An insomniac traces the night through her skylight. Falling leaves turn to snow, astronomers visit, a pen becomes the product of space travel.


by Constance DeJong

Digital Project Published on March 9, 2018

My sleep, always so lively with visits from former boyfriends and formerly living people, my sleep became hour on hour restless and fretful, September 21st and the 22nd and the 23rd.

September 24 Whoever you are, DIY carpenter from the past, I call you genius for installing a skylight in the bedroom. That aperture right over my bed, it’s an antidote to insomnia’s dread and anxiety, delivering Saturn and a bit of moon and a star assembly I never took in until now. September 25 How the chance longitude and latitude of my building determines my nightly view … September 26 How my southwest patch of sky is an enormity of light-years and millions of miles and celestial mechanics trimmed to the skylight’s twelve square feet of glass … September 27 How the sky is full of ghosts, tonight’s light emanating from astral bodies long vanished … . Those musings showing up in the dark is how immensity and insomnia fuel the end of September becoming October first second third, every night sky so nearly identical, oh, the antidote to wakeful fretful nights, it’s waning, it’s losing power.

October 4 Making peace with sameness and predictability, tonight is all about moving a pen across sheets of translucent paper, making my way around the sky, connecting stars that have become my familiars. People have always done this, drawn random distributions of stars into recognizable figures and shapes—swans and bears and utensils and mythical men. Asterisms, they’re called. How like near neighbors appear the members of an asterism, individual stars otherwise separated by light-years. Swan and bear and Hercules … really? Of the hemisphere’s storied inhabitants, the only legible figures are Big and Little Dipper, poised to ladle what I don’t know.

October like one long night, two satisfying weeks piloting between the brightest members of my outer space with my pen aimed skyward. My pen is a product of space travel, resisting gravity, the ink flows upward onto paper over my head. A needle inside me plus the axis of the earth plus the pen point make a hybrid instrument, part protractor part compass—a conspiracy of inner and outer magnetics plotting triangles and circles and polygons. Not one animal or mythical person makes an appearance. Order, my sky hosts a notion of order projected onto a flat black plane, also an illusion—and, October 22, on my skylight fallen leaves are congregating.

Up they go, lifted by breezes. Spinning leaves extend to the stars, I see that now, I see spirals now I’ve left the confines of bed for the grand access of my roof, mercifully flat under sleep-deprived legs turning north to east-southwest. We spin, me and the sky, my partner in this dance.

October 26 A 3 a.m. moaning wind blows the skylight clear of leaves and I wonder if twenty-two nights of insomnia-induced concentration, if my singular focus is a dense locatable spot in the extended territory of matter. I wonder because around 4:30 while drawing tonight’s asterism, my pen moving across paper writes of its own accord: Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me. A tight beginning loop that is small: that is watchfulness speaking. And a lightning-fast mind is indicated in needle-pointed strokes. Under analysis, subjected to the principles of graphology, the handwriting reveals its author has a keen memory and tremendous patience, a driven and self-reliant person. Indeed, that is how she is remembered, Annie Jump Cannon, astronomer at Harvard’s Observatory, sitting at her viewing station 1896 to 1939 classifying three hundred stars an hour, the numbers accumulating to more stellar bodies than any other person classified.

For this you are called “Census Taker of the Sky,” Annie Jump Cannon, you and a room full of women all day at your viewing stations, you are scrutinizing glass photographic plates, images of night skies at the reach of 1920s telescopes and cameras. At some moment, you realize the entire star multitude is composed of seven factors, seven spectral classes of stars summoned in the mnemonic: Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me.

October 29 I read: Cannon identified three hundred variable stars, five novas, and one spectroscopic binary, creating a bibliography that included about two hundred thousand references. I read: the International Astronomical Union is still using the classification system of Annie Jump Cannon and that she could classify three stars a minute just by looking at their spectral patterns and, if using a magnifying glass, could classify stars down to the ninth magnitude, around sixteen times fainter than the human eye can see. I know: distinguishing seven distinct intensities of star brightness, OBAFGKM, is beyond my observational skills. And, there’s the limit of my view from bed. The O, the brightest star category, Polaris for example, is never in my patch of sky, my overhead inspection hampered now with leaves returning, insomnia persisting.

October 31 When I think a month ago sleepless in the company of immensity … how I loved my sky companions waiting for me every night. Among distant figures consorting over my spot of Earth and past time materializing in my present and dead stars giving off light, I wondered how the orientation of my building determines my nightly view and how an enormity of light-years and millions of miles is framed by twelve square feet of skylight and how visible stars are actually ghosts. To those month-old musings in the dark I wonder, too, how until then I never knew of Annie Jump Cannon. And for two weeks now I am waiting, waiting for you, Annie, you know what it means to be taken by the sky, why won’t you again take hold of my pen, scrawl with me one more time. Annie, without your enlivening input nights are plane geometry, nights are a creature of pattern recognition abandoned to find my bearings, make my way accompanied only by the most forlorn refrain, carry on carry on that’s how it goes, the chorus of the left lonely. Now here comes snow …

December 13 A bit of snow removal with my kitchen broom so I can dial around the sky under the influence of the tranquilizing motions of drawing. My first asterism of the night strays from geometry to write:

dog, dirty dog, kick him out of the room, when will the waiter bring more wine, words gushing from the pen in my hand. The handwriting, once again subjected to graphology’s analysis, the cursive lines conjure someone steadfast yet imaginative, a defiant spirit frail of body. Further investigation indicates it’s the handwriting of Caroline Herschel, you the first woman paid for science work, you scan night skies over England on this date in 1782. One year later, 1783: your vision magnified by brother William’s contribution of the longest telescopes and best lenses at this time, you identify a star cluster in the constellation Argo. One of the largest of Ptolemy’s constellations, demoted like Pluto, the ship Argo is now hull and sails and stern and compass—floating parts no longer making a whole. No matter.

You’re the Caroline Herschel of new nebulae: one thousand catalogued and published in 1786, another thousand published in 1789, a final catalogue of five hundred and ten in 1802. You’re the Herschel comets, and the astronomer who’s a musician with an operatic voice and likes to sing kick him kick him pub songs, and steadfast: you’re the watcher outdoors in any weather in pursuit of deep sky objects for years of nights.

31st December 1782, the ground covered with snow, you fall, impaling your leg on an iron hook that’s lifting the twenty-seven-inch telescope built for you by brother William. You write of the wound in a letter, hundreds of letters from the hand of Caroline Herschel, five hundred and one two, she is identifying nebulae, the star-forming regions.

Notable astronomers, Caroline Herschel and Annie Jump Cannon, unbidden they have come calling. I know, yes, we all know: our era is not big on contact with the dead; deliver us with evidence, a fair amount of which is surfacing on my laptop. Lying in bed with my view overhead buried in snow, December 23, I encounter a third astronomer who never accesses my skylight, Henrietta Swan Leavitt:

  • American, woman, she lived from July 4, 1868, to December 12, 1921.
  • worked at the Harvard College Observatory, beginning in 1892, with the job of quantifying specks of starlight.
  • She keeps a journal, a record of her daily work at the Observatory and of how cold was the day, of the lecture she attended, of frustration as a woman in the field of astronomy hired not to think, only to compute.

  • At Harvard people claim to see Leavitt’s ghost at her old desk, burning midnight oil. She is sitting in front of her wooden viewing frame that supports a glass photographic plate, then another and so on; “I pushed the sky around” is a Leavitt fact she never pens in spirit writing with my hand. She has filled pages and pages with columns of numbers that are stars and with journal entries that go beyond the business of computing, as on a journal page from October 19, 1912, “tried superimposing Plate H361, exposure 10m, limiting magnitude 15.6 and Plate H385, isochromatic, limiting magnitude 14.9” and continuing on for four more years of notation-filled pages.

Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me

Dog dirty dog kick him out of the room, I wish the waiter would bring the wine

Two spirits writing with my hand and, in her former office, Henrietta Swan Leavitt is burning midnight oil at her desk. Quaint happenings—spirit writing and revenants—arriving through the agency of my skylight my antidote to insomnia in a time when encountering life, life as envisioned by our technology, our insistent prejudices and predispositions, life is a primary prospect of outer space.

NASA has designated 2015: The Year of Light.

You can judge a star’s true brightness from the rhythm of its beat. Then you can compare that with its apparent brightness and estimate how far it is such that the distance of stars can be ascertained one to another. Such is Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s hundred-year-old discovery—it changed astronomy, Edwin Hubble used it to determine the universe is expanding, it is still in use to standard measure distances from Earth to intergalactic spaces. And I read of this method: Carefully note the position of a variable star, then measure it again years later, when the sun has dragged Earth and its inhabitants to a new location in space. Calculate the length of this enormous baseline, and then triangulate. With the distance of one variable star established, you calibrate Leavitt’s yardstick and then measure the rest. Carrying out calculations on that order, that’s a bit of a challenge, my night sky in millions of light-years measuring distance in time.

What is the date, what is my age on this night that exists only once? No matter. The biography of space locates us in the past, in old old light.

The motion of light, its speed neither impeded nor accelerated by anything, I think that’s the meaning of what I read tonight, taking my eyes off the skylight to study what cannot be seen in my visible patch overhead. Constant speed with nothing impeding or accelerating starlight’s path, that’s not believable … or perhaps I am tired, with neither sleep to impede nor waking up to accelerate the motion round the clock, my night has the constancy of old old light.

My night is a long interval undivided by quarters, halves, no seconds ticking past. It could be two or four o’clock in the morning.

The author thanks Emmy Catedral for sharing her insights and investigations over a long period of consultations about “Nightwriters."

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