Drawn together by night and the light

There were almost as many cars parked at the edge of the field at 5 a.m. as there had been the previous afternoon, when the last of the season's soccer games were played under an unseasonably warm November sun.

Now the temperature hovered just above freezing, and the raucous, brightly colored teams had given way to masses of subdued sky watchers who stood in the dark clad in quilted bathrobes and woolen slippers, in sweat pants, down jackets, and ski caps. Some were standing, necks craned back, others were lying on blankets or beach chairs. All were quietly awaiting the next blazing meteor, the next thrill of celestial light. All were grateful to take their eyes off their earthly concerns for a moment and cast them heavenward in awe.

I had left the house in darkness, lured by the promise of this rare spectacle, wondering if I would be the only one rash enough to abandon a warm bed on so cold a night. But as I approached the nearby ball field, porch lights came on, front doors opened, and half-a-dozen neighbors joined me in pursuit of amazement.

In deference to those still asleep, we whispered our greetings, feeling both faintly foolish and vaguely intrepid. If this proved to be the once-in-a-lifetime event astronomers predicted, the stinging cold and our lost sleep would be quickly forgotten, overwhelmed by the sight of so many shooting stars. If not, we'd all smile over the memory of our shared naiveté one frosty night in mid-November.

While we never constituted a crowd, 40 or 50 neighbors silently scattered around a dark field two hours before dawn is still cause for surprise. So is the first glimpse of constellations on so cold and clear a night. I left the last street lamp behind and stepped onto the dark field as a pocket of nearby stargazers uttered a muffled "oooh."

I looked up but was too late. The flashing light had passed, but there, directly overhead in all its twinkling glory blazed Orion, the hunter, harbinger of winter.

Almost immediately, a white streak of light appeared at the corner of my eye, and just as quickly vanished.

"There's one! Look!" someone whispered. But in the time it took to mark the meteor, it was gone.

"There's another!" a child cried, pointing. All eyes turned, again too late. Seconds passed, and a new streak set a dozen mouths murmuring a simultaneous "aaah!"

I walked deeper into the darkness, wandering among these spectral observers, hearing familiar voices. Some lay hunkered down in sleeping bags, others stood wrapped in blankets like Rodin's brooding Balzac, their breath crystallizing in the frozen air. Yet even in silence, a sense of communal celebration hung about the field, a sort of Fourth of July in silhouette and pantomime.

For the next hour, people continued to arrive, some in cars, some on foot, some alone, some with children who either dashed heedlessly onto the grass or clung to their parents as if doubting the solidity of the night field.

One by one they lifted their eyes to the sky, saw their first streak of light, and were astonished. I had last seen a shooting star some 40 years ago from a sleeping bag on a hilltop in New Hampshire, a single, unforgettable blaze of faintly phosphorescent light. But this night, a block from home, I witnessed hundreds.

To observe the constellations on any night is to be drawn up into the infinite and overwhelmed by our inability to grasp its vastness. While daylight is all about humankind, the sun rising and setting about us, warming us, serving us, the night sky relegates us to the fringes of a twinkling void. One cannot stare up at the stars without feeling diminished, our lightless planet providing no warmth, no celestial fire, a paltry thing, tiny, unseen beyond the narrow orbit of our solar system.

Yet, when the stars dance as they did this night, when the tranquil heavens grow animated and fixity is pierced by improvisation, we seem briefly elevated, delegated as spectators. The immutable seems to yield to the ephemeral, and humankind fulfills its unique destiny - to observe, to mark, and to wonder.

For two hours, the meteors continued to fall, now in Orion, now in Cassiopeia, in Leo, in Cetus, enlivening every quadrant of the heavens.

Whichever way I turned, they appeared teasingly at the periphery of my vision, spinning me endlessly about my own axis in a frustrating effort to witness it all. Only rarely did streaks of light appear immediately before my eyes, and just twice in pairs, the parallel lines fading into transient bursts of red and green.

Every time I glanced down at my shadowy companions, someone exclaimed anew and my eyes darted heavenward. The sky's riches seemed boundless, as if some celestial sower were broadcasting fiery seeds upon the fertile sky.

Dawn approached. The sharp cold began to cut at my toes, my fingers, my ears. One by one, the stargazers began to drift away, shaking out blankets and slinging beach chairs over their shoulders as they might at the end of a long, hot day at the shore. Orion dropped toward the western horizon. In the east, a pale white light began to leak across the indigo sky. Night was fading; the show would soon end.

Over the years, we have gathered on that field countless times: to watch our children play and to cheer their competitions, to picnic with their teachers, and to celebrate our independence. Most recently, we assembled solemnly to mourn the victims of Sept.11. That gathering began at twilight with prayers and song. For many, it ended in the slowly enveloping darkness of a new uncertainty, a darkness kept at bay with flickering candles and the comfort of community.

On this night we came together not to sing or speak or even to pray, but simply to bear witness to a moment of perfect clarity, when fear and sorrow yielded to awe, and the universe seemed both miraculous and benign.

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