Heavens, The Great Conjunction!

Our first view of the Christmas Star (Dec 19), © 2020 Susan Barsy

After a difficult year, the advent of the Christmas Star was something wondrous to look forward to.  The internet buzzed with how Saturn and Jupiter would align almost perfectly in their orbits, so much so as to appear as one unusually bright star.  This rare occurrence, coinciding with the winter solstice and technically known as “the Great Conjunction,” happens only once every four-hundred years.  The last time the Great Conjunction occurred in the night sky, however, was in 1226.  Earthlings primed to look up into the late December sky in 2020 stood to witness a cosmic and extraordinary rapprochement.  Bob and I (total amateurs when it comes to such things) talked over our astronomical excursion excitedly.

Seeing an astronomical wonder depends on information, good timing, and good luck.  Whereas some articles asserted that the planets would be visible for just forty-five minutes after sunset, from our present quarters in southwest Michigan, the two planets were above the horizon for almost two hours (per this sophisticated “time lapse” sky map for nearby Benton Harbor). The two planets had begun drawing closer to one another for many weeks prior to December 21 and will continue to appear close together in the night sky until early January.  The evening of the 21st was overcast in our area, but on the 20th and 22nd the conjoined planets (above) were easy to spot.

Pink halo above Jupiter (Dec 20), © 2020 Susan Barsy

On the 20th, as the sky grew dark, the two planets grew more distinct.  Jupiter sported a sweet pink halo; that was Saturn.  We found that our best view of the sky was from under some huge evergreen trees near a very powerful streetlight.  Gradually, we lost a clear view of the planets, as they descended at a roughly 45-degree angle toward the horizon.

The two planets (Jupiter and Saturn)

I took this photograph on the 22nd, using a Nikon with a 36x zoom.  This is a more clinical, scientific view.  The planets only appear to be “next” to one another, when they are hundreds of millions of miles away from one other and from us.  Saturn (at right) is roughly twice as far away from Earth as Jupiter is.

This picture from the 22nd, taken with my Sony on a tripod, better captures the thrill of seeing the two planets in the cold twilight sky.  Saturn is now clearly to the right of brilliant Jupiter.  Saturn looks like a pearl with an ermine ring.  Fiddling with this picture in Photoshop doesn’t improve anything.  The astonishing clarity of the planets filled me with awe.

The moons of Jupiter extend in a line to the left. New Buffalo, MI.

This was perhaps the best picture I took, because, to the left of the planets, one can just make out several of Jupiter’s moons.   The 22nd was partly cloudy, and we were lucky that the wispy clouds broke enough up to reveal this dazzling sight.  For a happy hour, we gazed up with our binoculars, our cameras, and our unaided eyes, until the planets disappeared into the trees.

All photos © Susan Barsy 2020

Janus Faces 2019

Full length figure of the Roman god Janus, showing his two faces in profile. The god of beginnings is holding a key and a vine.

Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages.  Associated with time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze takes in both past and future, presides over all transitions, “whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.”  He opens and shuts doors with his key, his staff (depicted above as a living branch heavy with fruit) symbolizing his power to determine what prospers.  From this architect of the new, the month of January takes its name.

Where the past and future meet, Americans stand, wondering how “happy” or “new” 2019 can be.  Given the dismal character of national politics, cries of “Happy New Year!” have a hollow ring.  No need to be blithe, given that, in the manner of Janus, the new year will proceed from the year we’ve just had.  An impotent Congress, two parties captive to an unproductive quest for partisan dominance, a president whose vulgarity and viciousness are infecting civil society: these conditions, in combination, are weakening and destabilizing one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.

Underlying it all is a decline in social leadership and the dying off of what was formerly an effectively unifying civic culture.  In 2018, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Senator John McCain, and the late President George H.W. Bush all pleaded for a renewal of civility, comity, and patriotic service, exhorting a new generation to assume the burdens of enlightened and disinterested leadership, in some cases pleading to us from beyond the grave.  To my mind, motivating America’s “natural leaders” to resume their traditional role in promoting communal well-being and an enlightened politics is a crucial task that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.

Image: from this source.

On the verge (Election Day)

The shadow of a man and woman standing under a tree in autumn along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Today is Election Day, and we are each and all on the verge of something new.  Something unknown.  The campaign has been a time of trial—a time of bad dreams, friction, and more than a few out-and-out breakdowns.  Charisma, in the form of Donald Trump, has ruptured fault lines in the Republican Party and the nation that existed already.  Because of his candidacy, we as a nation and as individuals have gained some self-knowledge the hard way, which is how self-knowledge is always gained.  He has tested us, exposing our weaknesses, our normally veiled resentments, our various gnawing dissatisfactions.

Americans need.  Some truly live in a state of want, but others are fearful of the future, sensing decline and the increasing challenge of securing work and access to opportunity.  Others, not in need, want something other and better than what they already have, and, for that, they’re ready to trade something away.  Certainly, this is true of Republicans who have enjoyed considerable political power but insist the political order should be delivering something better than what it has managed to create so far.

Twitter sometimes delivers thought-provoking jewels, such as a tweet this morning quoting Gerald Ford: “Truth is the glue that holds governments together. Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.”

Hillary is not an innocent, but someone who has winked at the order herself and at acts within her province that are immoral or unseemly.  She is a tarnished political heroine, this ‘First Woman’—the other choice that all our earlier choices have made.  Many will vote for Hillary as a symbol of something she doesn’t really stand for, then expect her to wring something better from federal government and the political establishment.  She is the good-enough candidate, particularly in the eyes of those who feel no urgency about political change, whose hearts may have stopped bleeding some time ago.

 Whatever we stand on the verge of, it is best to acknowledge our complicity.  Whichever future we’re on the verge of, it will feature a world of political work that the republican model calls on ordinary people to perform.  My hope is that the election will usher in a period of broad ideological ferment and political reorganization, necessary precursors to restoring what is unifying and wholesome in American culture.