciation for those we love and a desire to express it.

Kindness and Love: Despite all of the frightening things that are happening right now, there are so many stories of hope and love and resilience. From the stories of postal workers in Ireland volunteering to check in on the elderly, to the hundreds of thousands of retired health care workers returning to work to help, and the citizens of Italy serenading to one another from their balconies: people are showing up for one another. As Mr. Rogers always told his young viewers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Hope for a Different Future: Humans can achieve extraordinary things when they put their mind to it. COVID-19 is shining the spotlight on a very broken global economic system and its vast inequities. The drastic changes that have occurred within the last month demonstrates how quickly it is possible for us to shift gears when we are motivated to do so. Perhaps this is our opportunity to start over. To reimagine what is possible if we were to do things differently going forward. This can be our moment.

Be the Light

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” 

~ Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers)

As I watch the news these days, it is hard not to feel sad, scared and overwhelmed. There are many frightening and despicable actions taking place every day and it can often feel like there is no hope. When I start to feel like this, I lean on the wise advice provided above. I look for the helpers. I search for the light. Throughout history there have been brave and selfless people who have fought for justice, despite facing great personal and professional risk. Alongside the pain and injustice in the world, there continues to be an abundance of kindness, love and bravery.

With this in mind, I wanted to highlight some positive stories and resources for you to check out. I hope they inspire you, as they do me.

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Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world — and why things are better than you think by Hans Rosling

When asked simple questions about global trends―what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school― people consistently get the answers wrong.

In Factfulness, Professor of International Health and renowned global speaker Hans Rosling, together with his two long-time collaborators, Anna and Ola, offers a radical new explanation of why this happens.

They reveal the ten instincts that distort our perspective―from our tendency to divide the world into two camps (us and them) to the way we consume media (where fear rules) to how we perceive progress (believing that most things are getting worse). 

Our problem is that we do not know what we do not know, and our guesses are informed by unconscious and predictable biases. It turns out that the world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think. That does not mean there are not real concerns. But when we worry about everything all the time, instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that threaten us most. 

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Official Secrets

The other night, I watched a film called Official Secrets, which tells the true story of British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun. One day in 2003, in the lead up to the Iraq War, staff at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) received a memo from the National Security Agency (NSA) with a shocking directive. The United States was enlisting Great Britain to help them collect compromising information on U.N. Security Council members: with the aim of blackmailing them to vote in favour of an invasion of Iraq.

Unable to stand by and watch the world be taken into war under false pretences, Gun makes the incredible decision to defy her government and leak the memo to the press. She does this at a great personal cost to both herself and her family. She is arrested, loses her job, and faces trial under the Official Secrets Act. Her story is an inspiring example of how an ordinary person can do extraordinary things.

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Together Rising

Glennon Doyle is a writer, speaker and activist. Doyle’s online writing career began in 2009, with the creation of her blog, Momastery. The funny, conversational and tell-all nature of her writing quickly gained popularity. Viral blog posts beginning with 2011 Lesson #2: Don’t Carpe Diem led to the publication of her memoir, Carry On, Warrior and the growth of her social media audience. Doyle has since gone onto write two more books, Love Warrior and Untamed. She is a professional public speaker and the President of the not-for-profit, Together Rising.

Life is brutal. But it’s also beautiful. Brutiful, I call it. Life’s brutal and beautiful are woven together so tightly that they can’t be separated. Reject the brutal, reject the beauty. So now I embrace both, and I live well and hard and real. My job is to wake up every day, say yes to life’s invitation, and let millions of women watch me get up off the floor, walk, stumble, and get back up again.”

~ Glennon Doyle

Together Rising invests money in both domestic and international projects. It’s motto is “Love Wins”. 100% of what Together Rising receives from every personal donation goes directly to an individual, family, or cause in need – not one penny received from individual donations goes to administration costs, unless a donor specifically authorizes that use.

Ringing in a new decade

As 2019 came to an end, and we welcomed in 2020, it made me to pause and reflect back on the decade coming to an end, as well as look forward to the one about to begin. The main lesson that I learned over the past ten years is that we have very limited control in this life. Don’t get me wrong. There is great value in planning, visualizing and working towards goals. This serves an important purpose. It is essential to be clear and know the direction that you want to move in: to identify your dreams and values. To set a course towards a destination.

The truth of the matter, however, is that despite the most careful planning and preparation, much of life simply happens to us without rhyme or reason; and it is often presents a very difficult and unpleasant reality. All we truly have control over in those moments is the choice on how we respond. The good news is that there is power in this choice. There is dignity in this choice. There is grace in this choice. It may not be what we planned or hoped for but it is where we are at. Rather than fighting what is, there is an opportunity to change and shape it through how you look at it, and how you choose to move forward. I have taken a lot of solace in this over the past decade and I will continue to lean on it in the years lying ahead of me.