The Astronomer’s Guide to Solace
October 1, 2012
Josh and I stand in the calm silence of our backyard, pajama pants and coats curled tight around us, our breath puffing against the November cold, our faces turned toward the night sky. My hands are pushed deep in my pockets. When I look at him, I can see only his nose peeking out from beneath his hoodie. We are watching for the Leonids, a yearly meteor shower that peaks in mid-November, among a set of stark constellations that blink back at us, remote, their intermittent glow casting my husband’s face in a pale halo of light.
I watched these same meteors the November of my senior year of high school, though at the time I didn’t know what they were. I wouldn’t have thought then to know that they were the Leonids, or that they came every year in November, or that they were some of the brightest meteors in a pinwheeled zodiac of annual showers. I only knew that they were peaking and that my heart was broken, a swift and staggering leap to the wrecked finish line of high school love. But the ache isn’t what I remember. What I remember is my parents, how they knew I was hurting, and how they pulled three sleeping bags onto the frosted grass of our front yard for us to lay there, each in our own pod, with only our faces exposed to an expanse of sky.
We lay there for what felt like hours, and we never saw anything. But I remember laughing with them, and watching the steam of my breath escape toward the constellations above me, and thinking how wonderful it felt to be alive, and how amazing it felt to be loved.
My parents are incredible people. I think often about how great they are, about the many times and ways they’ve known to always show their love for me, and how in that one moment in 1999, with a teenage daughter they recognized as heartsick, they knew to simply unfurl a few sleeping bags and let the calm of something larger take over. Lying huddled on the grass beneath all those constellations, I felt my own sorrow obscured, overridden by the world beyond myself, a world full of beauty and wonder. Even as a teenager, at the age when it was my duty to distance myself from my parents, I knew how much they loved me, and how lucky and rare that was.
And now, over a decade later, those same stars calm me for other reasons. I am not devastated, not reeling from the indecency of teenage love. But I am heartbroken in other ways, less obvious and more complicated than I could have imagined at seventeen. I am heartbroken to at last know my own mortality, that the wonder of this world will end for me and for everyone I hold close. I am quietly inconsolable. It crushes me with a gasping weight that the future is not unbounded as I once imagined; that there will ever be a time when I am not near my mother or father, my sister, my husband. This weight is crushing in the most literal sense of the word. Sometimes I can’t breathe when I think of how fiercely I love everyone in my life, and how I want to love them forever and know that I can’t.
Love was once a sign to me. Sign and signified, word and object, a link I was meant to connect but never knew how. I wanted to see it from the other side. I wanted to know what love looked like through another person’s eyes, love as a prism, refracted in so many bands beyond my own narrow lens. I would lie in bed when I was little and think in sentences: My mother loves me. My father loves me. But those were words. Their intent was elusive. I would look at my mother and think this woman loves me, but I couldn’t imagine what that felt like for her.
I couldn’t imagine what it meant to love me.
The benefit of retrospective thinking, as I’ve grown older, has let me recognize where I struggle. I am connecting plot points. As a child, I thought the inability to understand how others could love me was a sign of insecurity. I know it now as a test of faith. Not trust, not confidence in others, but the simple fact of epistemology, of how things work and how there’s so much I don’t know. In so many ways, I have failed at faith. I fear death, sometimes I fear my own organs – small worlds I will never see, and never fully grasp even though they’re right there inside of me – and I fear airplanes more than I can ever outwardly admit, every intricate way they operate that I can’t begin to comprehend. Death, flight, organs, love – all things I place my life upon, without knowing the complexities of how they even work.
There is extreme anxiety in the unknown. I used to lay awake as a kid not only thinking about love, how others could possibly love me, but about infinity as well, how far the universe really stretched, and how we could live on this planet comfortably without having any sense at all of its limits. I haven’t made peace with flight or with death, the white-knuckled need to know outweighing any ability to sit back with confidence, believing that even if everything isn’t immediately known, it will all turn out fine. Sometimes I roll around at night trying to shelter my insides with the right sleeping position, certain I’ve crushed my liver by laying on it.
But I have learned faith in love, even if I can’t begin to understand what it feels like to love me. There is solace in mystery, in for once letting go.
My parents gave me a telescope for my birthday this year. It came in the form of a large box waiting on the doorstep when I came home from work, two days before my actual birthday. After I pushed the box into the living room and pulled off a web of packaging tape, the surprise inside stilled the rhythm of my breath. A collection of parts, a user’s manual, and an attached note that is still tacked to the cork-board above my desk: Happy Birthday, Dear – we remember how much you thoroughly enjoy stargazing. Lots of love always, Mom and Dad. A backyard astronomer’s guide arrived a day later, and by that time I’d already laid out every intricate piece and assembled the first telescope I’ve ever owned. Lots of love always. A reminder, even still, of what faith means to know this.
There is a learning curve to amateur astronomy. The first time I took the telescope out to the backyard, it was to see the pocked surface of a full moon. All I saw in the lens was an enormous blinding light, so bright it eclipsed the perimeter of the circled viewfinder. What I thought would be the best conditions to view the sky are instead the worst, I’ve learned; a tenet of stargazing that every other astronomer knows.
I know other things, though.
I know astronomy is a delicate balance of known and unknown, a double-bind I’ve always felt opposed within me. I know that to look through a telescope is to feel the certainty of pinning the universe down at last, and to also feel myself obscured completely by everything I will never understand. I know the light a full moon sheds is radiant enough to flood an eyepiece, a fact of stargazing that tells me I’ve been misguided elsewhere, that maybe I’ve looked at death through the wrong lens, that some things aren’t meant to be captured or contained. I know that I feel most at peace when I leave the world alone and stand at its periphery, beside a telescope or beneath an open sky, breathing in the edge of what is known, the un-sounded wonder of a big world beyond the fractured grapplings of imperfect epistemology.
Watching the night sky is a meditation in faith. It is an exercise in silence, an observance of stilled solace. It is a reminder that I have learned love in gradation, that these stars blanket all of us, a watchful halo above everyone I want to clutch against me forever and never let go. It is a taming of everything fierce inside me, a will to slacken my grip, at least for a starlit moment. It is recognition of the faith I feel that others could love me, that over time I’ve learned to accept the breathless mystery of what binds us to one another and that if I can do this, then there is hope for me still.
There is a sense of parity in the night sky, that if I can look at distant stars and not know where they begin or end, and if I can know that what I’m seeing is only a fraction of a potentially boundless span of stars and planets and galaxies, then maybe love is the same way – and maybe death as well. The limit of my own knowledge becomes comforting at last. If I can understand only my small allotment of the universe, then maybe there is more to love than I can ever know. There is the possibility that what I want to believe is true, in moments when the love I bear everyone else reaches an unbearable magnitude: maybe love really is too big to be contained by the boundaries of this world.
As Josh and I stand waiting beneath the November sky, a bright flash darts across the constellations above us. The sight of it feels like an electric current zipping through my chest. The meteor’s path is brief, then the sky falls silent and still again, as if we never saw its secret. But this is enough. I haven’t learned a way to accept death, or that the time I have on this earth and with everyone I so violently love within it will ever be enough. I haven’t learned a way to fully trust that an ending is never an ending. But I haven’t learned the complicated paths of meteors either: how they fall or where they go, or the mechanism of every constellation latticed above us and the millions of stars beyond them. There is so much I don’t know. But I’ve seen a Leonid, a meteor the size of a pencil point, from the limited view of this earth. I’ve watched the steam of my breath dissipate toward the stars while I stand still; alive and humbled and here.
Anne Valente’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, Redivider and CutBank, among other journals, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Washington Post and The Rumpus. Her short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books in 2014. Originally from St. Louis, she currently lives in Salt Lake City.