It was almost 11 p.m. My wife was asleep in a warm bed. The temperature outside was zero degrees F - cold even for late March in Michigan, but I had to do it. Such a spectacle happens only once in 10,000 years. "Now you see it - now you don't. Or won't." There hadn't been one since the ice age. There wouldn't be another until some unknown, unnamed age.
But what made this one even more noteworthy was the fact that it had been discovered by an amateur. In an age of experts, something had slipped by them. That alone was worth celebrating. But something more was prompting me to stand outside in the white-cold air in the shadow of our 100-year-old barn, a spot where I could best avoid the moon's reflection on the snow and look upward to the constant of Polaris.
How appropriate that our farm is located in the Township of Hope, I thought - grateful for that reminder of the importance of expectations, for a positive assertion of the certainty of good. I felt sure that this night was shared elsewhere by others like me - rank amateurs, ordinary people, harboring seldom-spoken aspirations.
Maybe a billion pairs of eyes around the globe were looking up. True psalmists at heart, these viewers were giving silent voice to hymns of wonder and awe that begin with that marvelous phrase "the heavens declare the glory of God." These onlookers would become a vast, silent chorus, singing a star-spangled anthem that rises "without speech or language or the sound of any voice" throughout the universe.
I had seen the charts and diagrams in the newspaper showing approximately where to look - west of the North Star - and it was one of those crystal-clear nights that invite every sun and son to shine out of darkness, in response to the age-abiding call, "Praise him, all ye stars of light." The scene brought to mind one especially memorable, vivid, star-studded summer night.
My partner and I were canoeing back to an island camp on a Canadian lake. With night sky reflecting on black glass, we sat in cane seats as humble guests to an eternal dance performed by the very hosts of heaven.
Befitting the majesty and privilege of the occasion, we howled up a timber wolf, trading as best we could with him our delight at making his acquaintance. Perhaps in retrospect it was a peculiar activity, but it then seemed an appropriate response to the profound wonder of that splendid starry night.
But this night, the frigid air sharpened the stars until they appeared as ice crystals that would be burning cold to touch. I had a pair of binoculars, and it was hard to work the focus with gloves on as I stood in the snow, peering out from the old barn's shadow.
And there it was - the comet Hyakutake. Ice on fire, according to the reports. A white-hot, molten missile in the mind. It came as a long-hidden, luminous idea burning into present consciousness from that vast, infinite reservoir of thought that exists before and beyond time.
To my untrained eye and child-heart, it looked like a delightful, warm, fuzzy golden ball. The head of a triangle of stardust, if there is such a thing outside of Walt Disney movies and pop songs. I didn't even need the binoculars. In fact, I could see the tail better without them.
It was only four days before my birthday. There could be no more special or wonderful a gift. A celestial visitant. A boomerang from out of time thrown in space crosswise to the universe. Like a voyager making its rounds undisturbed, the comet was not to be bothered, blithely unaware of the routine habits of the rest of our solar system. It had a mission and purpose; it had been serenely called to respond to other voices, to follow other patterns, to move in other orbits, recognizing a different or expanded sense of time, a hint and harbinger of a higher gravity.
Hyakutake was a golden girl, seen only for a fleeting moment, whose name is never known. An acquaintance never made except in the imagination, but whose smile, appeal, and radiance grow full-orbed into a dazzling light, to become indelibly imprinted in thought. Here was a great, renewable resource of hope entirely independent of ourselves and our sincerest efforts. Here was a reminder of the perpetual freedom of beauty and the perpetual beauty of freedom.
I thought of the forgotten child, the happy wanderer within me before my thoughts became earth-bound. I saw a blazing, brief reminder that there were, and yet remain, other paths for me - and all. There are countless opportunities awaiting: careers to be continued, dreams to be dreamed, ideas to be explored, lessons to learn, friends to be nurtured, strangers to be turned into friends, values to be lived, kindness to be cultivated, loves to be deepened, and untold adventures of heart and spirit to be embarked upon.
For one shivering, silver moment I had steered a course among the stars, shining, unburdened by the world, and rode God's golden comet as it trailed glory in the heavens of my life.