Note: I’m posting this entry several days after it was written; also, I couldn’t get a decent shot of the night sky and therefore went with a picture of the Mustang.
I bet you think you know how this line ends. We all learned this little poem when we were kids, right? “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight/I wish I may/I wish I might/Have the wish I wish tonight.” Then you made a wish on the star and quickly squeezed your eyes shut, because your wish wouldn’t come true if you saw another star. I actually always wondered how long that prohibition lasted. Does it only go for that viewing, or for that evening, or for the rest of your life? If it’s the last of these options, we are doing this process all wrong. As a child, naturally, I wished for childish things, like a Chatty Cathy doll (she was supposed to talk when you pulled the pink ring lodged in her back) or all the books in the world. If I could have saved that wish, I might have gone with more useful wishes, like a cure for cancer or the end of systemic racism. Or, honestly, I might have stuck with the thing about the books.
But if you’re thinking about this rhyme, you’re wrong. You see, I’m a child of the space age. We drank our Energy Tang like the astronauts do, so that we could join the space gang and do the moon walk, too. (For the uninitiated, that’s a reference to an orange juice commercial, not to Michael Jackson). We pretended to enjoy the Space Sticks we begged our mothers to buy for our after-school snacks, even though the sticks tasted like rubber flavored with enough chocolate not to get the manufacturer in trouble with the FDA. Part of of astronaut training in those days must have been to learn to eat the food. And, clad in pajamas and sprawled on the hardwood living room floor, we stayed glued to our TVs on Saturday morning to imagine ourselves driving George Jetson’s flying car. Now I’d settle for one that folds up into a briefcase like his did. Can you imagine never having to hunt for a place to park?
Since we had our own drinks and snacks and wishes, it’s no wonder that Space Age kids had their own rhyme. I’m sure this was hilarious the first twelve or so times I heard it: “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight/I wish I may, I wish I might/Never mind, it’s a satellite!” Yuk, yuk. I admit I’ve been suckered by a few planes in the sky over the years, though. Out of the mouths of babes….
Last night, though, Mark and I got to see the real deal. That’s possible because our house in Texas – a cabin, really – sits in the middle of 28 acres in the Hill Country. Even with our relatively large space we can see other houses in the distance and get light pollution from nearby Dripping Springs, but we still have a pretty good view of the night sky. Last night was spectacular. We had no cloud cover to speak of, and at 1AM an uncountable number of white points of light winked at us. This was no random expedition outside in the chill, though; we stuffed our sleepy selves into parkas and shoes to go out and see the Leonids meteor shower.
Ecclesiastes says there’s a season for everything, and meteors are no exception. Where we are, you can see the Perseids (meteors seeming to arise in the constellation Perseus) in August and the Leonids (meteors seeming to arise in the constellation Leo) in November. When the girls were little, we’d lay sleeping bags on the ground and rouse our sleepy-eyed kiddos and lie down together on the bags to watch for meteors. We’d count the brief flashes of white that marked a space rock’s entry into Earth’s atmosphere and murmured the legends of brave Perseus saving the chained Andromeda, Leo the fearsome lion slain by Heracles, and the mighty hunter Orion, eternally roaming the heavens in pursuit of Taurus the bull and being chased by his nemesis, Scorpio. The tales and the viewings ended when someone fell asleep, and we’d all stumble up the path back to the welcoming house and our comfy beds. I don’t know whether the kids recall those interludes; the nights were late and the kids were young. But I hope they at least dreamed of fables and stars.
Last night, though, it was just Mark and me in our jammies. We also departed from tradition by forgoing the sleeping bags and putting the top down on our Mustang convertible, which is currently parked on a macadam pad in front of the house. Once you recline the seats and wrap yourself in a blanket, you’ve got one sweet seat for sky watching. Having neglected to figure out where Leo was in the heavens and being too comfortable to bother getting out of the car, we decided to look right where the car was pointed. And we were rewarded with meteors – not a ton, only five over the course of about 45 minutes. But we enjoyed every bit of our time outside, and not just because we got to see meteors. If you’re not awed by a brilliant night sky, with its vast mixture of time-machine stars and the humble human need to tell stories in order to make sense of things, you’re not looking right. And the ephemeral nature of meteors – literally come and gone in a second, Nature’s Snapchat – makes the spectacle all the more wonderful.
This morning, I am out in mind of another rhyme, one a little classier than “Star light, star bright,” and probably less subject to modification. It’s by Walt Whitman; do you know it?
WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER.
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 diagrams, to add, divide, and
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.
I get what Walt’s trying to say here. Don’t misunderstand: I respect science tremendously. Without astronomers, how would we know when and where to look for meteors? And I respect wishes, too, although their limitations become clearer now than they used to be. I actually received a Chatty Cathy for Christmas when I was five or six, and she talked for about two days and then just coughed for the rest of her time with me. And, reluctantly, I admit that even we don’t have enough shelf space for all the books we own, much less all the books in the world. So I’ll be happy with a little time under the stars and a few meteors in my memory. And I wish the same happiness for you. That’s probably the best wish of all.