is she still waiting there?

on a hot october evening in a hong kong park in 2006, little groups of friends hover around colourful lanterns. tiny bonfires are lit. there are candles and incense. people are stretched out on blankets. it’s night, but there is an odd feeling of day in the air because of the all the light. the candles and the lanterns and the fires and the incense. and the moon.


chang’e went to the moon by tragic accident. she was married to her guy. houyi, a terrifically brave archer whose soul purpose was to shoot down the extra nine suns that at the time were scorching the world. the divine king yao was so pleased with houyi’s mad bow-and-arrow skills and grateful to hou for saving the world from climate change that he gifted him the elixir of life. but houyi didn’t drink it right away – he wanted to become immortal, but only with his beloved by his side.

houyi was great at archery but not so great at choosing the people in his life, and his apprentice was this greedy twat by the name of feng meng. feng wanted the elixir, duh, and one day when houyi was out hunting, feng broke into their home. but chang’e was wise and ran to her husband’s defence, drinking the elixir to keep it falling into destructive hands.

as soon as she drank it, chang’e became immortal. you might think that was a good thing but she was distressed at having to leave her beloved behind on earth, so she flew away to the closest place she could find – the moon – hoping he might join her someday.

on mid-autumn festival, we celebrate the moon. we being anyone who follows the lunar calendar and anyone who loves the moon, and me. mid-autumn festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. the farmer’s almanac calls it the harvest moon; it’s one of the brightest moons of the year, and the perfect culmination of summer’s end and the crisping of air under a night sky. or a too-warm night sky, like that october night in hong kong 13 years ago.


maybe the spirits of those that came before become our guides. maybe they live in some dimension between here and the beyond, in the meaning we ascribe to a sneeze or a toad, in synchronicities, in our weird dripping faucets, on the moon. maybe they guide us, maybe they whisper stories for us to learn and unlearn. maybe it is up to us to see these old scars and tend to them, and in that way. maybe it’s up to us to make the world new.

whatever you believe, it’s nice to think chang’e will be lighting my path up blythe hill with her moonlight tonight.

chang’e is pronounced like chahng-uh. she donated her name to the chinese lunar rover program, so now you know.

ode to sirius

if i could chance to pluck a star
and place it on your desk
i’d wrangle down cool sirius
– he’s brighter than the rest.

i should really like to gather
venus from the sky
not for all time, but just a night
to read you stories by.

we might go wading in the thames upstream
when dusk has turned from noon
and when the sun is finally set
we’d swim under the moon.

or rise at dawn to catch the light
of jupiter and mars.
we’d nab them both like lightning bugs
kept captured in glass jars.

we’d listen to the perfect songs
as the ecliptic rotates ’round
and ponder what the ancients saw
from atop some mystic mound.

and dearest, in your hand, you’d find that
sirius is really two.
double stars can’t be unmatched:
their gravity is true.

3am, mount everest.

i wondered how the stars would be. belle and sebastian have been in my head for days. days of climbing, slowly. first gyantse, 4000 metres. shigatse after, where crimson-robed monks wander in and out of dusty shops selling saran-wrapped golden buddhas and rolls of prayer flags in primary colours. then shegar – a pitstop on the way to the top of the planet.

by 3am, the stove inside the base camp yak-hair tent has gone out. it’s a two-room tent; me, my guide, driver and one random chinese guy who says he works in the military are sleeping on beds along the edges. the tibetan family who run the tent are asleep in the next room. the stove’s in the middle, where we huddled last night before bed, drinking hot water out of giant thermoses and trying, basically, to breathe.

these days, i feel like i am always in search of the stars. even bright arcturus – one of the few visible under london’s blanket of light haze – is a comfort when it pops through the clouds. but a deep yearning to be utterly overwhelmed by the starmap overhead seems constant.

the stove has gone out and i am wrapped in three thick blankets, on a couch-style banquette layered with tibetan carpets. i can’t breathe or sleep very well. the bathroom is a grim proposition (everest’s toilets have a deserved reputation of being the worst in tibet, maybe on earth) and it’s easily -5C outside, maybe -10. i uncoil the blankets from my appendages and stick a hand into the cold in search of my head torch and flick it to a gentle red glow.

feet into frozen boots, barely tied, and then i unlatch the tent door and step out into the frigid air.

just dressing and standing up at this altitude – 5200 meters or 17,060 if you measure in shoes – is difficult. muscles ache from the cold and the lack of oxygen, lungs struggle to keep blood flowing. there is a constant gentle dizzy and every single step has to be taken at a careful pace.

the moon is out, a half slice that at this altitude is bright like a fluorescent lantern. qomolangma sits a perfect white triangle at the top of a narrow, glacially-carved valley filled with boulders and rock scree. the moon has illuminated its north face so that it stands like a sentinel above base camp. between the glow off the mountain and the starshine, i don’t need my headlamp.

i wondered if this sky would beat kyrgyzstan’s epic remote stargazing session last year. it’s different, not comparable. there are fewer stars here, partly because of the moon, but the chilly glow of the mountain overseen by the big dipper and a million friends is tough to top. even with the stinky toilets.

it’s been a rollercoaster ride. but the trouble won’t keep me inside.

a year of astronomy

The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, or falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries. – Carl Sagan

Copyright Stephen Lioy - Photography and Travel Media

much like i don’t believe in regrets, i don’t believe in new year’s resolutions. there is something so self-flagellatory about starting a brand new year off by focusing on something you’ve been doing wrong. even when phrased in an ostensibly positive way (“this year, i want to get stronger and work out more”), its foundation is negative (“i am not currently strong enough”).

i would like to say that, currently, as we are, we are enough. everything about me and you, right now, is enough. even when i shower myself in self-hatred (which i do plenty), i am still enough. just as i am. right now.

instead, i’ve adopted a different practice recently: themed years. this idea came to me from a friend’s concept of giving her years a specific word, like bold or compassion. the idea is similar to a resolution, but doesn’t start from a negative base. rather, it invites you to consider that theme in your life for the whole year.

i’ve taken a different approach, theming my years around things that i want to explore more in-depth in my life. this opens the year wide, giving you 365 whole days to explore something, make it part of you, let it wash over you, and eventually (and in my experience), become a beautifully habitual part of your life. giving yourself an entire year, spread before you, eases the burden. there’s no rush. you’ve got time. 52.14 whole weeks. and you don’t need to use all, or even most of them. just use what you want.

in 2016, my year was poetry. i completed two poetry MOOCs. i practiced writing a chinese-style poem. i wrote some (not a lot of) poetry. i published a tiny bit of it on this site. and i read a lot of poetry by way of signing up for poem-of-the-day emails. i started a poetry twitter list, which still feeds me verse and lyric on a daily basis. i am still writing poetry. it worked.

in 2017, my year was walking. first i bought new boots, and some walking trousers. and then i walked a helluva lot. i walked across an entire country. i trekked several long portions of the south downs way. i walked the lea river and part of the ridgeway. i took 37 walks last year, not including the nine days on hadrian’s wall; these ranged from short 5k strolls into work to 25k bangers. some were overnights. one was with a tent. there was a lot of mud. and some sunshine. plenty of cows. quite a few tears. and huge sense of achievement. i learned to self-soothe while walking. walking got me through the hardest year of my life. and i learned that even 2km is something, so long as you keep on going. and i will. this year and for the rest of my life, because walking is now inextricably part of who i am.

so, here we are in 2018. this year’s theme is astronomy: a topic i have written about on this site already. my dad got me into stargazing: he exposed me to telescopes and the night sky from the time i was little. i’ve always loved the stars, but not until living in london, where visual access to them is so limited, have i yearned for them so much.

this year, i will be looking up. thinking about the heavens, and the cosmos, the universe and the infinite mass of space and time. my dad said to me recently that looking at the stars has always kept him centred. i am looking for more of that in my life: a sense of perspective, being centred.

how this theme will manifest in my life: let’s see! to start with, i’ve signed up for an intro to astronomy course at the royal observatory in greenwich (the home of time and early spacegazing!). i’ve also enrolled in an astronomy MOOC via edx. hopefully, i will save up for a small traveller’s telescope or a pair of binocs, learn to better use a planisphere and memorise a few more of the stars and constellations visible in the annual night sky. some of my travels will also be astronomy-themed or star-centred, and maybe even combine walking and stargazing! and i will read a lot, and probably rewatch contact at least once, because it is the best.

is there something you are interested in but never made time for? some small part of you that wishes you’d been this or done that instead of who you are now? i am here to enable you to make that part of your life, even if it’s only in a small way, or you worry you might not finish, or you won’t be good enough, or you can’t.

because it’s 2018. live your best life. start small. what have you got to lose, for the cosmos is out there, undiscovered, waiting for us.

top photo of me stargazing in kyrgyzstan last september shot by the mega-talented stephen lioy.

poem about the perseids

supposed to be writing about stargazing. instead, a poem, written a time ago, on the same subject.

a shiver
and wait, neck craned, for a spark
of some comet’s con trail
to blaze far-offly through an upward gaze.
pour another drop of wine
brain firing on syntax backwards
like everything to do with us.
the heart is a vicious machine,
at least in the verse and melody
of the school of spies.
and in this crisp weather,
when autumn feels imminent,
the love of a great name
gives such pause to
those who must scare each other –
deep down –
with the things never said aloud
but felt.


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.