When the World Around Me Moves Too Fast, I Look Up

No, literally — I sky gaze to help me slow down and stay present.

When I’m seeking release — even if just for a moment — from the attention and stress our world relentlessly demands, I keep looking up. | Photograph by Getty Images; design by Caroline Cunningham.

Welcome to Ritual, Be Well Philly’s column of essays about the low-tech, inefficient things we do that pleasurably slow us down. From taking the long way home to hand-washing dishes, these simple habits allow us to be more present — even if only for a few minutes. 

We felt it coming last March. We left school for spring break as the dominoes were already falling. There went Princeton on March 9th, Harvard on March 10th, UPenn and Penn State on March 11th, and countless others — sure enough, not three days after taking my long bus ride home from Syracuse to South Jersey, the big news came: Welcome to Zoomiversity. You have one week to move out of your campus housing, and turns out those goodbyes you said to your friends were the last ones in person for a while.

This was all manageable, this was all reasonable, I thought. This is the reality of a global pandemic the U.S. was devastatingly underprepared for. Regardless, the gears in my mind that work on changing expectations were turning overtime. I felt the mental fatigue start to set in as the massive data input began melting my thoughts into goo.

Then came the advent of the coronavirus news cycle, a cascade of updates on the unfolding disaster that we had never imagined would get this bad. As countless moving parts whirred around me and (accurate) harbingers of death and disaster buzzed through my feed, I found myself looking up.

That is, lying on the ground outside my house in the Jersey suburbs, the dewy grass of my front lawn under my back and my sights set on the day’s sky. From that angle, the newly blossoming branches of our Bradford pear tree were the only visible anchor to my surroundings on an otherwise untethered expanse of blue. I watched as a single wispy cloud floated along to the south. I suddenly felt present and still, despite the whirlwind of change around me.

Sky gazing isn’t a planned part of my daily routine or a timed procedure for me. But I often do it, sometimes unconsciously, when I find that the world and my thoughts are moving too fast. Sometimes it’s as simple as tilting my head up occasionally as I walk home from classes or from my bus stop after a busy day. Lately it’s translated into stargazing — at the off-campus house my friends and I are newly renting for the fall semester, my roommate discovered that the roof off our second story balcony is prime for reclining and viewing the night sky.

Even on cloudy nights when the constellations are concealed, the process of looking up to the sky always slows me down. Sky gazing as a meditative tool is less about looking for something — like imagining shapes in the clouds on a sunny day or picking out Cassiopeia and Mars on a starry night — and more about the literal act of changing my perspective, of removing myself from my normal frame of reference. Whereas the nearby telephone polls and neighboring houses are the stuff of a fast-paced human world that constantly steers our consciousness, the sky has always been a clear space for me — a change of scenery often accessible by just a tilt of the head.

Every year of my life, I’ve seen the blossoming of our Bradford pear and the snow of white petals it unleashes on our yard. From an everyday perspective, that tree outside my house is just one element of a busy landscape. Dogs on leashes, neighbors coming and going, cars whizzing by on the through-street at the end of the block, hands pushing lawn mowers and brandishing household tools to tackle each day’s new project. But looking up from the ground this past March, that busy world faded from my thoughts as those flowering branches became the only subject in view.

It’s a small comfort: no matter our surroundings and the myriad moving parts that form our day-to-days, the sky always hangs over us untouched. Even with onslaughts of news and a hectic schedule of coursework to keep up despite everything, sky gazing helps me to press pause. When I’m seeking release — even if just for a moment — from the attention and stress our world relentlessly demands, I keep looking up.

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