Down East 2013 ©
The charming older lady behind me in the express line (14 items or less) was lugging a gallon jug of milk, so I scooched my stuff over to make room for her. "Those things get heavy after a while, don't they?" I said.
"And cold!" she replied, plopping it on the conveyor.
I recognized here an opportunity to talk about the weather, which I was quick to exploit, uttering some banality about what a beautiful autumn it had been. I put this firmly in the past tense. To my way of thinking, autumn ended promptly on November 1, when the first hard frost finally struck my garden.
"But it's still beautiful!" the lady declared. Her eyes fairly shone with conviction. "Have you seen the stars?"
An entirely forthright person might have admitted here, No, I've been hiding under the sofa. Instead I stared back, I'm afraid, quite dumbly.
"They've have been so bright!" she went on. "Night before last I saw a shooting star for the first time in years. I don't know the constellations, but it was up in the north somewhere."
By this time my groceries were being flung through the laser beam. Bleep, bleep, bleep, and I strolled back out into the parching breeze thinking vaguely of distant starlight.
When was the last time I saw a shooting star? I used to see them all the time, back when I was new here. I'd moved to Maine after years of living in a city, and the night sky came as a revelation to me. Who knew all that stuff was up there? I would stand outside on winter nights just staring upward, until my neck got sore or the bitter truth hit home that I owned no adequate outer clothing. Shooting stars became almost passé; I saw them so often that my ex became annoyed when I mentioned it. "How come you always see them and I don't?" To me the answer seemed kind of self-evident: because I was looking. I hope I was wise enough not to say this out loud, though I doubt it.
But that was years ago. I don't think I've seen a shooting star in the current millennium. Where have they all gone? The answer to that is probably self-evident too.
Like so many other wonderful things in Maine, the magical night sky seems to have slipped, for me, behind some kind of cognitive scrim. It's still up there, I'm pretty sure. The stars are as bright as ever, notwithstanding the row of streetlights that sprouted a few years back along the beach. But while they're up there, exploding merrily, I'm dashing in from the car with my groceries in hand, staring down at the half-moon of rounded stones I laid three summers ago in front of the porch, not really seeing those either.
I hereby resolve to change all that.
November, after all, is just the beginning of what might be called the season of night. We lost a full hour-and-a-half of sunlight in October. Soon daylight savings time will end and it will be dark by 5:00 p.m. At this time of year any fully sentient being ought to be staring up at the heavens, looking for signs and portents, or at least a stray meteor. Moonlight splintered by oak limbs is a stunning sight — downright druidical if there are a few stray clouds in the picture — and one I can partake of from my own back deck if I only bestir myself. So I vow to bestir.
"You've got to make yourself love winter," a wise Mainer told me, back in my newbie days. "Take up cross-country skiing or snowshoeing or something. Really throw yourself out there. Otherwise you'll go crazy waiting for spring."
Sound advice which, of course, I never followed. But each of us does things in his or her own way. I reported in an earlier column how I cured myself (at least partially) of the habit of not noticing the beautiful Maine countryside by the cheap and fun expediency of downloading a two-dollar camera app for my iPhone. Now everywhere I look I see photo opportunities. Sometimes I pull right over in my car to snap, say, a couple of power lines stretched across a stormy sky. I'm going to try something similar now, vis-a-vis the night sky. There's an app for everything, and for the price of a six-pack of microbrew I have equipped myself with a few that look promising. I will report any promising developements.
In the meantime, I'm waiting hopefully for nightfall. And to charming stranger in the checkout lane, my humble thanks for the gift of stars.