Ordinary Stardust

We're all unique, individual parts of a greater universe, and big, red U-shaped magnets from my childhood helped me realize this.

Back in the early seventies when I was in grade school, there was a period when the must-have toy wasn’t a car (like the Hot Wheels models that enjoyed top popularity for a long period), a top (like the now-defunct but for much of my youth extremely popular Whizzer), or any other such relatively fancy item. It was a magnet.

Purchased – as I recall – not at toy stores but at hobby and craft stores, these magnets were U-shaped, red, heavy in the hand like giant lead fish sinkers, and extremely powerful. In my third grade class, all the boys had to have one.

Once possessed, however, these magnets proved slightly frustrating. Yes, they were cool looking, and yes, it was impressive just how hard they held when clamped onto a school locker or the front of one’s refrigerator at home. But beyond that, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do with them.

One day during recess, a couple of friends and I were clamping and re-clamping our magnets to the metal of the jungle gym when one of us dropped his into the dirt. Picking it up, he noticed something strange. The loose dirt – or at least a few flecks of it – clung hard to the red magnet’s dull-gray tip.

One of us ran inside, procured a Dixie cup from next to the water dispenser, came back out, and scooped some dirt into the cup. We all watched as he placed the magnet at the bottom of the cup, and were startled to see certain grains of dirt leap to attention. While the other dirt grains lay there lifeless, these strangely energized grains slid back and forth across the bottom of the cup in response to my friend’s movement of the magnate below.

The explanation for this strangely miraculous behavior was given to us later that day by Mr. Monroe, the lower school science teacher. Dirt – especially the dry, sandy dirt typically found on the edges of playgrounds – is mostly made up of finely ground up rocks, and some rocks contain metallic ore.

Though that should have been enough to remove the sense of mystery from the phenomenon, the fact that ordinary dirt could behave this way continued to fascinate us boys for some weeks thereafter. There was something about the sight of those little metallic grains leaping up and separating themselves from the flock each time a magnet was placed beneath them that was strangely and repeatedly gratifying.

That schoolyard science experiment came back to me recently after reading a book about physics that described the origin of the elements that make up organic life on our planet. At the beginning of the universe no such complex elements existed. My skin, flesh, and bone are, the book explained, all made up of building blocks assembled over the course of millions of years at the white-hot center of long-dead stars: stars that, while they existed, acted like giant kilns that slowly cooked the building blocks of all organic life in the universe.

The world is full of facts like this: facts so difficult to conceive that they’re vaguely frustrating. Like those big red magnets, they’re obviously cool, but it’s hard to know quite what to do with them. The fact that I, lying on my couch at home, typing my monthly Beliefnet article, am in fact a creature assembled from white-hot dust cooked for millions of years in the fiery cores of stars now long dead is so preposterously, mind-bogglingly unlikely that my mind comes to a kind of dumb halt before it.

In the case of this particular fact, however, I determined to overcome my mental laziness by meditating on it for a while. For several weeks, in idle moments, I would remind myself that my body is really and truly composed, in large part, of formerly superheated stardust.

It was at some point during this exercise that the long-ago schoolyard image of those little crumbs of magnetized dirt came suddenly back to my mind. For a second or two, recalling how I felt as a child looking down into the bottom of that Dixie cup, I felt again that strange, fugitive, flickering thrill: the thrill that comes when we realize that there is really nothing ordinary about the world at all, and that we only allow ourselves to think it is so by falling asleep in the face of its true and overwhelming strangeness.

My body, which I take so much for granted so much of the time, is in fact very much like that seemingly ordinary playground dirt of my childhood. Long in the making, the atoms that compose it have cohered and come to life under the force of a power beyond all imagining: a power that, in their humble but formative way, those red magnets of my youth first taught me to appreciate, and – most importantly -- genuinely marvel at.

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