Believe it or not, it only takes a little imagination to turn your world upside down.
Sometimes I’ll lie down on the ground facing the sky and pretend that down is up and up is down. I imagine some magnetic force is holding me to the “ceiling,” and if it were to let go, I would drop into the infinity below. This is particularly thrilling at night when the black starry sky resembles an abyss, especially here on Shelter Island where the night sky is so clear.
A few years ago I met an amateur astronomer who explained to me why the night sky is so much clearer here than it is up-island. Sky glow, from artificial light (house porch lights, parking lot lights, stadium lights, etc.), obscures their night-time view of the heavens. Not so for us on Shelter Island, though. On a clear night you can look into the sky and see countless stars. It’s not quite as spectacular as the view of the sky from, say, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, but it’s clear enough to take the breath away from my up-island friends who come to visit.
The difference is due to what’s known as light pollution. If you’ve ever seen satellite photos of the United States at night you know what I’m talking about. Like a remedial connect-the-dots where the picture is apparent before you draw a single line, these photos dramatically illustrate the extent of the problem. The outline of the coasts, the Florida panhandle, and especially Long Island are as clear as if it was day. These photographs are as beautiful as they are disturbing. The clusters of light seen from the sky are ironically quite similar to the patterns of stars they obscure.
Now, for the record, I am not an astronomer. I appreciate the night sky only as a layperson. I can’t name the constellations, and I can’t identify any planets (though I can always find the Big Dipper!). Despite my ignorance of such things, I enjoy gazing up at the stars and being able to see so many of them.
But as much as I enjoy the stars, my favorite part of the night sky is the moon. I love being outside when there is a full moon. Especially when the ground is covered in snow. It is so bright it’s like daytime, only without the color. I’ll walk the golf course behind my house and pretend that I live in a black and white movie. Each Spring I regret not taking more opportunities to do this, and I wonder how many more chances I will have. It’s not every night that the sky is clear, the moon is full, and the ground is blanketed in snow.
It makes me wonder what else I’ve squandered, what else I’m taking for granted in my life. Perhaps it’s a person, a job, or perhaps it’s simply an opportunity that I’ve been putting off, only to find that the door closed when I wasn’t looking. One day I might wake up and someone I love will be gone. Without a goodbye, he or she will be gone. It’s rare that we know when any given moment will be the last time we see someone or talk to them. How many more hours do I have with my best friend, my mother, my sister? How will I spend my last hour with my father? Arguing?
How many more years, months, weeks, days will I live on Shelter Island? I think maybe these essays are a way for me to appreciate the opportunities I have here, while I’m here. And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? Appreciating life in the moment.
I am reminded of something Brandon Lee, the son of the famous martial artist, Bruce Lee, once said:
“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Brandon Lee died tragically on a movie set at the age of 28. Shortly before his death, he gave an interview in which he spoke those eerily prophetic words. They now mark his gravestone as a reminder to whoever reads them.
So I challenge you. Tonight, step outside and gaze up at the stars and the moon. Think of something in your life–a person, a possession, an opportunity–and imagine that tomorrow it was gone. What would you do differently if you had the chance?
Guess what? You have the chance. Right now.
©2005 Curtis G. Schmitt