Touching Betelgeuse

by Mike Helsher


I was waiting for Bella, my blenheim-colored Cavalier King Charles spaniel, to find the perfect place to poop. She circled one way, then the other, walked to another corner of the yard and circled again. Most nights, especially if it was cold, I’d get pissed at her for taking twenty minutes to do something that in the end, takes about ten seconds. I’d yell at her even though I knew she was deaf.

But on this October night in 2010, it wasn’t cold. I waited with unusual patience in the front yard of what I liked to call of my Thoreau shack, a tiny house I was renting in Flagstaff, AZ. White aspens had speckled the driveway with yellow leaves. The air was cool and crisp.

I’d just come home from an astronomy class at the local community college, where I learned that if Betelgeuse, a red-giant in the constellation of Orion, were to replace our sun, it would fill out to the orbit of Jupiter. My mind was in overdrive, looking up, trying to fathom the size of the universe, and my tiny place in it.

On a clear night in Flagstaff you can count on being able to see the Milky Way, thanks to the “Flagstaff Dark Sky Coalition” and the near 7,000-foot altitude. I marveled at the dim glow from the cloud of stars spread across the black sky, the endless distance. I thought about how an apple would be as big as the earth, if each of its atoms were the size of a grain of sand. “The sun is but a morning star,” the last words in Walden came to mind. I reached my pointer finger up, stretched my imagination across 645.5 million light years, and gently touched Betelgeuse.

I felt the twinkling of a star in my chest. It spread to the outer layers of my skin. And I felt connected.

The day my son was born the nurse placed his swaddled body in my arms. Tears streamed down my face and I said, “I love you,” before I could think, like I’d never said it, of felt it before.

This moment wasn’t like that. In fact, it was the antithesis of it, just a quiet sense of myself, connected, in an enormous universe.

I’ve tried all sorts of paths to enlightenment over the years and never gotten there. But there I was, outside my Thoreau shack in Flagstaff, AZ, on a cool fall evening in 2010, touching Betelgeuse, while my dog was taking a dump, and there it happened.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Is it that it?” I said to myself, as Bella did her end-of-the-ritual dance, proudly tearing up the grass with all four paws.

Nothing much has changed, but I don’t yell at Bella nearly as much.