Living Out Loud: : Not So Nebulous

A part of the universe

Feb 22, 2006 at 2:06 pm

On a recent trip to the Cincinnati Observatory, I got to peer through the old telescopes housed there and spied upon Orion the Hunter and the Pleiades, a cluster of seven white stars in the constellation of Taurus. Though I've lived here in town for most of my life, I'd never been to the small yet potent buildings tucked into the hills overlooking Hyde Park, described by some as the first professional observatory in the United States.

Since childhood I've had a fascination with outer space, the various galaxies and stars, those ghostly sails of stardust and nebula spread across the sky every night, right there above me yet still out of sight. In the interests of full disclosure, that childhood included a Star Trek geek phase. So it was with great anticipatory relish that I waited for some clouds to clear over the observatory and my turn to peek into the great dark beyond.

Now I knew going in that these are some pretty antique telescopes, so they're not that strong and, no matter a scope's age or lens strength, the stars weren't going to look as bright and vivid as the photos I'd seen in books or on Web sites. But once I got up and placed my eager eye to the viewfinder, I still felt somehow a bit cheated over the small pinholes of light I saw, just seven little dots of light that didn't seem quite as magnificent a cosmic display as I'd hoped for, even with my lowered expectations.

But that's not why you called, and that's not why I'm telling you this story. As I emerged from the dim observatory, slightly chagrined but still enjoying the brisk night, I saw a few people wandering around the grounds and, as people do every freakin' where these days, chatting on their cell phones. I wondered, as I often do, if this is just another instance of modern men and women feeling vaguely uncomfortable when they find themselves alone.

As that's not an affliction I'm stricken with and I was in no hurry to get anywhere else, I began to wander myself, down the steps and around to the hill behind the observatory.

A small constellation of streetlights spread out below me on Erie Avenue, and all across the sky pearly shafts of light were silently exploding from behind the clouds as the full moon rose in the east. The people on their cells seemed oblivious to this, and I just marveled at the noiseless beauty splayed above me, an epic skyscape dotted with quite a bit more than seven stars. I felt for a moment timeless, mythological, informed of a brief communion with an entire edge of the universe.

On nights like this, or in the sun-soaked days I hike alone in the woods, I often feel a deep yet nameless something or other brushing up against me, the more abstract me. I pause and become still, just letting that part of myself be, feel that quiet mingling of the all-encompassing natural universe and my singular self, alone yet part of a larger whole. I remember that I am part of the universe and it's a part of me, not in some crystal-tinged, New Age sort of way, but that of an ancient connection binding the burning lights of the sun and moon and the tides of blood coursing through my veins. I sense but can't see the atoms and electrons spinning in the cells of my body, a mirror to the whirl of stars and planets through the cosmos, inner space reflecting the outer. It's about as close to mystical as I get these days, what with working almost but not quite full-time and still trying to get by, those ever-blooming weeds of self-absorption and media-manufactured needs choking the modern landscape, the closed-minded morons some let chatter on and on in their TV radio ears, and all the other minor aggravations scattered throughout my days.

But under that sky filled with moonlight and stars a million miles away, the drama of my days became less than it was, shrank to its proper size and fit more easily into the "Does this really matter?" file of my mind. I remembered that nothing lies between me on this small blue planet on the edge of the Milky Way and everything else in the universe, all the pointless noise that surrounds me every day and those lights in the sky just reaching me after coming across the universe for uncounted years.

Somewhere in this city a cell phone is ringing and here I am, not answering it.