When I woke in the very early hours to pee, I saw a single bright star directly over Mount Hallowell to the east of our house. There are other planets visible right now but somehow the star had the reddish glow I associate with Mars. Of course I wished. At this point in time, the rising rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the news, the difficulties so many face with loneliness and isolation, my husband’s restricted mobility as a result of an injury sustained during double hip surgery, and the prospect of months of this ahead, I wished as hard as I’ve ever wished. The cat was waiting outside the bathroom door, hoping (or wishing) for an early breakfast. I got back under the covers and reached for my husband’s hand.
Humans have invested the stars and planets with power for as long as they’ve gazed into the heavens. The first time we were in Prague, we visited the National Museum and saw the remains of a jug, wooden, with a lattice-work of bronze believed to be a star map from the 3rd century BCE. I’ve seen examples of star charts from Egypt dating back to 1500 BCE. When my oldest grandson turned 3, I made him a quilt with a spiral swirl of salmon on it and 3 constellations visible in the sky on the night of his birth overhead, depicted with shell buttons: Cygnus, Cassiopeia, and Orion. I wanted him to sleep under symbols of the place that is part of him, even though he doesn’t live here. And when those constellations appear in the sky over his home in Ottawa, he can look at them and imagine them in a slightly different orientation thousands of miles west.
When I was in Ukraine a year ago, on a train, I remember waking around the same time as I woke last night, and looking out at the unfamiliar world as we raced by. But then I saw Orion. We were travelling towards the area where my grandfather grew up and I was thrilled to know that he would have seen Orion too, as I did, and as the boy who was his great-great-grandson did in another part of the world, the continent he would leave for in 1907 to begin a new life. Sometimes when times are dark and difficult, knowing you can count on stars makes a difference. The night of my grandson’s 3rd birthday, friends came to celebrate. A. was in his pajamas when his dad asked if he’d like to go outside to look at stars. (Well, we all wanted to!) Wrapped in his dad’s arms, A. kept pointing at the three stars of Orion’s belt, talking about them for ages afterwards, imagining the belt around his own waist as he remembered.
On the train from Kyiv to Chernivtsi, I saw villages lit with old lamps, I saw them close, and in the distance. And oh, Orion stretched across the sky above one small village, close enough to touch. When I checked my husband’s watch, it was 4:30 a.m. I made a little drawing in my notebook, wanting to remember the exact placement of the stars. I was on the train, drawing Orion, and 32,000 years ago, someone in a cave in the Swabian Jura was carving Orion into a length of mammoth bone to make a star map to keep the memory of a constellation at hand. I could almost hear the cows lowing in the fields to be milked, to be given a handful of hay from the stooks that stood close to the houses. The train took us from darkness to light and from the present to a place where my own ancestors had lived for generations. The train, traveling through the night, as it once took my grandfather from Chernivtsi to Lviv (or Lemberg, it would have been then) to Krakow and then Bremen or Hamburg, for his long journey to North America and another life. Impossible now to think of train travel without a kind of tenderness. I remember the sound of the whistle as we approached our final station, early morning, each village awake too in its place, lights extinguished for the day.
(from an unpublished essay, “Museum of the Multitude Village”)