–Be kind. Always.–
Turning from north to south at the half-way point on my Rabbit Lane walk, I look southeast toward the mountain peaks still sleeping under the early-morning sky. A star rises from behind a peak and continues in its slow journey toward zenith.
To the east of where I walk, strings of lights move slowly in the distance, white lights crawling forward, red lights inching away, two parallel lines of progress making their way to and from the offices and factories and stores of wares. They send forth a collective engine-and-tire hum to hover over the fields with the fog. A Union Pacific train’s whistle flows out gently over the valley from its tracks on Lake Bonneville’s fossil bank. In the west, the lighthouse, itself out of sight, emits soft sweeping beams: white-green-white-green. The beams penetrate Winter’s ice-crystal air to trace slow arcs across the gray belly of the sky, a ceiling above me, above Rabbit Lane. The universe of stars—the heavens—are out there, somewhere farther above, hanging mostly hidden by clouds. My fingers, toes, ears, and nose ache from the crystalline cold.
It can be a challenge to find joy and beauty in the cold and bleakness, even death, of Winter. I am thoroughly wrapped. Only my eyes, nose, and cheekbones expose themselves to the fundamental icy reminder that the sun brings warmth and life—only the sun. The frigid air nips at my cheeks and stings as I draw it in through my nose, to be warmed and utilized, then offered back to our common atmosphere, a stream of foggy warmth. Globules of frost pock my scarf as the cold jealously pulls the moisture from my breath as it passes through the yarn. I wonder that the surfaces of my eyeballs don’t freeze over, and I blink more rapidly at the thought.
The coldest winter days help me to recognize the miracle of the sun’s rising. The sun’s sphere suddenly peaks over the mountain tops, like the crown of a brilliant child playing a game of “peak-a-boo” with planet earth. My hands, painfully cold in the frigid air, immediately feel relieving warmth from the first rays beaming down from over the mountain peaks. Over the next few minutes, the sun reveals its full, unrestrained glory, a glory we cannot fully witness for the degree of heat and brightness, and that we can only weakly describe with words like amazing, beautiful, and bright.
* * *
Rabbit Lane is covered with several inches of snow, crusted over with ice from yesterday’s melting, now frozen. Truck tires moving slowly down the road have compressed the white snow-ice into white hard-pack as hard as concrete. Places in the ruts show themselves brown, where the mud from a sub-surface pot hole has oozed up to cover the ruts, and then has itself frozen, dark and solid. Walking is difficult, as every surface is slippery. I half walk half slide my boots across the icy surfaces. I step on a spot of dark mud, knowing it will be frozen hard. Before I can say the word slippery I find myself lying on my back gazing into heaven and thinking many thoughts in rapid succession, more quickly than can be read:
“What just happened?”
“The stars are so beautiful.”
“Is anything broken?”
“There’s the Big Dipper.”
“What if I can’t get up or crawl?”
“Look at the Milky Way.”
“My butt hurts.”
“Will I freeze to death before Angie realizes I should be home by now?”
“Is that an owl?”
“Will she find her husband lying neatly in a tractor tire rut, stiff as a post?”
“The stars are so beautiful!”
“Maybe I should try to move, just a little?”
“My fingers and toes are working!”
* * *
One Autumn I read in the newspaper of a coming night during which we might see many shooting stars. The children asked eagerly if they could stay up late to watch for them.
“It’s not supposed to start until 3 a.m.,” I told them.
All the better, they thought—any excuse to stay up late. After dinner we laid out blankets and sleeping bags on the back lawn with a clear view to the western sky. We crawled in and huddled together under the shadow of the house cast by the crescent moon rising in the east. Panther and Bagheera (Baggy) rubbed against us, purring. Wispy clouds drifted occasionally across the otherwise clear sky, empty but for thousands of points of light.
“What are shooting stars?” one child asked.
“As amazing as they are,” I explained, “shooting stars are not stars at all. They are tiny bits of dust and rock called meteorites that fall into the earth’s atmosphere. They travel so fast and the air creates so much friction that they burn up with a bright flair. Very few are big enough to make it all the way through and crash into the earth.”
“Oh,” they said simply, with new understanding.
Lying under the stars, we identified the few constellations we knew, like the Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major). I showed them how to find the faint but immovable North Star by following the Dipper’s last two stars. Then I pointed out the soft band of lighter colored sky stretching from horizon to horizon.
“That’s the Milky Way,” I said.
They gazed upward in awe as I explained that when we look at the Milky Way, we are looking in upon our vast galaxy from the outer reaches of the wispy galactic arm where we live. Rather than looking down from space, we are looking in at the plane of the galaxy, through its edge.
“How does a star get born, Dad?” one child asked. “Does it have a Mommy?”
“Well, sort of,” I ventured, “but not the sort of Mommy that holds you and loves you and reads to you at night.”
The universe is full of stuff we call matter, I explained. Slowly, over billions of years, that matter comes together and begins to squeeze down upon itself in a tight ball. When the ball gets big enough and tight enough and hot enough it ignites into a newborn star.
“So stars are alive, like us?” another child asked.
“Yes, they are alive. But unlike us, stars live for billions of years, giving us light and warmth and beauty, even from millions of miles away.”
We talked about Einstein and relativity and the speed of light, about the size of the universe, about black holes and singularities, about neutron stars and pulsars and quasars, and about how for all the stars we could see, our galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars, and as large and as vast as our galaxy is, the universe contains hundreds of billions of galaxies.
Suddenly, just after midnight, dozens of shooting stars flared up, tiny bright fireballs streaking green and red and yellow across the black sky, leaving glowing trails that quickly faded. The science lecture was over, but the real lesson had begun. The only words the children said now were “Oh” and “Ah.” Shivering but deeply satisfied, we staggered to our beds long before 3:00 a.m.