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Looking up

| Friday, April 7, 2017

I like to surround myself with stars. My room at home has a print of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” hanging on the wall, for instance. My desktop background is a picture of stars that I lifted from Pinterest. For Christmas, my mom gifted me a blue water bottle with all of the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere etched in white, and I carry it around obsessively.

I can attribute my love for stars solely to my mother. Mom grew up in Chicago – not a suburb of Chicago, mind you, but a house within the proper city limits. As a young astronomy enthusiast, living in proximity to millions of other people posed a challenge: the night sky was barely discernable from her backyard, obfuscated by the light pollution of a thousand different streetlamps and skylines. So in high school, my mom bussed herself down to the Adler Planetarium and took classes: she looked through telescopes, stared at projectors and learned to identify nearly all of the constellations in the Northern Hemisphere.

Now, every summer when my family goes up to a lake in Minnesota in the summer, my mom will row us out into the middle of the lake on exceptionally clear nights. Our lake is nestled in between two small towns, and you can catch a minor haze of light clouding the view at the fringes of the horizon. In the middle of the sky, however, the Milky Way cuts through your field of vision with dazzling clarity. If the water is still, the shimmering lights of the stars will reflect in the deep blue of the lake beneath us. Mom will deliver an impromptu lecture, noting the various red, yellow and blue hues of distant celestial bodies, pointing out planets and tracing the arcs of different constellations from sparkling point to point in the vast sky overhead.

Often when I’m walking back to Badin on my way home from wherever I was studying that night, the sun will have set and the stars will be out. I look up, and can make out some hints of the few constellations that I’ve remembered over the years – there’s Orion, and there’s the Big Dipper – well, that’s it, really, but it’s nice to locate even a few of them.

It’s always a revelation of space: as I walk back to my dorm on a Tuesday night, I remember that I am taking small steps on an unfathomably large planet, which is itself moving rapidly through the cosmos. The pinpricks in the night sky I see are quite literally light years away from me, yet visible nonetheless.

Looking up at the night sky, for me, grounds me in time and place in a way that few other things can effectively do. At our nights at the lake, my mom has said things to this effect — but words always fail both of us. The simplest way to communicate our awe is to remain silent and sit together, eyes open, necks craned to the sky — looking up.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Nora McGreevy

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