When I was 12 years old, I wrote a silly poem called “A Well-Rounded Gal” featuring lines about being able to recite poetry while standing on my head wielding a sword with my left hand, and all manner of other skills that a prepubescent girl who’d read all the classic Arthurian, science fiction and fantasy novels thought were requisite to qualify as a Renaissance woman. Though the list was a bit on the fantastical side (though I would still love to learn how to properly sword-fight), in reality, like everyone I think, I kept a mental list of things I wanted to be knowledgeable about, skills I thought a real adult would know. Perhaps it is part of the pitfalls of perfectionism or some crackpot bill of goods sold to all of us, that dangles that carrot of “If Only”, this feeling of inadequacy that comes from knowing less than I should. It’s not that Socratic knowing-what-I-don’t-know inspiration that prompts us to seek knowledge, but the palm-sweat inducing sensation brought on by the sound of “should.”
On that mental list that a Renaissance, always-prepared Girl Scout dragon mama carried in the toolbox is the ability to navigate by way of the constellations. Now as anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a terrible sense of direction. I frequently turn left, meaning to turn right. I get lost, or as I call it “go adventuring” on a regular basis–in places I’ve lived for years. I’ve learned that when in doubt, whichever way my instinct tells me to go, I should go the opposite, which is then usually the correct way home. Before we moved to a place where my mountain is always in the East, determining where North lies without GPS was a multi-step process that involved:
1. Looking to first determine where the sun was in relation to where I was (not as easy as you think in a state like Michigan where it’s frequently overcast).
2. Humming the lines to an old Girl Scout song: “The golden sun sinks in the West, Great Spirit calls Girl Scouts to rest… ”
3. Recalling which way I-75 runs, and where I was in relation to this freeway
4.Imagining a compass rose and mentally walking around this to determine in which direction lay North.
So, perhaps being able to navigate by the stars is asking a bit much. I would be willing to settle for being able to find the constellations, I thought.
So when my middle daughter asked me to come as a chaperone on the school trip to the planetarium, I was stoked. Here was an opportunity to add to my repository of Renaissance woman skills. Our astronomer guide was a woman who had clearly given the talk to elementary school children numerous times throughout the years. One thing I had not counted on was how dark the giant room became once she shut off the lights so we could look up at the ceiling and pretend we were looking up at the night sky. It was breathtaking, and enlightening, but unfortunately, my super-hero power of being able to sleep anywhere at any time kicked in. Life skill NOT achieved, though a refreshing nap was had, luckily without any embarrassing snores.
The next opportunity for redemption presented itself at our trip to Chaco Canyon with the Boy Scouts. The ranger gathered us for a hike after dark (which in my mind seemed like a great opportunity to sprain ankles or have small children fall into gullies) then began speaking about the ancient people who had built the mysterious dwelling places at Chaco Canyon. He told a legend of how the stars were placed in the sky, the constellations a way of explaining how the world began, when crops should be planted, how men and women interacted, and as we sat under the brightening stars waiting for the moon to rise and show us the way, he recounted how these stories told with the constellations as illustrations and backdrop would be told over and over again. The people knew those stars and the moon like we know street signs, he said. Their world revolved around lightness and dark, without artificial light to lead them astray.
I realized then, we all have that longing in us to know and understand the heavens, from ancient people to all of us with our Kindles and smartphones. We all struggle to make meaning of those bright lights in the distance, beckoning us to wonder what lies in the abyss and the unknown. What I longed for at 12 is the same thing we all have wanted across millenia– to be able to find our way home in the darkness, and no amount of “Shoulds” can dim the stars. They are there, as they have been for millions of years, waiting for us to tell our stories.
As National Blog Post Month begins again, I’m trying yet again to find my way back. Unlike the mariners of old, keeping journals, star charts and compasses that helped them differentiate the days on dark seas, navigating their way home by the constellations, I lost my internal compass, stopped writing, and got a little lost as I tend to do. I am grateful today for the observatories that allow us to grasp for brighter lights on the horizon, for the stars in our world that stay constant, and for those wise people in our life like Socrates, who remind us to keep searching for truth. I hope you enjoy this month’s journey to find it with me.