Saturday night, I saw a shooting star.
That may not sound significant or momentous to you. Perhaps you live in a place where you can see stars in the night sky — more than the 20 or so that outshine the ambient light of cities. Perhaps you have ample opportunity, on your drives home, to pull over and admire a particularly brilliant night. Perhaps you can’t exactly recall the last time you saw a shooting star — you’re sure you have, sometime — but it doesn’t matter because astronomical events just aren’t that important to you.
These may be some of the ways you and I are different, then.
Ten years, now, I have lived in places where you could not see shooting stars. For ten years, I have lived within a ten mile radius of the City of Boston, with the orange omnipresent glow that ranges, with the humidity, between present and overwhelming. Ten years, the same feeble 20 stars have been my rare nightly companions. For nearly half that time, approaching five years now, I have been tethered to my home at night. It’s not entirely safe to walk alone in the dark, although I do so. And almost always, one of us (my husband or I) must be at home to listen for the late night cries of our children. I could not see the stars even if they were clear, because I cannot look.
Before that ten years, the stars were very much a part of my life. New London, Connecticut has lights. Certainly. But many fewer and weaker and further down the hill. I used to love walking around Harkness Green in the evenings – from the soft first evenings of September through the bitter colds of February and back to the noisy darkness of May. Sometimes alone, often with friends, I would walk: South overlooking the estuary of the Thames, West towards Winged Victory and the party noises emanating from Freeman, North facing Harkness Chapel then East across the new sun dial. My eyes ranged out and up. It was dark there (with one particular light that always seemed to either go on or off as we approached). The stars were present in greater numbers. For one glorious year, the Hale-Bopp comet hung directly over Knowlton, where young girls had danced with Coast Guard cadets in long-gone times.
My love of the skies had not started with college, though. Even before that, I lived high in the mountains. Growing up, I could see the Milky Way spread out across the sky. I didn’t know that for the urban world it was an unthought-of myth. I remember one particular night when I was driving home, late, and the astonishing brilliance of a moonless starry sky was so incredibly distracting that I pulled over and just looked until I was thoroughly chilled. I used to go to the graveyard — a flat, long horizoned space with no lights — to watch the stars in the dark of the night. I recall one rather ominous occasion when a herd of elk traveled across the clearing while I was there. I rarely brought a flashlight, and the large thumping shapes were frightening in the dark of the cemetery.
In all my sky-gazing youth, the most precious moments were the shooting stars. Have you ever seen one? Do you remember it? My passion for them started during a summer camp. We’d gotten rained out from our backpacking trip, and were sleeping under the stars in fields just to the north of Mt. Rainier. It was during the Perseid meteor shower, although I didn’t know that at the time. It was a super clear, high, moonless night and the stars fell nearly every minute. I loved them. I loved the surprise gift – the reward of watching and waiting with alertness. They were thrilling. Since then I’ve considered meteors to be gifts, benedictions, blessings from a loving creator.
I do not know exactly how long it’s been since I last saw a shooting star. More than three years, almost certainly. Perhaps more than five. I do make visits to places where stars can be seen, but often it’s cloudy that particular night, or I cannot leave my sleeping babes, or the moon steals the stars from my sight. But on Saturday, after all my boys had gone to bed, I crept away from the dying embers of my New Hampshire campfire and walked in darkness to a small clearing near the lake where the loons mournfully cried. I laid on my back in the grass on a warm summer’s evening, marveling at how many more star there were than even my memories portrayed, still knowing I was seeing only a portion. And just before I stood to return, there across the sky sped a streak of light, gone before my eyes could turn fully to take it in. A shooting star. A blessing and a benediction. And I returned with joy to my family.