Astronomy 101


Winter at night in the country is silent. To the north is a harvested field where often geese land just around dusk, and in the river beyond that. Just on the east is the bay, and there’s nothing but trees to the west and south. When the sky is clear this time of year it is cold, and now Saturn is settling below the horizon just after midnight. The just-about-to-be-Super Full Moon is climbing over the Chesapeake, and if it weren’t so bright the Milky Way in the south would be more visible. This is the way it is; this is seven at night in the country in winter.

This is the Cold Moon. It is the first full moon in winter, so the Cold Moon. In two weeks is the Geminid meteor shower offering more than one hundred and twenty flybys an hour. If you lay on your back on a blanket in the grass in the country on December 14th or so, you can probably make a few wishes every minute.

Today I miss my family—my siblings and their families, many cousins and some cousins once removed are all having lunch in Manhattan. It is Christmastime in New York and they’re sharing stories and laughing, probably walking around mid-town, stopping in some stores, watching the skaters at Rockefeller Center. I wish I were there. “Next time” is too iffy anymore. Time keeps redefining “next time.” At the same time my soul is filled with peace because my son and I will get out his telescope and spend some time tonight out here on the bay in the country looking deep into the Milky Way. We will try and see some craters on the moon, blind ourselves by observing Vega in the west, and if we are out early enough we will see the rings of Saturn in the Southwest.

After a while I’ll start a fire in the fire pit on the patio near the back path, and we’ll heat up some cider. I am sure that while we will enjoy ourselves, we both would have liked to been in New York City today. Some years ago we went and met my cousin Roy and his wife Patty and had pizza and walked in the rain, lit candles at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and talked about the joy of spending time with family. I haven’t seen them since. It makes me sad.

Honestly, our lives should revolve around family; it really is that simple. Unfortunately, that is not the way it is way too often. We battle with deadlines and struggle against the proverbial sand seeping through the hourglass. I would like to slow the whole thing down. I’d love to be able to live like we lived half a century ago when cousins were a stone’s-throw away and every day someone was around, sharing dinner, and we would run into each other at the stores. Now we are scattered like stars and to meet with more than a handful of us means mapping out distances to common locales, coordinating schedules, and planning ahead for accommodations and flights. The simplicity of saying, “Hey, we’re going to get a fire going in the pit tonight, drink some wine and use the telescope; why don’t you come by,” has receded to so long ago I barely remember when. I wouldn’t change much about my life; but if I could make one small adjustment, I’d arrange it for all my cousins and extended family to live nearby, especially my siblings and their families. I suppose we appreciate each other more for the lack of constant contact and the possibilities of “next time.” But part of me wishes I was in NY right now.

Still, few events bring me more peace than sitting outside with my adult son, having cider and looking for constellations in the night sky. It is incomprehensible how much space exists between us and the stars, and how long it would take to get there. When the world is too much with us, we can always find a little peace out in the field in the perfect stillness of night and watch some meteor shoot by, dimmed only by the light of the moon

Vincent van Gogh once wondered in a letter to his brother, why can’t the stars be as accessible as the dots on a map of France. If we take a train to reach Paris, he supposed, then perhaps we take death to reach a star. I think of that sometimes when I’m looking toward Vega or Orion, or when I get lost in the Pleiades. It is silent out here stretching clear across the water, and the chill reaches deep inside, and you realize this is exactly how it was for Copernicus, for Galileo, for our grandfathers, and forever it will be exactly like this. And you realize life should always be like this but it is inexpressible, so you look around for someone to share it with, because talking about it falls short, is incomplete. It must be shared to be understood.

And you realize right then that family is the center, the absolute center of your universe. At some point we come to understand that life revolves around them.

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