New Constellations

When you live in a bustling city where light pollutes even the calmest nights, an undisturbed sky becomes absolutely holy once the sun goes down. The milky way spreads luxuriously and it feels like you are drinking it in. For us city dwellers, it feels like something very malnourished is being fed. 

In rural Oregon we bought a three dollar app to look into the sky through our phones. The shimmering membrane of night become animated with line that connected one star to the next. Figures darted from horizon to horizon taking the form of Cygnus, the swan, Hercules, and Lupus, the wolf. In the center was a delicately illustrated lyre. When put the phone down all we saw was heaving masses of stars, the lyre was only a triangle in the center of our vision but the shape had new meaning in our eyes. The triangle appeared to be a perfect isosceles (which now I see is a bit more complicated when I look it up online). I feel pretty confident that I will be able to identify this triangle under any circumstance. And the shape will have a meaning neatly linked to this one night in Oregon where we were invoked by the stars.  

It only takes a simple pattern to identify a constellation and then that arrangement can be found from anywhere. Our brains can detect the formula of the shape almost immediately. These patterns help us make decisions and make out what has come before in order to feel out what may come next. Science has proven that when we are able to identify patterns we learn faster and feel safer in our environment. It is very hard for us to memorize every detail of, say, directions, or the words of a song, it is much easier for us to create a pattern to understand them and apply them to other situations. A pattern, however, is a pattern, and it is not the only one.

Patterns are simply stories. The way we view them is the way they are understood. One summer I made out Scorpio’s tail rising over a Canadian forest north of Toronto. Scorpio has also been likened to a palm tree. The big dipper has been seen as a plough, in Ireland, or in Burma it is a crustacean (this is all on wikipedia). A friend of mine, as we were surrounded by July fireflies, said he saw a rabbit in the moon and not a sorrowful man, which may hail from Asian cultures. Of course all of this depends on the story you’ve heard about the constellations. Orion may be a hunter who kills the bear in autumn, spilling blood over the northeastern leaves, or he might not. The patterns repeat throughout the year, returning above our heads as an emblem for the season. The stories in the sky made up of figures may once have indicated to our ancestors that this moment is connected to so many others in the past. 

I have an issue with the astrology in this way - subjecting ourselves to archetypes created by ancient Greeks seems dull if not completely lacking in nuance. I know my entire chart: I am constantly grappling with my virgo moon’s crippling neurosis - it might also just be anxiety. But is this the only pattern for us? Truly, are these patterns human?

There’s a youtube video I love that is Kurt Vonnegut giving a lecture about the shape of stories. He explains the predictability of these stories. Our brains just long for the shape of Cinderella’s arc. And he is not the first one to assign a rhythm to them. There was a Russian folklorist and scholar, Vladamir Propp, who studied Russian tales and believed that there were 31 functions to all stories. He wrote each story like a long math problem detailing everything that happened for the characters. 

And then there are the meteors. We stopped in an unfamiliar town on the Oregon coast and stood on a stone bridge and looked up into the sky with nothing but a vape pen and our arms wrapped around one another’s waist. Momentarily, a flame burst and fizzled in the atmosphere. Not at all like a shooting star, it was more like a giant fireball that appeared and then was gone. 

Psychology attempts to claim the shape of a soul, so does astrology. The truth is that our bodies operate very much like stories, they move and grow, they face difficulty and revelation. We let go of perceptions. Our bodies break and heal. Our skin breaks and scars and leaves telling marks on our skin, or on the tone of our words. 

The infinite nature of probability appears to be chaos. Constant cause and effect render the measurement of outcomes almost impossible. When we were on that bridge, perhaps there was a machine that could have seen the fireball coming. But we didn’t know. We just looked up and there it was. There is no lasting story, but there is the sky. To someone who doesn’t know the stars, they’re only a flurry of light. But to an eye that has been trained to see the sky in a certain way, it is easy to jump from one character to the next. 

Predictability is natural to human perception. Seasons roll in a measured manner in the scheme of our lives. And if the climate is proving unpredictable, the stars are certainly static, but there is something more. There is something wild about our lives, something entirely novel. Will the light swallow the stars? Will the pollution cover the sky? It certainly already has for many people throughout the world. While history rhymes is it not still. Sometimes there is a flaming ball of fire that hurtles through the atmosphere. Perhaps this can be a new sign, perhaps these stars can make new stories above new circumstances.