The other night, I took the dog for a walk down our driveway.
The job of walking our dog after dinner usually falls to my husband; on these frigid winter nights, he dons hat and gloves, ski goggles and earmuffs, snow pants and winter parka, before disappearing into the snowy, blow-y dark. “Hope you make it to base camp!” I’ve been known to holler (unhelpfully) into the mudroom after him, while our daughters collapse in a pile of giggles.
Those daughters are the primary reason why my husband is the designated evening dog-walker: I’m usually occupied by dinner dishes, bedtime stories, and tuck-ins.
But on this particular night, a few days before Christmas, I needed the fresh air and the quiet. My vision was getting fuzzy from all the gift-wrapping, baking, and holiday logistics. Besides, I had a few last-minute Christmas cards to put in the mailbox.
So, after donning my warmest gear (minus the ski goggles and earmuffs), I set out down the driveway with Gracie, our clinically anxious labradoodle.
Let me set the scene, for those who have a more suburban vision of the word “driveway:” Our driveway is a ¼ mile-long, dirt-and-gravel road. We share its initial length with a neighboring house; about halfway down, the driveway branches in two, with one section leading left towards our neighbors’ house, and the other section winding to its conclusion at our front door. The driveway is unlit, as is the main road where it ends. At night, the only light comes from the single bulb outside our front door, and a handful of lights from neighboring houses – the neighbors with whom we share our driveway, the farm beyond the trees, and one or two homes across the main road.
All this to say: At night, the walk down our driveway is dark – very dark. The journey may take upwards of ten minutes round-trip, because ice and snow on the gravel drive make it necessary to step carefully. Ten minutes in single-digit temperatures can feel like a long time.
The night I walked our dog was cold and dark. It was also a clear night, so when I looked up about halfway through my walk, I gasped aloud.
We don’t see the stars much these days, do we?
This may be because we’re not able. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was assigned to keep a nightly star journal. Every night for a couple of weeks, I walked out on my driveway (the short, asphalt, suburban variety) and tried to locate various constellations in the night sky. It was a nice assignment; the challenge was trying to see much of anything past the glow of suburban streetlights, with houses and trees crowding out my view of the sky.
That same challenge has been repeated throughout most of my adult life, spent largely in major urban areas where manmade light obscures all things celestial except the moon, planets, and a few of the brightest stars. Even after moving to Vermont, the house in which we lived for five years was surrounded by trees so thick that for most of the year we had just a small peephole to the skies directly above our heads. It’s only since moving to our current house, which sits in the middle of almost 25 cleared acres, that I’ve gained a more complete view of the heavens.
But even if we can see the stars, it doesn’t mean that we look at them.
These days, we have less need to stargaze than ever before. I recently taught my homeschooled daughters about the European age of exploration in the 1400s, during which those Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish sailors needed the stars in order to navigate. This dying art of astral navigation is also touched upon in the latest Disney animated feature, Moana, in which the title character, the daughter of a Pacific island chief, must learn to steer by the stars as part of reclaiming her heritage as a sea voyager.
And, for those who celebrate Christmas, we are now nearly through the twelve days of Epiphany, which commemorates the journey of the magi to visit the child Jesus. These astrologer-kings were scanning the skies in order to get the news about happenings on earth when they noticed an unusual “star,” which they interpreted to mean that an important king had been born. (The “star” in question is now believed by some astronomers to have been a series of planetary groupings, known as conjunctions, during 2 and 3 B.C., when Venus and Jupiter came together close enough so as to appear a single, very bright body.)
For most of us these days, the need to use the stars to place ourselves in time and space seems quaint and archaic. Astrology is dismissed as a superstition. And who needs stars to steer when we have GPS? We hardly need to use our eyes to get where we’re going in the digital age: Instead of looking to Sirius, we listen to Siri.
The stars still loom large in our stories, songs, and sayings, though, so it’s almost impossible to write anything about the stars that hasn’t already been said. I will not attempt to do so here, I will only tell you how I felt looking up at the stars on that clear, cold, dark night.
I felt very small.
To begin with, there was the sheer number of the stars. On that night, so many stars shone so brightly that I could hardly locate even the most basic constellations, like Orion and the Big Dipper. The Milky Way was plainly visible, arching above my head. And the dome of the sky was so broad. It all reminded me that I am just one small person among billions, on one small planet in one solar system, in one galaxy, in the vast universe – which may even be part of a multiverse.
As I stood looking up, I was also aware that the skies were, in fact, displaying a slide show of the past. The light from Alpha Centauri, the brightest star in our neighboring solar system, takes 4 years to reach us. The brightest star in our sky, Sirius, is 9 light years away; the light I saw emanating from Sirius that night had started its voyage back when my first daughter was a newborn and I still lived in California. Light from Betelgeuse, another bright star that’s 430 light years away, began its trans-galactic journey back when European explorers were still steering their ships by star. And those are some of our closest stars! Considering all that time and distance, did it really matter if I sent the Christmas cards on time?
We humans, especially Americans, especially in this day and age, don’t like feeling small. We post our most mundane moments on social media and hope for widespread, cheering approval. We like to make big plans and set lofty goals. When we talk about “making a difference,” we mean making a Big Difference. That's what New Year’s resolutions are all about.
But that night, looking up at the stars, I decided that this new year I’d be content to stay small. Maybe my tiny dot on the planet was room enough. Maybe the goal of putting one foot in front of the other was lofty enough. And making a small difference might just be big enough.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.