starry starry night

I stayed up until almost one this morning, reading comic books.

I know, it's like I'm 12 all over again.

And it's awesome.

Around four, Anne woke me up.

"What's wrong?" I said, while I was still waiting to clear immigration between Dreamland and Reality.

"Nothing. I just couldn't sleep, so I got up and went outside to watch the meteor shower. It's really cool, and I knew you'd want to see it."

I sat up, pushed the covers to one side, and ignored the grumbling protests of our dog, who had just lost his primary source of warmth and cuddling.

"It's cold out, though, so put something warm on."

I grabbed a hoodie and put on my totally-not-lame-but-always-make-me-feel-self-conscious-to-wear-them slippers. I walked through the dark house, past the quiet and strangely comforting hum of my aquarium's filter, and out onto our patio.

I know it's cliché, but the stars were brilliant jewels against a field of black velvet. Betelgeuse was a brilliant red. The Orion Nebula was bright and fuzzy. Sirius, in Canis Major, was such a bright blueish-white I couldn't look directly at it. To the North, Ursa Major dominated the sky, and I could even see Mizar without any effort. Back on Earth, a distant train's whistle sounded from far away, probably from the train yard near Commerce.

"You just missed a fireball," Anne said, quietly. She pointed to the Eastern sky and added, "and there have been tons of little flashes from over there, too."

I wrapped my arms around myself to stay warm and let my eyes roam across the sky. I didn't see any fireballs, but I saw lots of meteors fly across the sky, greenish and yellowish trails flashing then fading behind them.

Maybe it's because I wasn't entirely awake, or maybe it's because I'd been reading about mutants and other worlds before I went to sleep, but as I looked up into the sky, toward Castor and Pollux, I really felt, for the first time in my entire 38 years on this planet, the overwhelming vastness of the universe.

Where I have always felt awe, I felt small. Where I have always felt inspiration, I felt vulnerable. "I'm on a planet, spinning on its axis, racing around a star, moving faster than my mind can comprehend, through that," I thought. "And right now, that planet is flying through an ancient asteroid debris, bits of dust and rock smacking into its atmosphere like bugs against a windshield." I felt a little freaked out.

I've quoted Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot so many times, I don't need to look it up anymore to get it right, but last night, looking up into the enormity of the universe, it was suddenly more than poetry and a reminder to take better care of each other.

I moved closer to Anne and put my arms around her. She leaned her head back against my chest and we looked up into the sky together, watching faint meteors streak across the sky every few seconds.

"I'm glad you woke me up," I whispered. "Thank you."

"I'm sorry you didn't get to see the fireballs," she said.

"Nah, it's okay. I didn't need to."

The train's whistle sounded again. This time, it didn't seem so far away.

We stood there and watched the sky for several minutes, until our hands and feet were numb with the cold, and went back inside.

When I got back into bed, I pulled the covers up over my head, and tucked them around myself as tightly as I could. It took a long while for sleep to reclaim me.

67 thoughts on “starry starry night”

  1. Popping back in to say something that really only has meaning to me, but still. I went to New Zealand in Feb 08 & fell in love with the entire country. I never wanted to leave – I felt it was *home* – & was depressed for 2 years (not my normal state of being) after returning to the US. Went back to NZ alone this past February (& have been fighting depression ever since returning to the US again) & went camping in a gorgeous place called Otaki Forks with a few friends. NZ has the most beautiful, clear skies, & it’s amazing when you see unfamiliar stars in the sky… when you see the actual Milky Way… when you see the ISS (I never saw it in NJ, but I saw it in NZ!!) One of our nights in Otaki Forks, we went outside – it was summer, but bitter cold – & my friends showed me the Southern Cross. It brought tears to my eyes – the thought of it is doing so right now, in fact – & while I’m way too old to wish upon a star, I figured maybe I wasn’t too old to wish upon an entire constellation. So I silently begged the Southern Cross to bring me back home – back to NZ – again. I stayed outside that night for I have no idea how long… & I begged & pleaded with the Southern Cross to bring me home. It makes me sound crazy, but whatever. Somehow, I felt connected to it. It hasn’t brought me home again yet… but I have faith that I will get back to NZ someday. And now that you all think I’m crazy, I’m sure, I’m going to go to bed & dream of Aotearoa. :’-)
    -Alicia

  2. Beautiful. You had to go and make me a fan all over again.
    That starry sky is what got me through so many of those fragile adolescent nights, when I didn’t know if I would get here, when nobody else believed I could do this… when the only guy who showed interest in geeky girls was a character on TV… and when my Dad had to go repeating every little thing his coworkers said about him :(
    The last time I watched the ISS go overhead, I was standing outside the Mission Control Center, surrounded by flight controllers and design engineers, several years ago. It has to be much, much brighter now than it was then. We’ve added solar panels and several more modules since then.
    I haven’t looked for the overflight info for Alabama yet, since we left Texas. I should really do that.
    But it’s getting late, and before long our own little guy will be waking us up, so I’m also going to call it a night.

  3. When I read the italicized text from your wonderful piece, I instantly thought of Eric Idle’s universe speech from “Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life”.
    Whenever I read anything about all of the universe’s continuously moving parts (just like your waving at the astronauts in the ISS as it flies by), I can’t *not* do it.

  4. You write so beautifully.
    I cannot imagine a thing that terrifies so much to my very core – and drags me to it at the same time – except the universe – the EVERYTHING out there.
    It’s really cold here,where I live, (northern Norway – near Hammerfest) and it’s rural – so you really get to appreciate the starry skies.
    This makes me think back to when I was thirteen – and at perfect peace with myself – after standing and staring at the starry sky for an hour. That is, untill my mother dragged me back in so the neighbours wouldn’t gossip.
    I think the nightsky is the thing we all tend to forget when we grow up – it’s there,and we know it’s beautiful – but we don’t stare anymore.
    So this – this made me very happy. I’ll go outside now and just stare. :)
    (One of the fortunate things with winter here is that it’s always nighttime)

  5. This is one superb piece of writing. It is so evocative! It put me right on my parents back porch in the summer looking at the clear night sky and camping where there is very little light pollution and lying on my back looking at the sky again and cresting a hill in the car on a cold winter’s night –the kind of cold that makes it impossible for there to be any clouds in the atmosphere and the stars are the sharpest points of light ever and the sky is the blackest background and it seems like it never ends. Thank you.

  6. Wil – this is a really awesome bit of writing. I loved the phrase, “while I was still waiting to clear immigration between Dreamland and Reality.”
    I’ve also had the experience you described looking up at the stars, and you captured it perfectly. It’s like you realize what you thought you understood.

  7. Thank you for putting into words the feeling I get every time I find myself looking up at the sky, especially when I’m at my in-laws’ house in a rural town far from the lights of big cities. When the night sky is clear, the stars are truly numberless. I sometimes wonder while looking if I’m just seeing things, or if one of those stars is actually moving. And, then I imagine it’s a friendly (or, sometimes, not-so-friendly) non-human passing us by. Then, I kind of freak out. :) The universe is so vast and still so unknown to us.

  8. When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
    When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
    Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
    -Walt Whitman
    <3 thanks Wil for the lovely post.

  9. I live out in a rural area. Every now and again when I’m outside at night – usually taking the dog out – I look up. Having been a city boy most of my life, it takes more than a few seconds to collect all the starts and planets I see into a panorama inside my head. When it clicks like that, I get this vaguely dizzy feeling, almost a vertigo and I have to look away.
    I find, at this point, that my dog is waiting patiently for me, but making it obvious that I’m holding her up from some vastly important dog thing that I don’t understand. That’s generally sufficient to ground me long enough to get back inside before I trip and fall off the planet.

  10. Hoodie and slippers for “cold out”….sigh.
    It was about 9 degrees when I walked my dog this morning.
    Fahrenheit.
    9.
    -jealous-
    Add in the light pollution of Chicago and I’m lucky to see the moon…sometimes Venus.
    –2Xs jealous–

  11. D’awwwwww.
    I’m reminded with this post why I’m hooked on your writing. It’s so poetic without being rhymey. Yes. Rhymey is a word.
    When I was a little girl I used to stare out the window up at the moon and the stars nearly every night before falling asleep. The idea of the big universe and that people used to not exist on Earth made me feel so small that it scared me. As an adult I can’t recreate that fear anymore but I remember it well. Even now, I can picture exactly how my yard looked in the moonlight I stared at it so often.
    I know you’re familiar with cold, but I don’t know why every winter I’m surprised at the shock of it. This week has been those kind of temperatures where it hurts to breathe, the inside of your nose freezes, and for some reason just being outdoors induces inexplicable unstoppable screaming. I haven’t left the house since Saturday. That’s not entirely true. I tried to leave, and when finding everything around me covered in solid ice, as well as 4 accidents within a 1/4 mile, I turned around and went home.
    Sorry for the rant. Thanks for the post, Wil.

  12. when i stare out into that vastness and sense it, and the awe subsides a bit, i feel inexpressibly comforted: i know in those moments that no matter how badly we mess up this home planet of ours, the rest of the cosmos will go on being, in all its brilliance and darkness.

  13. Nice story brought back memories of many years ago when I was on a ship in middle of the Atlantic. The night sky was fantastic with shooting stars, thanks

  14. Whilst listing big bits of our great beyond, do not forget the super-giant black hole at the center of our galaxy, which happens to be spewing a massive cloud of particles out of both sides of it.
    It’s one thing to consider death by elephant spew, but there are actual star systems that have gotten their asses handed to them by black hole spew. That there is a whole new level of “we are so unthinkably insignificant.”
    We could have ceased to exist in so many ways, one could say that it’s equally unthinkable that we exist at all. So, like you appear to do, I figure it’s best we appreciate it, and make the best of it while we got it.

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