The Comfort of Astronomy

When things are really bad, it helps to look up and out for courage and hope.

Posted Mar 22, 2020

I wrote the following essay a few months after September 11, 2001. When I wrote it, the world still seemed like a terrible, dangerous place. When I was living it in real-time, it seemed even worse. But here we are almost 20 years later. And someday we'll look back on these extraordinary times, and maybe, just maybe, we will have a new normal. Of kindness, health, and peace.  

For now, stay indoors and be patient. Look at the stars online. Listen to The Planets by Gustav Holtz on Spotify. Or Major Tom by David Bowie. Stay grateful and vigilant and safe.

"September 12, 13, and 14 were days lived in slow motion. I remember making meals, taking the kids to school, trying to act as if. As if, somehow, someway, everything would be alright again. My husband worked from home those days, unable to get downtown to his office, cordoned off as it was, two blocks from Ground Zero. He spent most of the time on the phone with his co-workers, making sure everyone was first alive, then alright. Gratefully, alive was easy. Everyone was accounted for by the end of September 12th. 

Alright was trickier. Alright would take some time, especially for those like my husband, who had seen the planes, heard the explosions, felt the world coming to an end in an instant. 

But the world hadn't ended; it just seemed like it had. So he was also trying, almost by rote, like his other partners, dazed and on their phones at their homes, to keep their business from grinding to a halt. Work as therapy, work as a way to keep breathing. Amazingly enough, even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, clients were calling, insistent as ever. It was almost a relief, I suppose, that for some the grief and the disbelief were secondary to the business at hand. And the business at hand was business as usual, or a least a ragged approximation thereof.

Every afternoon those first three days we took long walks with our kids. By the river that runs through the outskirts of our town. We had lots of company. Every commuter man and woman was landlocked at home. There was no going into New York City. Not for those first few days. Our kids were so relieved to see so much of their dad that they probably coped better that we did. If were we alright, they were alright or so they unconsciously reasoned. And so we pretended to be alright.

But by Saturday night, the strain of it all, the senselessness and insanity were making them both testy and tearful and argumentative, snapping at each other for reasons they couldn't begin to understand. We'd gone one hour north to our weekend home to try to get some perspective. (How fortunate we were to have that option, I'm not sure we fully appreciated then.) I was tempted to simply send them to bed as soon as we got there—it was past their bedtime, whatever that means.

My husband had a better idea. He hustled us all outdoors, into the back yard, and insisted all four of us pile into our oversized, free-standing hammock. And then he said, "now look at that" as he pointed up at the night sky.  

And there it was—the universe. Still there. Untouched, unfazed, unbroken.

For the longest time, it held our gaze and we said nothing, in awe of the stillness and beauty of it all. Then gradually we began to point out the familiar constellations. There's the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper too. Isn't that? Yes, and look—you can even see the Milky Way.

Then the stars stood out to us. Vega, Altair, Deneb, and Arcturus. And finally the red planet, Mars.

There was something so comforting about knowing their names. It made them seem, not like abstract sparkles, or distant hot gases or particles of matter, but like friends, old friends, reliable and true. Verging on eternal. Unending.

I looked over in the darkness at our children's faces. They were tired, but peaceful again. And they had a little bit of the look of wow in their eyes. (Look how old those stars are; think how long they've been around. Look how small and young we are. Wow.)

The only sound was crickets and the four of us breathing, slow and steady. Together. After a very long time, but not too long, not at all too long, we got up and went back inside. Kissed good night, and slept like babies for the first time since September 10th."

From "A Few Things I've Noticed" by Madora Kibbe, copyright 2004

pinterest/ public domain
night sky
Source: pinterest/ public domain