Per Aspera Ad Astra

My family moved to Middletown, CT when I was in 3rd grade. We had been living in Cromwell, a small town 15 minutes away from the metropolis of Middletown. It’s hard for me to remember who I was then. And there’s no one left who knew me well at that stage of my childhood. I think I was a vaguely depressed first born kid.  I had few friends in Cromwell and no cousins to help socialize me. I read a lot. I teased my sisters. I tried to avoid my father.

We moved into a new housing development and were among the first on the dead end street. The street lights were not yet fully functional so that nights could get dark. I mean very dark. On one such night in early spring I walked outside to the back yard to take out the garbage (I think taking out the garbage has been “my job” since 6).

Like I said, I don’t remember who I was then, more than 50 years ago, but I think I was lonely. And I had nowhere to go. There was a chaise lounge set up near the trash cans, so I sat down on it. The back support was set very low, so when I looked up it was like a planetarium.

In the night, in my solitude, on a black canvas, hung an astonishing vista of stars and planets. I sat there, stunned. You might assume in such a situation I would feel even worse, one little kid in a new school, isolated by demographics and religion, looking at the vastness of the Universe. I did not feel dwarfed by the heavens above.

I looked up and experienced genuine exultation! My God! I am connected to the infinite Universe! Sitting on this cheap little chaise lounge next to the garbage cans in my backyard I am part of the cosmos. And if the light I see now is from a star that’s been dead for a million years, then what light might I emit long after my body is gone? If the air I’m breathing contains stardust – yes, literally star dust – from the Big Bang, then what of my dust?

My mom called me back into the house, breaking my reverie. I could’ve been there for 5 minutes – or 2 hours. I don’t remember that part. But I do remember that night. I don’t know who I was then, but I do know that when I walked back into the house, I felt different. I knew that I wasn’t trapped, that there was a way out. When I grew up and saw the motto, “ Per aspera ad astra” – from hardships to the stars – I knew just what it meant.

We are all connected to something so much bigger and grander than our small individual souls. We link to others souls and other places over time and space, from the origins of the Universe to its closing moments, and perhaps even beyond that. The urge to explore the Heavens comes from that truth, which is that, in a way, Pluto is as much our home as this Earth upon which we stand.

This is why we send satellites to study the moons of Saturn, the surface of a comet, the planet of Mars, why we listen to radio waves from all over the Universe – not to explore alien worlds, but to get to know our home that much better.

Of course, it’s a lot to imagine that these truths might be shared by all humans. So many people imagine anyone and anything outside their own arbitrarily drawn circle of color or privilege or social status as alien. I think God is in all of this, that God IS all of this. You may not feel that – and in truth, it doesn’t matter. Just keep looking up and out, towards hope and love and the infinite possibilities in all of us.

Shabbat Shalom


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