Op-Ed

Our time is brief but beautiful; so say the stars

I went outside the other evening, well after sunset, and wandered through the greenbelt down to the Sound. Front door lights and street lamps cast pockets of light along the way; in only a few spots was it so dark I was unsure of my footing.

As I approached Chambers Bay, light was all about me: streetlights, car lights, light from homes across the water. Looking up, I cupped my hands near my eyes to block what light I could, to better see the stars. It had been a long time since I was out alone at night, quiet, looking at the sky. It takes effort now.

Growing up on a farm, all I had to do was step outside behind the house, just halfway down the hill, and all was quiet, dark. Country dark, then; just starlight, or, if there was a moon, moonlight. All I need to do is cast my mind back, and I am there, a child standing on a hill.

It’s autumn; the dog is with me. The sun has just set, and as I watch, the fields and colors of the day are hidden by the settling night. Shadows blur and blend to a seamless dark, until finally I cannot see my feet.

So quiet. I close my eyes. All I hear is the hollow rattle of empty corn husks, like thin, wooden chimes. The dog leans against me.

Slowly I open my eyes and look up. Stars, thousands of them, brilliantly bright, are poured across the country sky. I follow the sides of the Big Dipper to the North Star; I see Orion and his belt. Swirling paths of light, filled with stars, arc through the constellations. Earth; boundless sky; I am part of it, lost in it, the stars all but singing out to me. And I am near to bursting suddenly, chest full.

It is different now. And I am different now. Now I look up at the stars, fainter and fewer, and think about time and space. Stars live so long a time. The largest live for only millions of years, but others, like our sun, for billions of years; others up to a trillion years. Such a length of time is unfathomable to me. Nor can I envision billions of galaxies spinning in an observable universe 28 (or 93, depending how you look at it) billion light years across, and extending beyond that, ever-expanding, possibly infinite.

I yearn for a more human scale. I turn to the starlight. The light from most stars we can see with the naked eye are anywhere from four to perhaps a thousand light years away. So the light I see has been traveling anywhere from four to a thousand years. And only now has it reached my eyes.

Perhaps the light began its journey when Shakespeare was writing plays, or clocks were invented, or a magnetic compass was first used for sea travel. If I could somehow view Earth from the stars, I could see it happen, watch history unfold: ancient civilizations, the development of writing, sailing ships and steam engines, Magna Carta.

But I would choose other things: to see my parents when they were young, when they met, when they married. See them lift me from my bassinet. I would revisit times with people I’ve loved and lost or linger on moments when my children were small. And perhaps I might see myself, a child on a hill, dog at her side, thrilled by the night sky.

For now, earth-bound, I stand, lost in memories of people I have known and loved, dear people beyond my reach, beyond my touch. I see them moving among the stars, somewhere in space and time and light. Looking up, my heart full, the stars seeming so near, I feel them with me.

Barbara Mader of University Place is a specialty bookseller selling collectible children’s books. She’s one of six News Tribune reader columnists in 2019. Email her at bmader6@comcast.net

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