Rex Tillerson and I went to my daughter Lauren’s play at Ford’s Theater in DC this week. Left me with a lot to think about.
Silent Sky is about the astonishing true story of how Henrietta, a pastor’s daughter, ended up at Harvard where she figured out, well, the universe. At least how big it is and where we are in it. That sets up the real story, about how short our lives are with so much left unknown, undone and unasked. The play is running in the Ford’s Theater, with the box where Lincoln was assassinated, a few feet stage left. We were there at the opening which Lauren dedicated to Greg Ruchti, an astronomer and nephew, who died in May, of colon cancer. That’s his daughter Wynter with mine looking forward through the telescope. Hard to miss that second point about brevity.
As in real life in our family, some of the best lines in Lauren’s play about Henrietta Leavitt, Silent Sky, go to the quieter sister instead of the famous one. Henrietta, the scientist, is dying, aching at having only begun understanding the universe. Most would revel in her legacy–ironically credited to Hubble, who also got the space telescope named after him (oh, and that Nobel).Henrietta mourns the “work that I can’t finish; she aches to know “what else is true.” But, “that’s what a legacy is,” said her sister, Margaret, who saw life through the lens of her kids and a small town to love. “It could mean that you may not know how you might matter to people right now, and you cannot know how you will matter in the future. But you are already connected—and you already matter. Because what do you outlasts you.”
Lauren notes that these lines tend to make men over 45 years old cry.
I haven’t personally discovered much about the universe, but am near tears these days about the massive work left to Wynter, and our grandkids, Charles and Asa. This April will be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which was brought to my attention by the Wake Forest University newspaper wanting to interview me as one who participated in the first one. My blow on behalf of the species was digging a hole to bury a gasoline auto engine in the hard Carolina clay near the library. Like many sophomoric ideas, it underestimated the labor involved. Some frat boys, seeing the engine and me chipping away with the shovel, offered to pee in the hole to soften it up. I thought of that during this week of dismal environmental and political news, marked by the Doomsday Clock getting within 100 seconds of catastrophe. The scientists calibrating the clock noted accelerating decay on both those fronts. I noticed slightly more than half the senate pissing away our future.
We really don’t have the time. And the Senate isn’t the one letting the world down.
Rex Tillerson came to Lauren’s play and sat next to her at the VIP dinner. The best thing he did with his whole life was getting fired from being Secretary of State for telling the truth about his “moron” boss. Other than that, he ran Exxon and wrote a book about exploiting the Arctic oil reserves. And he served on Ford Theater Board for many years. Lauren asked him what he was excited about. His first answer was, “not much.” And then he said it was the kids today, to whom we have left such massive work to do. He thought they seem capable, with great energy. I agree with Rex, who is a year younger than me and probably never buried a single auto engine. But I’m not claiming any moral high ground. I’ve flown 1,571,397 miles on Delta so far, which translates into nearly two thirds of a million pounds of carbon. I drive a 3-cylinder Mini Cooper, but I’ve released the equivalent weight of nearly 240 of them flittering about.
It would be almost possible to tolerate Rex and me, if the first Earth Day marked the great turning away from what we now so clearly see is a great burning. I don’t know about you, but he and I have squandered these years.
The dismal Doomsday Clock could steal our resolve when we need it most. It could encourage us to give up and go look for another planet only a few dozen light years away. I don’t think Henrietta would recommend that. For the lifetime of me and all those I love, this planet is the only one to work with. Anyone who has burned as much carbon as me simply does not get to quit as long as there is anything to be done.
Jesus was often asked dumb questions by snarky Pharisees, much like the frat boys I looked up at. He had been passing his day healing this and that sick person, suffering this and that condition. They thought they had him, as he was doing this and desecrating the Sabbath! Jesus said, “…as long as my Father is working, I will, too.” I’m pretty sure that God has not given up on the planet, yet. But more to the point, we simply can’t stop looking forward, as long as Wynter can find a telescope. And can’t stop cleaning the watershed as long as her grandfather (my brother, Ron) is restoring the church property at the headwaters of a little creek that drains into the Chesapeake.
Saturday morning I went to my first beekeeping class at the Forsyth county extension office. I had managed to talk our condo association into letting me put a hive on our deck. I expected to be among a dozen earth day alumni fossils ignoring the obvious bee apocalypse underway. What could be more hopeless; like sand castles against the rising seas? Two hundred people of all sorts and types pressed into the room, including one Divinity school student of TC and mine with purple hair, totally unfossil-like.
I went home and ordered a second hive. The bees come March 28th, just a bit before the 50th Earth Day. I’ll have tens of thousands of new bee daughters, on whom I can’t quit now.
So, what does “not quitting” look like in these hard-hearted times?
Walk away from angry people, especially if they agree with you. We have no time for the friction and drama of anger.
Speak and act as if the children were watching and listening. They are, so we must feed their hopes by meaningful work and thought.
Think about those kids while you’re at work and not just on the weekend. In my case that means spending time in committee meetings about the carbon footprint of the hospital, which dwarves my lifetime impact just about every single day.
Go lose yourself in others and things that may last beyond you. Do something real for someone real, even if they are a bee.
Go outside and look up. Lauren draws from Whitman as she did again in another play, I and You: “I became tired and sick. Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, in the mystical moist night air, and from time to time, looked up in perfect silence at the stars.”
Silent Sky runs at Ford’s Theater through February 23.