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  • Writer's pictureashleylodato


At a recent gathering of women {outdoors, socially distanced—do we keep needing to add those disclaimers?}, we discussed the universe.

We didn’t start out talking about the universe, of course. We started out—well, we started out the way we’ve started every conversation for the past seven months: with COVID. We talked about COVID, and school, and wildfire smoke, and the elections. And we talked about that tiny giant RBG, blissfully unaware that she had not 24 hours of life ahead.

And then, inexplicably, we began talking about the universe. It’s vast, we agreed, and then the conversation faltered a bit as we tried to articulate the things we don't understand about the universe, which is most of it. We have the basics: galaxies and solar systems and dark energy and…other stuff….

But the question of what is beyond the universe--or what the universe is contained in--is what really stumped us. With no one in the group in possession of answers—at least not any relevant ones—we turned our attention toward something slightly more tangible: the Andromeda Galaxy, which has the distinction of being visible from Earth with the naked eye.

I first saw the Andromeda Galaxy in 1991, shortly after graduating from college, while hiking the John Muir Trail with my boyfriend, an astrophysicist. Each night after we’d hung our food in trees to keep it out of bears’ reach, we’d lie on rocks in the Sierra Nevada and he’d identify the stars for me, not just idly pointing out the big-name constellations that I was already familiar with, but identifying some of the more obscure groups. {If you ever get a chance to do long wilderness expeditions with an astrophysicist or a geologist, I recommend you jump at the chance.}

Andromeda appeared to my naked eye at the base of Mather Pass, after a harrowing but ultimately successful ascent of its southern headwall. Still giddy with relief, that night we celebrated our survival in a manner for which I will not apologize: by eating the nougat out of Snickers Bars and then singing dona nobis pacem, me with enthusiasm, him with actual talent, our voices echoing off the granite faces looming above us.

Then this young astronomer showed me where to look for the Andromeda Galaxy, telling me to avert my gaze. And suddenly there it was, swimming into my field of vision. A blur, more a suggestion of something than an actual thing, but it was unmistakable. An entire galaxy, millions of light years away. I felt miniscule, insignificant, and yet at the same time I saw myself as something part of a greater whole, a thread in the weave of the magnificent boundless unknowable universe.

Lately I've been wondering if this practice of averting one's vision in order to see something more clearly has other applications. We avert our gaze all the time. We look elsewhere to avoid seeing the things we don't want to: the panhandler, roadside trash, a racial slur. We turn away to give others privacy.

But what if we averted our eyes with the intention of truly seeing something we know is right there in our peripheral vision? What wonders, what opportunities, what answers occupy that liminal space, just out of focus but so easily within our grasp, if we only committed ourselves to looking?

Will the averted gaze strategy deliver any results? I don't know, but with solutions to today's thorny global problems seeming to be light years away, perhaps it's worth a try.

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