Like a blackboard on the first day of school, the night sky is flat and clean and dark. So very dark. The stars are strung from one horizon to the other in irregular clusters that, even to my own untrained eyes, look like pictures. Not archers and scales, but front-end loaders and salad tongs. Not lions and fish, but rakes and Christmas cacti.
About halfway up the sky to the west, the moon, a die-cut sliver of silver, hovers unusually close to two pulsing points of light that I have been told are Venus and Mars. The three of them light up that little section of sky like a neon sign. “Come hither,” they beckon. “Join us. And if you can’t join us, sit back and be amazed.” And I am.
Back and forth from one edge of sky to the other, I turn my head and my eyes. I don’t know that I have ever seen so many stars so clearly. The thought crosses my mind that this night, this sky, this lavish display of celestial bodies is quite possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Which is why I am completely taken off guard by the next thought, series of thoughts, actually, that come tumbling, stumbling, crashing, careening into my mind from somewhere. The thought that this same breathtakingly beautiful sky is the same sky dangling over the 70-mile swath of towns and cities and fields and houses and highways less than 200 miles away that were left in ruins by a tornado bearing winds of somewhere between 136 and 165 miles per hour. The thought that this dazzling, bewitching, radiant sky is probably going completely unnoticed by the children who are sleeping on cots in a church fellowship hall and the mother whose two-year-old is still missing. The thought that the people who are wielding chain saws and axes and shovels during every daylight hour and falling asleep exhausted couldn’t tell you and don’t really care that Venus and Mars are so clearly visible.
And one more thought. A selfish thought. The thought that within that 70-mile swath there is a particular spot, a specific address, a place where I have been and belonged, a place that did not escape the destruction. And that thought dulls the brightness of the stars a little.
The people connected to that spot are long gone, relocated to other addresses, all happy and safe, but that does not pre-empt my sadness over knowing that the roof and walls that sheltered me have fallen. It does not prevent the editing of my memories. The feel of bare feet on tile floors is now accompanied by the imagined sight of those tiles broken and sticky with pine tar. The sight of a front door flung open in welcome is now paired with a ceiling caved in submission. The sound of laughter and music is joined by the plaintive silence of a house left without people.
I realize in that moment that what I am feeling is loss – certainly – and grief – yes – , but it is something more. It is empathy. And connection.
As I turn to go back inside, inside a house that is dry and secure and safe and mine, I feel a little guilty. A little shameful that I am so carefree as to be able to stand in my front yard and swoon over the night sky when so many people – the vast majority of the human beings on this planet – cannot. Because of poverty or displacement or illness or a hundred other burdens, millions of my brothers and sisters the world over do not have that luxury. And as long as they don’t, I can never be complacent in the fact that I do.