December 23, 2020
Pearl River It’s hard to describe the pleasure we feel when we can take ourselves out of this world, but it’s real, and it’s special. It was wonderful that “appointment viewing,” as the television critics term some shows, actually involved the vast universe above us, as we searched the southwestern sky for the conjunction, as astronomers were calling the close proximity of Jupiter and Saturn.
We didn’t have our game together the first night on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and isn’t that an amazing marker of our time, joining us to prehistoric forebearers and their early recognition of the earth’s movement around the sun. We went by the clock, rather than trusting our eyes as the sun set. The next day was different. We planted our eyes on the horizon and could see the conjunction plainly even as the dusk was becoming night. Mi companera had gotten a telescope for her birthday, and our son was madly trying to synchronize its debut with this event. No pressure of course, but failing to see it now would mean waiting until 2080, fat chance that would be for many and most. We could see the conjunction in the crook of several trees, and when he finally had it centered, where my binoculars had it close, the telescope separated the planets more broadly, making it easier to believe that they were actually close only from our distance, yet 400,000 miles apart in reality.
These planetary and astronomical events are good reminders of our small place in the world and time, but they are easy markers to remember. I was with a bunch of leaders fresh from negotiating an agreement to reform a predatory land contract operation when we pulled over off the interstate to see the last total eclipse while driving between Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina. I was jogging on a crisp, raw spring morning in Amarillo, Texas where we were organizing a union of nurses at a local nonprofit hospital there when I followed the trail of the Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 as I ran. I was driving back from Springfield, Massachusetts to Williamstown when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Clear mornings before dawn, I fire up the SkyMap app on my phone while walking Lucha so that we can identify stars, constellations, and planets in the seasons now. We can find Orion, Castor and Pollux, Sirius, Zenith, Ursa Major, usually Venus and Mercury, and many more. The dog is now patient as I stop and point the phone up. I feel like I’m learning something.
Learning makes me root for what the Chinese will find from the more than four pounds of rocks they retrieved from the moon recently. I’m OK with training US astronauts to return after decades of being earthbound. The Amazon and Tesla billionaires’ vanity projects for high end space rides seems absurd, but finding our place in the universe and the danger and discovery of our smallness in the world above is vital in grounding us here now and underscores the needs of our fragile planet, and what we must do to survive.