it’s cold. i am not sure how cold, because i haven’t looked at my phone or checked the weather app, but it must be hovering around freezing because the garden chair sparkles with developing frost when i shine a torch on it to find my way out. i didn’t think i was going to be stargazing tonight, but when i hopped out of an uber earlier after spending the evening drinking a decent amount of red wine at a fairly tedious PR event, i saw orion’s belt blazing a diagonal line above ballina street. i’d be in the back garden in ten minutes.
winter stargazing, like winter anything, i guess isn’t for everyone. i say ‘i guess’ because i do not understand ‘hot weather people’ or people who think sweating is in any way pleasurable. i am a winter person. i grew up at altitude, and the arid mountain winds of northern new mexico do seem to get into your bloodstream, because i cannot tolerate temperatures above about 15°C if there is any, and i do mean any, amount of moisture in the air. a couple of years ago in january, i was walking around in seoul, wearing some thermals and a big coat, and it was -14°C. i started to shiver and thought to myself, ‘oh, this is what it’s like to be cold’.
but i digress.
i have no idea how old i was the first time i can remember looking up at the sky, but can’t have been more than about five. that would’ve been 1986. my dad had a huge white telescope that took pride of place in our living room. it was massive, and i genuinely do not know how he managed to haul it out to the dirt driveway in front of the house on special nights when there were things to see.
the skies above rural northern new mexico in 1986 had something to see every night. they still mostly do. you can see the milky way, and it astonishes me that there are people – a lot of people – in the world who have never seen the milky way. it’s like snow. but nevermind, winter person here. the skies above northern new mexico in 1986 had a lot of things to see, indeed all the things to see. so it took a special event, like an eclipse or jupiter or venus passing really close to the moon, or halley’s comet, which we spent many evenings looking for that year, to warrant a fever pitch exciting enough to wheel the big telescope out from its throne.
my dad would set it up, spending what felt like hours making tiny adjustments to little black protruding lenses, spinning small round knobs and gently swaying the giant white cylinder this way and that until it rested in just the right position to see whatever it was we were looking for. this, for a five year old girl, was mostly boring, but being outside at night was exciting, and being with dad was a thrill. we learned to read a star chart, turning it gingerly to find just the month and day and then squinting to compare it to the sky. dad knew a lot about the stars and would recite their names and the constellations, as if they should mean something to us at such a young age:
there’s perseus. that’s andromeda next to it. there’s orion, see his belt with the three bright stars? that little cluster, that’s pleiades, the seven sisters.
me and my sister liked pleiades the most because it looked like a tornado made of stars that were sisters. how fuckin’ awesome.
i park myself on the frosting-over garden chair facing south. south is the best direction to face for any kind of stargazing south of the thames, because you are facing away from the main source of light pollution and, in winter, get a good view of the main events: orion, sirius, capella and the rest. the garden table hasn’t been used since october and, since the 16.27 sunset, has been slowly icing over in freezing temps. it is now 23.01. my wine glass slides toward me.
looking at the stars is one of the few activities in human existence that elicits true wonder. there is beauty there, the unknown, a sense of excitement, a sense of the ancient and everything that came before you and will follow you. you don’t know what any of it means, and yet there is a fundamental understanding that you, on this speck of rock in the outer reaches of the universe, are still part of something. the only time you can really feel any perspective at all is when you are looking up at a night sky, because you feel small, tiny, insignificant and yet connected.
when my first marriage ended, i spent a summer living with my mom and stepdad, which is when they also were still together. i was 22. mornings i took runs through the sandy, dry arroyo below the house, languorous afternoons were spent reading many books (i read seabiscuit that summer and probably never cried so much) and messing around with the horses. once night fell, my stepdad and i would each pour ourselves a pitcher of margarita, or crack open endless bottles of dos equis amber, and sit out on the patio looking up.
on those nights, we didn’t look for constellations. we just let the galaxies come to us and conversation wash over us. we listened for the far-off sound of cars on highway 14 and the rumble of someone driving up coyote trail and we saw UFOs hovering in erratic patterns above the ortiz mountains to the south.
i don’t know where we go after this life, or if we go anywhere. but my eyes will always gaze up when the sun sets, a reminder of how small i am and how connected we all are in this ever-expanding universe. and if a day comes in this lifetime when i can literally shoot myself to the stars, i will be on the first ship out.
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