It was my father who introduced the night stars to us; that is the stars in the way they’re meant to be seen. My sister and I were aware of space, I mean, of course it’s all around us, but it was on a road trip that we became viscerally attuned to its magic.
Earlier that week my mother received a phone call late in the night. It was news from my great aunt that her son, my mother’s cousin (in Latin American terms that would make him my uncle), was dying of pneumonia. He had been calling out for my mother, Nelsy, on his deathbed. The two were very close once. The next day, after much family discussion, we organized a family road trip to see him. My sister and I gave notice at school and took our homework with us to do on the road. It would be a far trek from Toronto to Tucson and I didn’t even know my uncle. However at thirteen, I was glad to be out of anything to do with school and the teenage weariness that came along with being with others my own age. I loved school, I just never felt like I fit in at grade school.
I don’t remember if it was after we met my uncle (he died the day after) or if it was on our way home, but at some point my dad pulled over in the middle of the desert. He had to take a leak and there wasn’t a rest stop in sight. It was completely dark out, but for lights of towns reflected in the hills around us.. Each hill was girdled by the impossible greenery that fed off of it. Giant cacti, low bush, and alien-like flora dotted the stretch of the flat lands and valleys which reached up to the dunes and ridges. The freeway lights caught a bit of this, but my dad made his way to some bushes by the lighted path of our car’s headlights.
“Yac-ke-leen!” my dad yelled out from behind the bushes. “No mires para aca! Tell your mother to open up the sunroof.”
There were tiny lights above the window, but when my mother opened it up, it seemed like we were looking at the entire universe. My eyes seemed so small to take in the big expanse of the universe above. The sight of the milky way filled me with both fear and unexpected arousal. I woke up my sister and we both stood there enamoured by something so incredibly real that it should be impossible.
“Star Trek is real!” my sister said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
I was speechless. I’d grown up mostly in the city, living in apartment buildings, and never seeing anything like what I saw that night. It was like watching a fairy world materialize. The sky stopped being heaven to me. It was a place people could go to, went to, and the moon landing was an actual thing in my brain; before it was just textbook fodder. Clouds and flight were possible, but airplanes weren’t going to take me to space. I got hooked on hard science fiction books and alien stories right then and there. I took an astronomy course in university and made a compass to track the stars (an astrolabe). I almost failed the course, but the professor saw my enthusiasm and took some time to offer me a list of visual references that would help me for my final exam. It gave me confidence, if not for science, but to know that having a passion for something can sometimes surpass the boundaries we impose on our own brains.
Some time after having my kids, I got the harebrained idea of studying physics through the extended learning courses at the University of Waterloo. I ordered the materials and studied, but my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the abstract concepts. I gave up and the next summer I took a similar course through UofT’s continuing education programs. It was a course aimed at people who wanted to learn about astrophysics, but not necessarily get a degree in it. I loved it. If I had the money and the time, I’d go back and take more of them.
I did some research and looked into getting a mathematics or science degree on top of my English literature degree. I enrolled through UofT again and took half a semester of first year algebra. I barely passed the first test, but I was having so much fun. It was odd feeling like my brain couldn’t do anything because it was so overwhelmed with information. I’d get one concept out of the hundreds, but there was a huge satisfaction that came with figuring that one thing. I should have audited the course instead. I quit and went back to concentrate on my strengths: running and writing.
Today came with news of the New Horizon’s probe flying by Pluto, giving us a visual of a perfectly round dwarf planet. Pluto is the awkward goth of the solar system. Scientists have wars on the semantics of it, whether it should be classified as part of our turf or not. Pluto doesn’t give a shit. It’s been orbiting the sun in its weird pattern, isolated from discussions, and the meaning humans have imposed it. Lord of the underworld in mythology and romantically cursed with love for Proserpina for the benefit of Venus. It is because of that love in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that we have seasons. There’s a reason for Pluto in some astrological charts. It helps believers discover their inner world and learn beyond the blanket of our darkness. That is, if you believe in those things.
There’s a weird thing that happens when an event in space exploration comes to the forefront of the news. People get a little bit excited even if it has no direct impact on our personal life experiences. Every day we share an existence like celestial bodies orbiting and changing one another even if we are unaware of it. Traffic, meals, dogs, ants, the street busker, the traffic cop, teachers, et cetera, all influence our inner world peripherally. Our lives are so isolated from another though. You can’t read my brain and I can’t read yours. We can only decipher feelings and thoughts through gesticulations and words. As socially adept as you can be, we all live an individual insular existence. There are worlds within worlds beyond worlds influenced by other worlds within ourselves. We spend most of our lives trying to discover and come to terms with those spaces in our brain, so its quite a miracle that we can, and even attempt to, communicate. Connections are vital and the forces of repulsion and attraction drives our lives daily. We reproduce, make choices, build, destroy, and consume all in the name of an unspoken pull for purpose.
Our planet Earth can not exist without the other celestial bodies doing their thing around it. While we have our wars and go through the cycles of life, we are hurtled through the galaxy like a baseball being flung into the skies. Humans as space travellers continuing to make poetry about our spaceship Earth and our associations within it. But Pluto doesn’t give a fuck. It’s the honey badger of planets looking all spiffy and cool as people “oooh” and “ahhh” at its photo. It suddenly exists before our very eyes.
Looking up at the stars is an ubiquitous action.
There really is no particular point to this post, but to say I still love science. Science is like the cool kid I thought I wanted to be. Out in space with all the mathematics and scholarly language humans can muster, an astronaut is a tiny speck. The astronaut observes and studies, but to the ether it is nothing. Our probes are tiny gadgets that only mean something to us. In the mysterious universe of synchronicity, there once was a man who told his daughters to look up at the night sky to feel dreams become aspirations. Today there was a photograph taken of Pluto that told the world to look up beyond itself imploring it to continue dreaming.
**Edited to add: Pluto Shits On The Universe by Fatimah Asghar
My friend reminded me that I’m obligated to include SCIENCE!