Latency Period: Constellations

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, April 27th, 2017

"We would have to build new pantheons, new meanings."

Daniel Elder Essay Nailed Magazine
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Our monthly column “Latency Period” is made up of reflections on the gaps in our lives–whether between life and death, between perception and reality, or between one human being and another–and trying to bridge those gaps with words. Written by Daniel Elder, for NAILED.

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I always loved reading books on astronomy. I’d trace my fingers over the constellations that stayed hidden from the eyes of New York, wondering at the imagination of the ancients that they found their gods up in the sky above them. As if they’d always been there, waiting. I never saw many constellations with my own eyes while growing up in a megalopolis, all smoggy sky and the light of so much human hum shining endlessly. Even in the deep of night the city skeleton glowed up into the stratosphere. Sometimes the Big Dipper or the three familiar stars of Orion’s Belt would make a dim appearance, but that was it.

I occasionally had tastes of wilder constellations, little morsels of Cassiopeia and Pegasus; at the house we rented upstate, on camping trips with my father, during vacations to quieter places in the body of America and the wider world.

Oregon is a quieter place, and if I go out at night and crane my neck there are stars to gaze at any night the clouds aren’t hovering overhead pregnant with rain. When the sky is clear, there is such a bounty lofted up there, spread out like a prickling tapestry. Yet I know that if I travel just a couple hours outside Portland I’ll realize that even here the light pollutes, even here the depth and wonder of it all is obfuscated.

When I traveled to Peru two summers ago, I slept beneath untrammeled sky on many memorable nights. In the shadow of the peak of Salkantay en route to Machu Picchu. Inside a metal-and-plastic pod strapped twelve hundred feet up the wall of the Sacred Valley outside Pisac. On the arid desert floor of Colca Canyon. And one night out on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, one of those oxygen-thin crowns of the world.

That night, I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, wrapped myself up against the biting cold and breathlessly hiked out to the highest point of the island, where I could be alone. As I climbed and then rested, I was struck dumb by the sight of the Milky Way spread out across the firmament like a purple-green-blue tallit draped over the shoulders of the cosmos. Slowly the black of night turned to deepest blue and the stars and moon began to wink away above my head as I sang song after song in celebration of the light rising out of the gargantuan blue of the lake, what the Incas called the birthplace of the sun. I’d never known the truth of night and day like that before.

All through the night in that Peruvian sky there were billions of stars. Don’t look for your constellations, one of the guides said to me on the first night on the Salkantay trek. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, they’re all different. And it was true. I didn’t know any of those shapes, but they kept appearing and soon became familiar. I gave them names. The spitting llama, the cosmic snail, the mushroom holding a gun. Strange gods, my gods.

It was obvious but had not occurred to me: that on the other side of this spinning rock, the cosmos might tell a different story entirely.

The thing is, none of those constellations are really there. Not the ones I grew up reading and dreaming about in the Northern Hemisphere, and not the ones worshipped by the ancients below the equator and passed down to the present. If we traveled one parsec in any direction away from our solar system and gazed out at the tableau of glittering deathlight that is space we wouldn’t recognize any of it. We would be lost, adrift, unable to find a single one of our deities. We would have to build new pantheons, new meanings.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Where we happen to be, this nexus of space and time, the infinitesimal corner of space our planet has traversed in the pittance of time during which apes have walked upright and stared into the deeps.

It gets me thinking, this relativity. Thinking I’m not really here. This me I think I am, this firm idea of a person I hold on to from one day to the next. The self I strive to define. This me, this I—it’s all just a field of stars. Billions of them, yes. A star for every moment, a star for every feeling, a star for every individual element of my essence and my lifestream. But there’s so much space between all those stars, space riddled with dark matter and unseen untouchable strings, all of it vibrating and pulsing and metamorphosing from moment to moment.

And I know, this metaphor is imperfect, because we are more than space.

We are time.

I’ve been feeling haunted by time, lately. More than usual. I lie awake at night imagining death, the death of those I love and my own death. Maybe I read the news too much. I have been worrying about so much, feeling as if I am not enough, not doing enough, and that the clock is ticking on everything I do.

The other night as I went through this tired rigmarole I felt myself pulled forward through time. Now I was on my deathbed, an old man with patchy grey stubble, bedridden, my body failing me. The nurse left the room and I was there alone and as the old man, I remembered myself as a younger man, how I would lie awake at night and worry myself half to death. The old man laughed when he, when I, saw through the folly and waste of the young man’s self-torture with a clarity that cut to the quick.

I came back to my body, Portland, Oregon, 2017. I worried some more. Then I fell asleep, and my last thoughts before being taken by dreams were prayers to that old man to travel back in time and be with me here and now instead. I wanted him to come hold me, place the lesson so deep inside my heart I would never forget it.

Seven years ago, during my first encounter with ayahuasca, in the deep green heart of the ceremony, I found myself walking through a desert. One by one I met my teachers along the way—mother, sisters, friends, dead beloveds, strangers, gods—and they bade me well as I crossed the wastes. They urged me on. The desert sun was brutally hot, burning down on me. I knew I was in a yoga studio, sitting cross-legged on a blanket with a bucket in my lap. But I was in the desert all the same.

I came to the steps of some colossal structure, and I set to climbing them. The light of the sun was at once a bane and a boon, searing me but pushing me forward. When I climbed over the top of the staircase I was on the roof of a vast and mighty temple, which was set in a range of indigo mountains each taller than our entire Earth. Nothing stood between me and the white hot blade of the sun now. I sat cross-legged and steeled myself with deep breath after deep breath. Then I craned my neck and looked straight into the burning star.

Blinding white light pierced my forehead, my third eye, and for a moment all I saw, all I knew, all I was—was light.

Space.

Time.

The light dissipated at its center, like a portal opening.

I saw a room. A thick wooden desk, covered in books, totems, religious icons. A chair at the desk and in the chair, an old man. Frizzy white curls and a big joyous beard framed a face lined deeply with wrinkles, wrinkles that carved his whole life story into his cheeks and eyes and mouth. A wondrous narrative. He sat hunched over paper, writing with a playful, mirthful energy about him. He placed down his pen, and then folded one leg over the other and turned. He looked directly through the portal and met my eyes. I knew exactly who he was.

I’d looked in mirrors before.

That brief encounter sent me spiraling into faith and mysticism, until I fell from faith through one and then another gradient, a thousand grayscale degrees between belief and doubt and back and forth and back again but eventually (and now always) finding myself home again inside the center of a fierce unknowing that gnaws and kneads me and pushes me forward.

But that’s a bigger story for another time, maybe.

Sometimes I feel small. Like my body has shrunk, like I’m too big for it, like any movement I make will be struck through with the awkwardness and gangliness I had as a toddler. Or when I was a boy sitting outside my parents’ bedroom all night pondering divorce, head bowed, knees drawn up. Or the tight feeling of my shy teenage self, looking at someone across a room and tying myself in knots with the paralysis of wanting them and feeling unworthy. Old selves, old husks I’ve left behind. And yet they come back. They visit me.

The scientist Endel Tulving coined the term chronesthesia, a theory he posits to describe mechanisms of memory that he believes allow the human consciousness to experience mental time travel. A visiting of past and future selves. It is a bizarre sensation, to feel as if some old node of time was reasserting itself in my corporeal self. It happens usually when other people are involved. Something about relationships—relating to others, romantically or otherwise—pulls me back and forth through time, awakens old selves, brings them to the fore.

Those are the moments when I realize most keenly that the self I am that I think is growing and evolving isn’t one singular transforming self. It’s an accretion. It’s a sequence. It’s a constellation made up of stars, some long-dead and casting their light through not just space but time.

Constellations. Just think of them. We think we make them, just by imposing our mythologies on the shapes that they create. But they aren’t made by us at all. They’re formed of space and time. And they will be broken apart by space and time. As the universe expands (and then perhaps collapses), as the galaxy in which our solar system exists drifts onwards through its own path through the universe, as all of time and space bends itself with the motion of the celestial whole, the constellations as we know them will break apart.

One day I will be an old man and all the selves I carry with me will gather in the moment of my death, a great kinetic chain of every decision, every reaction, every moment of my being. Every splintering thought. All the intersections of my life that have accordioned out through space and time, living their lonely existences and only occasionally being pulled back and forth through the others, will join me then and all of us will join hands, join minds, and collapse into the concrescent moment  of my, our, very last breath. Together as one.

And it’s funny. The more I think about that, the less I worry.

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Header image courtesy of Erik Jones. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.