Like a lot of people, I haven’t been sleeping well recently. We all have a lot on our minds, and it’s a job to switch off at night. The late news, that bit of research that’s evading me, a problem unresolved, and I lie awake. Come 2am and self-recrimination mode kicks in – the things I’ve done and shouldn’t and the things I should have done and didn’t . Too late by far, now, but still they play on my mind in the wee small hours.
Last night I woke at 1.30am to a smell of burning. The smoke alarm had gone off around 11pm, and though we couldn’t find any sign of fire or smoke, there’d been a bonfire on the building site down the road, and we could only think the wind had changed and blown the residue – an old three-piece suite and a load of plastic didn’t help the stink – in our direction. As we’d taken out the battery back-up in case it was a low battery and pipped at us at midnight, a sin that requires me to take a large hammer to it, I felt obliged to investigate – just in case.
No fire, no smoke, but the bedroom and conservatory stank of old bonfire. (windows and doors now open to de-fumigate) Anyway, I was up now, so I decided to make a cup of tea. I opened the door to see if the stink was as bad outside, and thankfully it wasn’t. Needing to breathe, I took my cuppa out onto the patio, sat on the bench, and drank my tea while looking up at the stars.
It was beautiful clear starry night, not a sound, not even a breath of wind, and no lights. I find the vastness of space a bit like the sea. They’re forces of nature so incomprehensible and primordial they reduce me to nothing; I find it oddly comforting to know I’m not in control and matter not a scrap in the scheme of things. If I try to think about space, I get as far as ‘if it doesn’t go on forever, what’s beyond it? and my brain explodes.
I found Venus, a bright yellow star to the south, the Milky Way traversing the night sky, my old friend Orion off to the east, and looked for The Plough. There it was off to the north, and that must be the Pole Star.
I realised then what was wrong with me – well, I’d known for about four years, ever since we moved house, in fact, but it brought it home to me. Our last house was in a very isolated position on the edge of a wooded valley and moorland, and when I couldn’t sleep, I’d go to the loo, look out of the bathroom window, and there on a clear night was The Plough and the Pole Star. They anchored me. I knew where I was in the world, I knew my tiny insignificant place, and that put my troubles into perspective: I knew where my towel was.
Now, if you need to make a jump in hyper-space – as you will know if you’ve read Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (thank you Douglas Adams for a book that gave a different and bearable reality during difficult times) you’ll know the importance of knowing where your towel is. And the fact is, by not seeing the stars, every night, I’d lost my towel. My jump into a new place, a new village has left behind the things I value most – silence, wilderness, darkness, stars.
Well, not stars, obviously. Wherever I am there will be stars. So next time I lie awake at night, I shall go outside, and if it’s a clear night, I shall sit on the patio, marvel anew at the universe, and look at the stars. That way, I shall know where my towel is.