deep field

When I sit down to write this, it’s early in the morning, early enough that the air flowing through my window still has that special honey drop of night’s particular essence in it, sweetening my lungs. There are still the very faintest stars in the sky, doing their impossible sums beyond my comprehension or even my astonishment, they are so clever at moving gigantic numbers around. My coffee has a sprinkling of cinnamon in it, the same way my mother takes hers, and I drink it listening to the world waking, in my favourite kind of silence.

Today, I’m going to do something many people would consider very stupid, and possibly insane. I am delighted to report that this kind of insanity feels very similar to happiness. I’ve been thinking about time a lot recently, and loss, and excavating some of the bones locked in the troubled sediment of myself. I think about space a lot, and how it compresses and expands what I think of as time like a magic mirror, the scrying surface of the universe making things bigger or smaller when tilted. I have always had a particular love of the Hubble Deep Field for this reason, what it tells us about depth, time, and what may be happening far beyond what one can perceive. Anyway, this is what’s been going on:

On Boxing Day, 2019, my Mother – who is the very closest person in the world to me and whose health has been tricky since 1993 (but that’s a trauma story for another day, kids!) – sat me down and said she’d been keeping a secret so as not to worry me. The secret was that she had Stage 3 bowel cancer, starting to creep into lymph nodes and through organ walls, and they were about to operate in a fairly major way. In ten days. And because of her heart failure, there was a good chance she’d die in theatre. And you know, I understand the desire to keep terrible truths from the people you love to spare them pain, but being given a very short window in which to deal with that threw a much larger, and ultimately much more destructive, grenade into my life that I am still sweeping up the pieces from when I find them behind the mental sofa.

And then she survived the op, just. And then chemo began. And then the pandemic. This is to gloss over a lot of the last year, because we are all suffering from pitted bones and sunken cheeks – the sheer exhaustion of near-constant uncertainty and fear, and anger, and grief – and no one needs to hear my end of it. Suffice it to say, I was not allowed to be with her during the extreme-shielding months of her treatment (which still went ahead, and I thank God daily), in case I inadvertently killed her with anything from Covid to a summer cold, and I watched my lovely, bonkers, emotionally unavailable, tireless re-homer of stray animals, deeply strange and unfathomable Mother shrivel up like an apricot left in the sun, her hair coming out, her teeth loosening, her skin rolling up and coming off like discarded parchment, extremities numb and frozen at Midsummer, via Whatsapp. She is still with us, and we are very lucky, and despite how she feels being the most important thing, I feel I can say quietly here that I am not over it yet. Actually, alongside These Unprecedented Times, it has punched my head off my shoulders.

Anyway, back to the Hubble Deep Field. We’ll take it from Wikipedia because I am tired:

The Hubble Deep Field (HDF) is an image of a small region in the constellation Ursa Major, constructed from a series of observations by the Hubble Space Telescope. It covers an area about 2.6 arcminutes on a side, about one 24-millionth of the whole sky, which is equivalent in angular size to a tennis ball at a distance of 100 metres The image was assembled from 342 separate exposures taken with the Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 over ten consecutive days between December 18 and 28, 1995.

The field is so small that only a few foreground stars in the Milky Way lie within it; thus, almost all of the 3,000 objects in the image are galaxies, some of which are among the youngest and most distant known. By revealing such large numbers of very young galaxies, the HDF has become a landmark image in the study of the early universe.

Let’s hear it again:

almost all of the 3,000 objects in the image are galaxies

Look at that. One 24-millionth of the sky. It awes and comforts me, I feel like dancing – look at all those shining, supermassive fingerprints, what a beloved book the Universe must be, how many times must God have thumbed the black pages of Creation.

It also makes me think about the Deep Field of my own life, of all our lives. The distant, glittering echoes behind even a tenth of what can be seen from so far away. What a tiny patch of life might show if one were to train the eye through time. The scattered stars across the lens, the dusting of cinnamon in my morning coffee, are just estranged siblings underneath the stern gaze of everyone’s least favourite Grandparent; Mortality. The stars are no more forever than the fading petals of a glorious summer.

In the face of imminent and mammoth loss, or when the world suspends its everyday spin for An Event that warps the loom of history around it, time does funny things. The gravitational sinkhole of the Pandemic, of cancer, of constant instability, has eaten away at things I thought of as important and taken most of my smile, empathy, patience, and capacity with it. My brain feels like someone took a shotgun to a birthday cake; a fragmented, slightly moist explosion in primary colours. But with its other hand, it has given me a kind of cold sanity I didn’t have before. The kind that comes when you rest your bones against the warm earth to which they may return tomorrow, that looms darkly between Saturn’s rings (and did you know that the shark is older than the rings of Saturn at around 400 million years?). The knowledge that there is but one truth to Time however slowly it may flow for the galaxies turning in their gargantuan waltz behind Ursa Major or however fast your lunch break flies: here it is, and here is its companion Death, and it is passing. It is passing, it is passing.

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