During World War II, my Uncle Gil served in the Merchant Marines. That was where, he told me many years later, he learned how to navigate using the stars. There were, of course, navigation systems on the ships, he said, but if they went down, as was the case after his ship had been hit by a torpedo, knowing a handful of constellations helped to maintain course, to keep from being lost.
Nowadays, it seems like being off course is, at least metaphorically, often the norm. It seems like a strange choice of words, but the stars keep me grounded. And, just as importantly, keep me from drifting when everything appears to be so akilter.
Feeling lost? Not quite sure where you’re heading? Spend a few moments finding Polaris, the North Star. It’s worth the minute or two. For me, in its unique way, it brings back memories of talking to a man who preferred to point out the stars rather than tell me about the day when a torpedo caused considerable destruction and left him with a lifelong limp.
Polaris, the brightest object in Ursa Minoris, the Little Bear, appears to be nearly directly over the North Pole. As a result, even though the Earth is forever spinning on its axis, Polaris seems to stand still.
To the naked eye it is a single, average looking star. In reality, it is the largest and most luminous member of a triple star system.
Indeed, though it strikes one as completely ordinary, it is more than four times the mass of the sun, and is about 400 light years from us. In contrast, the sky’s brightest star, Sirius, is less than just nine light years away. Interestingly, from wherever you’re viewing Polaris, it is the same number of degrees above the horizon as is your location’s latitude.
Finding it is easy. Locate the Big Dipper. Find the two stars furthest from the handle that make up the far edge of the dipper’s “pan.” Draw a line starting from the “bottom” of those two “pointer” stars through the “upper” star. Extend that line about four times the distance between the two pointers. The brightest star that appears is Polaris. It always points north.
Uncle Gil would find Polaris, then he’d swing around to Arcturas, Bootes’ alpha star, then out to Virgo. He never owned a telescope and, I recall, the only time he looked at the sky with binoculars was when we had tracked down Halley’s Comet.
He enjoyed looking up, but it was always more than just a quick exercise. Just like sailors from centuries ago, knowing the sky was a matter of life and death, from being lost or finding your way home. I guess for him, it elicited thoughts that were both painful and yet very sustaining.
Maybe what we need when we feel as if so many signposts have been removed, when the way forward is a bit murkier than it had been just a few days earlier, are the memories that bind us to a specific moment or a special person.
Sometimes, it’s an object that can connect us to that time and place.
Polaris is an unmovable signpost. It steers me back to my youth, to Uncle Gil, to an open field where I had the chance to be in awe of the sky and in awe of a generation that had come through years of insecurity to reestablish their footing.
Today, it tells me that no matter the twists and turns that are yet to come, I can always find my way.