It is list time of year. Shopping lists, baking lists, grocery lists, book lists (currently, best of 2019; soon, most-anticipated of 2020). Add to it the end of a decade, and I—.
This is not a list.
This is in praise of constellations.
Constellation: from the Latin: con- a word forming element meaning “together, with”; and stellare “to shine.” Meaning “a collection of stars.” Meaning “a group or cluster of related things.”
Before standardized calendars and maps, we (humans) used constellations to determine when to plant and (to an extent) when to harvest. We used them for navigation. They were points of reference as the world spun and tilted, and time rolled on.
But the stars in a constellation only look like they’ve joined together to make a shape. They only appear to be close to each other—in fact, they are often several thousand light years away from one another.
In this, they are contrary in nature to lists. Praise be.
Instead of lists, I am in favor of constellations—those lights that appear to gather together across gaps, those harbingers of seasons, those guides, those shapes if you squint hard enough.
While it’s natural and human to mark endings and beginnings—of years, of decades—and to say something summary about them, I am in favor of things not-quite-gathering in an apparent cluster of shine: the books or passages of books that gave us light; the friends and family; the camping (or other) trips and memorable meals; the works of art; the long-held dreams finally come true; the perfectly poached egg; the nagging obsessions; the ditch flowers; the scraps of language or thought gathering other scraps of language or thought unto themselves; the saplings of hope and sensing when to plant them; the griefs; the ideas that led us along on our way somewhere (who ever really knows where?); the true norths, still there, always there, when we look back over our shoulders.
My constellation(s) will be different than yours, and yours, and also yours. My constellation needn’t matter to you, nor yours, to me. I could tell you about my constellation this year, but why should I? You have a perfectly good constellation of your own.
It’s enough to have them, these unlikely not-quite-gatherings that somehow give light and points of reference to a year. To know that light-years of darkness stretch between one shining thing and the shining thing that appears to be next to it (but isn’t, actually). To, as Praxilla did in ancient verse and in Michael Longley’s poem about her, “set [your] groceries alongside the sun and moon.”
Squint hard enough, it’ll make a shape. Call it a year, call it a decade, call it an optical illusion—but one that hung in the sky for you. It’s enough. No list needed.