I was first struck by how deeply us city dwellers are afflicted by light blindness. Here, floating in a midnight hot tub at a friend's cabin midway up the ridge above a small town in West Virgina, the sky blazed.
At first it was just me, the soothing water and the luminous sky. The tub's jets were off. While the pulses would have been welcome, the hum of the pumps would have marred the tranquility. So I floated there, feeling very Van Gogh-ish, but without the angst.
Then suddenly the first one flashed behind the ebony branches etched across my field of vision. Giant lightning bug? Too bright. Airplane? Too white. Shooting star? Yes, really.
So I stared up, focusing on everything and nothing the way you do when trying to see one of those optical illusions. "Look, but don't focus," the instructions read.
Another streaked by. More "unfocused staring without looking" and two others played connect the dots across the Big Dipper — or maybe the Little Dipper. Astronomy is not my strong suit, and the constellation was so bright.
I am currently reading Brian Greene's "The Hidden Reality," as well as a couple of magazine articles about the restarting of the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) and chasing the particles that could confirm supersymmetry. So you'd think this celestial show would lure me down the seductive path of cosmology, multiverses and the like.
Strangely, no. Instead the shooting stars led me back to a high meadow in Northern California, where under a similarly staggering sky, I had futility pursued the affections of a bewitching French exchange student half a century ago. Fifty years ago, the tears of teenage heartbreak had been angrily dashed aside, but tonight that recollection brought a smile to my face. Back then I had been young enough to believe that "real men don't cry."
So as I floated there staring up through the steam, I sought not astronomical events, but the manifestations of memory. The heavens did not disappoint. With a randomness that felt regular, more silver streaks knitted up the night. Faces and places from times past — and at varying distances — drew as close as the more stationary stars caught there in the branches swaying gently above my head.
Way back in 1957 Perry Como urged us to "catch a falling star, and put it in your pocket." It is a pleasant "oldie" that pulls you back to soda shops and poodle skirts, saddle shoes and "Your Hit Parade." But Perry would not recognize these celestial visitors, as they were not falling stars. Falling stars, one assumes, fall back to earth — and we would notice (as did the dinosaurs).
These were shooting stars, born in memory that beckon me forward. Shooting stars transcend, reviewing for us pure harmonic moments, treasured souls who — for minutes or hours, days or months or years — held our hands and hearts as, together, we harkened to the infinite song of existence.
The show faded slowly, as if my starry friends has somewhere else to be. I was sad to see them go. But as they blinked out of sight, it was as if they were winking back over their shoulders. "Patience," they whispered. "We'll be back for you. For now you know what you must do. Foster harmony, enable beauty, distill complexity and oppose harm."