From planets, people and all that glitters in this clockwork universe
by Jim Dodson
Shortly before sunset on the winter solstice, my wife and an old friend and I walked up a grassy hilltop west of town hoping to view a rare celestial event called the Great Conjunction, which last took place not long after the invention of the telescope in the 17th century.
I was sure I’d found the perfect hilltop for viewing what some think is the astronomical origin of the Star of Bethlehem — a summit far away from madding crowds and city lights.
Silly me. A crowd of upwards of 30 turned out to bear witness as a pair of giant gassy planets — Saturn and Jupiter, the solar system’s twin heavyweights — verged so close they appeared to shine as one blazing star in the Southwest sky just after sunset, intensifying their light as the darkness deepened.
Before this evening, their closest alignment was July 16, 1623. Before that, the last viewing was March 6, 1226, the year Saint Francis of Assisi died.
The 2020 light show was a pretty brief one, lasting just over an hour before the planets slipped below the horizon.
But the unexpected pleasure for this starwatcher was witnessing the lovely effect this phenomenon of rare light had upon the assembly of earthlings on the hill.
As they patiently waited, couples young and old stood arm-in-arm like star-crossed lovers, silently silhouetted by the afterglow of the sunset.
Old timers sat on lawn chairs with binoculars.
A family with six kids spread out a large quilt on the hill and shared a thermos of hot chocolate, chattering like excited starlings in the grass. One wee girl wrapped in a plaid Scottish blanket kept asking her mother where, exactly, the baby Jesus was sleeping.
Dogs and their owners mingled joyfully in the dusk, while neighbors greeted neighbors they hadn’t seen in a small eternity.
An amateur astronomer set up a large electronic telescope and drew a crowd of kids and parents eager to get a rare glimpse of the rings of Saturn and the four moons of Jupiter.
We humans, it hit me, are like the planets that shine above us. The closer we come to each other, the more light we project, the brighter our shared humanity grows, enriching our collective orbit through a clockwork universe.
This was no small solstice revelation during a year of viral darkness and enforced isolation that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
In the crowd, an older lady swaddled in a red Wolf Pack sweatshirt and a ball cap that simply urged Love Thy Neighbor Y’all, wondered out loud if the shining object might not be an omen of good news to come for 2021. Murmurs of agreement erupted.
Light and hope, of course, go hand in hand, and have since the very beginning, whenever that was — Big Bang or Garden of Eden.
A thousand years before the Bible said as much, the Upanishads advised that consciousness is the light of the divine.
The third verse of Genesis 1 agreed: “God said Let there be light and there was light. And God saw the light and it was good.”
The Gospel of John called Jesus the light of the world. Matthew urged his followers to let their light shine before others and pointed out the folly of keeping our light beneath a basket.
Scriptures of every faith tradition, in fact, bear lavish witness to the power of celestial light. Buddha advised human beings to become a light unto themselves, while Chapter 13 of the Bhagavad Gita notes that the Supreme Lord Krishna is the “light of all lights, the illuminator of even the sun and stars . . . By his light all creation is full of light.”
In his captain’s log, Christopher Columbus wrote that he followed the light of the sun to leave the Old World behind — and thereby found a new one.
In our darkest moments, Aristotle advised, we must focus to see the light — both outward and inward.
With the dawning of the Age of Reason, science celebrated the power of light to illuminate vast unimagined worlds, to heal disease and grow the future. Light turned out to be the engine of photosynthesis and all life biological, confirming what gardeners and country folk have understood for millennia as they planted by the cycles of the seasons or danced by the light of the moon.
A good idea is symbolized by a blazing light bulb — which only took Thomas Edison a thousand or so failed efforts to invent.
To “lighten up” means to let things go.
Whereas to “see the light” implies a sudden change in perception or awakened consciousness, to “enlighten” is to furnish knowledge and slowly deepen one’s spiritual insight, to see the truth of the matter and make one a fraction wiser.
The rising sun may be a living metaphor for a new beginning, but however we find the light, it’s also bound to find us.
There’s a crack in everything, reminds the late Leonard Cohen. That’s how the light gets in.
Artists spend their lives chasing light for the simple reason that in light there is revelation, an unveiling and inspiration.
Falling sunlight makes stained glass windows come alive, Hudson River landscapes unforgettable, fields of sunflowers explode, butterflies dance, afternoons utterly peaceful.
It is the distinctive light of a Rembrandt — The Night Watch or The Return of the Prodigal Son come to mind — which makes the figures appear so fragile and real, humans cloaked by the mystery of darkness, the hidden unknown.
In the meantime, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness — or so advised everyone from Confucius to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Every morning of my life, almost without exception, I light a lone candle on my desk in the darkest hour of morning, a small act of respect for the darkness. This little ritual of desktop fire-making may be far more symbolic than I fathomed, an ancestral memory of awakening to the possibilities of daily rebirth, a fresh start, a friendly summons to any thoughtful angels or muses who happen to be passing through the neighborhood.
After a year that no one will ever forget, news of COVID vaccines coming our way have been hailed as “light at the end of the tunnel.”
We can only hope — and pray — this is true.
For as those souls who gathered like ancient shepherds on a starry solstice hilltop intuited, we all need more light in the darkness and delight in our lives.
Wherever it comes from.
Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry magazine.