Early Writing Memories: The Rock That Would Not Be a Plant

In third grade we had writing journals. Each day Mrs. Coley would announce a topic and ask the class to write about it in our journals for fifteen minutes. At the end of the fifteen minutes, she would collect the journals for review and we’d get them back the next day with a check, a check plus or a check minus. Then she would ask a few of the check-plus recipients to read their entry aloud for the class. I pretty much always got check-plusses, and it was a point of pride for me. Even in third grade I loved to write, and to please people with my writing.

One day the topic was “If I lived in the ground, I would be a…”

I really liked this topic. I got right to work. I decided I’d like to be a rock. But not just any rock. A beautiful rose quartz with a name and dreams and aspirations and magical powers. I wrote furiously and filled up a page and a half in the allotted fifteen minutes.

The next day when Mrs. Coley handed the journals back, I opened mine to see the dreaded check-minus! I almost started crying right then and there. I put my head down on the desk and pretended to be very, very tired so no one would see my red face.

Mrs. Coley asked three of my classmates to read their entries. I listened closely, hoping for some indication of where I’d gone wrong. Turns out, all of the check-plus entries did have one thing in common: they were all about being PLANTS. Daffodils, rose bushes, oak trees and the like. Of course! The topic was “If I lived in the ground,” not “If I were an inanimate object in the ground”. Plus, we’d been studying the life cycles of plants that week, so it would only make sense for the journal topic to be a non-specific curricular comprehension trap. Geez. I felt like such a dunce.

But now that I’ve had twenty-eight years to think about it, I’m inclined to conclude that my journal entry was actually the brilliant one, and that those other kids were just stifling their creative impulses, doing their part to uphold the elementary school status quo. Because I mean, plants don’t live IN the ground. Not entirely. And sentient rocks with magic powers are totally awesome. So take that, Mrs. Coley!

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The Night NASA Flew Over the Ingles

international space station, iss, nasa, from earth

Perhaps one day…

One unseasonably fine evening earlier this month, when the blue of the night sky resembled the blue of Billie Holiday’s voice and the asphalt of the Ingles parking lot glimmered under the starlight, a strange and wonderful thing occurred.

I was at the supermarket that evening because I wanted to check my email. This particular Ingles has a Starbucks inside, and a cafe area with free wifi. So there I sat, typing away on my laptop, sipping at my too-hot chai, when I noticed that someone very tall was standing rather close to me. Just standing. I looked up to see a 60’s-ish man in smart Ingles managerial dress gazing out of the window, scratching his scalp at the crest of his receding hairline. I couldn’t help but stare; his expression as he peered out into the dark seemed distinctly out of place on the face of a supermarket manager. If I had to pin down the emotional source of that expression, I’d call it wonder. Or maybe longing.

The manager snapped out of his window gazing daze to check his watch. Yes, this man wore an actual watch. I would not deceive you. Apparently, the time for Something was upon us. He looked around the cafe excitedly and asked, “Do you know what time the space station is going to be visible?”

Now, I am a fairly enthusiastic enjoyer of All Things Space. I go up on the parkway when there’s a meteor shower. I get all misty-eyed when NASA proposes sending probes to yet-unexplored planets. I post stuff about SpaceX weekly on Facebook. I watch rocket launches with my kid. I consume science fiction (both literature and film) with a mad passion. And I have been known to fantasize about living under an overturned salad bowl on Mars as part of the Stage 1 terraforming crew (handling the preliminary equipment set-ups and so on). But I must admit that it had escaped my attention that the International Space Station’s orbital path would bring it to my neighborhood on that particular night. I said as much, and the people at the table next to me looked up long enough to shrug their shoulders, and then went back to their riveting game of World of Warcraft.

The manager pushed his glasses up his nose and shifted nimbly from foot to foot. He said, “I think it’s about to fly over right now. One of the bag boys told me about it. Rick.” His eyes widened. There was no doubt about it. The dude was straight up breathless with excitement. He was aflame. He was about to swing right off his tenterhooks. My writer’s mind started making up stories about him. Inspired by the Apollo missions as a boy, he’d wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, but he was afflicted with bad joints, or a malformed lung. Or maybe he was just too tall. He tried drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes to stunt his growth, but to no avail. Faced with the horrible unfairness of it all, he chose a career in grocery store management because, as his father insisted, people always need to eat.

“Oh, I think it’s flying over now! Rick’s out there looking at it!” and the manager turned quickly on his heel and positively speedwalked out of the cafe, toward the automatic sliding doors and into the parking lot.

I had to follow. Even though I’d seen the space station and other satellites fly over countless times, I needed to see it again. Perhaps it was that the manager’s eagerness was contagious. I don’t know. I packed my laptop up (because I’m not making the mistake of leaving it sitting on a cafe table ever again, even for a second. Don’t ask.) and went out into the parking lot.

By the time I arrived, there were five people standing in the middle of the traffic lane, looking up at the sky. Five RANDOM people. It was the bag boy, Rick, the manager, and three customers. And me, so that’s actually six. Sure enough, ISS was making it’s swift arc over our neck of the woods. For a minute, no one spoke. Then the manager, his voice straining with emotion, said, “This is once in a lifetime.”

“Not really,” said a short, stocky man who had just joined our impromptu skygazing party, making us seven. “It happens quite often. It’s just that it’s a particularly clear night, so it’s really easy to see.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Doesn’t it orbit the globe every forty-five minutes or something?”

“Ninety minutes,” said the stocky guy, our residential space station expert. In my mind I nicknamed him Copernicus. “But whether or not you can see it depends on Earth’s rotation in relation to the satellite’s orbital angle.”

“Ohhhh,” said Rick, the bag boy. “I wonder how fast it’s going.”

“About 15,500 miles per hour,” said Copernicus.

“Wow.”

I looked around. There were now eleven people blocking traffic in front of the grocery store, looking up at the sky in rapt fascination. Three of them were children. It gave me such a feeling of hope. Earlier that day, I’d been commiserating with a friend over the seeming lack of excitement our culture has for space exploration. But this, this completely random, serendipitous moment shared among eleven strangers in front of the supermarket, totally proved me wrong.

And then it was gone.

We awoke from our collective reverie and went our separate ways. Rick the bagger and Mr. Manager and I returned to the grocery’s fluorescent bosom, along with the lady with the three kids. Copernicus and the other customers pushed their carts dreamily off into the parking lot.

Inside, I overheard Rick the bag boy telling a teenaged female cashier about the experience.

“NASA’s flying over the Ingles?” she said, a twinge of nervousness in her voice. “Why would they do that?”

I sighed and went back to my chai. On my way I passed Mr. Manager, sorting restock items, a glimmer of a smile on his lips. He shook his head and dabbed at the moisture collecting in the corner of his eye.