In the spirit of John Green’s book of the same title, our theme for the month of October is “the Anthropocene reviewed.” Writers were asked to review and rate some facet of human experience on a five-star scale.
Sirius is the brightest star in Michigan’s sky. Its surface temperature is estimated to be about ten thousand Kelvin, which is nearly double our sun’s temperature, the same sun that heats the Sahara Desert to 122 degrees Fahrenheit from ninety-two million miles away.
One of the reasons it appears so bright is because it’s one of our closest neighbors at eight-point-six light years away. While I know that light years measure distance, the name reminds me of the time that the light traveled before we could see it, that we can only see what stars like Sirius looked like eight-point-six years ago when the light was first emitted. Astronomy is thought of as the future or the cutting edge, but it studies slow processes and ancient objects. And when we look at versions of stars that no longer exist, we are looking into the past.
Stars connect us to our own history, too. Galileo may be credited as the father of modern astronomy, but Ptolemy documented Sirius in the constellation Canis Major, representing one of the dogs following at Orion’s heel. While it’s wonderful to have record of important figures like Ptolemy staring at the same stars in our sky, I also like to imagine ancient Greek farmers staring past the horizon, seeing far more stars than I will ever be able to see, finding their heroes and cautionary tales in the constellations.
The existence of stars like Sirius seems impossible to me. Enormous collections of gas burn at incomprehensible temperatures in the inhospitable wasteland of space. If a person were to go into that same space without a suit, they wouldn’t instantly freeze like in the movies—the vacuum of space doesn’t have any air to suck heat away from their body. Also, the human body should be able to handle the pressure difference of one atmosphere, so they wouldn’t explode. No, what would actually happen is they would suffocate. For at least the first few moments, they would still be conscious enough to feel their lungs burn for nonexistent air until their vision blackened. Yet, those stars have outlived countless civilizations, and they will outlive even more.
One September Tuesday, I just felt overwhelmed by my own inadequacies. I’d made a few mistakes at work, I’d said something insensitive to my roommate, and I’d found out that a few of my friends had been hanging out without me. It wasn’t anything monumental, but some days the barbs of everyday life feel like a wound.
I was having one of those days when I showed up to swing dance at Rosa Parks Circle. I stood on the sidelines as guys asked other girls to dance, wondering if no one was asking me because I was off-putting, not because there just weren’t enough guys that night. That thought spiral looped in my head for two hours until they started playing “Chasing Cars” by the Snow Patrol.
They play that song every week, and every week, everyone lays on the ground for the infamous lyric, “If I just lay here, would lie with me and just forget the world?” I usually sat on the sidelines for that part, but my friend convinced me that I had to go because it was her last week before she went abroad.
So we lay down as the streetlamps turned off. From that angle, the tops of buildings were just the frame to a simple but magnificent picture, eleven stars in a black sky. Even before our night blindness faded, even from eight-point-six light years away, I could easily see Sirius. I thought about the tremendous distance between us, I thought about the worlds outside of my own, the vastness of space and my place in it, the stargazers who have come before me and those who will come after. Laying on the concrete and staring at this defiant light in an all-black sky, I felt both my existential smallness and the absolute miracle of my being alive. And compared to the scale of the universe, my worries felt manageable.
In my attempts at mindfulness, I try to give myself the space to process my emotions, but after a while, I get lost in my own introspection, and I forget about any world outside my own. But there was a time before any of these problems, and there will be a time after. Everybody else’s world will keep turning as I work through these mundane barbs, and there’s a comfort in acknowledging that my champagne problems are just that. Whether I fix my mistake at work or not, the stars will keep burning, and eight-point-six light years away, Sirius will still be bright.
I give Sirius four and a half stars.
Tiffany Kajiwara graduated from Calvin in 2022 with majors in literature and writing. Now, she continues to live in Grand Rapids and works at Baker Academic Publishing as a marketing assistant. In her free time, she enjoys crocheting, thrifting, and psychoanalyzing cartoon characters.