Bunk beds are the staple of childhood and every night at the top I laid on my back, looking up at the mosaic of constellations that my snoring brother had puddied to our ceiling. Glowing, five-pointed, plastic, light green stars watched me nightly while I slept. I always thought it was strange that they were five-pointed and that they were green. I mean, I had seen real stars before. I knew they were not green; scientifically they can only be red, orange, yellow, white, or blue. Basically, every color but green. And they were not five-pointed, they were dots. But it wasn’t the differences that made them so hypnotic, it was the one crucial similarity: they glowed in the darkness.
I learned very early that you’re able to withstand most discomfort for a large payoff. That’s what it was like when I was about six years old, laying on top of my dad’s black CRV, stargazing for the first time. My pigtails stuck out of my knit hat, I was bundled in blanket after blanket. I felt the bars of the roof rack trying to rearrange my spine as I sprawled out next to my dad. He was twice my height, and his legs from the knee down hung off the back of the car. Above, a twinkling canopy spread in every direction. I realized why glitter was always so fun; it mimicked the stars with its shine and sparkle. Questions bubbled up inside me like I was a mini Plato or Galileo.
“Why do stars flicker?” I asked. “Because the temperature of space between us and the star changes”
I thought that made sense, they shiver and shake.
“What are shooting stars made of?” “They are rocks that burn up when they get close to earth,” Dad pointed to one as it streaked across.
“What is that purpley stripe down the middle?” “That’s the Milky Way, it’s what we call a galaxy.”
“Can we get to them? What do they look like up close?” Dad sighed into a small laugh, “We can’t get close because we don’t know how yet and they’re really really hot, hotter than the stove. But, we can see them with really cool, big telescopes.”
“Do they have five points and are they green?” “They don’t, Silly.”
He answered best he could. When he was little, he’d wanted to be an astronaut, but time and a bad case of motion sickness stumped him. Instead he was content with a fascination for space, a programmable telescope, and star chart apps.
From that night on he’d wake me up and carry me downstairs for meteor showers and eclipses. He pointed his telescope and held me up to the lens until I was tall enough to lean down. At the end of high school, we packed up the car and the telescope and trekked to my aunt’s house to witness 7 ½ blissful minutes of a solar eclipse.
Dressed in ripped jeans and a grey hoodie without shoes, without socks, without parents, without plans, my swing launched into the air and back again, over and over. The swing set was cool–the air cooler– and I swung through twilight into the Milky Way. My mile walk had helped clear my head. Behind me, frogs gently croaked and the creek gently danced. When I was little, I loved swing sets because they gave me community.
As a teenager I instead loved them for the solace they gave me from my crowded house and crowded thoughts: a chosen isolation. The wind made my nose go numb a little bit and I wondered what it would be like to swing up to the stars, to grab a handful and stuff them into my hoodie pocket. The masses of incandescent gas held a companionship for me, one that didn’t require clarity or appeasement. Stars were so unlike people.
In unchosen isolation I wanted to pull the stars out of my pockets as I sat at lunch with only my PB+J for company. With a star in my pocket, I could touch heaven at my uncle’s memorial, maybe I could briefly tell him hello. I could be swallowed in a star’s gravity when I was blown around by my first broken heart, when I wasn’t asked to Prom. I could feel far away and powerful because I had space with me.
My eyes like saucers tried to soak up the lights of New York City. A million man-made stars flicked and glowed and danced when I looked outside the window. They wrote their own constellations. After four days at what felt like light speed, exhaustion and homesickness were deadweight in my bones. One last day in the city that never sleeps. The gravity of a final museum on a weekday afternoon sucked my mom and me inside.
Comfortable converse, with worn rubber soles, echoed across the glossy wooden floor from room to room as if they were clicking pumps. Frida Kahlo called my name, and Salvador Dali, Pollock, Picasso, Rivera, Rothko. I responded to each by examining their brushstrokes. Where the colors crashed into each other like cosmic collisions I saw the creation.
I turned to respond to another artist begging my attention, and alone, stars stared me in the face. “A Starry Night” swirled around my eyes and my brain. The painting captured the whole universe in blue and yellow lines, and I was alone here, observing its concreteness. Head slightly cocked, my weight leaning on my right converse, hugging my elbows across my body, I brooded for fifteen minutes. Without the frequent accompanying frustration, colors, thoughts, and feelings dashed through my brain, whirling like the paint itself. The stars we see in our sky take at least four years for their light to reach us. The stars in this painting take only as long as it takes us to blink. In another way, since it was painted in 1889, the stars took 130 years to reach me; Van Gogh sent them.
Newfound freedom is dangerous and filled with potential. A year into college, a car jammed with six girls, each under two sweatshirts, a blanket, hat, gloves, and boots, drove three hours to the Bonneville Salt Flats. We were armed with two boxes of pizza, a bottle of Mountain Dew, six camping chairs, a banjo and a telescope. The Salt Flats offered two things: 1) salt and 2) a big sky. After the sunset and an impromptu photo shoot, the sky aged into a dark, rich blue. The pinpricked sky was deep and I could feel the universe expanding as the sky rolled out, unobstructed, in every direction. It was like I was lying on top of that CRV again.
The salt had no animals and no bugs that I could see. Although the wind whipped our hair around, everything else felt completely still. My friend, Natalie, played faint banjo music that was whisked around in the air and carried up toward the stars. A stillness and silence settled into us. It is remarkably difficult to get six twenty-year-old women to sit quietly together for longer than five minutes, but we sat there for three hours with only a few scattered words between us.
There was one interruption to our nighttime daydreams. Red and blue lights spun in the distance next to Natalie’s parked sedan along the highway. I’m never going to space, but I felt like I got the closest to the speed of light that I could, that night, gunning my car across the barren flats toward the lights. As we got closer, the car came back to earthly speeds.
“Good evening, please don’t tow that car!” I called out urgently but respectfully as my car rolled up.
Sent from heaven above, the most handsome twenty-something-year-old policeman with striking eyes turned around and said, “Oh I’m not ticketing it, I just wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
He carried on, and we carried on. When we looked back at the sky, we saw those eyes and shooting stars spin like sirens.
Space had given me solace since I first met it, but it morphed into more. I could look at the sky and fall into it. My imagination played connect the dots to create any picture I wanted, so that night I drew constellations of banjos and eyes and cars.
My old childhood bunk bed was sold years ago, and we didn’t have the ceiling full of stars anymore. Time traded it out for twin beds in the same room, then a new room in a new house, then a college dorm. Six little green, pointed, glowing stars imitating Ursa Major sat above my roommate’s head. Only five glowed because the sixth was always lit up by the streetlight that snuck in through a slit in our blinds. They were stuck there from some other young woman trying to get a degree to propel her into her an uncertain future. Maybe she also had stars on her ceiling when the ceiling felt so much bigger. Maybe she feared the dark or had as many questions as I did on the roof of the CRV. Maybe she had just gotten them at the Dollar Tree on a bad date.
Stars are bright spheres of hot plasma, held together by their own gravity. My gravity came in the moments that I saw the how the world spun, why the world spun, and where I was, spinning. When you learn about space in elementary school most people either feel empowered or insignificant by the astounding scale, but I always just felt understood. There are approximately 250 million stars in our galaxy, let alone the trillions of other galaxies spinning and growing. There are approximately 250 million ideas that rush around my mind, let alone the trillions of other thoughts that run through it, spinning and growing.
Cecilee Henstrom is a Journalism student at Brigham Young University. She loves the power that words have to connect and inform people who would otherwise carry on unconnected. Some of her hobbies include: perfecting situational humor at 2am, re-watching CSI, and embroidery.