A dolphin swims through the stars. Two bears lumber along, and a dragon swings its tail between them. Interesting creatures inhabit the night sky, and lying on striped beach towels in a dark meadow on a Virginia mountain, my granddaughter and I intended to spot as many of them as possible.
As it turned out, we did not linger, for my granddaughter grew nervous about the faint flashes that began intermittently lighting the western horizon— “heat lightning” we used to call it. I tried to reassure her that, given that our skies were still clear and we could not hear thunder, the storm was still somewhere in West Virginia. She was not convinced. She has heard that the father of one of her classmates was struck and killed by lightning, and she did not want to take chances.
At nine, her world is expanding—which means her sense of life’s perils is also expanding. She knows about her classmate’s father. She knows about last summer’s oil spill in the Gulf, last spring’s nuclear disaster in Japan, and the current drought and famine in Africa. Although at present she remains blissfully unaware of the contentious debates about our country’s budget that have occupied much of our recent domestic news, she will feel soon enough—for better or for ill—the effects of whatever decisions our legislators ultimately make.
But she also knows about stars, and about the goodness of getting far enough away from city lights to see them. Humans have long looked into the night sky for various kinds of guidance. Sailors have set their courses by the stars, and poets have taken inspiration from them. John Keats wrote of the steadfastness of stars. Robert Frost saw in them something “to stay our minds on, and be staid.” Stars remind us that there is something greater than ourselves out there.
Before we left the meadow, my granddaughter and I were able to pick out four ancient night sky markers: Delphinus the Dolphin, Draco the Dragon, and Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great and Small Bears, also known as the Big and Little Dippers.
I do not know what, if anything, she may remember about our experience that night, but my prayer for her as we returned to our room near the foot of the mountain was that she always be able to find a place apart—even if that place seems a little dangerous—where she can stare into the dark, see points of lights, and feel connected in all the best ways to the world she inhabits.
Indeed, that is my prayer for all of us.