Sunday, November 22, 2009

Astronomy and the Rolling Stones

I pushed back the covers and put my bare feet on the floor. I pushed my bare arms through the loose sleeves of the bathrobe and, in the familiar darkness of my own house, headed toward the front door. I walked out onto the porch and then onto the brick steps whose coolness pricked the bottoms of my feet.

It was 4 o’clock in the morning. I had awakened without an alarm, something about the excitement notifying my sleeping brain that it was time.

Time for the Leonids meteor shower. Time to watch the light of millions of particles flying off the tail of Comet 55 spray across the sky like paint out of an aerosol can.

I’d gone out earlier to get my bearings according to the sky-map I’d printed out from the BBC webpage. Look east; locate the Big Dipper; look to the right and, there, in the center of the constellation Leo I would see the celestial fireworks. Except that I didn’t.

I didn’t because a froth of fog covered the entire span of sky. I stood there for a moment while it sunk in. It had been 11 years since the comet had been this close to Earth and my chance to bend my neck into an unnatural configuration and be little-kid-amazed was lost. Sigh.

Somewhere people were gasping in wonder and smiling involuntarily at the spectacle. Somewhere people were pointing and grabbing elbows. Somewhere people were watching the night explode. But not here.

The air’s cool dampness wrapped around me like the strips of an old sheet we might have used to turn ourselves into mummies on Halloween. I was paralyzed with the frustration of not getting what I wanted. I felt the dew wetting my feet, but I couldn’t move. I was the petulant child who crosses her arms and stomps her feet and sticks out her lip in the distorted belief that what she wants actually matters.

But no amount of stomping or pouting was going to move the fog and, eventually, I turned around and went back inside.

Disappointment. It is such a palpable emotion.

Near the beginning of the movie "The Big Chill," a group of college friends gathers for the funeral of one of their circle. They walk into the church together while one of them goes to the organ to play. She spreads her fingers to reach the notes of the beginning chords and, while the congregation and the audience anticipates which of the standard funeral hymns she will offer, they hear, instead, the opening measures of The Rolling Stones’s "You Can’t Always Get What You Want."

It is an unexpected moment of comic relief and, simultaneously, a heart-breaking declaration of truth. We are taught early to have desires, to express those desires, to expect the fulfillment of those desires. From a kindergartener’s letter to Santa Claus to the high school senior’s college admissions application to the mission statement of the entrepreneur applying for a loan, we learn that it is important to say what we want and to assume that we will get it.

But Mick and the boys are right: We can’t always get what we want. The video game, the scholarship, the promotion, the house. Sometimes other people get those things instead, leaving us standing in the front yard like mummies trying to understand.

It is good to dream, to desire. It is good to long for and yearn. It is good to reach for that which exceeds one’s grasp and then figure out what movement is required to get close enough to clasp it. What is not good, what will serve only to create frustration and heartache is wasting a single moment staring into the darkness and trying to figure out why the fog rolled in.

The fog hid the meteor shower; it didn’t destroy it. I didn’t get to see it, but I still know it’s there. And tonight, that has to be enough.

Copyright 2009

Monday, November 09, 2009

Counting Down

There is a finite number of full moons in a person’s life.

Fairly obvious and, at the same time, startling, the thought came to me Monday night as the light from the cream-colored poker chip in the sky spilled over my shoulder and into my lap and the miles between me and Sandhill grew fewer.

I caught my breath. Held it for a moment high in my chest. Felt my hands loosen their grip on the steering wheel just slightly as I heard the night whisper, "Pay attention." So I did.

What I noticed first was the color of the light itself. Not white or yellow like the beam of a light bulb, but luminous blue-green, like pool water at night. And not clear and piercing, but diffused as though coming through a scrim. There were no edges to the light, no defined stream; the entire landscape was covered and seemed to shiver under its unmeasurable weight.

It was dark – The sun had been down for an hour at least. – but the outlines of the houses, the barns, the fences, the billboards were all still clean and straight, like portraiture silhouettes.

Turning onto the dirt road, the angle of the light shifted and now came through the back windshield making me feel, more than ever, as though I were being stalked. Erratic breaks in the tree canopy turned the moonlight into a strobe, flashing up and down, side to side, the color now reminding me of the black-light posters Keith used to have on his bedroom walls.

As I pulled into the carport, the moon was straight ahead, no longer stalking, but beckoning. Its light had turned the deck into a castle keep, the stark white deck posts into silver ramparts, the pots of rosemary into miniature turrets.

There were none of the usual nighttime sounds coming from the branch. The chill in the air had silenced the crickets, the frogs, the birds. The light had stilled the deer who would wait until later to forage the now-empty fields for some last vestige of corn hidden in the trampled-over rows. I was as alone as one ever is.

I like to think that I always pay attention. I like to think that my eyes and my mind are always open. I like to think that I always notice things of beauty and matters of import. But none of those things are always true. Sometimes I’m just plain lazy.

Not lazy in the sense of neglecting work or responsibility, but lazy in letting work and responsibility overwhelm the reality that nobody lives forever, beauty is fleeting, relationships need tending.

Sometimes I read three pages of a book and realize I don’t know what I’ve read or catch myself singing along with something on the radio and realize I’ve just said/sung something I don’t believe to be true. Sometimes I put a stamp on a birthday card without remembering the face of the person to whom it is being sent and breathing a prayer of gratitude for that life. Sometimes I look out the window and realize that the season has changed and I didn’t notice. That is no way to live.

There is a finite number of full moons in a person’s life. A finite number of sunsets, of low tides, of tomato sandwiches, of chances to love without condition. I don’t want to miss a single one.

Copyright 2009