We are in the midst of my absolute favorite season of the year (autumn), but soon it will seep into what is sure to be another brutal East Coast winter. I am excitedly awaiting the change though, as it signals my favorite nighttime sky–the one with Orion and Orion’s belt.
My liking for the constellation grew sometime during my college years, when I spent many cold winter evenings walking around campus–from my dorm to a friend’s dorm or the cafeteria, or the long hike to athletic center. If I were walking alone (and I often was), I would spend a fair amount of time looking at the stars. Orion’s belt–the bright string of Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka–is best viewed in the early Northern Winter night sky. In the New Hampshire night, it was more than clear. Seeing it on my walks reminded me of the times I had come home from friends’ houses or extracurriculars during winters in high school. As I walked up the driveway and front steps of my childhood home, there was enough of a clearing between the roof and the giant oak trees in the front yard that, when I looked up, gave way to a perfect little window of the sky. In those winter months, I recognized Orion, but it didn’t hold much significance other than I thought it was cool. In college though, I began to feel more grounded when I looked up at all of those burning balls of gas.
“There is a fundamental reason why we look at the sky with wonder and longing–for the same reason that we stand, hour after hour, gazing at the distant swell of the open ocean. There is something like an ancient wisdom, encoded and tucked away in our DNA, that knows its point of origin as surely as a salmon knows its creek. Intellectually, we may not want to return there, but the genes know, and long for their origins–their home in the salty depths. But if the seas are our immediate source, the penultimate source is certainly in the heavens… The spectacular truth is–and this is something that your DNA has known all along–the very atoms of your body–the iron, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and on and on–were initially forged in long-dead stars. This is why, when you stand outside under a moonless, country sky, you feel some ineffable tugging at your innards. We are star stuff. Keep looking up.”
–Neil de Grasse Tyson
In the first days and nights that I lived in Ireland, I felt very lost. I was in a brand new country, one that I had no historical or familial or emotional ties to, and I was more alone than I had ever been. I made small talk with roommates, neighbors, and classmates initially. Tried to be outgoing and polite and open. Tried to welcome all of the new things. Tried not to be sad. But everything lacked the familiar connection I was used to. My familiars were thousands of miles away, across an ocean, and contacting them was less than easy for some time.
One evening, near the end of my first week abroad, I was walking back to my student village from the main part of campus. I was returning from something–the library or a club fair–later than usual, as it was already dark when I carefully crossed the uneven stone paths and made my way through the tree-lined sidewalk alone. The weather was still achingly cold and my bones hurt from the loneliness. From feeling completely disconnected from this new world of mine. I nestled into the knitted green scarf around my neck and burrowed my hands deep into my jacket pockets. With my eyes focused on the pavement in front of me, I walked briskly, looked both ways before crossing the ever busy Plassey Park Road, and kept moving. As I crossed into the village, I relaxed just a bit. I was nearly home–or, well, nearly back to the house I was living in.
And then, I looked up at the string of houses in front of me–House 44 perched on the end closest to me–and I kept looking up. And then there was the January night sky: dark and full and still glowing with stars.
And there was Orion’s belt, and Orion.
I took a long, deep breath, and I was okay.
I was home.
There, right above me, were the same stars I had looked at all those nights in New Hampshire, or those times I walked up the driveway from my car to my front door. The very same stars. The same ones my people back home would see when they looked into the sky. I realized everything would turn out fine because those stars would always be right above me, whenever I needed them most.
Neil de Grasse Tyson was right. It was that tugging, that ache, inside that pulls at every fiber of our beings. That lets us know that we are not it–there is something more than us, the tiny specks of dust in the universe. The matter we are composed of once burned brilliantly in the night sky. Now it’s the blood flowing through our veins, the neurons firing in our brains, the waves crashing on a beach and the way it sounds just a bit different to every pair of ears.
We are more than skin and bones and simple thoughts. We are star stuff.