Last weekend I was at my parents’ house. My mom threw my brother a college graduation party. He went to conservatory for classical flute so he performed at the party, and it was really awesome. I am so proud of that kid.
Later that night, Bear and I were chilling in my childhood room, and suddenly, in a burst of inspiration/fearlessness, I decided to go through a few of my old journals, which are stacked in a big wooden trunk in the far corner.
It was a mistake, of course.
Who knows what I was thinking at any point between the ages of 13 and 22. Not me. Not my journal. But the whole time, it’s obvious I think I’m being very profound. Very, very profound. I make lots of observations about the way the light falls through the branches of the trees outside my window. And how this relates to the fleeting nature of existence. And then I go on to say that so-and-so definitely still has a crush on me. I know, because he called and he said so. And the fact that I am bad at math is constantly making me cry. Also, oh my god, the color lavender is AMAZING. It is the BEST color. I am so depressed. Why do I have to be so mature in a world full of immature people?! Is my piano teacher mad at me for not practicing enough? Here is a list of all of my friends and their hair colors and their heights.
Two (related) themes that I didn’t expect and definitely didn’t remember emerged in my journals.
1. Outer space
2. Carl Sagan
Apparently, as a fourteen-year-old, I was obsessed with the idea of eventually ending up exploring outer space. I wrote all of these melodramatic things about how earth was too small for me, and I felt constrained by humanity, and the galaxy was swathed in mystery and my mom was being a pain and making me take this stupid class and it was all too much and I longed to be pushing the boundaries of human experience and knowledge, in space.
And a lot of this was probably because I was in love with Carl Sagan.
Yes. Carl Sagan.
He was the cutest. Irresistible in his sharp turtlenecks, with his gleaming hair. He was cooler than every teenage boy I knew. Cooler than Brian, who was sending me misspelled poetic love letter after enthusiastic misspelled poetic love letter.
I wrote: I asked Jake and Gabe (my poor, long-suffering brothers) who was cuter: Brian or Carl Sagan. They said Brian. But I disagree.
Oh, how I disagreed. Carl Sagan was everything a girl could want in a guy. He was brilliant, first of all. He was a famous scientist! An astronomer! Astronomy was the coolest kind of science! He had a charming smile. He was brave (once he cut his finger on television, to procure a drop of blood and show the world how cells worked). He was kind (why else would he take the time to explain how the world worked to everyone?). He had great hair.
Carl Sagan came up a lot in my journal. He was always mentioned by his full name, because he was so important. I wrote about Carl Sagan and outer space in the same breath. The world was too small for the likes of Carl Sagan and me. We needed more. We asked the big questions.
Almost everything I knew about Carl Sagan I learned from Cosmos, his TV series about space, evolution, biology, and the possible future. Life, basically. The biggest topic of all. For me, Carl Sagan lived inside his show.
“This oak tree and me, we’re made of the same stuff,” said Carl Sagan romantically, in his halting, nerdy, yet comfortable voice. He patted the tree fondly, explaining genetics.
He was wearing a camel-colored jacket over a crisp denim button-down. He smiled amiably.
How could I not fall in love with him?
So he was a little old for me ( in the show he must’ve been at least forty). So he was actually already dead (I didn’t know this until my dad told me, later, and I couldn’t believe it– how could cancer have outsmarted a man so brilliant?). My Carl Sagan existed in a separate realm, as a pure object of my affections. I casually compared the boys I met to him. I thought that he was perfect.
Eventually, I grew out of my Carl Sagan crush. I accepted his death. I went on to date boys my age, who were unable to describe the universe in a series of breathtaking metaphors, but who made me mixed CDs and took me very seriously.
I guess there was always something missing, though. As there has to be, when you’re very young and haven’t met the kind of person you could spend the rest of your life with.
There was something about Carl Sagan that no one else had. Not that I was thinking about him by then. But when I look back, I can see what it was.
It was that combination of hard, scientific inquisitiveness and wide-eyed wonder. It was the place at the intersection of intellectual doubt and undying hope. Cynicism meets romance, dedicated fact-collecting collides with the faint sketch of a gorgeous bigger picture. I love that.
It is so hard to find a person who embodies those things at once. Someone who doesn’t believe in things because other people do, who is willing to question everything, but who is also willing to make himself utterly vulnerable. Someone who is viciously sharp-minded and accepting at the same time.
I didn’t ever learn very much about what Carl Sagan was really like, but that was what he meant to me, based on his slightly bumbling, eager, and utterly competent appearances in Cosmos. To me, he was a gentle, nerdy guy who could run the world, who could understand everything at once, who was a force to be reckoned with. And he never even needed to raise his dorky voice.
It’s funny how I managed to find that guy, in real life. He’s Bear. And of course, I quickly married him.
He doesn’t ever wear turtlenecks or tweed. His hair is short and blondish, not long and dark. He is big and burly, not dapper and slim. But his mind. His mind is all of those things I described before. He is science-minded, but open-hearted. He loves without question, even though he seems to question everything else. He is infinitely practical, but willing to think creatively about anything. He is a little bumbling and hesitant, but completely competent at the same time. He looks unassuming, apologizes a lot, and knows everything.
Today is his twenty-eighth birthday. When I met him, he had just turned twenty-five. I was twenty-two.
When I was fourteen, I was in love with Carl Sagan and outer space.
In a way, I guess I still am.
I found my own Carl Sagan.
And given the chance, I think I’d still be a space explorer. Not just an astronaut. But someone who can cruise across galaxies in her sleek little starship.
Or maybe I’ll just be a writer. That’s another way to explore any world you can think of.
So this is maybe a thank you, for all the inspiration. For the hope. For the support in the pursuit of something bigger. To my first love, Carl Sagan. And to my forever love, Bear. Happy birthday!
(that’s almost infinity, right?)
* * *
Who was your first crush?
Unroast: Today I love the way I look in anything off the shoulder. I feel proud of myself for feeling comfortable in it.
P.S. Carl Sagan also wrote “Contact,” a novel that was made into one of my favorite movies of all time.
Fantastic, adorable reader cake pic for the gallery! God, that looks fun. Send me yours soon!
”The cake was flour-less dark chocolate cake with a layer of marshmallow fluff covered in chocolate sauce. At this point I was almost too stuffed to finish (which was why I was laughing, they couldn’t believe I ordered dessert after the huge meal we had), but refused to give in because the cake was just that good”– Keisha