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Looking Up

by Julia Sneden

The morning after the long, sad day when the Columbia fell to earth in pieces, I made my daily trek to retrieve my newspaper from the driveway. The weather in my part of North Carolina had been snowy and/or rainy and/or cloudy for two weeks, but when I looked up before dawn that morning, I saw a clear sky and a myriad of brilliant lights: the planet Venus to the east, the Big Dipper almost overhead, and what looked like the great orange star, Betelgeuse, low on the south western horizon.

I'm no astronomer, but I do love the heavens. Standing perfectly still and thinking about the seven lost astronauts who had so recently been Up There, looking back at our beautiful earth, I somehow found a kind of peace despite my sadness. I found myself thinking of all the humans who have died in the process of pushing forward man's frontiers, answering the innate call to satisfy the curiosity that seems so much a part of our species, that urge to see what lies beyond the next hill. Our history is full of purposeful wanderers and explorers, like the people who trudged across the land bridge that once existed between Asia and North America, or Marco Polo who traveled east, or navigators and sailors who foundered in the wild seas en route to the New World, or the pioneers who struggled west across mountains and deserts. Our first aviators and astronauts are the most recent in the long list of adventurous, brave humans. It is inevitable that some will be lost, just as it is inevitable that some will succeed and expand the limits of our knowledge of the universe.

In 1986, when the Challenger space shuttle exploded, I was still teaching school. The morning after the tragedy, one of my students put up her hand and said fearfully: "I'm glad you weren't the teacher in the Challenger." I had to admit that I was glad, too, but at the same time, I said: "I'd gladly climb into a space suit tomorrow, if they'd let me go up." It seemed to me to be important to assert the necessity of continuing our voyages of discovery - and besides, it was a true statement. I would have loved to take the next flight. When John Glenn went up for the second time, no one was more envious than I. Imagine being over 70 and still allowed to venture into space! NASA, if you're listening, I'm here.

Hanging in my classroom was a poster of Earth as seen from the moon. There in the blackness of space hangs the fragile-looking blue and white bubble that is our home. Its land masses are only a faint brush of tan beneath the white of the clouds. I wish that the poster could be hung in every government building in every country of the world; in all classrooms; and in all churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. It is a thing of breathtaking beauty in and of itself, but what is most striking to me is that there are no lines drawn upon it, no national borders. It is one perfect whole that is part of the larger universe.

I am often amazed by people who aren't interested in the sky. They seem unaware of sunrises and sunsets, of the variety of clouds, of the brilliance of noon, or the subtleties of twilight. Perhaps they are so focused on their own busy lives that they can't take the time to look up.

It seems to me that we were always looking up, when I was a child. I can remember lying on my back in a field near my house, looking up at the stars as my parents or brother identified constellations and planets and the Milky Way. We watched the sky as storms rolled in from the Pacific. We watched sunrises and sunsets. We watched the coastal fog as it swept in and turned our whole little world into a grey opacity .

When I first started teaching small children, I kept a weather-watch calendar in my classroom. Each morning, I'd ask a child to look out the window and report on what he saw: sunshine? rain? clouds? snow? We'd affix a weather symbol to the day square on the calendar, so that at month's end we could count up how many of each kind we had, and graph the results.

I was amazed by the children who would reply "sunny" when the day was really cloudy. Apparently the fact that it was light outside meant "sunny" to them. That misapprehension led to a great discussion about all sorts of sky-related subjects like shadows and clouds and why you should never look directly at the sun. One of my students came back many years later to thank me for introducing him to what he called "atmospheric studies." I was a little puzzled by that, until he said: "I remember that you were always crying: "Look UP!"

Perhaps it runs in my family. My grandmother, bedridden at 97, demanded that we place her bed next to the window, so that she could look out and enjoy seeing the sky. The clouds provided her with endless flights of fancy, as she saw shapes and forms in them, and even imagined races or conversations between them. And my mother, now 96 and nearly blind, always remarks on the sky when I take her for a drive. It is one of the few things she can still see, and she "reads" it with great skill.

Those of us who love the sky love it in almost every aspect: stormy and dark, or cloudless and bright blue, or grey and featureless, or even hot and shimmering. Perhaps it's that very changeability that we love. The only time I look at the sky and feel distress is when there is a scum of brown smog lying along the horizon. Then, I feel guilt and fear over what is happening to the air we breathe. I wonder if our descendants will find a way to clean up the mess our industrial society will leave behind.

But most often, I find both calm and peace when I look up, and a kind of hope, too, because if you look long enough at the stars, you begin to understand that there's more out there than we will ever know. And not knowing is what inspires human beings to keep on reaching for the stars.

 

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