History of the Universe Part I or how to chase your tail.

Just a few days ago I admitted to looking at clouds.  Now I must confess to looking at stars as well.

“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…………….”

I don’t remember the first star I saw, but I remember well the first time I noticed the heavens and the innumerable points of light that populate that inky, infinite blackness.

My mom, my brother and I were crossing the Atlantic Ocean on an Italian coal ship, the Simonetta–I was six-and-a-half years old, my brother five.  The radio operator, who had taken an interest in us (mostly in my mother I think), had taken us on deck well after dark.  I was mesmerized by the stars that touched the horizon and then rose exponentially as a dome to hold back the universe—the Milky Way bisected it all with a well defined smudge of stars, as distant galaxies and nebula bent their light through it all.

I wasn’t sure what to do with my discovery, the crick in my neck or the lovely hum of the ship moving through the water at its leisurely pace, so I went back to my early passion of drawing maps.  I was fascinated with the fractal comingling of the land and the sea, the brown and the blue, the  intermittent borders and the ancient mapmakers’ use of sea monsters to define what he couldn’t define.

I think the same can be said for our progenitors’ knack for connecting the dots in the heavens to define the indefinable.   The easy one, Ursa Major, who through the ages of a malleable sky now resembles a large pan, and Cassiopeia a large misshapen W.  Mix that with astrology and we have a fairly earthbound reading of the heavens.

I would love to say that my understanding of the science of those heavens went well beyond my forefathers and their animation of gas giants, brown dwarfs, and our local, rather mundane star, the Sun, but it doesn’t.  I stumble over the thought that the night sky I look at today is millions, if not billions of years out of date; I bumble over the thought that the universe is expanding and accelerating into a void; I wonder at the notion that all the grains of sand, on all the beaches on earth, don’t come close to the number of stars in the sky.

Yet I continue to look.

The second time I noticed the sky was on a bus going from Des Moines to Pella, Iowa.  As we quickly left Des Moines the night sky was unfettered by city lights and like an ocean horizon, this rural, mid-American horizon sat heavy with stars that then rose steadily over our heads. 

I was eighteen and headed back to school following Thanksgiving break.  My parents’ divorce had sent me here—no really.  My mother was in Thousand Oaks, California and my father was in Reston, Virginia.  I chose to split the difference in Pella—home of Pella Rollscreen Windows, Vemeer Rolling Bailers and a small Dutch Reform college, Central College.

I have an odd belief in self-determination and fate—it’s somewhat of an oil and water approach to being that if pushed any further can probably be described best as the philosophy of a dog chasing its tail.  So there I sat on the fourth floor of Hoffman Hall watching the sun set, beautifully I might add, and the stars peppering the darkness much like my ocean crossing years before.

So Fate had brought me here, but I had chosen to get on the bus.

From there it was years of the Suburban/Urban life that pays little heed to the night sky.  The moon still rises, the stars still come out, but they are masked by the human condition that has hazed the skies with breath, exhaust and ennui.   I did little to break that cycle—like most I drove a half an hour to my job five miles away and back, surrendered my thoughts to the television (Stockholm Syndrome if ever there was a case), and generally got by with very little interaction with the night sky.

“………………I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.”

What would that wish be?

The rural Vermont mantle that sheets me now is again my six year old sky; my eighteen year old sky.  The Milky Way at one end rises from the Woodstock green, arches crookedly over our house and lands solidly towards Killington.  Ursa Major almost always sets ready to empty its contents onto Mt. Tom while Cassiopeia and Orion’s Belt seem not to move far from their usual spots.

The maps I drew as a child are long gone.  My desire to touch down on and to explore those adolescent squiggles mostly fulfilled.

My subway map says “You are Here”, 3 College Hill.  This is where I want to be.

When I see that first evening star, I wish for the health and safety of my family.  That Min will fulfill his destiny—a destiny he chooses, and that Lisa will do the same.

For me?  Well, that when fate delivers me (no self determination here), my destiny complete and when I make my move into the heavens, that that journey begins here–face up and ready to go.

“Make it so, Number One.”


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