Life on Mars, 2016

Life on Mars?

We pick our heroines and our heroes and we pick our battles and our places to stand. We may be wrong in these choices sometimes, but if our compass is true then what matters is that we do pick and stand for something, not nothing.

It is December the 27th, 2016. Today I finished watching, for the umpteenth time, the Star Wars trilogy. I watched it in my parents’ home. In the living room, the same room where I first glimpsed the adventures of a few mythical spacefarers and their quest to defeat the clearest representation of evil.

It is the same house and same room in which I first heard David Bowie sing. Sing songs so different from what I was used to. I heard them on the radio, and on cassette tapes on repeat. I never quite appreciated their inventiveness and their sheer exuberant otherness and how they gloried in highly crafted experimentation until much later. No matter. Here is where I first heard them, and it’s important that I remember this now.

This year, many icons died who I first came across while living here, in a shielded and happy place. Today I heard of the death of Carrie Fisher, yet another icon. A writer and image and actress and voice unparalleled in her iconoclasm, who sent postcards from the edge of her own sanity and refused to be cast in any one role, despite the role that made her famous and iconic in the first place. She stayed true to herself and no one else, and would not give convention the time of day.

I miss so much, now that 2016, a true annus horribilis, is winding down, but apparently not slowing down in killing off more icons and giving shelter to the worst instincts of humanity. I miss, I ache, and I sit down to write because that is what I do when I don’t want to face the wall and feel my eyes tear up, and rock back and forth in despair. You may find this overly self-centered or overly emotional. Fine. I do not care.

I have heard many express feelings so similar to my own. Of tiredness, a tiredness so deep and sapping that there are not enough blankets to be pulled over the head. A tiredness and sadness that envelops, but can never be allowed to win. Life is a godawful small affair. But it’s ours. We have been lucky enough to be guided by crazy people, crazy in the wildest and happiest sense. They, in parts uncountable and often unseen, have contributed to who we are.

So, too have many real, flesh and bone people in our lives. To those who are still with us the living, I vow to tell them more often that they matter. There is no need to pin down a capacity in which they do so. To say they matter to me and not be able to say why does not feel like enough, but if I admit it to myself, it’s a lot.

As a rule, I haven’t been doing this nearly often enough. If you read this and I know you, know at least: you matter to me. Perhaps in only the seemingly most tenuous of fashions, but you do matter. To those who do not know me and who I don’t know, I can address only this: there are people you matter to, and who matter to you. Maybe not in overt and screaming ways. Maybe only in short glances and passing smiles and in a word here and there and a touch on the wrist that provides that last tiny smidgen of stability you needed.

That the small things are not enough and grand gestures instead always required is one of the most destructive myths our society perpetuates. In small kindnesses are contained entire worlds. I realize the pathos in these words, and yet, like so many of the role models and artists and dreamers that passed this past, devastating year, I don’t care.

As I try to glimpse through tears the horizon and a future in which so many icons are gone and I can no longer rely on the irrational comfort of faraway persons who do not know me to carry the weight of inspiration, I have to take this load from them and carry it myself. We all who were inspired were through this inspiration given the capacity to carry inspiration. And we all who care must now ourselves be our own source of inspiration and maybe, just a little maybe, we can pass on that crazy, loveable, absurd, and human inspiration to someone else.

As the lights below us fade we have to keep our flames shielded and rescue even the faintest glimmers of happiness and hope. If nothing else, this is what we owe our heroes and our heroines.

And if you find that too sappy and too emotional – I still, emphatically, don’t care.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenbergy University, Mainz.

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