Before moving to Arcadia, I lived in the middle of nowhere. And I mean it: nowhere. We considered everyone within a five-mile radius our neighbor. One of the greatest benefits of our location (besides being over an hour away from the nearest city, having terrible WiFi connection, and getting sprayed by a skunk on my morning run multiple times) was the night sky. The stargazing was absolutely jaw-dropping. Stars were everywhere, scattered across the sky like glitter on a first-grade girl’s art project.
Stargazing is one of the things I’ve missed the most since moving here. I took stars for granted back home. They were always there: after working a closing shift, during midnight shenanigans with my friends, through my window when I couldn’t sleep at night. All I had to do was look up.
There aren’t stars here.
You might think there are. But I can guarantee you, if you’ve lived your entire life in an urban area, you have not seen stars. Being able to see the Big Dipper one time on an extra-clear winter night doesn’t count. When you escape all the light pollution (which definitely wasn’t hard to do in Middle-of-Nowhere, Kansas), the night sky truly becomes a spectacle to behold. No matter what words I use, I can’t do a starry sky in my hometown justice. Google some NASA images and you’ll see what I mean.
When I’m in Philadelphia, the city lights become my constellations, comforting and beautiful.
But cities do have their own kind of starlight. Wandering about Philadelphia after dark, I’ve begun to appreciate city lights as a kind of surrogate for those big balls of gas burning billions of miles away. City lights hold the promise of excitement, of life. Someone is breathing in there, engaging in activities I know nothing about.
That business building with the light still on, is it the janitorial staff up there or a flustered office worker desperately attempting to finish some last-minute paperwork? That hotel, sparkling like some kind of ultra-modern geometric constellation, could be hiding a dramatic break-up scene or an aspiring novelist finishing the last page of her book.
I’ve begun looking for specific buildings—the skyscraper with a purple roof, City Hall with its illuminated clock at the top—just as back home I would search for Orion the Hunter or Aquarius. When I’m in Philadelphia, the city lights become my constellations, comforting and beautiful.
Though I no longer spread out a blanket and lie down to stare at the sky, each time I visit Center City at night I do my own kind of stargazing. The Philadelphia lights have become a constant in my life, something I look forward to seeing often. All I have to do is look up.
Photo: Michael W. Murphy