I was listening to the old Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock” the other day.
The mood is somber and hypnotic. Her performance is flawless.
One one level, the song is about the famous Woodstock music festival in 1969, which Mitchell was unable to attend. On another, it’s about the peace movement of the late ’60s and the back-to-nature impulse in hippie culture, a phenomenon Mitchell links lyrically to the biblical garden of Eden.
Her third theme is even loftier.
“We are stardust,” Mitchell sings.
We are “billion-year-old carbon.”
As a scientific matter, this is true. The atoms making up our human bodies include 13-billion-year-old hydrogen created soon after the Big Bang, and other elements which are roughly 4 to 5 billion years old. These latter elements were produced by star deaths, or supernovae, which spewed huge amounts of matter into the universe.
Over time, some of that matter coalesced to form Earth.
Each human today — each life form of any kind on Earth — is composed of that matter.
So we really are stardust. We’re made of incredibly ancient particles which originated in outer space.
Further, the atoms which make up our teeth, our eyes, our skin are always being replaced. Our features and appearance may appear fixed, but the composition at any given moment is relatively new, even in our bones, which seem so hard and unchanging.
According to one estimate, across five years the body does a complete replacement; no single particle is left from before.
And then there’s our status as host organisms. Each of us has an estimated 30 trillion tiny organisms living on or inside us, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes. “Me” is actually “we.”
It’s a weird state of affairs. Knowing I’m made of stardust makes me feel at once miraculous — an unlikely product of interstellar events — and prosaic — a temporary creature shaped from mud.
It also reminds me of a dream I had two years ago.
I was driving a minivan full of kids. I needed to get them back to their respective homes. The minivan broke down. I went for help. I wound up in a sort of cardboard shelter without ceilings.
The night grew colder. Gradually I realized, Fuck. I’m going to die out here, alone.
I sat for a while shivering. Then I lay down and looked up at the stars. I could feel my pulse dropping. Death was near.
I thought some more about the problem of dying alone.
I thought, Well, even if my wife and children were here to hold my hands, I’d still be alone in the actual moment of death. Wherever I’m going, it’s a solo trip.
That realization calmed me.
I thought, Maybe I’m supposed to take a deep breath and just … let go.
I took a big breath and exhaled. Whoosh! I was vaulted into the stars, speeding into space as if on the top of a rocket. I could feel the wind on my face, the G-forces on my body. I was exploding into the universe.
I woke up amazed. It felt like I had actually lived the sequence. I thought, If that’s what happens when we die — if it feels like we’re soaring into the stars — that is extremely cool.
Today I can still tap into that dream. The remembered experience reduces my fear of dying. Instead I feel wonder and curiosity. Is that really what death feels like?
In “Woodstock,” Mitchell describes a dream of her own.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
It’s an arresting image, one of radical transformation.
Not unlike the radical transformation of stars exploding; or of an improbably temperate planet forming in the endless black nothingness; or of creatures coming temporarily to life, being conscious, loving, caring, and then one day returning to the cosmos.