Winter in the stars

So it is winter.

I woke far too early and happened to be reading about the winter solstice as it occurred at Newgrange, an elaborate Stone Age ancient temple and passage tomb in County Meath, Ireland. There the rising sun shines into a roofbox over the main entrance, just so, and fills an inner chamber with light for seventeen minutes.

Except that today it was cloudy at Newgrange and the sun failed to illuminate the little room.

Nevertheless, it fills me with intense wonder: the profound Neolithic effort and precision that went into making huge monuments perfectly aligned to capture the solstitial sun—Newgrange at sunrise, Stonehenge at sunset (Newgrange is older). There are more such ceremonial mounds across continents, centuries, and cultures. What did these ancient farmers believe? They were keen sky-watchers. They knew the patterns of the sun. Are these mounds evidence of sun-worship, or thanksgiving to deities for the sun, or hope of somehow harnessing its power? What part do the dead play in this attempt to capture the sun as it “stands still” (the origin of solstice)? How close do our best educated guesses come to understanding?

That’s only the beginning of wondering on this first day of winter, 2020.

The solstice was overshadowed by bigger news: In the evening, Jupiter and Saturn would come closer together than they have for 800 years. The “Great Conjunction.” Some call it the Star of Bethlehem or the Christmas Star.

In my front yard there is a Christmas star. It presides over a Nativity scene once belonging to my in-laws until the year someone vandalized the lighted figures and stole the Baby Jesus. My father-in-law painstakingly removed the spray paint but my mother-in-law didn’t want to set it up again, fearing it would invite vandals to return and maybe do more harm. They gave it to my family when our youngest son was three. He was so captivated by the Nativity that he began supervising the setting-up of it on the day after Thanksgiving, a tradition that continues to this day, twenty years later (with a replaced Baby Jesus, who is, after all, the point).

The Great Conjunction appearing so near Christmas could not be missed.

From the back deck I scoured the night sky, feeling inept, wishing that I could read the constellations and navigate by them the way the ancients did, like astronomers or sailors or stargazing travelers do. I do not have that gift of the Magi … but I tonight I recognized Mars, brilliant and yes, red, rising to the left of the moon. I read somewhere recently that Mars—named for the Roman god of war, the son of Jupiter—will be the brightest star in the night sky until 2035 (I’d made a note. Will research).

And I saw what I thought were shooting stars, something I am not sure I’ve ever really seen before… stars or pieces of stars were moving around the sky. They were. From my vantage point, not far from Mars, which was clearly rising higher… I began to think about apocalyptic literature, the stars falling one by one, the end of time…

I think it is a meteor shower. The Ursids do this every December. I have lived this long and haven’t paid attention, alas. But now, now I stand wondering, beyond my human ability to articulate, about all that is going on in the sky this night. As someone who loves symbolism… well. I cannot know the stories of the stars. If they are writing, it is in a language I cannot read. A mystery too high and yet so deep. Amazing that scientists know what they do about space. More amazing that stars do what they do, with their vast, celestial choreography…

And where is this Great Conjunction?

With some help from the SkyView app I find Uranus. And Neptune. And Deneb, the star at the head of the Northern Cross, part of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. And—is that bright star high in the west what I’m looking for? No… that’s Vega. Meaning “falling eagle.”

There are bald eagles in this area. I have seen them. And just a couple of weeks ago I dreamed I was standing on my deck, right here facing the spot where the star Vega is now, except that in the dream it was day and an eagle flew by, precisely there…

I do not have enough lifetime to ponder all the things I so want to ponder.

That is a dark thought on this longest night of the year. Which reminds me of a job the Space Station astronauts have: looking for dark matter. What is dark matter? Scientists are not quite sure. They cannot actually see it in space, but they can see that something causes various effects on other objects, so they know it is there. What ever it—dark matter—is.

These thoughts stir my longing for quest, for story. This is one reason why writers write…but I am already on a quest, am I not?

SkyView says Jupiter and Saturn are behind the pine trees of my backyard.

Nothing for it but to load my husband, son, and Dennis the dachshund in the car to find a wide-open space.

Turns out that the end of our street was good enough.

We got out, looked back, and there—perfectly aligned over the cul-de-sac at the opposite end—the Great Conjunction. Lower than I expected, very bright, infinitely mysterious.

A rare, beautiful light shining in the darkness. Not a star, just two big planets huddled together.

What might Jupiter, the king of the planets, have to say to Saturn, or Kronos, or Cronus—Father Time?

Here’s the thing. They might not be talking but planets do emit sounds… only they may be drowned out by the stars. Stars sing. All the time. Ask NASA. Google it. Read Job 38:7. The universe plays its own symphony…

I am thinking about their song, what harmonics stars might have, as I sit down to write this post. I am saddened, just a little, not to have obtained a photo of the Great Conjunction (if only I had a telescope!). Yet…I saw it. My quest was rewarded; I landed in just the right place at the right time (and century) to witness it.

Which leads me back to the Newgrange site, where I discover that early tomorrow (Tuesday) the Office of Public Works is livestreaming the sunrise again! Will the sun still fill that little chamber? For how long? I will get to see for myself here in a few short hours… and now a photo of the entrance to that ancient mound catches my eye. That megalithic art, those swirls… why do they seem so familiar? I just saw them somewhere here in my house. Maybe in the new illuminated Bible I just got?


—Ah. Found them. Over my fireplace, in a picture I painted at a gathering several winters ago… one does wonder, really, how much of the ancient remains deep within us, even now… we are, after all, made of stardust, and what else is our sun but a star?

Just one more bit of winter whimsy…

Photo: Newgrange. Bea y Fredi. CC BY

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good (long) night.

16 thoughts on “Winter in the stars

  1. Oh the wanderings, and wonderings of the human mind manifest here by a writer who lights a clear path. I love this post for so many reasons, not the least of which is that you pursued your vision and packed everyone into the car to let them share it with you. This is a memory you all have banked. (Who knows what the dachshund has stored?) I love the references to celestial phenomena and the beaming admirations for those who created amazing structure without all our “technology.” Thanks for this today. Amid the madness we need to LOOK UP!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Delighted that you loved the post – it’s a potentially dangerous thing to try to follow the trail of one’s ever-spiraling thoughts but I attempted it in hopes that wasn’t just rambling-! The dachshund… he whined loudly, sounding like a little pig while we walked in the dark carrying him. He either wanted to get down or didn’t like this night excursion. Either way he fell asleep, curled beside me on the couch, as soon as we got back in and settled – his sense of safety restored, all being right with his world. There’s gotta be a takeaway in that somewhere… thank you for seizing on that thread! And for marveling with me at what those ancient farmers were able to do. Begs the question of what sophistication, wisdom, and insight really are…oh, the truth of your last line – we must always look up. We cannot survive in a myopic condition. Many thanks for these words.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I also felt inept looking at the sky last night. Is it that one? or that one? I should’ve understood more. I should’ve told my students about it.
    Your wonder and wanderings leading to the swirls speaks to how connected the universe is, without us even noticing.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family!
    Thanks for being present in my (virtual) life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Margaret, that is a thing I love most about writing – if we follow threads far enough, we see how everything is connected. It’s all about the thinking and the seeing. Endlessly fascinating. Even without answers… and I am grateful for your presence also. You are a gift and inspirational guide. Merry Christmas to you and your beautiful family – so much to celebrate, in spite of all!

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  3. Two years ago my son and daughter-in-law took me to Ireland and England for a week in each country to fulfill my bucket list. My Grandfather came from Ireland; my Grandmother from England. They loved each other for over 70 years.
    We visited Newgrange, my son narrowly squeezing through the entrance, to stand under the thousand (?) pound slab covering the top of the huge edifice. How did the ancient builders get the monolith up there? From somewhere back in time, my ancestors left an almost tangible feeling in the inner sanctum.
    In England, we drove up the highway alongside miles of green turf,; suddenly saw huge stone columns dwarfing visitors, felt electricity when we realized it was Stonehenge! The amazing giant built by my English ancestors.
    I was born in America, but nowhere here do I feel skin pricklies of my ancestors. I love America, but feel only shame for our intolerance, greed, ending president. May this too, pass away.
    Thank you for a wonderful reminder of the good in humanity.

    Jill Mulligan

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    • Dear Jill: Thank you for the gift of this response, which is a treasure to read and to contemplate! I am mostly of English/Irish descent myself (like 93%) and have longed to visit the lands of my ancestors. My grandfather (whose middle name was St. Patrick – I kid you not) said his own grandfather came from Ireland and told stories of dugout canoes. I wish I knew more… always, always. These Neolithic monuments are absolutely compelling to me; there’s so much I want to know. I suspect – for all the complexity of erecting these staggering structures to such precise calculations – that the reason is simpler than we think, in addition to being vitally important to the builders. (Am now recalling that my grandfather, born in a farming community and quitting school in 4th grade, went on to be a shipwright in WWII; he could not read in the literate sense, but he could interpret or “read” blueprints with this same precision. For that matter, as a farmer, like those who built Newgrange, he could read nature). I can well imagine the electric tingle you felt at Newgrange and Stonehenge; that one aligns with solstice sunrise and the other with sunset is also utterly fascinating to me. Just – why? In reading of my ancestry, a statement that “identity isn’t always based on science” is intriguing, yet in the DNA remains a desire for the light, a remnant of “early inhabitants who had both a keen understanding of nature as well as complex spiritual beliefs.” Until I started writing regularly, I didn’t realize just how much nature spoke to me… for both writing and nature are deeply spiritual. I never tire of seeing where they lead in my own little chamber of illumination. Oh, and as for America… we are still a young country in the long scheme of things; we are still having growing pains. Let us hope we soon get beyond this painful adolescent stage and remember that our stories are all intertwined, and how much we need one another. I celebrate our connection this day – thank YOU.

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  4. Appreciations for this meditation on the Universe, the Ancients & so much more. I expect to remember to look online for the replay of the dawn event which your tree swirl spirals are so beautifully echo – unknowingly or, perhaps through some long long connection. Just lovely, lovely. peace & yoy & stars.
    xox Jan/Bookseedstudio

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  5. Ah, Jan- thank you for riding all the contours with me as I chase these starry threads… they all connect, in the end. At least I sense that they do. How I appreciate your words and you! Peace and joy upon you also.


  6. Beautiful sharings, thank you! I looked for that special ‘kiss’ between Jupiter and Saturn last night, but our evening was too cloudy…I hope to get another chance tonight (though I know they won’t be quite as close). It is very special! Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Like Maureen, I was hoping to get a glimpse last night but was also hampered by the clouds.

    There’s so much to take in and appreciate about your post. I think I’d just start with wide-eyed wonder. The sky never ceases to amaze me, in all of its many arrangements and revelations. You know, it’s a Jewish tradition to carry two slips of paper, both with quotes from scripture. One one reads, “For my sake the world was created.” The other reads, “I am but ashes and dust.”

    It’s this bigness and this smallness that you capture so beautifully here – this connection to all things across time and space, this connection that creates both expansive wonder and deep comfort.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lainie, your linking the post to the Talmud & Genesis, and the tradition of carrying these scriptures in daily life, fills me with awe. Ancient spiritual truths. We must remember. The stars themselves surely point to the incredible gift of being alive to witness them and the limitations of being human in the vastness of the universe and time. Thank you for savoring the age-old mystery & wonder here with me. Nothing astounds or sustains me more than recognizing these connective threads – and you are one of them. 🙂

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      • Thank you, Fran. What I love about this community – and my friendship with you – is to see these connections threading their way around one another bit by bit. It strikes me to consider the power those connections hold.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. We both seem to have winter, and wonder, on our minds! I was lucky enough to capture a picture of the conjunction on the Solstice; what a memorable detail to add to our longest night. I think it’s important to look up at the sky regularly, especially at night; it gives me the same feeling as when I stand at the water’s edge of the ocean. (Better yet if I am doing both at the same time, viewing the night sky over the ocean’s endless horizon!) Problems seem to pale in the starlight when wonder takes over.

    Stonehenge is on my bucket list!

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