Salt Lake City, Utah
The end of September, the first week of October, 2016
Note that I am writing from a temporary address.
For two weeks I will be sitting in the chair of the senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Salt Lake City while he is taking a short leave of absence.
It’s been more than 28 years since I was last in the parish ministry.
I have mixed feelings about being in that position again.
And the congregation may have mixed feelings about my having done it after I’m gone . . . .
But I am a contributing member of this religious community, even though I live four hours away in Moab.
Why? I have great respect for Tom Goldsmith, who is the real deal as a minister. And I have great respect for a church that has been a vital part of Salt Lake City for 125 years – always on the side of social change and progress.
So – I offered to be useful in any way I could – and now, here I am back being the Very Rev. Robert Fulghum – for a while.
Speaking at the 9 and 11 a.m. services October 2 and 9.
Nobody more surprised than I.
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
Have you ever put a message in a bottle and thrown it into the sea?
I have. Several times.
In the Gulf of Mexico when I was a teenager.
In the Pacific Ocean off California once in my thirties.
In the Sea of Japan – but I forget exactly when.
In the Colorado River twice in my forties.
And in the Mediterranean Sea when I was 50 years old.
Why? Because I am a romantic at heart and believe in serendipity.
There is a quality of enchantment in a message in a bottle.
Like being in league with magic in a small way.
And also a sign of my basic optimism, I suppose.
All the bottles contained my name and address, and a request that whoever found the message would contact me and tell me where the bottle was found. I even included poetry sometimes, and once, a cartoon.
I liked the idea that some part of me was reaching out to some unknown person walking a beach somewhere, like me – a gesture of “hello” cast into the mysterious possibilities of the human enterprise.
And though I am a serious beach comber, I’ve never found a bottle with a message in it, though I’ve looked, and hoped, and wished.
But, someday . . . somewhere, I will . . .
Alas, I’ve had no response to my own launches.
But I don’t despair – my bottles must still be out there floating around.
And someday . . .
There are records of bottles being found decades after they were launched – thousands of miles away in seas on the other side of the world from where they were launched.
And there are wonderfully romantic stories of couples actually meeting by way of a bottle message, falling in love, and living happily ever after.
It’s estimated that less than 3 per cent of bottles that are launched are ever found. This comes from scientific research into ocean currents studied by dropping various floating devices into the seas of the planet.
The return rate is very low.
Thus the odds of someone finding my messages is extremely small.
Still, the next time I am near the sea, I’ll put another bottle in the water.
My thinking about messages in bottles was provoked by being reminded of the most famous example – launched in September 1977 – 39 years ago from Cape Canaveral , Florida, on a Titan III rocket.
The message was on a gold record aboard the Voyager I space explorer.
A unique message in a unique “bottle” thrown by us into infinite space.
Voyager I is still traveling – way, way, WAY out there now – in interstellar space, moving at 38,000 miles per hour – and still reporting. You can go to its site and see its odometer indicating its speed and its distance from the Earth. In 40,000 years it will be within 1.4 million light years from our nearest star, Glirese 445.
The odds are extremely, extremely low that any intelligent beings will ever notice or capture Voyager I, and if they did, it’s even more extremely unlikely that they will be able to decipher its messages.
And the odds of their ever launching a message back toward us is even more unlikely. And, unlikeliest of all, there won’t be any of us here to receive the return message.
Not completely impossible – but unbelievably unlikely.
Unless it is found or collides with something, Voyager I may wander in outer space for billions of years.
Long after planet Earth is consumed by the implosion of our Sun, our message in a bottle may be traveling on and on and on forever.
We’ll never know, because it’s ability to communicate back to Earth will cease in 2025.
The Golden Record aboard Voyager I is like a farewell note from Human Beings to the Great Beyond. Saying, “We Were Here.”
The Golden Record also contains a unique love letter.
When the information was being assembled, Suzanne Dodd, one of the planners, spent a day hooked up to every monitoring device then available to record her heartbeat, brain waves, blood pressure, and other vital systems in electrical form so that a unique account of what a human being was like could go aboard the Voyager.
Suzanne’s vital signs are a long series of digital electrical impulses.
But those impulses are not representative of a base-line standard.
Suzanne Dodd had fallen in love with Charley Kohlhase, the director of the information project, and he had just asked her to marry him.
So that the data provided from all the monitors were those of a young woman so deeply in love she could think of nothing else.
The data collected was not normal – it was evidence of love.
The couple married – and remain married to this day.
And way, way, way, WAY out in infinite space the special evidence of their love relationship speeds on.
A unique love letter – a wonderfully human message in a bottle.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, when I go out to look at the stars,
I think about Suzanne and Charley and their love story, and feel good about the poignant message we sent in a bottle to the universe.
For all the data we launched, the one piece we could not really explain or account for was evidence of love – just electric pulses.
I wonder if “they” will understand?
I hope so . . .