January 2021 Newsletter


Seeing Stars

There has always been something mysterious about the night sky. Something inscrutable. Ancient. Lost. Staring into its pinpricks of light feels to me like trying to read a scroll of hieroglyphs. 

That’s how it feels. But I know it’s not impossible to discover the heavens’ secrets. Plenty of people peer into the inky expanse and see a roadmap of stars where I spy mostly random dots.

So, over the course of my life I have sought out texts and teachers. I’ve attended astronomy classes and leaned in when experts pointed out planets in their telescopes. I have perused pictures of constellations and downloaded apps onto my phone and stood in the backyard willing the clouds to dissipate. I have come to understand a little, but never as much as I wanted.

Turns out that unlocking the mysteries of the universe takes more dedication than I have ever given it. It takes showing up. Repeatedly. It takes practice. Kind of like learning math. Or to how to ski. Or to become a good cook.

It takes doing. Night after night. Over and over. Until it becomes second nature.

I know this because, over the last few weeks, the fog that has always obscured star-gazing for me has lifted a little. I am seeing more clearly, not as a result of some gizmo that suddenly shifted my understanding. And not due to my hanging out with an esteemed astronomer (though that surely would have helped).

I am making headway simply because I started looking up. Every night. Standing in roughly the same place at mostly the same time.

My husband and I walk the dog after dinner. Which means we’ve been walking in the dark for awhile. Through November and December, holiday lights were a cheerful distraction. But once those were packed away, there was little to look at except for stars.

Orion the Hunter — one of the only constellations I have long been able to identify with certainty — hangs just above our roof this time of year. So I started there.

Using a few children’s astronomy guides I found on the bookshelves, I identified the brightest stars in Orion — Betelgeuse and Rigel. I searched below Orion and determined that the bright light on the horizon must be Sirius.

With those small successes, I dove in. Castor and Pollux, the strong stars in Gemini, seemed to settle where my chart said they should. And one clear night, I discovered a fuzzy cluster straight up — the Pleiades! So the shining light between Orion and the Seven Sisters must be Aldebaran. As I twirled on the street corner, hungry for more, a letter W came into view. Once I was home, I confirmed: Cassiopeia.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. But even this small progress gives me hope. Not only that I can, over time, discern more of the characters and stories of the sky. But that, in whatever I decide to show up for, I can make gains.

Am I ever going to be a world-renowned astronomer? Nope. Not me. But I can follow my curiosity, just for the joy of it. I know more stars and constellations than I did mere weeks ago. And that makes me want to keep peering upward even as the sky brightens and the stars shift with the coming spring.

I have seen this question asked across social media lately: What’s something good that happened to you during this COVID pause? One answer I would now give: I discovered the way to reach for anything I truly want — even the stars.

Image from earthsky.org.

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My library systems, along with many community partners, are hosting a series of online discussions of Isabel Wilkerson’s much lauded new book, Caste.These conversations have been enlightening — and connecting. Which is making me wonder what other communities are reading at this moment? Who else is Zooming to engage with new ideas and local thought leaders?

Ready to be inspired? This TED Radio Hour bonus interview with Stacey Abrams will do it. And this Southwest Virginia-based podcast will introduce you to new, groundbreaking artists (check out the episode with Page and Zephren Turner.)

I’ll be sharing a Zoom stage February 24 with Roanoke-area writers in a conversation about the power of storytelling. Sign up here (it’s free) to hear tips on collecting your family’s stories.

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Buying local is more important than ever. Here’s a run-down of small businesses to support where I live. Have you made a list of places in your city that you’re hoping will survive and a plan for how to help them?

This Virginia-based real estate company is thinking creatively about how to give back.

Rick Bailey’s newest book of personal essays is sure to make you smile.

Two other books worth checking out: A gorgeously photographed and wildly fun cookbook from an Alaskan mother/daughter chef team. And a deep dive into how studying music re-wires our brains — in a good way.

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This month has been among the most quiet I’ve lived through in years. It’s dark and cold. And the feeling I have more than any other is that of waiting. I am waiting for longer, warmer days. Waiting for the world to be a safer place. Until then, I’ll be reading and writing. And virtually connecting. And dreaming of the not-too-far-off future when gathering with friends and eating in restaurants and traveling for fun is okay again. Boy, do I miss it.