Re-Imagining the Universe *
Disclaimer: Paul just read this piece and said I sound like a coked-up lunatic. I’ve never used cocaine so I don’t know how he’d know that, but I can see how this weird sort of love letter to him might read a bit . . . frantic (his word) or kinetic (mine). If you decide to skip this read, at least scroll all the way down to the cumulative piece of artwork before you leave because it may speak enough for itself. If you decide to rocket into space with me then just keep in mind that this is an eight-hour interstellar sea voyage condensed for your convenience since you likely have a semi-normal life to attend to. Also, forgive me for the somewhat ratty paper. I was working on the road from our camper van this summer and all I had was small pieces of black construction paper, white chalk, a knife, remnants of tape and stubborn will. Here we go . . .
Do you think the stories we tell ourselves and our children matter? Do you think our myths shape our view of ourselves in the world - past, present, and (most critically) future? I do, and I’d like to tell you a story. Well, it’s really a true story inside another true story that becomes a truer than true tale of wild possibility.
Once upon a pre-pandemic time, just before Paul and I got the crazy idea to become insane-haired sailors for science and art, I was elegantly coiffed (Remember, all things are relative!) and cross-leg-sitting (likely even wearing underpants) while pinky-up-sipping a respectable glass of shiraz in a Tucson café. I was listening to a young graduate student of Astronomy tell me something that almost made me do a blood-red spit-take all over the white table linen. She explained that it was just a few months prior that for the first time in her life she laid eyes on the Milky Way. Now, that’s not THAT surprising since she grew up in the middle of our eastern seaboard’s megalopolis where you’d be lucky to regularly spy more than super-bright Venus. No. The shocker was that she did not even think it was possible to view the Milky Way with bare-naked eyes . . . . not until that night when she went out camping in the desert away from the city’s light pollution. She was completely overwhelmed to tears when she gazed up and found herself staring straight into the glorious fuzz of our home galaxy. She wondered, had there been other literally dark moments in her life when she was staring right at the Milky Way but thought it a mere cloud and so did not see the miracle that was right there?
I think of that young astronomer often on my remote and moonless, dark nights aboard Triplefin when I recline my salt-crusted back on one of the sea-splashed trampolines and gaze up, feeling like the luckiest person alive to have a front row seat in the theater of the universe. Some nights Triplefin slowly swings a circle around her anchor, treating me to the full 360 degrees of the heavens. My dad, a Naval sailor, taught child-me most of the major constellations as well as the old Greek myths that go along with them. I often find myself mindlessly carrying on that oral tradition with a patient Paul. I hear myself recounting those old tales of war, envy, revenge, rape, greed, punishment, shame, and so on and sometimes I think: What the flying f%#k?
Well, one awful night at the end of May something beautiful happened. Paul and I and Gizmo finally anchored after a bumpy ride through the San Jose Channel. We were tucked inside the still waters of small but dramatic Nopolo Cove, where the brown and pink, smooth walls of Baja Sur’s Gigantica mountain range plunge straight into the sea like the eager arms of a toddler digging unabashedly into their blue-frosted birthday cake. We, however, did not feel like celebrating. Just after getting hooked (that’s sailor-speak for setting anchor) I noticed a bit of water inside not one, but BOTH of our amas (the two outer hulls on a 3-hulled trimaran). And on my tongue, they tasted not fresh but salty. When I showed Paul, I watched that dark funk occlude his expectant joy; joy for an upcoming summer finally on the water instead of hauled out on hot land for expensive repairs. We both knew those few tablespoons of misplaced seawater meant at minimum no visits with friends and family who were now post-pandemically set to join us in California’s Channel Islands. I cursed and sponged up the water thinking about another summer living out of our truck while Paul became sponge-like himself, soaking up all our years-long frustrations and expenses. (Yeah, first world problems, I know. But they can still break a heart.) I watched, unable to help, as he emotionally sloshed his way to his bunk before the sun set in that most picturesque of coves. I knew that he was thinking about finally just throwing in the cursed bilge sponge and selling Triplefin before we became financially sunk. I knew because I was thinking it too. And I don’t think I can return to “normal” life.
Post-Sunset-ish: I’m stubborn so I stayed out there on the bow, lying back on the trampoline with a cold beer in a ratty second-hand coozie, as the stars winked on one-by-one. Dammit, come hell or high water (ha ha), I was going to soak up what was likely to be one of my last remote and starry nights on the water for the year or (gulp) maybe even forever!? As it darkened enough for the Milky Way to appear I began to meditate on how damn much I love my hubby and want to see him joyful again. That’s when beauty appeared. It was early summer in our hemisphere, so the once-Orion-now-Danzante constellation had danced her joyful, sand dollar-slinging way out of view, below the horizon. Instead, the S-shaped elegance of Scorpius was rising, head-first above Nopolo Cove’s blunt point of land.
Only instead of seeing the familiar scorpion who some spiteful old god banished to this corner of the sky for having fought with the mighty hunter, Orion, I saw a new constellation super-imposed over my favorite stinging arthropod. There it was, plain as a starry night: Paul’s arm reaching down with a hook-curved hand pulling up a gigantic, abandoned fishing net that was the Milky Way. He was risking his life to pull the indiscriminately deadly net up and off a giant whale’s head that was, in reality, our cove’s protective, blunt point of land. Next, to my amazement, there was a twinkle up above his celestial shoulder/face as bright Spica appeared, not as Virgo the virgin’s innocent-hip star, but as the well-used rudder of a cosmic Ship of Science that was sailing towards his arm to assist.
And s#!t fire and fart smoke! - I could see myself onboard as a couple stars nearer the bow. There I was, steering with Compassion, and beginning to haul up some of the mindlessly murderous ghost net. I just about rocketed my real self off of the real bow to race into Paul’s room (Yeah, that is a coked-up amount of “R’s”.) to share this with him. I thought that these reinvented constellations in which he could see himself doing something inarguably good would help him feel better. Then I remembered that when he’s in the despair pit anything that’s “supposed” to make him feel better really just makes him feel all the worse for not feeling it. So, I snuggled back into my cushion to spend the night watching the distant suns wheel around, being open to a new way of seeing them. I wondered: Could the force of my love reinvent the entire night sky for him?
10 pm-ish: The brightest summer star, patient Vega, who waits to become our guiding pole star in about fourteen thousand years, lit up as an overhead “Ah-Ha!” lightbulb of wild possibility given enough patience. (Perhaps she also shines to remind us to eat more veggies? Yeah, once a mom, always a mom.) Straight up above Triplefin’s main mast was, to my 52-year-old eyes, a Smudge of Posterity (a star cluster to you whipper snappers) representing all the potential future lives on this planet looking back in time to us and pensively watching to see what kind of world we’ll leave behind for them. Flying through the ghost net that Paul’s Arm of Altruism was still lifting from the whale/land was The Trumpeter Swan of Rachel Carson and others who had the grace to sound the early alarm of environmental degradation. Deneb, The Trumpeter’s tail star, shone a guiding lantern for the rest of us to follow. And behind her, but no less important, was the humble Sea Cucumber, the vacuum cleaner of our oceans, reminding us of the glowing importance of those who are underappreciated yet essential. I could also see the cuke as a soaring, carrion-eating Vulture, but no longer would I see that W or M as the vain queen, Cassiopeia, who chained her helpless daughter to a rock to be saved from one mega-man by another. I barefooted into the galley for another cerveza and fought the growing urge to wake a snoring Paul and show him this overhead swirl of transformation.
Midnight-ish: My eyes shifted from the Milky Way over to the square of Pegasus, the winged horse who was born out of his pregnant mother’s (Medusa’s) neck when the heroically labeled Perseus chopped off her snake-adorned head. (I know, right? Seriously messed up. Although it would have made childbirth a LOT easier.) That equine horror show transmogrified into The Limpet of Wisdom to help us know when to change and move on versus when to stay put and accept what is. (You know, how to keep your head.) Then, primed for change, the six stars of the Big Dipper transformed into Unity, our six major continents all aligned to slow climate change while pointing our attention to the star of the melting Arctic, Polaris. Next, I recall audibly gasping when I saw the super-masculine Hercules replaced by Resiliente, a giant native dancer of living, thriving tradition who was actively slinging the planets along their orbits, giving us all some stability to rely on in the midst of change.
And speaking of change, we humans need to remember that we have the capacity to change our world by changing ourselves, and what better symbol for that than the Parrot Fish of Mutability (It’ll make sense in my next bio-based blog post, trust me. And, wow, you’re still with me here!?) See that other bright star up there? That’s Regulus nestled in the crook of a branch on the Elephant Tree of Abundance with its frankincense-scented, useful epoxy-like sap making sure we don’t forget our planet’s gift-giving nature. Parts of the worn-out monsters Hydra and Centaurus, who were born out of our fear of all things wild and uncontrollable, joined to create The Electric Bullseye Ray of Empathy, reminding us to avoid numbing ourselves to the suffering we have inadvertently caused.
Nearby, the appropriately difficult to locate Sand Dollar of Self-Forgiveness that Danzante left behind as a deep sky message that we humans are not inherently bad and that we belong here as part of the splendor of creation. I became unsettled when I found a large, vague area without any clear bright stars to hold my focus. Clearly, I had discovered The Zone of Uncertainty and Discomfort since we humans certainly need to get comfortable with that.
I just about couldn’t take waiting anymore to go share this new perspective with Paul, but then an old bow-and-arrow-wielding, scorpion-hunting hunter appeared . . . .
2 am-ish: Turned on its side, Sagittarius dropped his seriously over-the-top weapon (I mean, a shoe would have done the job.) and transformed into The Sea Lion of Weeeeeee who was playfully sky-swimming towards the Arm of Altruism. Like real-world sea lions, they help us see ourselves in those we mistake for other and remind us to play with the world. Just above the western horizon, fretful Capricorn and worn-out Aquarius gratefully handed the baton of worry and service over to the bejeweled and twinkly-scaled lizard, GratitUta, to remind us to be thankful because even when we find ourselves covered in tiny, annoying flies who feed on anxiety and despair, real Uta lizards appear, climbing and leaping all over us while devouring them. Remember The Ship of Science with Captain Compassion onboard helping to haul up that Ghost Net from the whale’s head? Well, the milky net had been lifted enough now that I could see a pregnant, lifeless shark, Carcharinus, hanging drowned in the net. Compassion was hauling her corpse aboard so that we carry regret with us, NOT soul crushing guilt though. That’s so heavy it would sink the ship.
3-ish AM: Once a lizard appeared I had to leap up myself to go share all these new constellations with my herpetologist hubby. I appeared at the foot of his bed telling him through snot bubbles and tears that I loved him so much that I just reinvented the universe for him. You can just imagine his 3 AM reaction to my verbally explosive descriptions of this new mythology? Something like, “Huh? What the . . .?! Why are you steering the boat . . . did our anchor chain break?!! WHAT about a missing scorpion and my disembodied arm? What the hell time IS it anyway?!” (Timing, Jo, timing . . . I always struggle with the timing of love.) Like the planets, thanks to Resiliente and some coffee, he’ll come around. Before dropping, just a tad dis-heartened, into my bunk I went back out on deck to give thanks for this night and for whatever uncertain time I have left with Triplefin when I saw it. At that moment it all came together. I realized that the Ghost Net of the Milky Way could also be seen as a great and terrible Veil of Unconsciousness that has been smothering the planet before we humans started to imagine a very different, wildly beautiful, compassionate, and grateful future for ourselves and our fellow Earthlings.
Because, like that graduate student of Astronomy who never saw the Milky Way when she didn’t know she could, only if we can imagine it can we see it as possible and only if we can see it as possible can we have a shot at making it happen.
Power off this screen and for The Heavens’ sake go outside tonight. Take a child if you can. Look up and imagine yourselves there in some new and empowering mythology.
*Paul also said I don’t need this footnote, but here it is anyway: I’m a white Germanic American, Mexican resident so this is a culturally Western-European-skewed and physically Northern-hemisphere-slanted re-imagining of the night sky from the human-centered perspective of Earth. I hope it doesn’t offend those near and far (New Zealand to Betelgeuse) with other histories and, literally, points of view.