Beside my pillow, my mobile phone illuminates and pulses twice, alerting me to a new message received, and emitting a small glow in the darkened bedroom. Unable to sleep, I pick up the phone and unlock its welcome screen, squinting as my eyes adjust to the blue light, and I see a greeting from a dear friend who lives a few time zones behind me. I respond, replace the gadget on the bed, and as I close my eyes I consider the glow that drew me to that quick exchange, like a firefly on an errand, and the same small burst of light that would signal to my friend that my reply awaited her.
As an expatriate, I’ve constructed a family across continents, including relatives inherited and selected, who illuminate each other’s spaces at any hour in beeping, ringing, vibrating, loving interruptions. It strikes me that these points of light, and the individuals they represent, are scattered across the globe in an earthly reproduction of stellar constellations in the sky.
The earliest stargazers of Mesopotamia, of Egypt, of Mesoamerica and China, the first to pull meaning from the vastness, associated those clusters of lights with the deities who ruled their worlds. They populated the dome of night with characters and relationships, and left their stories for us on clay bricks at the banks of the Tigris. Among the Sumerians and Babylonians of the Fertile Crescent, five stars in particular were linked to gods who represent the fundamentals of human relationship: wisdom, justice, war, love, and communication. These same enduring tenets were embraced by Greeks and Romans who, looking upwards, admired Zeus and Ares, Venus and Mercury, Mars and Chronos. We have similarly inherited these principles of connection, as we navigate friction and unity in our homes, as we try to do right by one another, as we talk over coffee or via messages sent in nanoseconds over oceans. Our families are bound to us in a patterning rendered by the fidelity and devotion of generations in the spirit of Hipparchus of Greece, lover of truth and clarity who, so inspired by the discovery of a “new” star, spent years tenderly cataloging each fixed point of light in the sky.
Through the ages, stargazers slowly shed the worship of sky deities in favor of more practical treatments: mathematics, cartography, navigation, the domestication of time. So, too, have we come to rely on the quotidien give-and-take of our relationships, forgetting the divinity inherent to connections amongst kin. Before the discovery of celestial navigation, explorers relied on dead reckoning to approximate their way through the unknown, plotting their assumed position based solely on conviction in the previous location, or fix. But a life of dead reckoning is a life of cumulative error; if your fix was mistaken, you’re destined to lose yourself in solitude, inch by inch. The Carta Pisana of the late 13th century is a masterpiece of dead reckoning, and collaborative ego; etched into sheepskin, the Mediterranean map was rendered with contributions from Genoa, Venice, Majorca, Barcelona, and, of course, Pisa. The sea is transcribed with relative accuracy; further north and east into the Atlantic Ocean, the map skews. Until we realize the wisdom of the points of navigational light in our lives, we likewise tend to skew, the further we roam.
Before Europeans of the Renaissance realized its potential for navigation, and perhaps thousands of years before Hale dreamt of his brick moon, the relentless pathfinders of Polynesia were awakened to the sky. Tracking the reliable procession of astral confidantes, and astonishingly intimate with the swells of tide waves against their sea vessels, Polynesians navigated hundreds of thousands of miles through both hemispheres, heeding subtle, seasonal changes in the voices of their guides. The proclivities and perspectives of our loved ones, absorbed by our psyches and bodies, are our indigenous tools of navigation. We triangulate their distances relative to the horizon to venture into open seas, secure in our positioning, and mooring to the shore in times of crisis; a lifetime of these calculations renders wisdom imbued with familial character. Even as adults, seeking less guidance as the horizon nears, the tides of our ever-shifting seas are swayed by a celestial pull, and the wayfaring of our ancestors delivers us to the present moment.
And what of our personal Copernican revolutions? Of the realization that we are not the centers of our familiar galaxies, but merely points of light? Let us not forget Aristarchus of Samos, whose suspicions about the truth of the sun were preserved by Archimedes, Sand Reckoner, for the present day. In contrast to Plato, who preserved us in the Spindle of Necessity, Aristarchus was lured by his mythical Central Fire, source of universal light. Indeed, most among us were faultless proponents of our personal geocentrisms as youth, convinced in our fixedness at the centers of our universes, and–if we were lucky–doted on by family as if it were so. Over time, as merely peripheral witnesses to crises, tragedies, and celebrations beyond our control, we slowly released this false conviction and eventually were struck by the painful, if freeing, epiphany that we are but stars ourselves on an infinite spectrum, embedded in familial constellations. In one fell swoop, everything changes, our focal point expanding at light speed from the minutiae of our daily needs to encompass entire life spans and lineages.
We fixate on the stars perched above us, born of the gods, overlooking the spaces between them. A few more than half of recognized constellations are considered ancient, ruminated on by the Babylonians and Greeks. Between and surrounding the brightest stars in the sky are dimmer cousins, easier to spot using the more advanced apparatuses of the 17th and later centuries. Camelopardalis, the camel-leopard, or giraffe, reaches for a drink from the Big Dipper. The Lynx narrowly escapes a tail bite from Leo Minor. And Telescopium, one of fourteen constellations envisaged by de Lecaille in the 18th century at the Cape of Good Hope, reflects back to us our deepest wishes to see, to know, and to locate ourselves in a heavenly arrangement.
Returning to those glowing pulsations, those beeping vibrations of messages sent and received between family scattered widely, I think about the distances between stars, and whether they reach out to one another for comfort or a laugh. Ancient sound waves likely sculpted our galaxy, as the matter that collapsed around seeds of darker matter following the Big Bang rebounded and spread outward like ripples in a pond, slowing to a halt as the universe cooled, and shaping our galactic home. Undiscouraged by the vacuum of space, scientists relaxed their definition of sound to include electromagnetic vibrations, and discovered that the stars are singing, even if we can’t hear them. Aiming their lasers at earthly reproductions, researchers found that the flow of plasma from high- to low- density areas creates pressure pulses, or sounds waves, that emit from the stars. Early evidence pegs that plasmic noise at around one trillion hertz, which is nearly one trillion hertz more than the human ear can handle, and more or less equal in impact to my mother’s relentless laments over how far away I live, and whether I’m ever coming home.
We don’t hear our messages hurtling through space, and certainly we can’t see them. But I send them out from one end of my constellation and, despite what feels, on occasion, like a digital vacuum, the impact is felt on the other side. Some lament that communication has become impoverished in the modern age, reduced in scope, in length, in quality, and sincerity. But I celebrate the possibilities of this distillation, and its digital aerodynamics, sharing information and building relationships in real time, from Amman to Allentown, from Khartoum to Kingston, from Bonn to Bamako, Hargeisa to Cleveland to Los Angeles. In a globalized world, we are fortunate to maintain our constellations via portable devices, keeping family and friends in our back pockets, wandering points of light.
I wonder if the Polynesians of ancient times, adrift in the Pacific Ocean, eyes closed, attuned to the lap of waves against boat-craft, felt a kinship with the stars that guided them. Or if the Babylonians or Greeks likened themselves to the gods who occupied the heavens, bringing the sky closer with every story etched into papyrus and clay. I leave my pillow and phone behind and step out onto the balcony in the darkness, looking up at Alioth and Dubhe, at the Big Dipper and Ursa Major, the great she-bear, and Arturus, Bear Watcher. I glimpse Jupiter, a wandering star, and wonder who in my earthly constellation sees what I do at this moment. I gaze upon salted skies, and the friends and family among them, cynosures of the times, in gratitude and respect.
Photos from a recent trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, with a quick stop in Malmo, Sweden.