The Pleiades
The Pleiades
astro_mark_c / S&T Online Photo Gallery

We’re drawn to the night sky for different reasons. Wonder. Joy. Discovery.

And sometimes, for relief.

One evening not long ago, a knot of pain sat above my left eye and pulsed there. The skies were clear, but with fatigue and a migraine, I wasn’t sure I had the bandwidth for stargazing. However, it was likely our last clear night for a while, this being winter in the Pacific Northwest, and I’d had multiple conversations in the prior 36 hours about my love of stargazing and how it offers a respite from pain and other challenges of chronic illness and disability. I felt an obligation to take advantage of the clear skies, even if it wasn’t especially dark yet and even if I was in significant pain.

I’ve had head pain of one kind of another every day since November 2014. Migraine, tension headache, and ice pick headache, alone or in concert. It’s not my favorite thing. So far, there’s no medication or remedy that works. This is compounded by dysautonomia — a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system — and autism. Even on “good” days, my strength and stamina are limited.

I love stargazing. Truly. Yet I often have to give myself a pep talk to head outside. I worry about running out of steam too quickly. Sometimes I struggle with equipment because I choose something too heavy or complicated, expend my energy on set-up, and have nothing left for viewing. There are nights when the headache clouds my thinking or when it’s physically painful to look through a red dot finder.

That night, I told myself I could leave the zero-gravity chair outside if it was too hard to bring it back in. I didn’t think I had the energy for the 7×35 binoculars, but I grabbed them anyway, along with a fleece blanket because the temperature was hovering around freezing.

I leaned back in the chair, looked up at the sky, and felt better. Wonder eclipsed my immediate pain. The stars didn’t cure me or stop the migraine, but that first conscious breath under starlight filled me with quiet and familiar gratitude that I have this hobby that captivates and consoles me so deeply.

Per usual, I had to take frequent breaks. Holding even lightweight binoculars can tire me, but with Orion walking across the roof and Gemini and the Beehive Cluster on the rise, I felt relief sink into my bones.

Orion constellation above Sirius
Orion stands over Sirius in this image by Akira Fujii.

My partner, M, came down the back steps on his way to the garage. “See anything good?”

It was a courtesy question, but I answered in detail anyway — the usual suspects like the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, and M31 setting in the west. Then I added, “I just feel so lucky right now.”

That stopped him in his tracks. “You feel lucky?” He knew this difficult day was one more in a long, unbroken chain. I have wondered about the toll it takes on him to be such a close witness to the daily indignities of my disabilities.

“Yeah.” Clouds crept in from the east and north, but a wide pocket remained open overhead. I tugged on my fingerless gloves and waved my hands at the sky. “Look at what we can see, just in the backyard! It’s magnificent.”

I felt his smile in the darkness as he continued toward the garage. “I’m glad you feel lucky.”

With stargazing, I don’t have to be as strong or as fast as anyone else. I do need to make sensible choices about equipment. I need to be careful about overtaxing myself, and about staying out too late. When things are bad and I can’t go outside, I try to smile at the photos of the Moon or Venus my friend texts me from his yard, about 10 miles to the west. He tells me about the telescope and eyepieces he’s using and which Messier objects are on his view list.

But when I can manage it, I have never regretted going outside. There’s no escaping the pain and the rest of it, but I have longed for the sunset to come a bit sooner, and hoped for clear skies a little harder, so I can find solace under the stars once again.


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Tom Hoffelder

March 7, 2022 at 3:28 pm

You are a trooper! I use to have migraines, that was bad enough. Are you familiar with Leslie Peletier? Based on your title, I thought you were referring his quote: “Were I to write out one prescription designed to help alleviate at least some of the self-made miseries of mankind, it would read like this: One gentle dose of starlight to be taken each clear night just before retiring.” The difference is "self-made miseries;" obviously it applies to more for some of us. November of 2016 I was diagnosed with an incurable cancer; astronomy is one of the things that has kept me going.

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Jen Willis

March 8, 2022 at 2:20 pm

Tom, I'm not familiar with that quote from Leslie Peletier; I'll have to go look that one up! I'm sorry to hear about your challenges, but I'm glad that you've also found some relief and inspiration under the stars.

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James t

March 7, 2022 at 5:40 pm

I literally feel your pain, I've been an amateur astronomer for 40 years and I've suffered from migraines and cluster headaches for about 15 years now, most of my headaches I have in the middle of the night here in Arizona the skies are mostly clear when I have a migraine I go outside in my backyard I lie on a lounge chair and look up at the night sky and wonder, it never really takes my headache away but it takes me away from my headache for a little while

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Jen Willis

March 8, 2022 at 2:18 pm

James, that sounds familiar. I'm sorry that we have this in common, but I love that you also find relief under the stars. I appreciate your phrasing, too: "it never really takes my headache away but it takes me away from my headache for a little while." Wishing you clear skies.

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Anthony Barreiro

March 7, 2022 at 7:22 pm

Wow, thank you Jennifer and Tom for sharing your stories. Best wishes for good health and clear dark skies for each of you!

I am blessed to be free from major health problems for now. Skywatching from my light polluted urban back yard and nearby hilltop park is a great solace for me, and I try to get outside for at least a quick look with my binoculars every clear evening and before dawn every clear morning.

Living in a very dense neighborhood, I have ten neighbors whose outside lights shine into my little postage stamp of a back yard. I've talked to all of them, and they all turn off their outside lights when they're not using them. I still need to work around the lights. Pre-dawn, while everybody else is still in bed, is a magical time.

This morning was especially clear here in San Francisco. With my 10x42 binoculars I could see not just the open cluster Messier 7 through a gap between a building and a tree, but the much fainter M6 just a few degrees away. That was special.

And then there are those moments that stick with you for a lifetime. In January 2014 I had a particularly hard day at work in my job as a clinical social worker. I came home, set up my little 127 mm Schmidt Cassegrain telescope in the back yard, and looked at the galaxy M82, hoping to see Supernova 2014J, the nearest Type 1A supernova in the past 40 years. Sure enough, there it was, a 10th magnitude point of light outshining the rest of the galaxy 12 million light years away. Contemplating those photons put all our earthly woes into perspective.

Jennifer, I've greatly enjoyed your essays on the joys of skywatching. I'm glad this one is in the news feed on the S&T website front page.

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Jen Willis

March 8, 2022 at 2:23 pm

Anthony, thanks for cheering on this column! Your light pollution situation sounds frustrating, but it seems that you've found a way to make it work. Contemplating those photons does indeed put things into perspective; it's a great way to shift your mindset and even catch your breath.

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Kevan Hubbard

March 12, 2022 at 6:18 pm

I was diagnosed with a rare Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma in December 2019 but it hasn't reduced my stargazing.I get out when ever I can although I must admit I'm coming around to the Moon and have been observing it today in daylight with something much smaller than 7x35 binoculars my Zeiss Mini Quick 5x10 Monocular.

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Jen Willis

March 14, 2022 at 4:11 pm

There's a lot to be said for daytime lunar gazing. I should set some reminders for myself about this as we head into the longer days of summer.

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