I did something last week that I haven’t done in a long, long time. I set my alarm for midnight, and when it went off I got up, bundled
up, and slipped out the back door. I brushed the snow off one of the chairs on our deck, sat down, and leaned way, way back. I positioned myself so I could
see as much of the sky as possible. Then I watched and waited.
I had read a few days earlier about the Quadrantids, a meteor shower that I had never heard of but was supposed to be active and
spectacular for just a few hours, on just this one night. And I didn’t want to miss it. There’s something magical and mystical about watching for shooting
stars and falling stars, as I grew up calling them.
The night air was brisk, but not painfully cold. And the sky was an interesting mix of cloudy and clear. It looked, in fact, as though
someone had drawn a huge line across the sky. One half was so covered with clouds that no stars were visible through them, and it would have been impossible
to see any celestial activity going on behind them. The other half of the sky was crystal-clear, with hundreds of stars shining brightly. That’s where I
concentrated my sky-gazing.
A number of things were going through my mind as I sat quietly waiting and watching. The main one was my daughter. She has always been
interested in astronomy, and as she was growing up she would always be the first one in the family to know about meteor showers that took place at
different times of the year. It got to be a tradition for the two of us to sit out in our back yard in the middle of the night whenever the Perseids or the
Leonids were in town. My husband and son occasionally joined us, but usually it was just my daughter and me, bundled up against the weather or the mosquitoes,
depending on the time of year.
My daughter lives in Florida now, but we call or email each other whenever we hear of a meteor shower coming. And we compare notes later on
whether and how long we watched, and how successful we were.
One of the magical things about meteors is that so often you see them out of the corner of your eye. No matter where in the sky you’re
looking or how intently you’re staring, there’s always some motion in your peripheral vision that makes you wonder, “Was that real or did I just imagine
it?” Then there are the whoppers that leave no doubt. The ones that draw a bright, vivid trail across the sky as you’re looking straight at it. These are
the ones that make you catch your breath or gasp out loud. I saw only one of those the other night, but it was worth waiting for. I’m sure I’d have seen
more if I would have stayed out longer, but 20 minutes was about all the time I cared to spend out in the cold. Besides, it’s not nearly as much fun when my
daughter’s not here.
Not only did the meteor shower make me think of my daughter, it also made me think of my first night in Africa during my trip to Uganda in October.
While we were loading up the van as we left the airport, I was mesmerized by the night sky, thinking about the view that was so familiar yet so different
from the constellations I was used to seeing back home. I thought then about my family back in the States, and the fact that we could be looking up at the same
sky, but from such an enormous distance away from each other. And now I found myself wondering if any of my friends in Uganda would be watching the same
meteor shower I was viewing. It wouldn’t be at the same time, since the 8-hour difference was also the difference between night and day. But still.
I don’t take the time very often anymore to stop what I’m doing and look up at the night sky. When the stars are at their brightest, I’m
usually inside, or on my way to or from places that keep my thoughts and attention focused elsewhere. That’s such a shame, and I realized this in the middle
of the silence and solitude I was enjoying during the meteor shower last week.
When I went back inside, it didn’t take me long to fall asleep. It felt good to bury myself under the covers to chase away the last of
the chill, and to give in to the peaceful slumber that quickly followed.
I’m not sure when the next expected meteor shower will grace us with its spectacular sky show. But when it does I will once again set my
alarm, bundle up, and step outside to enjoy the view. I don’t want it to be a long, long time before I do this again.
<em>The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was
published on January 12, 2012.</em>
© Betty Liedtke, 2012