I have developed a habit, I’m not sure when it started, of looking at the sky. When it’s sunny (or partly cloudy), I study the clouds. I know from taking a peek at the National Weather Service web site that there are 10 basic cloud types. I don’t know them all, but I know which ones I look for: the altocumulus, which spans across portions of the sky, their ripples reminding me of the lively tidal pools on Hilton Head Island I peered into as a child.
I recognize the cumulus, which sprout up like ballooning heads of cauliflower, changing and bulging brilliant white on the edge of the horizon. I also look for the cumulonimbus, the mighty, towering clouds that produce dazzling lightening, booming thunder, and rains down damaging hail and deadly tornadoes.
At night, the sky where I live is quite different. I live close enough in the city that on most nights, all but the brightest stars and planets are obscured, but I can pick out a few. I can usually spot Venus, the third-brightest object in the sky, and Jupiter, the “almost a star” planet, and if it’s close enough to earth, and I know where it is in the sky, I can pinpoint Mars by its tell-tale red glow. I learned to recognize Orion when I drove to and from work on my shift job; either driving home at 11 p.m., or to work at 10 p.m. Connected ethereally by Orion’s belt, I would sneak glimpses of the mighty Hunter through my windshield, or pause to stare at it when I arrived at my destination.
I’ve been acquainted with the Big and Little dippers since childhood, when my mother pointed them out. I’d look for other constellations, but the sky was often hazy and my eyesight, even with assistance, has never been that good.
Still, I remember the thrill I felt as a child, aiming my telescope toward Saturn, and seeing the clarity of the rings of that faraway world, standing out before me, through the glass instead of on the pages of a book. Seeing that helium giant, tiny but clear through the simple telescope, filled me with amazement.
I remember visiting New York City back in the 1980s. I was there to cover a medical conference, and I went out sightseeing with a newfound friend. I looked up, and up, and up. Straight up, between all of those skyscrapers, was a thin slice of sky. I loved my visit, but disliked how the heavens were obscured by all the buildings.
When I bought my first house 14 years ago, I would stand out in the driveway at night, look straight up (our house is surrounded by trees), and think, “that’s my piece of sky.”
If you’re not in the habit of looking up, there is much to be missed. That first magnolia bloom on the huge tree down the street. That sunrise or sunset, splashing the sky with fiery reds, deep oranges, and tinges of pink. A hawk, silently watching for a meal, on a power line near a busy street. One night driving home, I saw a thunderstorm to the east, and the nearly-full moon, and clear sky, to the north. It was glorious. One fall, out walking through my neighborhood, I watched a lone monarch butterfly meandering just above me, trying to find its way. I watched it until our paths diverged. At night, I ponder the planets, and those endless, brilliant stars.
The day may be long; the night may be trying. Burdens get heavy. Life gets hard. But there are still moments of wonder, if you look for them. Look up.