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.