My Top Astronomical Event of 2011: Astronomy . . . A Rebirth

Anyone who’s met me knows this to be true: I don’t shut up. I’ve seen or heard the words “too chatty,” “talks too much” and “chatterbox” more times than I can count. Worst still is when friends or family ask me about the universe. But observing? That has always been a lone activity for me.

           I would always try, of course, to involve my friends and family. I’d tell them about planets, meteor showers, or aurorae. It didn’t always go down very well, though: like the time I burst in the house in 1991 when I’d seen the aurorae for the first time. Unfortunately it almost resulted in the death of my sister’s beloved guinea pig.  Or the time I almost caused an accident when I noticed them again while driving with a friend. Although I’m sure my family paid me back when, unbeknownst to me, they shut the glass sliding door one night when I was looking at Jupiter through my dad’s binoculars. That is a pain I will not soon forget. But I digress.

            I didn’t get my first telescope until I was almost 30. My former father-in-law bought it for me because he knew of my deep love of the cosmos. It still stands as the most important gift I’ve ever received. It was a Meade beginner ’scope which I soon modified to get better performance. I then upgraded to a 6”. I was in heaven. But still, I was out on my own. The night I first found my first nebula, the Ring Nebula — on my own — I leapt up and gave out a whoop of joy. But I stood there on our deck and had no one to share it with. I dragged my then-husband out to see it and he remarked, “But it’s just a fuzz.” He walked back inside, unimpressed. As with everyone else in my life, he just didn’t get it. But of course it was a fuzz. It was the best fuzz I’d ever seen. You couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face with a two-by-four. When I later found the Lagoon Nebula — again, by myself — I didn’t share it with him. I just stood there and smiled from ear to ear.

            So how does that bring me to my top astronomical event of 2011?

            In 2007, I separated from my husband and moved to Richmond Hill — right off Observatory Lane. I was thrilled to have moved so close to the David Dunlap Observatory . . . until I learned about the University of Toronto’s big “For Sale” sign. I was crushed. This was where I’d first gazed through a telescope, marvelling at the rings of Saturn. So, I’d visit the DDO. I’d ride my bike, plop on the grass and stare at the sky with the white dome and blue door watching over me.  I’d take my daughter up with me and walk around the grounds. Or I’d take pictures of deer that fed on the tall grass. I was happy. Thankfully, I didn’t know about the coyotes.

            And then, in 2009, on one such visit, a car pulled up the drive. I thought that was odd since the gates were down. A gentleman rolled down the window and told me that the DDO would be operational again, thanks to RASC. He introduced himself as Paul Mortfield. We chatted about astronomy for a very long time. Wow. Someone else who shared my passion. Someone who actually did this for a living. He encouraged me to join RASC, which I didn’t. Nope. I wasn’t comfortable sharing my passion with others. And wait . . . what about people who knew more than I did?

            The following year, I did join. I went to the First Light sessions. I was nervous, though. It felt like an AA meeting. I had to talk? For the first time I was so very, very nervous about talking. Me. Nervous. About talking.

            And that brings us to 2011.

            Katrina Ince-Lum emailed me in October 2010 after I’d mentioned that I was going to Florida for the launch of Discovery (which I never did end up seeing; the bitterness persists). Then I friended her on Facebook, and she suggested friends for me. I usually never take people’s suggestions. But something made me listen to her. So I friended a bunch of people. It’s like that old Faberge commercial: “And she told two friends, and she told two friends, and so on and so on and so on . . .” Suddenly, I was friends with a bunch of people who were astronomers. It was awesome. And intimidating. So much so that I never took advantage of the Carr Astronomical Observatory. Until I mentioned it to Katrina. Who mentioned it to Blake Nancarrow and Phil Chow. Who encouraged me to go.

          And I did.

          One Saturday afternoon in August 2011, I packed up my gear and headed up to the CAO. By myself. But I wasn’t going to be by myself. This was a first.

          There, I was greeted by Blake and Phil , who made me feel so at ease. I met Dietmar Kupke who showed me around. The sun started to set. With shaking hands, I set up my telescope.

          And then the stars came out.

          Not only the stars, but the Milky Way.

          The feeling I had when I looked up, in pure darkness, is indescribable. And then I took out my binoculars . . . I looked and saw more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. And without hyperbole, I teared up. I actually cried. And there, I met others, like Drew and Steve who taught me some tricks about astrophotography. It was like finding long-lost members of my family. And it made me happy. From being alone, to being surrounded by similar people . . . it changed my life.

         So, for me, my top astronomical event doesn’t centre on finding some deep sky object, or visiting an observatory or buying and using a great telescope. For me it centres on RASC and being able to “come out of the closet” and share the love of astronomy with other people. No, this isn’t a way to suck up to RASC. It’s just about what’s made me happy. And what’s provided me with a rebirth for which I will be forever grateful.