Storytime: The (Night) Sky

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: My fascination with stars and the nighttime sky.

It’s the most peaceful place. The Edge of the World is what I call it in my head but it’s just Montauk Point. If you follow Sunrise Highway all the way east on Long Island until you almost fall in to the water, you’ll end up here. The last stop on Earth. A single parking lot sitting squarely in front of the Montauk Lighthouse. After this point Long Island ends and you’re left with two choices: turn around or swim 3,400 miles straight across to Europe. It’s a daunting place full of finality but at night, it’s an observatory full of stars. One of the very few places on this whole forsaken island where its dark enough to really see the sky.

One night I’m laying on the roof of my car with my gloved hands held against my chest, my legs covered by a blanket, and my feet slipping down through the sunroof into the warmth of the car below. The chill of February swirls around me. Even wrapped in three layers of clothes the breeze off the ocean weaves through the fabric to nip at me. Music lazily drifts up from the speakers like a haunting and on this moonless night I feel like I can see every star.

Just above the dinning music is the rustle of shifting sands along the dunes, the crash of the waves, and the soft thump of my heart. Above head, the swirling beacon of the lighthouse spins around slowly, appearing momentarily only to disappear again seconds later. The light is so soft and transient it doesn’t disturb the sky. It simply is noted, and then it’s gone. Just like a blink.

I’ve always been in love with the stars and the sea and their seamless blend and its no different here, though I’m happy to be alone to enjoy it this time. In the summer, hours before dawn, you can drive out here and find people. Find couples making out. Find smokers and druggies and drinkers and loners. But now in the winter, when it’s darker than coal and colder than sin, it’s just me and the voices in my head. It’s me and my dreams. It’s me and my deepest, darkest fears and regrets. And all the stars in the sky that I can fit within my vision.

I don’t own a telescope but I can point out plenty of the constellations anyway. Auriga. Perseus. Gemini. All out in full form tonight. It’s too early for Lyra but the others dance above me, reminding me that everything has a season. Everything is cyclic and yet, ever moving.

The stars make me feel infinitely small. My place in the universe is less than any dot or speck. I can’t imagine how insignificant I am when looking at what I know to be giants. I wonder if I live in cities because I don’t want to be confronted with this knowledge. In the city, light spills from every house, every street, strangling out of the stars. It blots them from view and whittles them down until only the strongest and brightest survive. But here, in this nothing land, in this cradle by the sea I’m outnumbered. I’m eaten alive by twinkling fires so large they can’t be imagined but so small they can’t be seen without squinting.

Back at college, the Professor puts his hand on my shoulder. It’s wide and warm and friendly. He laughs easily and openly, shaking the 13 inch refracting telescope in the middle of the room. That’s not hard to do though, even breathing too hard can shake the floor in this relic of a room. The telescope is housed off to the side of the observatory in a space that looks more like the inside of a barn complete with a strange ceiling that can be wheeled openly – slowly and steadily – via a chain hooked up to a medieval looking wheel.

This telescope is the oldest at this observatory, built in 1861, just a short time after Neptune was discovered. It’s a beautiful telescope that needs to be man handled despite its delicate status and age. Everything is adjusted manually. Half of its functions work on prayer and superstition. We spent the first week simply learning how to use every knob and lever only to realize the only way to wheel the beast from side to side was to push at it with a dented broom – an indelicate and downright destructive move. Worse yet, after the broom pushes the telescopes heavy weight around, it’ll need to be caught on the other side to stop the motion. All at once a marvel and a monster, a beauty and a beast, a carefully cared for relic and a man handled mule of an object.

The observatory is 30 minutes outside of the city but somehow, its always darker than by the water at the end of the world. There are several telescopes housed here that we use and sometimes we even lay outside on the grass when the weather is good. The class is an elective with only six other students, a strange mix of university and intimate gathering. There is no real coursework to be honest, no books to buy, no programs to purchase. No skill checks. Instead there are talks and discussion. Instead there is math and theory and starring into the blackness for three hours twice a week asking ourselves if we exist.

We turn in projects that are half-way between art and science. We do math to learn the reasoning and the philosophy behind it. We stand silently holding our breath in a room with a telescope built four years before the Civil War hooked up to a computer built four years before I was born, taking pictures of the sky. The telescope upstairs is a modern marvel that can take a perfect picture at the stoke of a few keys but for some reason most of the time I’d rather spend 20 minutes fighting a long tube of steel filled with glass to take a blurry picture.

In the other rooms, with even more powerful and amazing telescopes that are hooked up to baffling cutting edges computers, I stare at planets and star and solar systems and comets and I wonder how many people had known the sky with no more than their eyes, never even pressing it to rock or paper or dirt. How many eyes roved over the skies and couldn’t imagine a world where we might make a map that could lead us to the future.

Because in this observatory, the sky isn’t just the sky. The sky is history. All of human history, laid out in lights constantly dimming and bursting anew. The light from these stars having been seen by humans throughout time. The light barring witness to all of time.

With this knowledge I’m no longer just small in the face of the universe, but small in the face of time, reducing down into nothing. All of human history, standing in a dark room, starring at the sky through a piece of glass made of the culmination of all humanity before me.

The universe as it had always been but never as it was meant to be seen.

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