It’s normal to choose favourites for everything the way you’d choose your favourite ice cream, even if it’s effectively irrelevant. Favourite colour, favourite season, favourite planet. The latter, of course, is Pluto. A mysterious, frozen landscape spinning so far from here even the centre of the universe seems closer (but that is wrong, for the record.)
In 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a collection of stuffy jerks who probably don’t even like ice cream, suddenly announced that Pluto is not a planet. Why? Apart from the stuffy jerk thing, the truth is “a planet” had not been properly defined before this. I guess for the first few thousand years of stargazing it seemed obvious enough to say “big spherical thing spinning around a star” without writing that down.
So Pluto was no longer a planet, specifically because it hadn’t cleared its orbit of debris. It was a dwarf planet, which sounded a lot to me like the IAU’s way of saying “Okay guys, we know you’re going to hate this, so we’re going to keep planet in its designation anyway, because we’re tired of never being invited to parties, and we do like ice cream a little bit, well, we like frozen yogurt, that’s nearly the same thing.” And the kerfuffle settled for a decade.
This week two astronomers have announced a new ninth planet far, far beyond Pluto, at a distance of 200 to 1200 AUs (1 AU = the distance from Earth to the sun) compared to Pluto’s puny 40 AUs. Astronomers have been announcing a possible Planet X for most of my lifetime, but this time it’s more or less confirmed. And it’s exciting. Very exciting. I should be over the moon (ha!) but I find myself irrationally resistant to the hype. One of the astronomers who found this new planet is the very same who made the discovery that led to Pluto’s reclassification as a dwarf planet. He’s even quoted as saying, “Killing Pluto was fun.”
It’s normal to feel defensive on behalf of a frozen ball of dirt 6 billion kilometres away, right?
When I was younger than I am now I had the idea I’d live in a motor home. Where everything is small and tidy and takes up exactly the amount of space it needs and no more. Beds turn into tables, cupboards fix shut, the television and toilet disappear when not in use. The only variable in the home would be me.
We have scientifically calculated exactly how many litres of water each fish needs in a bowl, but it’s not clear what space humans need. The US government doesn’t define how many square feet prisoners need. There’s a rumour that 35 square feet is needed per child in school, but that’s not official. In any case, I was always confident I needed as little room as possible to be happy. In fact, the smaller and more contained I was, the happier I was. And I, personally, wanted to be as neat and tidy as the places I lived. I wanted to be a container with no loose hinges or uncertain fixtures.
There’s a “Colour outside the lines” movement that suggests to be creative you must be a mess, you must not care if you don’t hang up your jacket or put your shoes in the closet. You must live with abandon, and accept the chaos others throw into your life. Fight that chaos and you reveal yourself to be part of a system of repression that kills artists. You will never be an artist yourself. You’re too structured. You’re too dull.
Bullshit. A seed is a very neat container. A flower bud, too. A neat container does not mean the contents are dull or stunted. They might be the beginnings of a universe. I begin with everything in its place and from there I can go anywhere. I am contained, my creativity is not. I have a little space, I have a lot of imagination. I am the variable and I always will be.
Ma’at was both a concept and a goddess in ancient Egypt. Truth, order, balance, and morality, she stood on Ra’s boat that carried the sun through the sky. In the underworld she weighed your heart against an ostrich feather in a test for eternal life. If you failed, your heart was thrown into a lake of fire or devoured by a crocodile-cat-hippopotamus monster. Good times.
As a goddess Ma’at’s counterpart was Thoth, the mediator, but as a concept she also had a counterpart: Isfet. Isfet as a concept means chaos and injustice, but she too was also a goddess who had to be replaced by Ma’at before the world was born.
Duality seems to have great importance in every human mythology, from yin and yang to angels and demons. We like to simplify our desires and hates into opposing creatures, as if we can balance them on either side of a teeter-totter and watch them play.
Investigating why I like to eat small snacks constantly throughout the day rather than large meals at “normal” intervals reveals the theory that my ancestors were nomadic, and my brain and digestive system (also a brain of a sort) are more used to the constant snacking. Stuffing yourself then fasting repeatedly every day isn’t reasonable when you spend most of the day foraging or moving from one pasture to the next.
But if my brains are using that historical guide for food intake, why don’t they use it for other things too? Why do I always feel like sitting on my ass rather than walking somewhere, anywhere, even if it’s just to the grocery store? And why does my current home situation–selling one house and diving into the process of buying another–feel like purgatory rather than a natural part of a healthy, changing life?
Maybe it’s that there’s no field or forest to bushwack–that would be wonderful–but a set of paths that demand the correct navigation or else. As far as I can tell adulthood is the constant process of moving through an assortment of predefined systems, hoping you “get it right.” All these systems were defined by some other adult in some other place, and none of them seem to relate directly to me or anyone I care about. I had no idea being an adult would feel so much like living in some other person’s house, or on some other species’ planet, wondering when someone will notice you’re an imposter.
Studies have shown a link between mental and physical exhaustion that means being mentally burned out causes you to physically burn out more quickly. Despite that your heart and muscles could continue, your brain convinces them to give up when it’s already mentally ready for a break. Your perception of how much effort is involved is more important than the straightforward reality of how much you could actually physically accomplish.
All of this shines an uncomfortable light on the squishy mutability of the divide between physical reality and mental perception. By that I mean: What divide? Where? Each of us is stuck here looking out from between our own ears, and our reality is made up of what we believe we perceive. If we believe we’re tired, we can’t continue. If we believe we’re in love, we’ll do ridiculous things and be happy about it. If we hold our nose, bad milk tastes like nothing at all. If our reality is our everything, and our reality is an unreliable, subjective thing, reality is equally unreliable except as a philosophical idea.
We have a particular literary term for when a fictional character demonstrates the same thing. As we are all heroes in our own lives, so we are all unreliable narrators, too.
One of the most obvious and most difficult to remember truths about living in human society is that every other person in the world has an intelligence and interior thought space as elaborate as your own. Every time you feel no one can be as daydreamy, as crazy, as complicated as you, you’re wrong. They are.
Or they aren’t and you’re the only creature in the world with the capacity for real doubt, real guilt, real examination of everything you do, good or bad. An extension of Solipsism, the belief that only your own mind is sure to exist. One soul among robots. The only visitor at Disneyland.
Which is worse? Being no more or less important or interesting than anyone else, with enormous capacity for helping each other (yet you don’t, not like you could) and equally enormous capacity for destroying each other which you likely do on a regular basis without realizing? Or, alternatively, being utterly alone in this place with no chance whatsoever of empathy or connecting with another living being because they’re all automatons and you’re the only one with a true mind?
I have no idea.
“She drives mortals to madness with her airy phantoms
As she appears in weird shapes and forms
Now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness–”
In an Orphic hymn Melinoe was the daughter of Persephone and Zeus, another product of Zeus’s habit of raping people while disguised. Melinoe was born near an underworld river and is the bringer of nightmares and madness. She is sometimes described as the goddess of ghosts.
In university I began experiencing night terrors. These are not nightmares. They happen at a different stage of sleep and the result is profoundly different. We’ve all woken from nightmares, frightened and miserable. Waking from a night terror is like being struck by lightning. You are thrust violently awake, your heart rate charging to 170bpm. You try to stand up, scream, and lash out against the terror. I’ve broken bedside lamps and woken whole households.
Sleep is common and necessary yet a slippery thing to control. I was at a loss how to fix myself and stop these terrors. I certainly didn’t want to be drugged. Then someone decided a ghost had latched on to me and I needed to shake it. They suggested placing a dish of muratic acid in my bedroom because the ghost wouldn’t like it and would leave me alone. I’m a skeptic. This was ridiculous. But what could it hurt to try?
It worked. Or, my night terrors became much less frequent for some other reason when I did this. Now they’re very rare, though sometimes they creep back for a night or two. Sometimes it feels like I go elsewhere when I’m asleep, some blackened underworld, and on waking I’m crawling and clutching my way out of it, desperate to escape and forget. I learned about Melinoe recently, and though I’m still a skeptic I had a moment of understanding more aligned with those dark dreams than anything in this bright and logical world.