Dusted off this one from a few years back, for the upcoming essay collection. Enjoy
You might find yourself standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, waiting but anxious and bored, having forgotten how to daydream. Your attention might drift to the tabloids lined up strategically in front of you, reading headlines that claim “THE STARS ARE JUST LIKE US” or “THE PRESIDENT WAS ABDUCTED BY ALIENS FROM ARCURUS.” In the former story, they are referring to Brad, Reese, Scarlett and other celebrities shopping, getting a coffee, and taking their kids to school. This supposedly proves that the stars are just like us, but I’m still dubious. For example, if I were a star, I’d hire someone to do my grocery shopping. That would be a perk.
On the other hand, I think it’s altogether likely that stars do go out on their own sometimes, attending things like gender reveal parties, birthday parties, and star parties, where stars gather to commiserate on being stars. This tale is about a star party, albeit a different kind, one sponsored by Nashville’s Adventure Science Center, a place my son Jude and I frequented when he was little, a place that encouraged us to look beyond our world, follow the signs, and shoot for heaven.
Apparently, to hold a star party, you have to get away from light pollution, so this particular evening, the festivities were to be held at Long Hunter State Park, a sprawling city park located a good twenty miles out of town, in Hermitage, not far from where Andrew Jackson made his home. It’s all interstate around the Music City and twenty miles can feel like long way to a city boy like me. In my hometown Chicagoland, the suburbs rub up against each other shoulder to shoulder in a way that makes twenty miles feel more compressed, if also more difficult to transverse due to traffic. So, on this cloudless Saturday night, it felt like we were driving through ancient prairies, following our ribbon of concrete past shopping malls and tiger marts, before exiting into miles of winding roads, far from anything one might call civilization.
Because of this, negative thoughts crept into my head, thoughts I held and recognized but then cast away. Namely, “Who the heck is going to come out all the way out there?” and “Will anyone show up?” They were strangely familiar thoughts, reminiscent of when I used to play gigs in remote places across the globe, small towns and villages with names like Somonauk, Alteberger, and Nairn. Sometimes the answer to the last question was yes, other times no. Habit can be difficult to escape.
Finally, our winding road deposited us at an unlit wooden park sign, nearly obstructed by trees, pointing the way down a gravel road. A curious fellow, I’d google Long Hunter State Park later – overall it’s 2600 acres, with 20 miles of hiking trails, dedicated in 1974. It also includes Sellars Farm one of the few Native American mounds in Tennessee that is protected under government ownership, safely ensconced from its neighbor Mr. Jackson for all time, in what could only be considered a victory for the First Peoples.
I spun the wheel and took a left just past the main entrance, parking our car in a deserted unlit gravel parking lot. As the dad of an eight year old, I had lots of things to extract from the car, and then, carry. Star charts, binoculars, bug spray, flashlight, snacks, water. Jude was excited, at the perfect age when everything was magic and wonder; he held my hand and skipped as we cut through the dusk, just us and our stuff. We followed the arrows out of the lot and soon came across a little popcorn stand at the end of a path, with three orange balloons tied to its base, the breeze gently bumping them together to beckon all prospective star chasers. Two middle aged women stood next to the stand, talking, smiling, dressed a bit formally, as if heading to a high school reunion, one in blue, one in red. I could smell their perfume, a heady mix of femininity, as we got close.
There was a card table in front of the popcorn stand, with some star oriented materials laid out for guests. The ladies stopped talking to take us in and I recognized one of them as “Janet Planet” from PBS. For those of you from outside the area, imagine a spunky well-dressed modern mom surrounded by cartoon graphics, presenting STEM knowledge worthy of Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye the Science Guy.
“Are you a graduate of Belmont University”, Janet’s friend, the lady in red asked me.
“Well, yeah, I got my Master’s there,” I answered. Magic words, for she loaded me down with my Belmont pen, pad, recyclable grocery bag, cookie, and for Jude, Janet Planet temporary tattoos. I guessed Belmont were co-sponsors and of course Janet was always supporting the science center. They are just like us, I thought.
Janet quickly engaged Jude, telling him a story about meeting Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and how exciting it was to see his feet, because he walked on the moon. The woman in red stepped in to take our picture. I moved out of the way, to let Janet and Jude be the stars, so to speak. Afterwards, they insisted I join them for one more. They were supposed to send me a copy by e-mail. But, I never got it. Someday I’d like to see this picture of me, Jude, and Janet Planet.
After thanking them, we walked a little further, past some mature trees into a spacious clearing, where several trucks and cars were parked on the lawn, and around them, telescopes of every size and shape, although most looked to be high end, large, professional models. Yes, people had shown up, the performers and the audience. Chairs were set up alongside some of the telescopes and the large cylindrical optical tubes pointed upward with purpose, belying professional knowledge from owners as serious about their stargazing as any Lionel toy train buff is about his track. As dusk fell heavier over the clearing, the Tennessee woods became alive with people gathering and forming lines at the largest of the telescopes, where they would ooh, ah, and chat. We were like little animals in a Disney movie come to the clearing to see what the heavens would bring.
It was a clear night and the moon was very bright and you could spot craters and “seas” with the naked eye. But, the first telescopes we looked through were pointed at the moon. Jude had to tippy toe to reach some of them, and I often had to squat down. Squinting through one eye, I saw the moon in a way that made me think I could make out Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps. But it gets better. Many of the telescope owners were from the area Science Center and the Astronomy club and they were all too happy to act as celestial tour guides. Because of their help, we didn’t need our binoculars to spot Venus in the sky, shining brightly in the west, low on the horizon. Following the line of vision to the right, we saw Mars, reddish but not as bright, and from there, Saturn. Then, one fellow trained his telescope on Saturn and Jude and I each took a look and saw the gas giant glowing, its rings appearing like a sliver cutting a dime.
Then, Jude and I shone our flashlight through his red shirt (as instructed) to consult our star chart so we could look up and pick out the Big Dipper on our own, straight above us. We followed the point to Arcturus. Another astronomer showed us the star Spica, hovering just over the moon. We had to crawl on the ground to get under a telescope trained on M-13 or the Hercules cluster, stars that are billions of light years away. Some of those stars don’t exist anymore, and so we were essentially, looking back in time, an amazing feeling. I thought of those who had come and gone in that time, walking the earth, growing up, falling in love, having children, and then making room for the next generation – just like us.
Up there on the hill, in the clear limitless sky, Jude and I could see so much to stir our imagination. The stars were both within reach and beyond our grasp, ever changing, wildly beautiful and yet, perfectly orchestrated. Just like people, really. We were only there a little over an hour and we saw several faces of the sky, countless really, as we unpacked what we saw in our conversation.
Just before we left, Jude spotted two purple stars in the sky straight above us. He pointed them out to me.
“Daddy, look at those two stars. They’re close together, like you and me. A big one and a little one.”
I wanted to cry.
I’d been reading the Tao Te Ching at that time, and #29 begins something like this. “Do you think you can take the universe and improve it? I do not believe it can be done. The universe is sacred. You cannot improve it. If you try to change it, you will ruin it, you will lose it.”
So we didn’t. We just took our time gazing, being, and heading home. I pushed Jude’s bedtime ride a bit, because it was summer, the stars were out, and nothing else mattered. If I tried to change it, I’d lose it.
The Tao also says, “Sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind.” It’s
true. Sometimes I teach Jude things, other times I learn from him. Without him, I wouldn’t have been out stargazing on that beautiful Saturday night. Next time you’re out taking a walk, stop, look up at the stars. Maybe you’ll find one for you and one for each member of your family. Maybe you’ll see they are just like us – and we are just like you.