Science has never really been my thing. I got through 9th grade basic science, did better in 10th grade biology, and managed to pass 11th grade chemistry. Thankfully, I didn’t have to take physics to graduate. For college I headed off to a tiny but wonderful liberal arts college in western Podunk PA where I majored in theater and minored in history. But there again I faced those dreaded science requirements. So, I took a class called Geography and Society (yes, it was a LIBERAL liberal arts college) and then I had to find one more. To graduate. So, during my junior year I signed up for Astronomy 101 along with my friend Julie. We figured we could go in on the textbook together so we wouldn’t “waste” our hard-earned work-study money. Once a week we sat in the planetarium and watched the stars move overhead. College students taking a class where they get to lie back in recliners, in the dark, in the middle of day? Cool!
Actually, it was cool. It was literally cool – and I realize now the professor did that on purpose to keep us from falling asleep. But I would have stayed awake anyway. I suddenly found science interesting. No…. more than interesting. Fascinating. Black holes, Asteroids, Planets, the stars. The Milky Way.
I’d always loved the stars. I’d been watching them twinkle my whole life. Now, at long last, I began to have a tiny bit of understanding of what I was seeing…and could identify the constellations. That alone was definitely worth the cost of tuition.
I love the night sky, especially on a summer’s night. There’s something magical about that part of the evening when you can sit outside and watch the last light fading in the west, watch the bats as they swoop up the mosquitoes overhead, watch as the first stars begin to twinkle. Spoiler alert: Thanks to Astonomy 101 I know that that “star” is actually Venus. But that moment of waiting for the first star is a wonder moment. Like waiting for the curtain to go up, or the baton to fall, and the magic to star.
As a grown woman, it’s the most relaxing part of my day.
That wasn’t true as a kid. As a kid the stars coming out was yet another opportunity to compete with my younger brother and two older sisters for supremacy. We believed firmly that only the person who saw the FIRST star of the evening could possibly wish on it. If someone claimed to see one and we could spot other stars at the same time it negated any wish they had made. Our rules were strict. Wishing could only be done on officially sanctioned magic-makers. That included, and was limited to: stars, wish-bones, birthday candles, wishing wells.
Now, wishing-wells were out as I lived way out in the country. The hearty country farmer stock that we lived among didn’t go for such fanciful things as wishing wells. And plus, I grew up poor. What poor kid is going to throw good money away for the chance that something might or might not come true?
Wishbones were pretty much limited to Thanksgiving and my dad seemed to have honed his twist and pull method over the years so that he always won.
Even though I had complete ownership of wishing-ability on my own birthday, even those candles couldn’t be counted on if you didn’t blow them all out with one breath. So…there was a lot riding on the night sky for me.
Partly, I’m sure that I was influenced by the Wonderful World of Disney that I watched religiously. Remember that? As surely as I heard good old Baptist hymns every Sunday morning, I heard the opening strains of “When you wish upon a star….” every Sunday night.
When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you. If your heart is in your dream no request is too extreme, when you wish upon a star as dreamers do.
And I knew I was a dreamer.
So I waited for summer, the best star-dreaming time of year. August to be specific. August was when we went on vacation. My dad was a Baptist pastor of two small churches in upstate New York. Two churches; that means twice the choir practices, twice the board meetings, twice the number of hospital visits and home visits and folks calling day and night to speak to Pastor. My dad worked 24/7 for months on end. Eleven months to be exact. August, the whole month of August, was his opportunity to relax and regroup for the next eleven months. A poor pastor’s family of six, we’d head for a state park in Vermont, or New Hampshire – someplace far, far away where folks couldn’t reach us very easily.
And when I say we camped, I should probably clarify. It’s probably better to say we set up an encampment. Two tents (one for mom and dad, one for the kids) a tarp stretched between them over the picnic table for when it rained (and it always rained). Plastic sheeting, Coleman stove, chaise lounge for my Mom and a lawn chair for we sisters to fight over. It was great. August was always great.
August was also the time of the meteor showers….and we were allowed to stay up late those nights – just for the chance to catch a falling star. I’d lie there with my family around me, all of us staring into the night sky, wishing, hoping, dreaming.
I’d hear my sisters calling out each time they’d see one. “There’s one…” and I’d crane in that direction but too late. “Ooooooh! Saw one!” crane around in that direction. Just missing it. Patience has never been one of my virtues and OH the frustration of missing out on the glory of a shooting star, of making my wish for the year and having it come true! Oh the agony of knowing my sisters every wish were in the works now while yet again I was shut out of the magic? I’d have to wait until I could blow out my birthday candles in December to have another chance at it.
I remember asking my mom why I couldn’t ever seem to see the shooting stars like she could. She asked me how I was looking. How I was looking??? I wasn’t just looking. I was staring fiercely into the a small patch the night sky, hoping against hope that something would happen within the arbitrary borders I’d set on it. My mom suggesting that what I needed to do was widen my horizons and soften my focus. “You’re looking too hard,” she said. “If you limit where you look you won’t see the magic when it happens. Soften your gaze.”
Now, at 50 years old I can say I’ve seen lots of stars. I can still identify some of the constellations, I know the North Star, have seen plenty of my share of first stars, the milky way, and I’ve even had the amazing experience of watching the Northern Lights dance.
And I have learned once and for all exactly what my mom meant. It was another August. August of 1996 and I was camping outside of Sun Valley, Idaho high in the Cascade Mountains. An old friend and his two kids came out from the East for a visit and I wanted to show them the stunning mountains in and around Ketchum. I happened to know the director of a church camp there who agreed to rent me a pop-up camper so that we could afford to stay in such a ritzy locale.
We did all the normal fun things one does when camping: swimming, catching salamanders, camp fires and marshmallows, swatting mosquitoes; and some not so normal things: ice skating. And I remembered all those Augusts ago when I lay on my back with my family watching shooting stars. So, one night when I knew the meteor showers were due, I suggested we watch. But it got late and it was getting cold. Really, really cold. 20 degrees cold. We stood outside watching and waiting until our feet were frozen. And so we finally tucked the kids into their sleeping bags and they fell fast asleep.
And then somewhere around 2 am, the stars began to fall. They fell like I hadn’t seen before and like I haven’t seen since. They showered down like fireworks. It took us all of five seconds to decide what to do. We picked the kids up, still in their sleeping bags, and carried them outside. I remember the crunch of the frost on the ground, and Ben hoisting the three kids, one at a time, onto the hood of my car so they could watch the magic in the sky.
I found my gaze softening, not as I watched the sky, but as I watched the kids, and the man at my side. And I realized my mother was right, and so was Jiminy Cricket, because sure enough, fate can be kind. There I was, lying with what might become my family all around me, all of us staring into the night sky, wishing, hoping, dreaming.
Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true.