Bring on the Dark Sky

Bring on the Dark Sky

For many years I have failed to catch the August Perseids meteor shower. Last summer we were in the midst of a tumultuous move from the home we had lived in for a decade, preparing to leave the big old house we loved, the home in which my mother had spent her last years.

The market was not in our favor at the time, and four stressful months went by before we had a single offer, our only offer, it turned out. In August the house was being shown, and we were not only trying to maintain everything in perfect staged condition while living in it with two cats and a dog, but also anxiously searching the lean local rental market for a suitable house with an owner willing to rent to us with our three animal family members.  So the opportunity to view the Perseids meteor event went by, and all I could do was tick off one more meaningful thing that I hadn’t managed to get done.

We ended up finding a house that felt perfect, about ten miles away. We were thrilled at the prospect of living further out of town, where the neighbors’ painfully bright lights would no longer block out the beauty of the night, where we could actually see the sky, a large swath of it, in fact. I couldn’t wait to repair the long untended chicken coop on the property and rebuild the overgrown garden, bringing them back to productive life-giving spaces. One of the first things I did, even before we moved in full time, was prepare a garlic bed so I could get cloves planted before the ground froze and ride out the winter knowing there’d be bulbs to harvest, come summer. There was even a stream running directly past the house carrying the daily and nightly sounds of life running through farm and forest that touched us in passing and added another dimension to the natural world we were about to settle into.

A year later, we have a small flock of chickens on the verge of producing their first eggs and a generous garden in the peak of its late-summer splendor. A small but satisfying crop of garlic is curing in the basement. And though I’ve been a gardener since we left the city 15 years ago, with life in quarantine I’ve found myself, like many others, reflexively doing something I have never done before: pickling everything from green tomatoes to jalapenos.

We never dreamed that three months after we sold our house in town we’d find ourselves sheltering from COVID-19 in what has truly become a sanctuary, where the stream has revealed itself to be a highway for mink and bobcat, a vital source of water and food for a multitude of migrating birds, a home for myriad tiny creatures, including a variety of little gems, frogs that survive the New England winters and increasingly common drought conditions by burrowing deep into the mud and waiting it out. Something akin to what we’re doing in this long season of discord, distress, and death, as we look to a future through a new lens, no longer taking for granted our identity as a people, hoping that we can temper the awfulness with not just awareness but awakeness. The kind of awakeness that inspires people to step up to do the urgent work needed to strengthen and unify our nation’s precious patchwork of communities and to protect the most vulnerable among us, including our wild co-inhabitants and their ever-diminishing habitats.

But back to Perseids. Wakeful nights. I’m plagued by them these days. Unable to use that time for anything productive, as some are able to do, I toss and fret, my fears looming large, growing bigger with every hour I lie awake. With all this wakefulness, however, I’ve found the surprising clarity and stillness of the nighttime landscape comforting. Often drawn to a window, any window where the sky is at least partly visible, I can’t seem to get enough of the world at its other-worldy best. Its etched patina of silence, the Wyethian texture of a snow-covered meadow, the crooked angles of an old pasture gate, shadows of tree branches contouring the rise and fall of river stones, the chiaroscuro of clouds skirting a summer moon. Messages that pierce the cosmos in the form of animated flickerings of starlight that take on any meaning one may assign to them.

But some nights I am stricken by a strange paralysis, a kind of semi-conscious inertia, as if I am held hostage to this elusive thing that’s supposed to happen: sleep. Somehow I get stuck, unable to venture out of bed or even pull myself awake enough to punch or reason my way through the sub-liminal space in which I am trapped. Caught between consciousness and unconsciousness, all I can do is lie there and struggle helplessly, waiting for sleep to come. That is what happened on August 12th, the night considered the peak for viewing the Perseids. So the following night I was determined and set my alarm for 4:00AM.  

Recently an especially wise friend told me that one way to address the lack of focus so many people are struggling with in response to the COVID crisis is to ask oneself, What would I regret not doing today if I didn’t do it? He was definitely not referring to a deathbed regret; this is not the kind that you wait until your final moments on earth to express. (I spend entirely too much time imagining those for myself, a sign that I need to get over myself, wake up, write, or otherwise get with the creative agency program.) This friend stressed that the thing in question should be something we have an opportunity to do in a given dayin the here and now, though we may have thought about it before, only to give in to a lack of motivation or inspiration, a sense of inertia, or overwhelming fatigue—problems that so many of us have struggled with over recent months. I had this in mind when I set my alarm. And when I awoke on my own an hour before the alarm would have gone off, I had no problem shaking off my self-imposed shackles to put on my pants and not only poke my head outside but actually step out into the darkness and face the northern sky.

Once I was outside, the night air felt slightly unsettling but not unpleasantly so. I sensed the nearness of things I couldn’t see, which stirred faint rumblings in the part of me that I occasionally have to summon in order to quell—or just to be at peace with—a sense of vulnerability. I didn’t want to give it legs.  I allowed myself to enjoy the merciful coolness on my arms after a week of unseasonably hot and humid days. The night seemed oddly still, having passed the point when crickets have stopped their wing-song.  Even though I already knew where north was, for some reason I sought the glow of my iPhone compass to confirm it, and I stood by the now dry streambed, waiting for the appearance of a “falling star” somewhere out there above the trees.

But nothing happened. Suddenly operating on nothing more than intuition, I walked myself back inside, through the house and out the front door, so as to orient to a more westerly view. This vantage point opened up a larger sense of the celestial dome and a deeper darkness, which made me aware of the years—decades—that had gone by since the last time I’d really looked into the night sky. Memories of star gazing a lifetime ago—nights lying awake beneath enfolded rivers of stars illuminating the incomprehensible dimensions of the Milky Way—washed through me. As if another incomprehensible dimension, my future, still opened out ahead of a youthful, ever-searching me, one as yet unencumbered by crippling loss and regret. And there it was: an old familiar sense-sharpened calm, the particular awakeness that such exposure invites. A single meteor cut downward in a vertical line, a reminder of when such things felt new and wondrous rather than belonging to a long-lost time. Maybe ten minutes later, a second meteor arced from left to right, barely a scalpel’s edge. And after another similar interval, one more needle of light dropped down a bit lower in the sky and disappeared. That was enough to confirm that I remained capable of renewing a sense of enchantment and wonder, despite the passing of what could easily stand for a lifetime. It was enough to show me that I needn’t fear being awake in the world or awake at night, even when—or especially when—the world is an increasingly dark and scary place to be. Such moments of agency, however small, bring our lives and the world into necessary sharpness. They move us closer to making ourselves and the world what we want them to be, rather than merely what we thought they were. The alternatives couldn’t be more stark.

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