I can’t find the Big Dipper anymore.
I’ve begun to take long walks very late at night. I do this because I can, and because I no longer have a boss who cares when I get up in the morning. I take long walks because I am free, freer than most, and because no one tells you the dark side of that. There can be terrible freedom.
It is also for this reason that I no longer pay attention to space, or astronomy, or Mars rovers. It only reminds me of everything I’ve lost.
But, you know what they say: You can take the girl out of the planetarium, but some knots do not easily unwind. And what, are the stars going to gaze at themselves? I’m taking the long walks regardless; I may as well look around, make sure the wheel still spins.
At the moment, depending on the time, Jupiter and Saturn are right next to each other on the southeastern horizon. And if I’m out close to midnight, Mars is high and bright and clear, shining an austere copper. The moon tonight is an unsure gibbous moon in the west, fading, slowly backing down and away from its full height.
Chicago is, of course, light-polluted as hell. But this far north, you can usually find your way around the biggest and brightest, and I’ve always been able to find the Big Dipper. You can find it too, probably. That’s the beauty of the Big Dipper, really – that anyone can find it, even and especially those who don’t know shit about stars.
But I’m looking. And looking. And I don’t see it.
I know it must be in the north; it’s literally always in the north. I know it must be low on the horizon because we are in autumn. And I know that it must be right across from Cassiopeia, which I can see ever so faintly, right at the sky’s zenith, the faint white W blinking candidly at me. I look and look and look, growing rushed and unnerved as I draw more and more lines between stars that refuse to cohere into the object of my search. Am I crazy? Have I gone bizarrely, selectively blind? Have I stepped into the Berenstein universe, where the Big Dipper never was? It might be light pollution of course, but I could always find it before! Have the northern suburbs all agreed to switch on their directional lamps, their stage lights, their spotlights and flashlights and stadium lights, and point them skyward just to gall me?
In every planetarium show, the Big Dipper is the first shape you discuss. It is the starting point, the orchestra’s tuning note, the A at the beginning of the alphabet. To find Boötes, the herdsman, you must follow the arc of the Dipper’s handle, and arc all the way down to Arcturus. To find Leo the lion, you must imagine the Dipper’s bowl as a casserole dish; you must then poke a hole in the bottom and imagine the tomato sauce drip, drip, dripping down onto Leo’s back, and Leo does not like this one bit because deep in his heart he’s just a big old cat. If you want to point yourself north, you must go to the front of the bowl and follow Merak and Dubhe up, up up up to the middling, twinkling Polaris, the axis on which the whole great wheel turns.
The Big Dipper is the light, the hope, the drinking gourd. And it’s gone. It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s fucking gone.
Or at least, I cannot see it.
Or at most, it has been obscured from me.
Each day I wake up, thinking that I have finally let go of any illusion of stability. And each day, what little ground I didn’t know I still had is ripped out from under me, and I am tumbling, tumbling. The Big Dipper is gone, and what can we do about it? Is there a senator I can call? Is this how I am to spend my evening walks? Ambling aimlessly in wide amorphous loops? Connecting dots that aren’t there? Searching ceaselessly for a semblance of sensation in a sopping, sloshing, sickening sea of senselessness?
The sky is still spinning, slowly, and steadily.
That must be something.
There must be meaning in that.
Polaris, that great axis, faint yet powerful, is still up there. I cannot see it either, but this does not cause me as much concern. As the only unmoving star, it does not need to shout as loudly to let its work be done.
There is wisdom in that, I think.
And there is wisdom in the cool autumn wind, and in the slowly reddening trees, and in the cool, wet grass that gives, ever so slightly, beneath my sneakers.