The following appeared as an op-ed piece in the New Hampshire Union Leader on December 3, 2001. I wrote it in mid-November, just two months after the horrendous attacks on 9/11, when more than 3,000 souls left this Earth, violently, because of an unrelenting hatred.
Meteors, mysteries revealed in the cold, pre-dawn air
By Cissy Taylor
“EVERY NIGHT I go outside and look for a shooting star.”
— Richard O’Leary, on the occasion of the sudden death of his wife, Mary, at the age of 45.
On the morning of Nov. 18, I arose at 4:15, prepared hot cocoa (decaf, of course), bundled up in fleece and down and ventured outside. It was late November in New Hampshire when bare trees, stripped of their leaves, silhouette the landscape. The air was crisp and cold, cold enough to see my breath and cold enough to remind me that the truly biting, bitter cold is yet to come.
I was hoping for a simple glimpse of shooting stars, the meteors that are officially known as the Leonids. My wish was granted, over and over again, and once again I was reminded just how much I love the night sky and how little I really know about, oh, almost anything.
The night sky where I live is stunted by ambient light, but I can still see some stars. The Big Dipper hangs upside down to the left of Jupiter, I think, a “morning” star in this changing season.
Look to the south, the news stories said, to see the Leonids.
South, I thought, where the lights of the northeast seaboard’s megalopolis glow, diminishing the brightness of my night sky.
Then, almost as quickly as it came, a light flashed across the sky in front of me. Oooh, I thought. Directly overhead, almost out of my peripheral vision, was another. Ooooh, I thought again. A smile broke on my face.
Damn the eastern seaboard and full steam ahead.
Over and over again, meteors streaked past my house in the peaceful night. In the distance, I could hear the hum of motors traveling up and down the interstate highway. Otherwise, the air was only broken by my gasps and aahs.
A car engine kicked to life nearby and a neighbor drove past. A few minutes later, a neighbor from across the street slipped quietly out of her house, got into her car and drove away. Where were these people going at 5:00 on a Sunday morning? And when they both returned, half an hour later and 15 minutes apart, they drove quietly in, parked and eased their doors closed behind them.
Where had they gone and why had they come back so soon?
We live in a condo complex, sharing walls and streets and lawns. We are physically close, but in many ways so far apart. I’ve often smiled, waved and said hello to those two people, but I honestly don’t even know their names. And yet, here I was in the pre-dawn hours watching them drive away and return. Had they seen me? Did they wonder what I was doing sitting on my front step at that hour?
Across the way, I could see the light on in another neighbor’s den. Unlike the first two, he actually is a friend, someone with whom I’ve shared laughs, wine, good times and bad. Was he awake? Was he, too, outside watching the meteor shower? Should I walk over and say good morning?
I stayed on my stoop, by now sitting on a pillow and wrapped in a blanket, still sipping cocoa from an insulated cup, oohing and aaahing as flashes of light clipped across the sky. A star moved, no, not a star, a plane, headed east. An early morning flight to Europe? A military jet? Not so long ago, I didn’t put that much thought into an airplane in the distance.
When I was a teenager, I was camping with other Girl Scouts on a mountain top in Kentucky, far from Milky Way-robbing city lights. We lay in our sleeping bags, outside of our tents, and watched billions of stars crowded into the night sky. And suddenly, a shooting star, then another and another and another. I recall that we saw seven that night. Seven shooting stars gave us plenty to cheer about.
Today, I can’t even remember who I was camping with, but it takes little effort to see once again that pitch black sky, those almost connect-the-dots stars, that seeming river-of-stars called the Milky Way and those celestial shooting stars.
There has always been something very special, even mystical about shooting stars, but for me, that mysticism was tempered with a little grief and a little peace. When I was a child, someone in my life, probably my grandmother, told me that when I saw a shooting star, it meant someone had died.
As a child, I thought the soul of the deceased took the form of the star and raced across the sky. Although I felt sadness that someone had died, I felt joy that he or she had come into the light.
That’s how I felt this morning. Warmed by fleece, down, cocoa, blanket and the lights of shooting stars. Awed by the sheer majesty of the dark sky, its blazing lights, the very opportunity to even see the stars, the souls, blaze across my night sky.
— Cissy Taylor is a copy editor for The Union Leader.
Copyright 2001, 2002 Union Leader Corp.
Reprinted with permission of the New Hampshire Union Leader.