It’s just the way I am. If there’s going to be a meteor shower, I want to watch. And so last night I hauled a sleeping bag, pad, and pillow out onto the deck. My original plan had been to set a clock for 3:30 a.m. and go out between moonset and dawn when the the sky would be darkest and the meteors brightest, but since I couldn’t sleep anyway, I decided around midnight to assume my post.
I tend to think of the nights here as silent except for the occasional high-pitched coyote song and frogs in their season, but as soon as I settled myself outdoors I remembered that the air contains a constant undercurrent of sound. It enveloped me like a rich and complex tapestry: clicks and hums, murmurings of an of owl, animal scratchings in the brush nearby, and whisperings of wind in a tree whose black shadowy shape became as familiar to me as a friend. There’s so much happening constantly that eludes our notice. I lay there as my eyes adjusted to the dark.
The moon, a quarter full, cast its pale light like a filtering lens, and swaths of the sky were white with the Milky Way, but as I watched, the darkness deepened, and there were stars of startling brightness everywhere. I scanned the sky, trying too hard, impatient for a reward, and then with my peripheral vision saw a thin line of light zoom by, and minutes later…whoa!…a blazingly bright, thick streak, shooting by too fast for a double take but memorable indeed. Now that was a shooting star.
Long waits in between. Watching a meteor shower takes a good deal of patience. I’d read that this year’s Perseid shower is an “outburst” and may yield as many as 200 meteors in an hour, so it seemed to me that one or two a minute was a reasonable expectation, but expectation is not an appropriate state of mind in these situations. I tried to get comfortable and simply key in to the pleasure of being present to witness this jeweled summer night, just me and the same vast sky my ancestors once beheld.
On the other hand, never mind about my ancestors. I’m pretty sure they would have been far too exhausted and weary from their daily labors to indulge in luxurious bouts of pre-planned sky-watching, intent on seeing a particular quota of meteors. No, for them it would have been a matter of happenstance, of looking up in the very astonishing moment a meteor was shooting through the heavens, and the more romantic among them would have seen it as a gift or an omen, and possibly made a wish. And oh, their wishes have rolled down through the ages and found their way into my heart. I was born with yearning in my DNA.
As were we all, perhaps, for it is the state of being human…is it not? To be alive involves a continual wanting and reaching, a struggle to to stay upright despite crushing sorrow and the awareness of our own brevity, an ancient kind of yearning that only ceases in brief moments of one-ness and forgetting, or with the elusive equanimity that comes with enlightenment.
And here I was, lying on a sleeping bag with the very cosmos shining before my eyes, thinking in those tiresome human terms. Another flamboyant meteor shot by above the hills to the east, a beauty with a long wide trail of light. And another, just beyond my field of vision, was as pale and small as a white moth in the distance, but moving straight and fast, a jet-propelled glide into its vanishing. I began to rest in the spaces between. I felt that old familiar mix of insignificance and wonder, humbled to have been given the privilege of bearing witness, of being somehow part of it all, fleetingly and forever. I let go of the personal history and opened myself up to whatever unknown vastness and mystery encompassed me. In short, I fell asleep.
I awoke just in time for what was supposed to have been the peak of the peak, the hour for which I had initially planned to get of bed and begin my vigil. But coastal clouds had moved in as I slept, and the sky was blank, not a star in sight. I gathered my things, slipped into the house, and went back to bed, satisfied.