She stood surrounded by fossilized reconstructions of dinosaur bones, looming large and almost frighteningly all around, but Judy was only mildly interested in them. Instead, she was intensely fascinated by and fixated on the small, prehistoric isopods, starfish and bug fossils. I was somewhat dumbfounded by this, as I had imagined bringing her here and watching her light up in wonder over the massive bone structures of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Pterodactyl and Triceratops as my children’s faces had the first time I brought them to the museum. But, here she was, oohing and ahhing over small shells and the intricacies of miniscule creatures since evolved or died off millennia ago. The very things I only ever gave a moment’s notice of the first time I came through this exhibit.
Judy is 73 years old. She cannot read or write, and has not been in a classroom since the sixth grade. I have always believed she likely stopped going to school long before then, but this is what she has always claimed. She has never worked outside of the home except for a short time at her uncle Glen’s apricot ranch, decades ago. She ran a day care in our house from the time I was in third grade. Before then, she raised her children, plus me, and kept house. Her husband, Robin, balanced the accounts and kept up the mail, although she had me open everything almost daily and read it to her. She was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, but was moved to California as a baby where she remained—with the exception of two or three Mexican cruises—for her life until 2017 when I moved her here to Texas.
I suppose this all made me see her as small-minded. How could she not be? Her world and breadth of experience had been so small. So terribly limited. I have been trying to find things to do with her to expand her horizons, so to speak, since she moved here. Most recently was the trip to the Museum of Natural Science. I have been there numerous times and never fail to be awed most by the massive displays. The expanse of the universe so well represented in the planetarium, the 8,200-pound geode that greets you as you walk in from the parking lot, or Dipsy the Diplodocus standing 25 feet high and 72 feet long. It’s the same awe I get when I stand next to the ocean or inside an ancient forest of massive trees. The miniscule is certainly interesting, but my wonder is ever stretching outward. I need to see the scale of an average human being to a blue whale. The Earth to Jupiter, sun to solar system, solar system to galaxy and so on and so forth.
But now, here is Judy. While I watch her enthralled by the perfection of the tiniest seashell on a spiral of maybe 40 identical seashells arranged from largest to smallest, I am struck by something. Something vague and always there, just below. Almost surfacing and taking shape then ducking away again. The expansion and contraction of everything. The infinite nature of all things, going in either direction. How wonderstruck I am by the size and scale of the known universe and our own galaxy with its 100 billion to 250 billion stars, while right here, inside of my own body, live 100 trillion cells each with 100 trillion atoms inside of them.
Yesterday, I was listening to the book “Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig, and he wrote something about this. About the intensity and complexity of what goes on within each of us, undetected by the rest of the world and how it compares to the universe. It instantly reminded me of this trip with Judy and the thoughts it provoked in me. The same thoughts I have had many times but have always had difficulty expressing in words.
I have to stop and consider how deep the universe goes, either way. If I am honest with what I know, there is at least as much to be found inward as there is outward, and we’ve no idea how far it goes in either direction. It makes me wonder even more about sentience on a cellular or molecular level and how that affects what we think of as free will. About how what I do today affects the planet as maybe one atom affects a single cell. Do the cells and their atoms that inhabit my body have any sense of themselves or their purpose? If not, what drives them? While we search for answers or god “out there,” maybe it is just as easily found “in here.”
For as small as Judy’s world is, I think she may be wiser than she knows.