My plan for the next two months is to zero in on a small patch of sky just a bit east and south of Denebola, the star that marks the tail of the constellation Leo. I’ll be looking to the west for the “backward question mark” that forms Leo’s head. Then, I’ll follow its body southeast to Denebola. It is in that region—actually within the borders of Virgo—that some 16 galaxies (called nebula at that time) were first catalogued by Charles Messier over a ten-year period beginning in 1771. Since then, many more galaxies —perhaps up to 2,000—have been discovered nearby in what is now called the Virgo Cluster.
Within this group is M87, the galaxy whose massive black hole was imaged a few years ago. Like many of the others, it is estimated to be over 50 million light years away.
Now, to be clear, none are visible without a lot of magnification and dark skies. Even with a fairly large backyard telescope I’ll be challenged to see more than a few of these wonders. But, now is the time, before the monsoon arrives, for me to simultaneously run away from what haunts me and run towards what gives me great solace.
I have two favorite sayings. I don’t know who initially said or wrote them, but I give them great credit. The first is “everyone needs a passion.” The second is “every behavior serves a purpose.”
They sound simple and obvious, but I believe they point the way to knowledge of self and others. Passions, or hobbies, say more than just a lot about one’s desired identity. They are a means to self-fulfillment. Meanwhile, the cause, or purpose, of every behavior may not always be clear, but looking for it, narrowing down the possibilities, and, perhaps, finding the answer provide a means to unfettered truth.
So, while I expect to find only a few of the 2000 galaxies near Denebola, the search makes sense in terms of my passion for astronomy as well as the behavior, or act, of standing alone in the darkness in the middle of the night.
It’s funny and a bit strange when people assume that I know something about astronomy. I tell them I just do it for fun, and that I spent 40 years working with struggling kids and families. I mean, I spent a lot more time doing that than looking at the stars. And yet, it’s astronomy that is now defining me. Hobbies, after all, may very well be more of a choice than a long-term career. One can change careers, but rarely do we give up a passion. I always want to run towards it and the joy it brings.
But, it has also served as a place to rest when I need to run away, when I need to create space between the world’s reality and what my idealistic self would like for reality to be. I’d be happy to say the gap between the two has lessened, but that’s just not the case.
At the end of the day, then, astronomy has been an escape as well as a pathway for me. The beauty of the Virgo Cluster is that it fills both needs. Each galaxy I stumble upon will be a reminder of that unending routine of hide and seek.
I have to believe, though, that 50 million light years away there just might be a few folks pretty much just like me using a telescope or just a pair of eyes to break away from what they, too, find hard to accept. And, I’m equally sure that they also recognize that they can’t keep running from it. They must also know that only a conscious effort to feed one’s imagination and sense of wonderment can ever succeed in allowing one to try to truly and completely let go of the fears and the worries and run towards all that we hope to find.