Last night I stayed awake for longer than usual, wanting to finish the book I was reading: The Smallest Lights in the Universe, by Sara Seager. Sara is an astrophysicist at MIT and the book is a memoir of her professional life, her passion for exoplanets and the possibility (she would say probability, I think) of life forms in the vast universe. It’s also a memoir of her unexpected widowhood and how she moved ahead in her life and career with two small boys to care for. I found it an entrancing read and after I closed it last night, I thought for a long time about stars and motherhood and grief.
Two nights ago, I was returning to bed after visiting the bathroom and I paused to look out the window at the dark sky. (Although we have curtains, we seldom draw them shut at night.) Two nights ago there were so many stars that I stood for a time just taking in the silvery shimmer across the vault of sky over the Douglas firs just beyond my house, the beauty settling in my whole body like a promise. This is here, I thought, despite everything else. Despite the vaccination delays, the lists of those who have died, the willful denial of science by too many, the families in trouble, those who are lonely and isolated. Despite the horror it’s easy to succumb to when the new numbers are released each afternoon. This is here, this matters, this keeps me standing in the darkness looking out, I thought. I’d just begun The Smallest Lights in the Universe that evening so maybe I was particularly vulnerable to the beauty but I hope I’m never immune to it. In late November, 2018, I fell on ice and without knowing right away, I injured my retinas. In the days immediately following my accident, I had the sensation of seeing stars cascade past my face, a sensation as thrilling as it was frightening. Or to be honest, I wasn’t frightened until later, when I had emergency surgery to repair my eyes, and learned how serious the situation could have been if I hadn’t gone to the hospital when I did.
On a snowy evening in Edmonton, I sat in a chair high above the city glittering below, and saw images so beautiful that I know why people have sought them since they first ate datura or drank fermented honey and ingested mushrooms so toxic they could not have lived long afterwards. In dark caves they applied ochre, charcoal, and ground calcite to show light falling from the faces of horses and spiral patterns that led them to a dizzy apprehension of time and starlight. Following the spiral, they went to the heart of the mystery. It was never ours. It was always ours.
When I sew my spirals, I am finding my way into darkness, hopeful that I will find my way back. I am walking a path worn to the bare earth. It’s one way I know to hear myself think. I sew small shell buttons to the ends of each trail, a place-marker, shining as the light shone by my face in an Edmonton room where I lay in intense pain, but also in joy as I heard my grandchildren singing. Two little dicky birds sitting on a wall, one named Peter, the other named Paul.
—from “The Blue Etymologies”, in Blue Portugal and Other Essays, forthcoming.
It might sound dramatic to say I was changed by the experience but I was. I learned how precious my eyesight is—and isn’t it strange that it takes injury sometimes to allow us to understand what a gift it is to see?
There’s a very moving moment in Sara’s book when she is in New Mexico with her sons, trying out a new camera prototype, capable (she hopes) of finding the information she anticipates will further her work with exoplanets. It’s a moonless night on a desert with the Milky Way overhead.
We wanted to stay out there with the stars until the sun began its rise, washing them out one by one until even the brightest had disappeared.
We would know they were still up here. People about the sun and its reliability, how even on the darkest days we know it will come out again. A kind of opposite is also true. Even on the brightest days, beyond blue skies, there are countless stars shining over our heads.
I think of the shimmering stars within my eyes themselves, shining, shining, I remember looking at stars with my children decades ago, but in the place I still live, our attempts to find and name the constellations, I think of how much has been lost but how much still remains, lit by starlight when I least expected it.