When I was a tiny kid, my parents built a simple cabin in East Texas, tucked into the woods. On many weekends, with my big brothers, we got away from the bustle of city living in Houston and camped out there, immersed in nature. We ate big family meals on the porch, swam and water skied, picked blackberries, and explored the Big Thicket, an enormous natural preserve of many ecosystems — from forests of longleaf pine to swampy bayous. One of my favorite activities as a child was staying up late and walking down the dirt road from the cabin to a small park that boasted a very long pier, open to all, that reached far out over a lake.
I’d carefully step along each wooden plank over the dark water, sparkling with moonlight reflections, under a brief roofed section where spiders wove elaborate webs, and all the way to the end, where the pier made a T shape. There, we cut off our flashlights, lay on our backs, and stared straight up. In Woodville, there were very few other cabins and homes and only a smattering of streetlights, so the darkness out there was a pure saturated inky black. After a while, I’d feel like I was far away from everything, floating on the surface of the lake, and my eyes adjusted. That’s when the real magic happened.
Stars like we could never see in town emerged like flowers blooming right in front of us; awhole garden of them overtook the sky. Constellations slowly showed their shapes. The Milky Way revealed itself shyly at first, then broadly, as if gaining our trust. On that pier, I saw my first shooting star. Wondrously, the white flash sprung from the top of the sky and jumped toward the horizon, an ephemeral delight, a split second gift of beauty. If I had blinked, I would have missed it.
Last night, I was already under the covers in bed when I remembered the Geminid meteor shower was underway. OK, in all honesty, friends on Facebook reminded me of the event. I had intended to check out the night sky, but I was so cozy. So, I scrolled past those awe-filled messages on my phone, and past them again, too sleepy to really care until our local weather guru, Dave Hayes, declared that the meteors were POPPING that minute and fairly demanded us to get out there right now! So, I pulled on some jeans, threw on my plush white bathrobe, and trekked outside.
I live in a city again, though now in New England, and there is a lot of light pollution around my house and down the street, especially now with all the Christmas lights strung on neighbors’ homes for the season. I walked around trying to figure out where I could possibly get a little darkness, and found it in the wedge between our house and the next door neighbors’. There, on a long slim stretch of grass that always seemed suitable for a bocce game, I managed to find a place where no street lamps shone and there was precious little light pouring out of windows.
I craned my neck and realized that wasn’t going to be comfortable for long, so I resigned myself to the cold December ground, using my robe as a blanket, and lay down flat, dead grass crunching under my spine. I breathed in the crisp air, meditating on the sky, and after a few minutes, I thought I saw a streak. But I didn’t trust it — it was on the edge of my periphery — so I waited, hoping to see just one more, figuring it was unlikely. But after 10 minutes, I stopped counting, there were so many. The dance of light was so brief I wondered if I’d imagined each one with all my wishing, but the stars continued to fall!
It seemed gluttonous to eat up all these shiny celestial moments, and still I gorged. But the show couldn’t keep away the cold forever, and I finally decided to pack it in and go back to my warm bed.
Once under the covers again, I was so energized, I had a hard time going to sleep. I envisioned all of those space rocks flying around beyond the roof over my head creating a sparkly spectacle, wondering what I might be missing. And I was a little kid again, blown away by the free entertainment of Mother Nature, the nourishment of being outside, the gift of a random occurrence offering a moment of awe.
When we can’t get away to remote places for a new view, when we are so tired of our own four walls, when life feels like it’s perpetually on hold, it’s nothing short of a miracle to be able to escape even for 10 minutes into a dazzling sky — to witness something so far away from right outside our doors. And outside of a screen, no less. My eyes are so grateful.
Photo from Wiki Commons