I am sitting in the front row at a poetry reading, during intermission, when the thought first hits me: I can’t live like this anymore. The thought hits hard, like a stone against my back, blowing the breath out of me for a moment. I pause, stunned, staring at the white Christmas lights coiled around the piping that run across the back of the stage. I feel sick, wondering: what does it mean, ‘I can’t live like this anymore’? What is this? What’s wrong with it? What else is there? But my whirl of thoughts is interrupted. The man behind me leans into my periphery, asking me: “So, what do you do, are you a writer, too?” He seems fidgety, self-conscious that he is one of the few people in the room not mingling with someone else.
“No,” I say, “I’m a teacher.” It is an admission, that, each time it leaves my mouth, I despise more and more. It is one of the little lies that I tell the world, that I tell myself. If I could no longer declare “I am a teacher”, then what, instead, would I say? Someone rings a bell to indicate intermission is ending. Relieved that I do not have to further discuss my career situation with this man, I turn away from him to face the stage, catching a glimpse of the moon outside the window, its bald face gleaming, nearly whole. A woman stands gathering her papers at the podium, centered in a pool of white light, preparing to read.
We know that the seas on the moon aren’t seas at all. They were named seas when early astronomers, with inferior telescopes, mistook their darker color for that of water. But they are darker only because they’re richer in iron, composed of black basalt, and less reflective than the surrounding highlands. A typical lunar mare (mar-ay) is 3.5 billion years old—and despite now knowing that those dark plains are not filled with water, we still call them seas.
Basalt is the most predominant rock type in our planet’s crust—as well as the moon’s. It can actually be found widely throughout the solar system—in slightly different compositions, of course—all the way from Mercury, Venus, and Mars, to Jupiter’s moon, Io. More recently, basalt’s presence in the outer asteroid belt confounded scientists; it shouldn’t have been there, but it was. This rock type only comes into existence within terrestrial bodies large enough to generate their own internal heat. But no such body exists in the outer asteroid belt; so where, then, did this basalt come from?
I look back on my life and the places I have been, the places I have lived, and left. Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Guayaquil, and then back to Buffalo, Boston, and now Rochester, again. I had had other plans: a few years in Philadelphia, a cabin in the mountains of Vermont, but I left the man I had been planning those moves with and became hungry for greater distance, more difficulty. So, I left the west coast, left behind working as a secretary, and moved home to Buffalo, rotating between three jobs until I had enough money to go to a different country and stay there for a while. I taught myself Spanish with flashcards and books, and then boarded a plane to Bogotá and used the wrong form of the verb “to take” when I asked a man in the airport coffee shop if they took American dollars. He still nodded yes.
But that was nearly a decade ago, and my life at present makes so little sense. I keep thinking that if I go back far enough, I might be able to understand how I arrived here: this dimly lit apartment on Rowley Street in Rochester, New York, taking work home from school every night, recovering from another bad relationship, and spending far too much time alone. I keep thinking if I go back far enough in my memory, I can find a common thread running through all of it, that it might tell me where I am supposed to be, what I am supposed to be doing.
I close my eyes and scan backward until I am lying in bed in Guayaquil, too hot even for sheets. I am watching shadows of palm fronds dance across the wall, the smell of mangos spoiling in the heat drifting in through the open window. I go back further in my memory until I’m standing in a forest on the Oregon coast, alone, the floor a carpet of clovers and their tiny white flowers, the distance obscured by a thick fog. A step further back and I am in college, there is a messy desk overflowing with papers, tubes of paint, cheap, frayed brushes, a pair of knitting needles, balls of yarn, wool and acrylic and angora, soft heaps of color. I go back until I am fourteen, and watch myself sitting, surrounded by star charts, making notes on quasars and pulsars and the percent chance that we are not alone in the universe. I find myself at ten, arranging plastic horses inside of stalls made from cardboard boxes and masking tape, each bearing a name written in blue ballpoint pen. And then I am eight, teaching myself braille, memorizing everything Helen Keller had ever said. I never could stop thinking about what it must have been like to be her: in the dark and quiet, all of the time.
The Sea of Nectar, the Sea of Crises, the Sea of Clouds. Seas for tranquility, serenity, cold, fertility, rain. My favorite: Mare Cognitum, the Sea That Has Become Known. They all formed as the result of ancient volcanic eruptions on the moon. Because the moon’s gravity is comparatively weaker than Earth’s, these lava flows could spread rapidly and widely across the lunar surface. It has been so long since the moon has seen any volcanic activity that most scientists deem it dead. Other scientists suggest that there’s perhaps a chance it is merely waiting.
Basalt is an extrusive, igneous rock. That means it can only be formed from a melt, is forced out of the Earth (or the Moon or Mars), and that it solidifies on or above the surface. The ocean floors on Earth, like the seas on the Moon, are composed of basalt flows. Basalt is present and partly responsible for both the collision and pulling apart of land: Hawaii, The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, The Great Rift Valley, The Red Sea. Underwater, basalt often cools into lumpy and bubbly-looking pillows. Across flat land, it spreads and pools. Near water, or when it cools too quickly, it breaks into hexagonal columns. It sometimes becomes cobblestones, statues, or steel wool.
When I arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I’d planned on staying two months—to take some classes, travel a bit, and then return home. But I stayed in Ecuador for nearly two years. I could only stay because I was able to get a full-time job at a university. Which was only possible because I already had my master’s degree in Education. Which I had because, when I was twenty-two, I panicked. The prospect of entering the professional world with a fine arts degree in Illustration, my debt pile already casting long shadows, was daunting. Was I a good enough illustrator to actually make it? Very few did. And while I built up a client list, who would hire me with this degree, and to do what? How would I eat and pay rent and my loans? Suddenly my whole life seemed like a bad idea. So, piling on a bit more debt when it promised me a stable career related to art, felt like the only choice.
There is no agreed upon explanation as to how the moon was born. Most of the theories have gaping holes in them, failing to explain known facts about the Moon, or the Earth, or the relationship between the two bodies. The prevailing theory is that, very early on in our solar system’s formation, a smaller planet collided with Earth and sent debris whirling into space. Over time, this debris slowly came together to form what is now our only natural satellite. Recent studies suggest there is evidence of this obliterated planet within both Earth and the Moon. I wonder what this planet had been like, how it had come to stray so far from its course.
When basalt breaks into columns during the cooling process, it’s called ‘columnar jointing’. It doesn’t represent how basalt is supposed to look, because columnar jointing only happens when the rock cools too quickly, causing the surface to crack and fracture. This usually happens near water or in wide-open spaces where winds abound. It looks machine-cut, perfectly straight and narrow blocks of varying heights, sharply angled along a cliff face, or hemming the sea. People travel from afar to witness it; it is perhaps basalt’s only form that is heavily photographed by tourists. Columnar jointing can be found on all of Earth’s continents, but it was also recently discovered for the first time on another planet: in a crater wall in Marte Vallis, a rather expansive valley on Mars. In satellite photos, it is a craggy interruption, full of light and shadow, between the crater rim and the smooth, sandy-looking slopes that surround.
Two years before I arrived in Guayaquil, I moved from upstate New York to Portland, Oregon, with a month-long stopover in Chicago. I was propelled mostly by images I’d seen of mossy forests, tall pines, green mountains, and rivers that swirled with turquoise waters. But my boyfriend and I both had secured jobs in Chicago, and a lease on an apartment. I was to teach elementary art on the South Side come fall, but one afternoon, staring out at the lake from Montrose Beach, I felt certain it was a mistake. Grad school had made me uneasy at best; I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach. And I didn’t want to be in the Midwest. My boyfriend and I looked at each other on that beach and confessed to the same doubts simultaneously. A week later, our savings accounts already heavily pock-marked, we were driving north out of the city toward Wisconsin, headed to Oregon.
It was breezy and pretty for the first few days, with brief stops in charming breakfast cafes and state parks. And while I wouldn’t feel the full weight of our decision until a couple months later, its shadow loomed over us as soon as we began ascending real mountains. Our tiny pickup truck’s engine began to smoke, we were pulling too much; the gradient was too long and too steep. We ended up turning off the road near a diner with a large parking lot, somewhere in central Wyoming, and unloaded half of our belongings beside a dumpster. I watched in the rearview mirror as we drove away—our new bed frame, our new mattress, one of my boyfriend’s amps, the drafting table I’d had since I was thirteen, my pivoting lamp, dumbbells, and bags of books. It all shrank very quickly, flattening into a scene that resembled a faded drawing: our things laying there upon the cracked asphalt, the distant gray mountains cutting up the horizon like a sawtooth blade, the sky low. The dusk was golden but loose, you could almost feel nighttime tugging the light away, as if its only hold on Earth were just a few poorly tied strings.
The moon does, actually, have an atmosphere. It’s so thin, however, and so slight in its grasp, that it is nearly vacuum. At one time, it was much thicker, likely the result of gases produced during early volcanic activity. But the moon has been quiet for long enough that its atmosphere has since been stripped away by solar winds and vanished, almost entirely, into space. The tenuous atmosphere that does remain is generated by both radioactive decay and a process called “sputtering.” Sunlight and solar winds, as well as thousands of micrometeorites and comet particles, strike the lunar surface every day. Each collision, no matter how microscopic, can release gases that had been buried in the soil. Comets, asteroids, and pieces of the sun find their ends here, sputtering an atmosphere into existence.
I have held onto a belief that at some point in my life, I made a fatal mistake. This mistake was the pivot, the moment my life drifted from where it was supposed to go to where it went. But when I think back to how I imagined my future in my early twenties, the image was blurry, unspecific. I wanted to make art, and see the world, but what I needed was money. So, I worked a litany of odd jobs to pay the bills as I tried to figure out what direction my art should or could go in. And at some point, I gave up on the idea that I could be an artist of any kind, and I decided instead to go far away, to encounter different versions of myself, to see and do as much as I possibly could while on this planet. I needed to go wide and then gather and assimilate my experiences, my memories, my comprehension. But what I had failed to recognize was that accretion requires a source of gravity, something at the center to bring all of the pieces together.
Vesta is the second largest object in the asteroid belt, and like Earth, it has a differentiated interior—a core and multiple layers around it—unusual for such a small body. It took around three million years for Vesta’s accretion to complete, and after seven million years, its molten core began to erupt, and basaltic lava flows covered much of Vesta’s surface. Around two hundred million years ago, Vesta experienced multiple collisions, leaving its southern hemisphere pock-marked with massive craters. That it could not retain its spherical form is one of the reasons it can’t be classified as a minor planet—but by the time those collisions occurred, Vesta was too old and cold and hard to once again find its shape after losing so much of its surface.
My vast and scattered lifestyle was not sustainable. After four years of living like a tumbleweed, between Portland and Seattle and Guayaquil, I became exhausted and homesick. I wanted to put down my bags and stay somewhere a while. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to teach, but there was nothing else with a decent salary that I was qualified to do. So, I taught.
For all my desires about living far and wide, teaching narrows, constricts. The expectation is that it’s your sole priority, or, that’s at least what it felt like to me. And because I loved my students as much as I did, I willfully gave up everything for them. I stopped reading poetry in the bathtub and started reading Real Classroom Management and The Effects of Poverty on the Brain and The Art Teacher’s Survival Guide instead. And because I loved sharing art, I devoted all my creativity to coming up with cool projects or discussion points to bring up during each lesson. I could not make the switch from teaching mode to making mode. For six years, I was a teacher and not an artist, not even a little bit. I knew of a couple people who somehow managed to balance teaching art and making it, but I was never able to pull that off. All of my energy was tightly focused into a bright and singular beam, and I couldn’t point it in more than one direction. After years of living like this, a dull sensation slowly peeled its way into my awareness: that if there had ever been a center in my life, I was drifting far, far away from it.
Since I was a small girl, I’ve rotated between various modes of making: drawing, painting, writing, photographing, collaging. As a teacher, exhausted by the messes of paints and charcoal and paste, whatever creativity remained after the school day ended was shunted into writing. It was an artistic impulse I’d long overlooked, despite the fact that writing made its way into most of my drawings. And despite the fact that I wrote short stories about Helen Keller, about girls and their horses, that I wrote poems in adolescence, often about boys, but also about outer space, stars, and planets. I seemed to have forgotten that I wrote poems about the woods in Oregon and Washington, that I wrote extensively as I traveled throughout Ecuador. A hobby that once resembled a fluorescent but fine thread in my imagination started to instead feel like a tether. Where or whatever I was drifting from, however distantly—writing connected me to it.
In the New Moon phase, the moon is invisible to us—the side of it that we will never see is busy basking in the sunlight, and the side we know so well has skirted into darkness. It is taking a break from our eyes, from our narratives, our dreams. I like the moon best when she has just started revealing herself again to us—her body a narrow shore of light trailed by a gentle scattering into the black that suggests, ever so thinly, there is more to be seen. We just have to wait.
Teaching, despite its constrictive effect on my life, and my imagination, has altered my existence—not widely, but profoundly. In keeping with my desire, my need, to experience as much as possible in a single lifetime, teaching has been like concentrate, instead of juice. When I try to trace my life backward to that supposedly fatal error, all of the alternate paths leading away from that point do not include time spent in a K-12 classroom. And when I think about myself and my life without my years in education, I am not sure I like what I see. Before I was a teacher, I was more selfish, prone to negative thinking, bouts of self-pity, easily deluded by fantasies of a perfect life. Before I was a teacher, I had known approximately two-thousand fewer humans: their names, their dreams, what frightened them. Before I was a teacher, my heart had not been at all shaped by students like Gebre, who wore socks and sandals to school every day, who, during our sculpture unit, made two ceramic mugs, one for his foster mom, one for his social worker, that both read “Bless You” and were glazed in bright red and green.
The decision whether or not to leave teaching has required months of nightly arguments with myself. What took the longest was accepting that I was never going to be one of those people who could both teach art and make it. For me, it would have to be a choice.
The shape and texture that basalt assumes as a solid rock is heavily determined by how and where it emerges: did it happen quickly, or slowly? On land or underwater? Was it explosive or did it flow? Was it in the mountains, or near the sea? Was the air warm or cold? Was there air? An atmosphere? What was the distance from the sun? And was it shining?
And what about us? How much of our lives is dependent upon location? On temperature? On who was sitting next to us last Saturday? On whether or not the sun was visible, the sky blue? On a yes, or a no? And then: how much of our lives is dependent upon our feet simply finding the floor, our bones stacking themselves vertically, on the movement of our limbs no matter the place, the time, the sun, or the answer?
I’d like to sit at the shores of Mare Cognitum, to look out and see the entire earth, and then cover it all up with the palm of my hand. I’d like to see the sun shine against the black void of space. I’d like to exist, for a moment, without the protection of sky, of clouds, of weather. I’d like to scoop up a handful of moon dust and know that I’m holding stone that exists on Earth, asteroids, on other planets and satellites. That I’m holding comet particles from deep space, and invisible fragments of the sun. I’d like to look out at all of these objects, the spaces between them vast, and know that sometimes, in some places, they find each other.
I sit here now, in Rochester, summer crawling toward us, and only weeks away from having to walk into the principal’s office to tell her I am not coming back next year. I doubt it every day, wonder if perhaps I haven’t yet committed that fatal mistake, but am about to. I know I will do it, though, and I know that when I do, I won’t be able to tell her where I’m going next, I’ll just say somewhere warmer and sunnier. I won’t tell her that I’m not just leaving Rochester, but also teaching. And when she announces my departure on the teachers’ last day of school, I don’t know it yet, but I will start to cry. My colleagues will turn to look at me in surprise, some will cry, one will grab a hold of my hand and cry along with me. The auditorium ceiling will float far above our heads, capturing the faint echo of my principal’s voice, saying goodbye, wishing me luck. She will not break eye contact with me. And my heart will break as I sit there, but I will have no doubt in my going.
My doubt is tempered by one thing only: the fact that ever since I decided this would be my last year of teaching, everything around me has felt, and continues to feel, brightened, everything glimmers with curious detail and possibility. I’m writing and drawing again; I feel like a version of myself I’d forgotten ever existed. My beam of focus has relaxed, has widened, is taking everything in, gleaning all the time. My life feels like it is mine.
It can take so long for a body to accrete, to come together. For the pieces to assemble into a single entity that generates heat, gravity, that moves along a path around something essential. Io around Jupiter. The Moon around Earth. The Earth around the Sun. And there are so many ways to be born, to come into existence, to assume various shapes, or become a part of different landscapes: out of a volcano, through cracks in the sea floor, explosion, collision, or the slow assemblage of small debris. The moon did not exist until a planet slipped its orbit and crashed into ours—a whole world lost for the creation of another.
About the Author
Katie Duane is an essayist, teacher, and web designer. She is an MFA candidate in the Rainier Writing Workshop, and resides in Buffalo, New York. Her work has been published in Sheepshead Review, The Manifest-Station, and others. You can find her online at katiejduane.com