I recently listened to a podcast about space junk, the man-made debris floating around in Earth’s orbit. It discussed how one Cold War-era rocket booster over time may break into 100 smaller pieces of debris, which eventually break into 1,000 bits of space junk. It all spins around the planet, occasionally crashing into things, which creates exponentially more and smaller debris.
All these little pieces are not gently floating around us in a Hollywood version of zero gravity. They’re moving at incredibly high speed. Millions of tiny pieces of shrapnel, which we know will inevitably cause damage to the satellites and the things in our orbit that we view as important and useful. Like HBO.
We’ve been sending things up into space for 60 years and it’s all starting to accumulate. I guess there was a sense that it would all be ok. That when the usefulness of the things we placed up there were over, they would simply be absorbed into the void. But that’s not how it works. While the universe seems limitless, the earth’s orbital space is finite.
That resonates in my brain right now. I am slowly realizing that my own orbital space is finite. There are things in my life that have slowly broken apart, leaving tiny, toxic bits of debris in their wake.
When do you finally let go of the idea that the space in your life, and your heart, is limitless? That time breaks everything down? When is it ok to stop pretending that things work, when they clearly don’t?
In space, gravity and inertia are what hold things in our orbit. They hold the moon in it’s elliptical arc around the earth. Both the good and the bad are held there, in whatever form they currently take, whizzing around us forever.
I’ve always had trouble with inertia. Inertia is often the boss of me.
So now we’re faced with the task of having to take stock off what’s up there and figure out how to clean up the unwanted debris, the space junk. It turns out that the process of removal is difficult, delicate, and costly. At what point do you invest resources in gently removing the broken things you’ve been holding onto?
Of course, the other choice is just to leave it there and see what happens. Maybe everything will be fine! Except that it seems inevitable that the shrapnel of our past will eventually crash into the things we need and value now. Unless something is done.
Unless we do something about it.
I get frustrated sometimes. I didn’t put all that stuff up there. A lot of it isn’t even MY space junk. I wish people had considered how their choices might have impacted those that came after them. Of course, I should have thought harder about the same thing. I admit that I put things up there, too. It didn’t seem like it mattered given how cluttered it already was. But ultimately, I have to deal with all the debris in my orbit, regardless of how it got there. I think that’s called “being responsible”, but I’m not sure.
There are moments when the universe prompts me to look up and around. Sometimes during a crisis or sometimes for no reason at all, I see that I’ve been focused on the smallness of the things that make up my smallish life. I see the spaces around me as they are, not as I want them to be. I want them to be comfortable and whole. They are generally neither.
In those moments, I can clearly see the sharp, little pieces flying by in orbit, that are the most worrisome. I see that they’re threatening to damage the things I hold most dear. That makes me brave enough to get started, removing one small piece at a time. I remember that taking responsibility for a mess and clearing it up, bit by bit, is genuinely hard but ultimately satisfying work. I am reminded that making progress feels good but when it’s done, it feels great. And that fighting inertia has a tendency to lighten that which gravity has held down.
The podcast that got me thinking about orbital space is called 99% Invisible and it's really, really great. Please give it a listen!
The family crisis that prompted me to write this is ongoing. Good vibes and best wishes are appreciated. One commenter on Facebook noted that "dynamics are blasted apart by illness", which I am finding to be very true. My kiddos, husband, and I are all totally fine. I don't mean to be weird or vague or anything, but the specifics of this mess aren't mine to share. Just know that the situation truly and deeply sucks.
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