I was recently lucky enough to take a ten-day trip crisscrossing Israel with forty other young adults. It was an incredible journey that included floating in the Dead Sea, winding through the streets of old Jerusalem, enjoying the Tel Aviv nightlife, and hiking up a rock plateau to Masada. However, by far the most profound experience I had was stargazing in the desert region of the Negev.
Our wonderful tour guide, Daniel, brought us only a five minute walk from the Bedouin camp where we were spending the night, but we could see nothing but a vast hilly desert. The moon was nearly full and acted as a flashlight, reflecting off the sand. Many of you may have experienced this before, but I grew up in suburbs and later chose cities. I did not anticipate the comfort of the easy silence and total emptiness of the desert. Daniel told us to think and meditate quietly. I tried to close my eyes and do the breathing exercises of meditation, but I couldn't help periodically peeking at the clearest sky I had ever seen.
After only a few minutes, we had to go back to the tents. However, our medic, Or, led those of us who wanted to return back out to the desert. There was no question in my mind that I would go back. I grabbed a sleeping bag and followed Or. He led each of us to a somewhat secluded area. I laid down in my sleeping bag and stared at the stars. I counted the (very few) constellations that I know. Orion, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Taurus. I saw the brightest "shooting star" I'd ever seen. Mostly, I just marveled at a vastness of land and sky that I had never encountered before.
It was cold, but I laid still for 45 minutes, thinking about how many people had been led through the same wide desert by the same friendly stars. I slowly came to the realization that this is what many of you do every night: gazing at the stars, mostly just for the love of doing it. Sure, there are measures of brightness to write down, scientific contributions to make, awards to win. But when it comes down to it, the AAVSO wouldn't exist if our members didn't enjoy observing enough to do it every day.
When I returned to HQ and told the story of my trip, Arne half-joked that observing the stars is a form of meditation, and I have to agree. I still know so little about observing, but maybe that is a good thing. If I'd had stars to observe, I may have spent my time calculating brightnesses rather than simply enjoying the calm. You tell me: once you have specific stars to observe, can you still look at the sky without looking for anything? And more importantly… do you?
I would love to learn to observe variable stars, and I probably will someday. The sky lends itself well to science. But I have realized that I am also happy just gazing at my few constellations and thinking about everything. I will certainly go back for that.