Recently, I had a friend pass along the personal email address of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. It being the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in July, I’ve been reading up on Buzz – who seems like a completely, lovable curmudgeon. So, naturally, I did the annoying thing and shot him an email, but in writing it sort of realized that what I had to say was probably less a message to Buzz Aldrin, who I could only imagine knowing, and more a message to myself (who, admittedly, I could also only imagine knowing).
Dear Buzz –
By shear coincidence, a dear friend passed along this email address. I don’t know if you check it or if you would even be open to any dialogue. I merely wanted to jot out and share a few thoughts I only hope you’ll appreciate and, in doing so, share a bit of my gratitude for your legacy:
I spend an an exorbitant amount of time wondering what I am supposed to make of my one little life that I have before me. I obsess over the question and worry too much that I’ve gotten it all wrong, wondering even what it would have been to have taken a different road, maybe the one more traveled instead of the one “having perhaps the better claim.”
I’ve settled mostly on wanting to be someone who makes an impact via some degree of behind the scenes influence, but I want it to be an impact that’s deeply felt. I think that desire is fueled by the people who came before me, the heroes I admired growing up. I think you’re probably a big part of that in the way that celebrity figures become cultural models for us.
I wonder then what must it mean to accomplish the unthinkable, the brave few who have, and then have to live the next fifty years around an accomplishment for which there’s no topping, no besting, and one that you cannot return to after it passes? You live repeatedly into a symbolic moment and are known the world over for something only twelve human beings have done in all of human history thus far.
It must be, I imagine, a blessing and a curse. There must be something poetic to it, as well, a comic tragedy of greatness. There’s the endorphins that I imagine fired off in those euphoric ninety-three minutes. And I imagine it’s a bit the way people spend their whole lives chasing that first kiss to the point that, were it me, I’d still be chasing the moon like it was my first love. I’d want it back in an almost distressing way. I’d stare it down the way you hilariously have from time to time claiming it as your own.
I’m inspired, too – haunted even, by the dream, the goal, the chase – by some accomplishment that could last into forever because of the choices that I might or have already made or the influence I bring on someone or some thing. It’s strange almost, the things we think we want despite what our ancestors have shown us already, the stories they’ve put in our mirrors. Early sailors must’ve heard such stories, the ones of those whose ships had wrecked or simply never returned. Soldiers knew the horrors of war and tragedy, too. And even those who had “won,” who had championed the impossible, warned us about the other side of it: their own memories etching out a journey not without its pains. Yet still we longed for it. For most humans, for some silly reason, “knowledge” is empty without experience, and that’s the real crux of it. Our failures and successes must be wholly ours and no one else’s. This one, sacred life we have been gifted by whomever gifted it, be it the divine or our parents, is not a life anyone else can live for us. Indeed, we spend so much of our lives thinking we’re living into their footsteps not realizing that we were living the whole time into our own and learning the shape of them. And so we chase our own story, and a little bit of time, a little bit of luck, and a lot of persistence will place us wherever fate deemed it necessary come hell, heaven, and high water.
There’s also, of course, the event, itself, to consider. What we’re talking about here – at least in your case – was not just a great feat or accomplishment. It was an entire paradigm shift – for the world, yes, but so much more so for the twelve of you. To look back at that “pale blue dot,” as Sagan called it, and suddenly see yourself in the scope of it. The smallness of it, the simultaneous greatness of it, the forced self-introspection it must have demanded, followed by the way time has likely altered and tested what those precious moments likely conjured up for you – it’s just all so much to even process.
Of course, we may get glimpses of that awe-inspiring perspective no matter where we’ve been. Some of us have been graced with enough time and consideration to process a little of our lives. No one told us that processing would be the great feat we’d have to overcome, but it finds it way to us all the same.
My grandfather, a great man whom I loved and admired, served in World War II, and in the months following his death, I learned that the man I’d believed very simply to be a great man had led a more complicated life than children ever usually see of their grandparents. After the war, he’d come home with horrid dreams and paranoia and his wife, my adoring grandmother, had worried for the family’s safety to the point that she’d had him shipped off to a mental ward temporarily. When my mother went to visit him while she was in college, he shamefully looked down tearing up and said, “I guess you can go back to school and tell your friends your daddy is in the loony bin.” She smiled and confidently responded, “I’ll go home and tell my friends that I’m proud of my daddy.” By the time I knew him, he was healthy, and though I don’t doubt the war always haunted him, he’d learned to cope and heal. Some kind of perspective can capture us in loving arms and whisper, “You are accepted,” but how many miles do some of us have to travel to believe it, to “accept that we are accepted”? To let what we’ve done or haven’t done, accomplished or haven’t accomplished be good enough not so much in terms of whether there is more to be done, as there always is, but in terms of whether we are able to simply let go of our nagging self-doubt, our inner demons holding us back from the very normal and basic reality that being human and all that comes with it really is okay.
I guess that’s ultimately what I’m trying to convey and why I’m even writing this – it’s that I wonder if you ever stop to think that of all the things you did that people call you great and heroic for, it turns out the things that fill you most with accomplishment, or the things you wish did, were actually much simpler – the love between family, the kindness shared between strangers, the care shown someone struggling, the ability to forgive and love ourselves and those we hurt. We chase so much of ourselves and our egos that I’m sometimes tempted to believe the real hard work we were tasked to accomplish is, most of our lives, right in front of us and not actually the 240,000 miles away we were focused on or that we conveniently escape to when reality gets a little too close for comfort. We’re relatively simple creatures when it comes down to it. We forgot how simple our needs were, perhaps because we were capable of creating such complex problems and solutions for the world that we let ourselves think we were as complex as the drama we’d manifested.
But love, really was, all you really need, as the Beatles sang.
My struggle of late has been finding that balance – between dreams and duty, between career and love, between myself and everybody else, even between myself and the other parts of myself I seem to constantly battle.
In my “short” thirty-five years on this rock, our old blue dot has managed to pass some 20.8 billion miles through space. I guess we’re all sailors through the stars, then, on some level, aren’t we? I’d like to think our stories aren’t all that different, our basic human struggles similar, our heroes one in the same. A father. A grandfather. A son. A mother. A sister. A friend. Connection. Just plain old connection.
And that therein is really why I admire you. It’s not that I’m not in awe of your fame or the greatness of what you’ve done but that you, like me, are – I imagine and even hope – just as broken, just as human, despite all that you accomplished. And it might be nice to know someone admires you for that.
It’s much like my grandfather who even though I once was oblivious to the pain he had carried, I finally realized that he, like most of us, had endured great suffering, and in that regard, I realized what a feat it is to live until you’re ninety-three, what a feat it must be to accomplish, well, just living with yourself and loving yourself and the people around you no matter what cards were yours.
This is a world where the distance between Earth and Luna should give us plenty of reason to live and love like that.
Thank you for hearing me out and entertaining my silly meandering thoughts. I hope this finds you well.