Tristan Marajh

 

Spaced Out 

Carrie Milton was responsible for clearing out her mother’s apartment after the funeral. There wasn’t much there; her mom had been a minimalist, a woman who, like the lyrics go, imagined not only no heaven and people living life in peace, but also no possessions. At least, Carrie thought, she was able to make the latter a reality for herself. Florence was of the sixties’ counterculture. She wouldn’t describe herself as a hippie, yet nevertheless had often been described by others as soothers who dismissed her views.

There was a painting of the om symbol on the wall facing her bed, the symbol that, according to Hinduism, represented the sacred sound of the Universe. The Tao te Ching rested on her bedside table, ground herbs encrusted a mortar that Carrie prefered not to investigate, and there was yet another book beneath the mortar. That book does not have a title on the cover, but it matches one her mother gave her when she was a young woman. She placed her mother’s diary in her purse.

Before she left the apartment for the final time, she remembered the visually ambiguous but olfactorally obvious herbal mixture and flushed it down the toilet. It was cannabis – marijuana – ground up for smoking, and she knew her mother used it for spiritual purposes. As Florence Milton aged and she delved into the spiritual mindset, she didn’t care what other people thought about her. Marijuana was explicitly forbidden at her seniors’ residence, but there it was, just as much a part of her mom’s morning routine as preparing breakfast, chanting om, and doing her stretches.

Carrie smiled as she placed the mortar into a box, wrapping an old towel around it to protect it. Despite Carrie’s insistence that her own daughter decline weed, she felt proud that her mom kept her idiosyncrasies and quirks even during her final days. That sense of rebellion and protest that formed Florence’s character never faded like it had for Carrie. The real world did that to people, she thought, but not her mom. Her mother had railed against the real world in her youth and never stopped, even when she landed in her seniors’ residence. If, Carrie imagined, her mother made one last gesture to that “real world” as she departed, it would have been taking a last drag from a long blunt, holding in the pull and then with a twinkle in the old woman’s eyes, blowing the smoke in the real world’s face.

***

As Carrie stacked boxes in her garage, she thought about the protests Florence had taken her to as a little girl—anti-war marches, candlelight vigils for peace—but Carrie had grown up. She graduated, married, had her own child, divorced, and became increasingly frustrated that her mother remained stagnant. It was as if her mom was in a perpetual state of delinquency. Now, as she gazed at her mom’s belongings stacked neatly in the corner next to the boxes of her daughter’s baby clothes, the thought occurred to Carrie that she, too, had become stagnant in her own way.

A desperationbarely perceptible but enough to cause her to act—made her search her bookshelf and find the diary she filled in the days when she followed her mother from one protest to another. Flipping through the pages brought back all those memories. There had been so much idealism in Carrie, too aspirations, values, insights and outrage at the state of the world. Reading the diary, Carrie felt that she had become a completely different woman; she wondered whether the younger version in the diary’s pages or the version reading them was her real self. It seemed there was little overlap. Now, her idealism and energy was directed toward her young daughter’s academic progress, extracurricular pursuits, healthy food choices, and future planning. Carrie hadn’t thought of her plans to volunteer in Kenya, teach English in Asia, or backpack Europe in years. Those dreams were all in her diaryher younger self making promises in the hope that her older self would make them happen. Back then, Carrie had believed she would always be the same person.

And she still was, she decided. She was just more aware of how unrealistic those dreams were. In two hours, she would have to pick her daughter up from gymnastics. She wouldn’t even be able to book a trip to Kenya in that amount of time not with a thousand different travel websites. That was the world today: competition, vying for your dollar with exaggerated promises. A smorgasbord of companies offered packages to Kenyanone for volunteer work but instead for tourism, luxury, indulgence and excess. Taking a vacation was not simple.

Carrie closed her diary and stared around her living room, looking at how her material domesticity usurped her younger ideals: couches, coffee tables, cabinets, carpets and curtains. Her eyes rested on the book in her purse, the one she had taken from under her mother’s marijuana mortar. She pulled it out and held it in her hand,  Florence’s own diary, her life lingering.

***

AUGUST 10, 1969:

Should be the loony race, instead of lunar race. And the human race? What about that?

Attended the March for Equality today – positively spectacular turnout. More spectacular than the moon, I am certain, and more alive. White and black, marching for a common cause, arm in arm.

Given the year, Carrie knows her mother is referring to the moon landing, or, at least, the build-up to it. She wasn’t born then, but learned about it in school. The situations she reads of in her mother’s diary racial inequality, oppression of women, international conflictthese have accompanied her since then as well.

Florence Milton focused her energies on human regression, which was not to say she personally regressed. She devoted her life to the oppressed, the subdued, the silenced, the restricted and coerced members of humanity. She had emphatically concluded that we, as a species, have a very long road to climb, even as our spacecraft and science themselves climbed through the skies into the reaches of outer space. Those were the questions Carrie had also pondered until she reached adulthood. Her mother had remained thrashing about in what Carrie thought was a hopeless battle, situations doomed to repeat and perpetuate themselves for much longer than it would take for humans to land a rover on Mars, Uranus, or any solid extraterrestrial surface. Like those planets, solidity would be guaranteed for some people, while tumult would be guaranteed to other people – such is the terrible hand our race holds in the random, unsympathetic gamble of the Universe. But reading through their diaries, she realized her idealism had never died; it was only dormant.

Coming back to the present, Carrie noticed the time. Her daughter would be waiting for her, if she didn’t make haste. Thanks Mummy, she whispered, as she drove to pick up her daughter. She wondered if she should she leave the volumes from her younger self left unread? Did her present comfort and security, like planetary solidity, necessitate that the pages of her younger narrative remain unexamined? No, she knew better than that. Security was guaranteed to no one at all, so why should she believe that she was an exception. As Carrie pulled into the parking lot of her daughter’s gymnasium, she was struck with the same dark knowledge of her younger days – that even as she’d once adamantly chased progress on the spectrum of humanity, she was now heading toward a barren “progress” while real progress was found where her mother had directed her efforts – toward the less privileged, the oppressed and overlooked, the ever-struggling. Progress only mattered if there was context; a rocket departing a troubled Earth in 1969 to land on a barren lunar surface wasn’t true progress. Such an endeavor should have been regarded as neglect and selective advancement, not “one giant leap for mankind”. How effective is it indeed, if one makes a giant leap forward while the other foot is paralyzed? Only pain and restricted mobility result. And Carrie’s life sure felt like that sometimes.

Florence’s had spent her life ardently trying to help others. She chose to do extrato tackle structures, policies, institutions, ideologies, legislation, hierarchies, curricula and conspiracies. Those external entities had no bearing on her character of compassion and goodwill. On the other hand, Carrie’s character had changed with those external entities; they determined her sense of justice, of right and wrong. She accepted morality from those who wrote the history books, those who quashed the people Florence Milton, her mother, was struggling for.

Isabella tapped on the driver-side window as her mother was staring ahead, lost in thought. Startled, Carrie gave her daughter an impish smile before unlocking the car. Isabella tossed her knapsack into the back seat and set herself down on the passenger’s seat beside her mom.

“How long am I going to keep doing gymnastics?” Isabella wanted to know.

“I wish you would see the positive,” Carrie said. Her daughter didn’t enjoy gymnastics lessons; it only required two lessons for Isabella to see that. The only reason Isabella kept going was because her mom insisted; insisted that her daughter would grow to love it, that it would teach her discipline and persistence and make her into a well-rounded young woman. Carrie wished her own parents had done that for her when she was a child. Florence Milton believed in children learning what they wanted to pursue, instead of it being decided for them. Carrie believed that if you left kids nowadays to their own devices, those devices would be literal: smartphones, iPhones, tablets. “Leaving someone to their own devices” meant something else in Carrie’s own generation, where there was more reason to look at oneself and the world instead of looking to the worlds contained inside those electronic devices. Carrie quickly changed the subject. “Any homework for tonight?”

“Just a science essay to prepare for,” Isabella said.

“What on?” Carrie asked.

“Those probes that are traveling through space,” Isabella said, tapping on her smartphone. “Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.”

The longest-enduring spacecraft, still reaching through the known limits of outer space, through all known limits of speed and durability, Carrie herself had done a science project on Voyager 1 and 2 when she was in elementary school. Now her daughter was doing the same. It struck Carrie then how utterly stupendous that spacecraft program was, that something conceived by human minds and constructed by human hands, decades ago, still hurtled through hostile and unknown space, enduring whatever temperatures, threats and pressures that were in its way. Did her mother write about that too, in her diary? Did she think that was loony also, like the lunar mission? If Carrie found any entries in her mother’s diary about the Voyager missions, it could assist Isabella with her science essay.

JANUARY 12, 2009:

I started this diary with a writeup about the lunar landing in 1969. I’ve run out of pages and this is my last entry. I suppose it’s poignant that my final writeup will speak of what happened in the astronomical field between the moon landing and today.

The “giant leap for mankind” hadn’t happened with the moon landing like Mr. Armstrong said, but in and over the last seventy years. From the March for Equality to standing in Washington listening to Barack Obama deliver his inaugural speech. NASA, too, has had more variety of individuals in its staff, and more women – not to mention women astronauts. Outside of NASA’s headquarters and out to the rest of Earth, there is less institutionalized prejudice, more hugely diverse cities, greater diversity represented in media, more equal opportunity in jobs and education, less – or, less vast – economic disparity, highly diverse student bodies in school and universities, more intercultural relationships and marriages. There are still stumbles and tumbles, but it still is a giant leap for mankind, and it did not happen in space but here on Earth. The “small step” Mr. Armstrong spoke about was the moon landing itself: that entire loony lunar race, the culmination of competition between U.S. and Russian egos: whose rocket-dick could rise higher. There was the neglect of dire issues in their own countries and their exorbitant amounts of moon-money should’ve been spent on those issues instead of sending phallic rocket ships to dock on dead land; pockmarked and cratered, a remnant chunk that was once part of our planet – that original, latter part lush, thriving and vibrant with life, soil and sky. But, unfortunately again, we wanted to allocate money to desolation on a dead world instead of dedication to a living world. That “small step for man” only turned out at the time to feel like a step upon man; ignoring fellow man’s needs for bragging one-upmanship, national superiority, pride. Where’s the superiority in treading on humanity? Loony-race, indeed. Pointless, wasteful.

Ah, but the Voyagers! Those persistent probes! Launched into infinity by the best of us with the best of us contained inside, for other life on other lands to encounter. An exuberant display of Earth and human language, sound, invention, color and imagery contained within a single gold sphere – no hint of conflict, discord, dislike and animosity. A unified display to extraterrestrial intelligence showing them our own intelligence. With the progress we made since Mr. Armstrong took his first step – with society’s progress in the last years – that’s the “giant leap!”  And we’re still leaping with Voyager, extending into infinity, into faraway galaxies beyond our own measurements of time, of distance, of possibility, of imagination!

***

Isabella did her assignment on Voyager with her grandmother’s help: she quoted Florence Milton’s diary entries and provided details of the Voyager mission, explaining that “the best of us” Florence celebrated in her entry was contained inside the Voyager spacecraft two golden discs containing a soundtrack of earthly sounds: waves breaking upon shores, music and greetings from human cultures, birds singing, whales bellowing, winds gusting. “Spaced Out” was the title of Isabella’s essay, which was the also the title Florence wrote on the inside cover of her diary. Isabella had borrowed the title, assuming her grandmother named her diary as such because of the astronomical nature of its entries, but Carrie, remembering the contents of the mortar that lay above the diary in Florence’s apartment, knew spaced out also meant something else.

***

Yes, Carrie told herself, she still was the person who had written in her diary and not just the person reading it today. Like her mother did with hers, Carrie had kept her own diary to remind herself of who she was, despite the fetters of present circumstances. Reflecting back on the dreams of her youth, she understood that there was no way that she could have achieved those dreams back then. But the beauty of dreams is that once they arise within a person, they keep residing quietly there even as she bumbles, battles and brawls her way through life, awaiting the time when they can be inhabited with the same persistence as they inhabited their dreamer. Yes, adulthood, parenthood and her career had taken Carrie away from her dreams, but those circumstances did teach her resilience, autonomy, discipline, unconditional love and devotion, accountability, persistence, sacrifice. Those qualities, Carrie could argue, were more valuable than any dreams.

***

It wasn’t at Isabella’s graduation that Carrie understood her present and past selves could be reconciled, but in moments before that, while sitting in her car awaiting Isabella to conclude whatever extracurriculars her daughter chose, while waiting for laundry to wash and dry, or meals to finish cooking. She had her journal with her during all those times, plotting how she could make her youthful the dreams a reality.

On the day she attended Isabella’s university graduation, Carrie registered for Graduate studiesa Master’s in Public Administration. Her old idealism had merged with the refined pragmatism developed over a lifetime and a definite path had emerged. The first small step would be returning to school.

Mother and daughter had a celebratory dinner later that night. They clinked wine glasses to Isabella finishing university and to Carrie’s new journey. Thinking about each other’s transition and their own, they sipped their drinks silently.

“I’m going to help build homes in Uganda,” Isabella said, as they waited for their dinner to arrive.

Carrie’s eyes began to tear up as she looked at her daughter in tenderness. This young woman is after my own heart, Carrie’s mother would have said. Florence would have been proud of them both, that they were focusing on being the help to humanity and, in Carrie’s case, to herself. It was all Florence Milton ever wanted people to do, before the pursuit of unnecessary space trips. The best place, she believed, is here on Earth. There is no environment that could be more perfect for us. We live in paradise without knowing it, on a utopian land without understanding it, in peace only if we let it. The Voyagers were the best thing we’ve done in our space endeavors, because in sending them out we represented a perfect Earth. Even if it turns out that we are indeed alone in the universe, then at least we are alone together, learning to be Stewards of the Earth before we become Masters of the Universe.

 


Tristan Marajh is the 1st-Prize winner of the Stratford Writing Competition (Canada) and The Free Association Books’ Short Fiction Competition (England). His other work can be read in The Nashwaak Review, Ricepaper Magazine, The New Quarterly, Existere: A Journal of Art & Literature, Solstice: A Journal of Diverse Voices, Peregrine and The New Engagement. Born in Trinidad & Tobago, he resides in Toronto, Canada.


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