In high school, I had a friend who, as they say, simply wasn’t built for this world. His voice was a deep baritone even in middle school. When the rest of us were singing along to Wham and Madonna, he was quoting Shakespeare and philosophers I still haven’t studied. He also introduced me to parallel universes via the books of Richard Bach, which, for this girl without a religion, were the closest I’d come to finding something to believe in.
At a garage party the night before he moved with his family from northern Maine to Kansas, we slow-danced to Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” (from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack). I cried and cried, unable to imagine life without him. He understood things intuitively that no one of our age/experience could possibly know, and he cared for me — and others — so deeply. He died in a car accident while I was in college but would visit me in my dreams with messages for many years after that.
If you were to ask me if I’ve ever had a soulmate, I’d say he was the closest to it. He would be my answer.
So when he told me the constellation Orion would always watch over and protect me on his behalf, I wanted to believe it. So part of me did. And throughout winter in the northern hemisphere, when it is one of the most prominent features of the night sky, Orion is still one of the only things that gives me solace in the dark and cold. I see it and exhale just a little bit, able to release a portion of whatever I’m carrying.
So forgive me if, even against my own logic, I take this news (reported by National Geographic) as something of a message:
If you’ve looked at Orion recently and thought something seemed off, you’re not wrong: The giant red star Betelgeuse, which marks the hunter’s right shoulder, is the dimmest it’s been in almost a century.
As the NatGeo article says, “Betelgeuse is acting strangely.” Here are some additional interesting details:
Normally, Betelgeuse is among the 10 brightest stars in the sky. However, the red giant began dimming in October, and by mid-December, the star had faded so much it wasn’t even in the top 20.
To be clear, dimming alone isn’t all that odd for a star like Betelgeuse. It’s what’s known as a variable star, and its shifts in brightness have been closely studied for decades. However, it is unusual for one of the sky’s most prominent points of light to fade so noticeably, prompting scientists to consider the possibility that something more exciting could be about to happen: Betelgeuse might explode and die, briefly blazing brighter than the full moon before vanishing from our night sky forever.
But isn’t it normal for Betelgeuse to be dimming? Yes. Betelgeuse is classified as a semiregular variable star, meaning that its brightness semiregularly changes. Millennia ago, Australian Aborigines noted the star’s fluctuating luminosity, and British astronomer John Herschel recorded the phenomenon in 1836.
Even red giants fade and surge.
October, November and December are never my strongest months, but this stretch has been particularly tough. …
I love as ferociously as ever but can’t show it. I am encased in something, and it’s not entirely passive. I have a sense that I could shed it but don’t really want to. The pain/distance feels protective, necessary. It feels as though casting it off would serve others, not me.
I surface to care for the boys and go to work so I can support them, but other than that, I am submerged. I dive deep on a single breath. I ask questions and visit old places. …
I’m on a waiting list to get back into therapy, but for now I’m hanging my hat on how the solstice can turn the tide, how much beauty there is, even now, in the sky, how conversations with my kids go so many fascinating places, how there’s a love out there who sees the best in me.
Even red giants fade and surge.
Chin up, girl. It’s not you. There’s *nothing* stable in the universe.
I don’t really want Betelgeuse to be too much of an extended metaphor. I don’t want to take it too far: I’m not exploding in any kind of big flash. There’s just a kind of comfort in how everything teeters precariously, isn’t there? (Though “precarious” hardly seems like the best word when we’re talking on the scale of millions of years; Betelgeuse is about 8.5 million years old.)
Yes, even the giants (the ancients, the cosmos, etc.) are vulnerable.
Even Orion — our symbols, our gods, our promises (I will watch over and protect) — are vulnerable to collapse.
Don’t lean too heavily on meaning.
(Question all advice even this.)
For most of December, I stepped back from being a person in the world, including this blog and the reading project I’ve undertaken. I took care of my kids, slept, worked and went to the gym. It was a necessary dimming, and I’d like to say the brightness will surge again soon, but I’ve been around long enough to know that the pendulum swings on its own timeline. Sometimes, it’s just more of. Sometimes, continuation. Often, ongoing.
I’m not accepting this dullness, but I do understand it as part of my normal cycle. It may be exhausting, but dimming this time of year isn’t that odd.
Shifts in brightness.
Of course, there’s a poem to help with all this. Always a poem. And that is its own kind of light. Consider the final few lines of “My Life Was the Size of My Life” by Jane Hirshfield:
Once, I grew moody and distant.published in The New Yorker, 2014
I told my life I would like some time,
I would like to try seeing others.
In a week, my empty suitcase and I returned.
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off our clothes on our tongues from
In a poem with fairly ordinary syntax, that last line mixes it up to convey movement and urgency. It’s more than a description of passion: it’s the act itself — heat and brightness surging.
I had the privilege of hearing Jane Hirshfield in person at the March for Science. The poem she read — “On the Fifth Day” — was especially remarkable in that setting (the base of the Washington Monument):
The weird leap from Betelgeuse to my current mood (this fucking mood!) to Jane Hirshfield to the March for Science — and my teenage boys’ enthusiastic participation in it — call to mind what a strange decade it’s been for me.
And decade is the proper lens for looking back right now as 2019 wraps up. A couple weeks ago when I was lamenting to a friend about the utter lack of progress I’ve made this year (sinking, sinking), she reminded me that this isn’t just the culmination of 2019 but of a decade. And she encouraged me to think of all that’s happened in the decade: 2010, for example, was the first year without my mom and the last year of my marriage.
Our promises are vulnerable to collapse.
Nothing since then has been recognizable. I’ve created a whole new life, including successfully launching career 2.0, completing an MFA and publishing quite a bit, moving three times, raising the boys up into young adulthood, learning to trust love and romance once again.
Looked at in that light, some of the current dramas — like growing out a pixie cut (hello, darkness, my old friend) and feeling beaten down by the 9-5 grind — seem so fleeting.
That said: bad hair days are not for the faint of heart, LOL.
May as well laugh as cry, my mother used to say.
And so No One Said Growing Out a Pixie Cut Would Be Easy will be the title of my new memoir.
Which I will dedicate to “fluctuating luminosity.”
And sons becoming men.
And protest poems.
And love and friendship.
And how, when all’s said and done, the hunter’s right shoulder will still be a recognizable point in the night sky.