The Seven Sisters
You don’t need to visit a foreign country to run smack into unexpected cultural and environmental differences. You just need to visit — or move to — a different region in your own country.
We moved from the mid-west (Des Moines, IA) to the full-west (Prescott, AZ) just over two years ago. Differences that we knew about were key drivers in the move: more mountains, fewer soybean fields. More sunshine, fewer tornados and blizzards. I got my first hint of the unknown differences just a week or so after we arrived when I mentioned to a neighbor that we had taken a short walk around the block after dinner the night before and had been surprised by how dark it was. There are zero streetlights in our neighborhood. We laughed, reporting that we’d had to pull out our cellphones and occasionally activate the flashlight app just to keep from wandering off the pavement and into the ditch.
She did not laugh. “You shouldn’t be outside after dark,” she warned. “Unless…” [dramatic pause] “…you’re armed.”
Armed? Was Williamson Valley swarming with muggers? That was not in the brochure.
She didn’t even smile.
“Cougars,” she whispered.
I have not seen a single cougar in two years, but this conversation stuck with me, as you might imagine. It has been a bit of a problem because one of the other reasons I wanted to move to the full-west was that very darkness. The darkness that would reveal to me the true splendor of the night skies: more stars than I could ever have hoped to see so close to the lights of even a modest city like Des Moines. I am always particularly happy to welcome back the winter constellations. Orion, the hunter, rising majestically in the east. I love Orion because he’s so conspicuous, so in-your-face. Easy. The three stars of his belt marching neatly in a straight line, the manly shoulders, the dangling “sword.” You can’t miss him.
The only constellation I love more is the Pleiades. The Seven Sisters. A tight cluster of stars just a bit up from Orion’s left shoulder and, according to mythology, being chased across the sky every night by Orion. I love the Sisters for the opposite reason I love Orion: they are subtle. Nuanced. They are difficult to see if you look straight at them. You need guile. You need wisdom. You need to soften your focus, let your gaze drift past where you know they are. Nonchalant-like. The reward for this patience, this extra effort, is that those stars snap into view only in that averted gaze, that peripheral vision.
This is nicely explained by the unique anatomy of the human eye: the center of the retina is composed entirely of cones, which are tuned for bright light, color, and visual acuity. The outer region of the retina is a mixture of cones and rods, and those rods specialize in gathering dim light and detecting movement. Pilots are specifically trained to use their peripheral vision to scan the night sky for other airplanes. You can use yours to detect the stealthy approach of a cougar off to your left, or the Seven Sisters. There they are. Plain as day. And when you naturally turn to look directly at them, poof! They disappear. This delights me.
A surprising number of things are best viewed indirectly. A solar eclipse, of course. The snake-y head of Medusa, absolutely. An aggressive dog: don’t turn your back, but don’t make eye contact, either. And — fun fact — it turns out that you can get fired from a movie set for looking directly at actor Tom Cruise.
Straight-on or aslant, our eyes are also easily fooled and confused: the picture of the old crone that’s also a young ingenue. The vase that’s also two faces in silhouette. Is it a rabbit or a duck? A cat or a fish? Most of us see one of them right away and then have to work to be convinced that there is another picture and then to see it. We have to soften our focus, relax our gaze. Maybe let it drift across the drawing. Nonchalant-like.
Ideas can be like that, too. Something you’ve believed for a long time. Something. So. Obvious…looks quite different when considered from a different angle. My husband used to tease me about my locking the doors when we were in the house, closing and locking the windows at night. “I never locked my doors when I was home,” he would tell me. “And I lived in D.C.!” Finally, I asked, “And were you ever a 21-year-old woman living alone in a ground-floor apartment?”
A new perspective. A softened gaze.
We are often advised to face our problems head-on. Take a clear-eyed view of things. And if the problem is like Orion that is likely a good approach. But consider the possibility that the problem is really more like the Seven Sisters. Maybe soften that glare. Step to one side and look at it — or around it — in a new way.
You might see an unexpected answer come suddenly into focus.
You might see something extraordinary.