A Celestial Big Spoon

August 15, 2021

Are you ok? Where are you lost now?

I was brought back by the sound of my friend snapping her fingers in my face.

“It’s nothing! Just a bit of a headache”, I said, screwing up my eyes while inwardly cursing my real affliction of being an open book. I didn’t feel like sharing that it was my mind that was in distress.

“Oh, too bad! Just relax for a bit, we’ll be home in a while”, she said, giving me a brief one-arm hug.

She brought it.

It’s so liberating to feign a physical illness. No more questions. No further interrogations.

Released from the obligation to hold a conversation, I closed my eyes and let my toxic thoughts ravage me while I bore their abuse in silence.

My excuse worked better than I thought. During the drive back to our place, I was urged to relax in the back of the car. My friend slid the sky roof open hoping it would make me feel less claustrophobic. I was touched by her thoughtfulness.

As I lay on my back, I could see but a tiny fragment of the night sky. Nevertheless, there it was — clearly etched against the glass roof and spanning the entirety of it — the Big Dipper. My eyes grew wide in surprise and delight! What are the odds, I thought, of my favorite constellation paying me a visit like this! A warm glow ignited in me at this unexpected sighting of an old comrade.

If you are into outer space and have been star-gazing for a while, you are bound to have a few favorites. Now, all the constellations have a lot going for them. For instance, take Orion: the hunter — a brilliant winter companion sporting a beautiful star-encrusted belt and hiding a stunning nebula in his midst. Can anyone ignore him when he’s in the sky? How about Leo — the regal lion with a sickle-shaped head — stretching lazily across the night sky. Can you take your eyes off the gorgeous Scorpio flaunting her exceptionally curvy, and sensuous tail? Need I mention the Sagittarius: the celestial teapot — a harbinger of the bright and beautiful band of the Milky Way and one of the most happening places of the night sky.

Amidst all these flashy contenders, the Big Dipper stands the tallest and remains my most beloved. It is the first one I seek the moment I turn my eyes upwards into the heavens.

The Big Dipper or the Ursa Major presents itself as a pattern of seven stars that form the shape of a giant ladle: Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Alcor-Mizar, Alkaid, all names of Arabic origin. It is also known as the Great Bear — a name that would make sense only on a clear night when all the dim stars of the constellation reveal themselves. It might be a stretch but you can see the bear once someone points it out to you. But I am quite content with the imagery of a simple spoon. And so it will remain to me.

So, why do I love the plain-looking Big Dipper so much? To explain my affinity for it, I need to tell you a bit about me; especially about how spatially challenged I am.

Ever since I can remember, I have had difficulty locating myself in space and can frankly get lost anywhere. Recently, a friend of mine, unaware of this specific quirk, put me in charge of navigation during a road trip wherein I successfully managed to confuse him and led us to take multiple wrong turns. I sheepishly remarked, “Sorry, I suck at directions. I must really be perpetuating the stereotype that women are bad at navigation.” He retorted back in good humor, “Women aren’t bad at navigation. But you are.”

This remains, to this day, one of the sweetest things anyone’s ever said to me. But you get the picture!

To such a person, the night sky, especially a clear one, can be extremely disorienting. It is easy to get lost in the labyrinthine patterns laid out in the canvas of the sky. And, with the motifs constantly shifting in the wake of constellations rising and setting, it gets ever so confounding.

This is where, my comrade-in-arms, the Big Dipper comes to my rescue.

To locate yourself in the night sky, the first step is to find the north. Not having the sun to point you to the east or the west, your best bet is to get to the Polaris or the pole star. But for all its hype about being one constant in the night sky, it’s very dim and difficult to find, however hard you squint at the sky from the periphery of your vision. Instead, you can use the stars in the Dipper to guide you towards the pole star. Dubhe and Merak, when extended, will get you to Polaris.

It also acts as a guidepost to several other constellations. Following the curve of the Dipper, you can reach the stars of Arcturus and Spica which belong to the constellations of Bootes and Virgo respectively — a journey perfectly captured by the mnemonic: Arc to Arcturus and then speed to Spica. Another of my favorite mnemonics will give you a way to Leo: A hole in the bowl will leak on Leo. Once you get to these immediate neighbors of the Dipper, you can subsequently hop from them to more constellations and gaze at all the cosmic objects hidden in their midst with your telescope.

Now you see why I like the Dipper so much! Because once I find it, the entirety of heaven opens itself to me. It’s my origin, my guiding light, and its presence always meant confidence, composure, and ironically solid ground.

As I lay down in the car, watching my celestial guide, all those memories of my night-sky rendezvous came rushing back to me. It reminded me of all of those summer nights I stayed up with my friends — wrapped up in snug blankets while lying in wait for our favorite constellations, swapping stories, and having heart-to-heart conversations — till at least 3 am when we could finally see the Milky Way and retire to bed, weary but fulfilled.

Piggy-backing on these memories, all my past selves reached me too. They reminded me of how much I have endured, how far I have come, and how much I have grown. They also brought back all those anxiety-ridden times which I now look back on and laugh at. In the birds-eye view of all that has happened and all that could happen, the current crisis seemed to suddenly shrink in size. I felt a surge of renewed hope that this crisis too shall pass and get lost in the eons of time. In a few years, I’ll revisit this moment and think of nothing but the warmth of friendship.

Suddenly the car took a turn, and part of the Dipper went out of view. Alarmed, I reoriented myself in the back with my head floating out of the seat so I could keep the entirety of it in my visual field. I felt as if I would lose myself again in the abyss brewing at the edge of my mind if I didn’t have it in view. Thankfully, the car took another turn and it came into position again, twinkling back at me.

It never ceases to amaze me to think about how much the Big Dipper has seen! How many civilizations have flourished and died under its watchful eye! How many generations of people have looked up into the sky and felt the same sense of wonder! I felt connected to all of them — the spirits of humans long lost and gone. A shared sense of camaraderie coursing through the barriers of space and time!

It took me just forty minutes from the time I caught the sight of the dipper to arrive at my place of sojourn. In that brief span of time, it reached out to me in all its infinite wisdom and took me on a tour of my history and that of the world too. By the time I reached home, I was completely healed — a feat, I daresay, no therapist could ever hope to achieve! Needless to tell you that I slept like a baby that night.

We all have our anchors — our rocks that we turn to in our times of crisis. My anchor is just as solid as it can get. For I know it is always up there, in the sky, waiting to remind me of the bigger picture. A group of stars separated by light-years of space coming together to give me a gentle pat on the head and tell me that a little perspective is all I need.

There, my human comrades! I have now introduced you to my celestial friend, so feel free to look for it in the heavens the next time you are in a crisis or just bored, for that matter. I hope the big spoon will lend you the same comfort and solace, as it does for me. In the meantime, let me leave you with a little message that the Big Dipper whispers to me from the depths of the cosmos — “This too shall pass”.