Why do you stargaze? Amateur astronomer Jennifer Willis explores reconnection via the night sky.

Stargazer standing beneath the Milky Way
Don McCrady / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Years ago, I had a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t Postpone Joy.” That simple, profound message has garnered a lot of attention over the years. One time, the driver and passenger of a car on the highway waved frantically at me to roll down my window so they could shout, “Where did you get that bumper sticker?!” at 60 miles per hour.

Don’t postpone joy. It’s a decent mantra for living.

In July 2020, I lay outside on the picnic table in the dark, looking up. At the time, we had a small open patch of sky visible from behind the house, which blocked the streetlamps and most of the lights from neighboring homes. But inside Portland city limits, the sky was dark gray at best. I used my old binoculars — a cheap pair of 10x50 Tascos — to scan directly above, with a little room to the east and northeast. I could glimpse parts of Cassiopeia through our apple tree branches and Cygnus peeking out from behind a neighbor’s wild cherry tree. Ursa Minor was easy enough, and I could trace Draco if I tried hard. Delphinus and Sagitta were hidden by the roof and another big tree.

It wasn’t awesome stargazing, but that was okay. I wasn’t target hunting. I barely even registered what I was looking at. In the midst of a global pandemic and mounting tension around the U.S. presidential election, I mostly just needed a break from the world.

I hadn’t looked up at the sky in years, not really. Sure, I’d say hello to Orion when I spotted him on clear winter nights, and I regularly marveled at the Moon, but I hadn’t had time for stargazing. No, I hadn’t made time for stargazing.

But a friend was rediscovering his childhood love of amateur astronomy, and knowing about my own space nerdiness, he encouraged me to spend some time looking up, too.

What a difference a few moments can make. That summer night, my heart rate slowed as I turned my attention skyward, and my breathing evened out. It’s no exaggeration to say I felt knots loosening up. There were no agendas, no deadlines, no digital alerts pulling my focus. It was just me and the stars — and some irritating light escaping the kitchen window, and the splintery wood of the old picnic table. But I found such peace — such relief — in the midst of the world’s turmoil.

With or without my cheap binoculars, the night sky brought me back to myself. Under the stars, I remembered the whole reason why I wanted to be a writer in the first place — to carry on the tradition of the campfire storytellers from millennia in the past, spinning tales of challenge, reassurance, and meaning beneath their own star-filled skies. More than that, it was a rediscovery of wonder and awe, and it was available to me on any clear night, mere steps outside my door.

“Don’t postpone joy,” I whispered to myself. I developed a new habit of getting ready for bed, waiting in my pajamas for the sky to get dark enough, and then stretching out on the picnic table or on a blanket in the grass for a few moments of much-needed restoration. We’ve cleared some tree branches since then, and I’ve found a few spots for better views, depending on the season and what I’d like to marvel at. I eventually bought myself a zero-gravity chair for comfort, and I’ve been assembling an array of binoculars and telescopes to feed the habit that in turn feeds my soul.

I rest better on those nights, even when I sacrifice sleep to stay up late or get up super early, and there’s a quiet but excited tranquility that carries over into the next day. Once the timelessness of the vast universe sinks into your bones, the immediate concerns of an agitated world don’t penetrate as deeply.

My father used to tease me by quoting that bumper sticker. Now, years after the sticker colors have faded and its slogan lost, his reminders are in earnest. And I’m listening.

Why do you stargaze? Watch this space for more explorations on why we look up.

Comments


Image of Erik Moore

Erik Moore

October 6, 2021 at 12:12 pm

Thanks for this. It is always good to remember why we do things. This summer I got to help with astronomy at the scout camp and I think they enjoyed the stories about the constellations as much as the science. However, I am having to postpone joy for these darn clouds though...

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Jen Willis

March 8, 2022 at 5:55 pm

The clouds will clear again. Your scout camp participation sounds wonderful. Just think of how many future stargazers you might have inspired. 🙂

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DJMcCrady

October 6, 2021 at 8:55 pm

Great article! I am honored you chose my photo.

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Jen Willis

March 8, 2022 at 5:56 pm

It's a really good one! 🙂

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Joe

October 9, 2021 at 4:09 am

Such a wonderful article, Jennifer! I hope S&T posts and publishes more of these types of articles that get to the "why" of things from a human level.

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Jen Willis

March 8, 2022 at 5:57 pm

Thanks, Joe! You've encapsulated the purpose of this column fairly nicely.

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Dobsonite

October 9, 2021 at 11:49 pm

You can actually SEE something from Portland? Here in the San Angeles Megalopolis (Concrete from Santa Barbara to past Tijuana) it's the brighter planets, the Moon, or nothing.

Consider yourself blessed!

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Jen Willis

March 8, 2022 at 5:59 pm

I'm in a Bortle 6 area, so it's not fantastic but also not impossible. I do feel lucky. 🙂

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Collin

October 17, 2021 at 3:50 pm

Your article was timely for me. I read it just after a trip with my family to Carlsbad Caverns. They have an evening program to watch the 400,000-odd bats that live within the caverns fly out by in a whirlwind procession at dusk. It's a very mesmerizing, spectacle, fascinating while simultaneously calming, and occasionally exciting as a few bats fly close to the audience seated in the semicircular stadium that sits at the mouth of the cavern. Afterwards, we drove off the main road to a little dirt road, now totally dark, and stared up at the wonderous New Mexican mountain night skies. I, too, live within a large City in West Texas, and don't get to see skies like this unless I drive 35 minutes out of town, but here we were, my whole family, my wife and our two daughters 9 and 12, underneath the heavens. It was mesmerizing, and we did indeed see the occasional satellite and meteor. Many wishes were cast. It is such a blessing to simply take the time to look up.

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Jen Willis

March 8, 2022 at 6:01 pm

That sounds like a wonderful and deeply calming experience. How lovely that you were able to share that with your family.

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Howard-Banich

November 8, 2021 at 2:23 pm

"...the night sky brought me back to myself"

Those are exactly the words I've been looking for to explain why I look up. Thank you, and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

Howard

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Jen Willis

March 8, 2022 at 6:02 pm

Thank you, Howard!

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