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Planet X

Maybe you’ve heard the news that there might be another planet in the solar system. I don’t mean Pluto gets to be a planet again; this is a completely different planet, a big one actually (about the size of Neptune), but so far away that nobody has seen it before. Some reporters are calling it “Planet X,” but it doesn’t have a real name yet, and won’t until they confirm that it exists. Even now that they know where to point the telescopes, they say it could take five years to actually spot the thing. And maybe it isn’t out there at all; so far they have pretty solid circumstantial evidence, but no witnesses.

If we can’t even see this thing, why are we so excited? For whatever reason, the planets mean something to us. We name them after gods — Venus, goddess of love; Mars, god of war — and for astrologers, of course, they have fairly specific meanings. But even for those of us who aren’t astrologers, the other worlds that share our sun become part of our mental furniture, stable points that we use to articulate the universe we live in. Thinking about the billions of stars out there is interesting, but doesn’t really help much; thinking about angles and distances doesn’t help, and thinking about the Crab Nebula doesn’t help; but remembering our seven (eight?) brother and sister planets makes us feel a little more at home.

We’re good at grabbing onto a handful of stable objects to help us feel at home in the complexity of our lives. Sometimes I can actually feel my mind doing this when I first wake up in the morning. I wake up not knowing who I am, where I am, what those questions even mean; then I remember my partner sleeping next to me; I remember that I should have breakfast; I remember which way the window faces in our bedroom, and the song that was stuck in my head yesterday, and how it’s been raining for a week. And all of a sudden I’m myself again. It’s like my mind is getting dressed, putting on its identity, and the identity is composed of these simple points of stability that make me the same person from day to day.

Same thing in our intimate relationships. I don’t know the smallest part of all the stuff that goes on in my partner’s head every day. But I remember how she holds her shoulders when she’s typing at her desk, and I remember this one hat that she wears, and I remember the bottles of probiotics she collects in the kitchen and how we drove across the country in an old Buick, and then somehow I know who she is, or who I think she is.

And when I read in the news that they’ve discovered a new planet out there, a Planet X, vast but impossibly distant, I get excited because it means there’s still room for mystery. The person I think I am, the relationship I think I have, those things aren’t fixed, aren’t limited. There’s always room for new planets in our lives, mysterious planets, even in 2016.

Are there signs of a new planet in your relationship, or in your mental life? Something you can’t see yet — little disturbances in the familiar orbits? What could it be? Have you figured out where to point your telescope?