There is a story my children like to tell, when they are especially annoyed with me, or when there is a new audience, or when they want to remind me of the frailties and foibles of being human and it goes like this:
We were going out to dinner one night, a sit-down dinner in a place we have been to many times over the years, a restaurant in an old stone house that has been there for as long as I can remember and then some, and when we pulled into the parking lot at just the right time of evening and pulled into the parking space which faced directly to the west we were met with a brilliant and striking sunset, with shades of scarlet and golds and vermilion streaking the sky with a glowing, radiating light, and as we turned around to go into the restaurant we were faced with the sight of a perfectly round, full moon hanging weightlessly in the sky, glowing against those bright light-filled streaks of sun, beginning to embrace the blues and purples hovering as night began to fall.
And my children, as children often are, were oblivious to the majestic nature of the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time, a perfect balance of light and dark, of regal reds and majestic silvers, and they ambled their way into the restaurant unimpressed. But I stood there, outside, waiting for that moment, the one right before the light begins to fade where everything seems especially clear and bright and vibrant and as the sunset peaked and the moon began to move higher above the horizon, I turned and called in to them as they waited for our table to come look at the sky. And although I meant the call for my children, the young server standing at the door came out and stood gazing upwards with me for the last final moments of an unforgettable sunset—an occurrence which my children find at once hilarious and embarrassing, but has come to be a bit of a family story, and one that I quite like when they retell. And now it has become an inside joke, because they know that I am slightly obsessed with the changing colors and shades and densities of our atmosphere, so they will text me, whenever there is something interesting above us, just four simple words, “Look at the sky.”
I am frequently at a loss to describe the sky—there is the wide blue hazy press of the heat-washed sky during summer vacations, and the pale faded wash of color that stretches from horizon to horizon after a snow, and the dark of the night that shades from blue to purple to black to all hues of dark.
A friend from high school posted a picture the other day on social media—a wide, sweeping landscape out her front door featuring a roiling mass of clouds that looked ominously black at the bottom, but seemed to sweep up towards the very farthest reaches of the picture and then fold back in on themselves, like water, like waves, like the wing of a bird spread wide and then pulled back in to protect the nest, feathers outstretched, tense with the moment and the movement. And I know this sky. The heavy damp press of it, the greenish edges of storm-chased clouds.
I think some of my fascination with what resides above us comes from the stories and myths and interesting tidbits of information that you can find crafted around and above the world—stories I read for the first time when I was young, and then read to my children. Stories I taught them about the constellations and the seasons and the movement of the planets and the way people were always trying to explain what they could see.
I am a teacher by profession and by avocation. I teach students in my classroom how to string together long sentences that do not end in jumbled messes meandering down the page. I teach them to pause for breath (metaphorically), to consider the other side, to listen. I teach them to seek out knowledge, and facts, and truths, and when those are in short supply to trust in their hearts, to feel within themselves the kind of uncertainty that shows them they are on the right track, that they are really looking for the questions, instead of the answers they think they already know.
I try to teach them that there are so many ways that the world can be seen, and so many people to see it—different kinds of knowledge, and different kinds of wisdom. Maya Angelou once said, “You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot—it’s all there. Everything influences each of us.” This is the knowledge I hope my children learn and my students take away from my classes—that to know what is true we have to acknowledge not only the facts and realities but the stories and beliefs. That the stars are made of dust and minerals and legends and dreams, and that each of those things can hold a place in our minds and hearts.
I have been fascinated by the tangled weave of the clouds and the scatter of light and the many wonders that is the sky sometimes for hours on end, alone or with company (my husband and children most frequently and on one memorable night in Nebraska a long time ago, my younger sister). I have stargazed while driving down long dusty roads lined by cornfields on each side so thick the only direction to look is up, while standing in forests and on mountains, and while wandering in my own overgrown backyard, and what strikes me is this—I am awed by the profoundly unknowable nature of the world in which we find ourselves, sprawled out under the immenseness of stars and moons and planets that we are still discovering, still naming, still trying to quantify. And at the same time, my parents and their parents and their parents before them stood under these very same skies, wondering at these same things, even if they did not yet have names for them. And in some cosmic way this underscores what I have always felt—we are a part of one another in infinite ways—an unbroken chain of particles and atoms and observations and knowledge that are passed from one to another to another. This knowledge has become increasingly important to me as I have gotten older—as my children have grown and moved from elementary school when every one of their questions could be easily answered, into junior high, and then high school, and now college. And suddenly the questions they have are no longer the easy questions of childhood, but the complex, nuanced discussions of young adults who are looking for more than answers, they are looking for truths, and knowledge, and maybe even wisdom.
And I turn more frequently to the wisdom passed on through my ancestors—the stories and fables and true events. The tales of men and women whose lives have resonated, have made mine possible, the lines of a family tree intersecting again and again in a puzzle that tells me who I am and what I am made of. These stories, their stories are lifelines, warnings, celebrations, and moments of grace that keep me grounded—that help me to answer difficult questions, that are wild and holy and necessary and crucial and hilarious and heartbreaking and filled with astonishment, the types of nourishment we need deep in our souls. Learning these stories stirs and satisfies my curiosity, interests me in other people and other ways of seeing, and helps develop tolerance and generosity. And the knowing leads me to other ideas and other questions and the dream of other skies above our heads.
And still, I ask myself, neck craned back as I gaze into a dark night sky, what is wisdom, really? It is a question with no easy answer. Only this: we seek after it. We look for it in the dim gray corners of our world—we pull it out, dust it off, and shine it up. We embrace it, and make it a part of our lives, a part of our speech, our actions, and our habits. It enriches us and our families. It makes us better: stronger, more capable, full of a kind of empathy that is sorely needed to mend the bits and pieces of our hearts as we reach out and grasp each other by the hand and walk out into the night, together, under the light of a thousand wheeling stars, and I hear again in my mind the words: Look at the Sky.