Sunday, October 7, 2012

Under the stars

I never really understood the Earth's rotations until I slept a night under the stars.

I never slept outside until I was 18. My family didn't go camping; I never went to summer camp; and there was that one weekend in high school that I climbed Mt. Marcy (a teeny, tiny mountain, but it's the highest peak in New York) with two friends but we had a tent.  That's all I had.

And then one night I slept alone in a desert canyon. I lived in Israel that year and my group was somewhere in the southeast. It was a self-confidence exercise. We had a guide, of course, but he stationed each person just around a bend and beyond hearing from the previous member. I knew I was safe but looking at the stars I was entirely alone. The guide had taken our watches, and this was before cell phones. I looked up through my crevice of canyon at my sliver of sky and I measured time by the curving movement of the stars.

In the morning, more than half the group had abandoned their spots and made their way back to the guide's central station, the one with wristwatches and a bonfire. While I slept, a portion of my friends had crept past me trying to find the comfort of the wilderness expert in a lonely night. Although that night was long and filled with strange sounds, it had never occurred to me to quit. I was as surprised at my friends who had given up as they were surprised at me that I stuck it out until morning. But I'll forever remember the star tracks cruising across my jagged portion of sky.

Friday night was our annual sleep-in-the-sukkah night. (Need a primer on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot? Here you go.) By next year, I hope all five of us will be in there but this year it was the girls and me. Between the novelty, the cool temperature, and the unfamiliarly loud sounds of nature, the girls had trouble falling asleep.

Above the cicadas, frogs and a distant owl, I showed them how to look through the slats of the sukkah's top for the movement of the stars and the moon. Above the rolling rumble of a skateboarder along the street and the siren of an ambulance on our town's main street a mile east, I sang to them. From the comfort of our three air mattresses and my 20-degree-rated sleeping bags and their novelty sleeping bags and piles of fleece blankets,  two Pillow Pets and a half dozen plush friends, from the back deck in the suburbs, still, we made the outdoors a little bit wild and a little familiar. We brought nature closer and we quieted to a breeze on our noses and we fell asleep.

We woke early to the many bird families that sing in our yard: orioles and cardinals, bluebirds, mourning doves and a couple very persistent crows. They'll be gone soon, like our sukkah and the immediacy of this memory. We woke to the palest light of day and the afterglow of night and the last thing we saw before we went inside was the pale moon, ready to retire. And it was all the way on the other side of our sky.
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