I remember a night when I was 12. I was on a canoe trip. It was August. There were eight of us on the trip. I can’t even name the other kids on the trip. There are only three things I really remember from the trip. One is that there were seven carries, or portages, times when we had to lug the canoes and all of our gear over a stretch of land to get to another body of water. We did not enjoy the seven carries.
The second memory is that we found a small black high top sneaker floating in the water one day as we were canoeing. I was in the stern, and the kid in the bow scooped up the shoe. We looked at it with some curiosity, but I don’t think we imagined anything sad or ominous, like I I might if I found one stray shoe today. The kid in the bow used the shoelace to tie the sneaker to the front of our canoe. We promptly christened our vessel, Black Bootie (a take-off on the famous book. Trust me, we didn’t know any other meaning of bootie. It was 1973). We thought we were very clever.
But the third thing I remember was the last night of the trip. We had very little paddling to do the next day, so our counselors let us stay up late, hanging out on the flat rocks in front of our campsite at the edge of the lake. Maybe the counselor knew what was coming. I certainly didn’t. As we lay on the rocks with a smoldering fire to chase the bugs, we stared up at a vast night sky darker than any we saw in the suburbs and cities where we spent our off-seasons. The stars glowed so much brighter. I had never seen so many. That alone could still a goofy group of pre-teens. For a change, no one cracked jokes or showed off.
But then someone broke the silence. “Did you see that?”
“I just saw a shooting star!”
“Did you make a wish?” one of the counselors asked.
“No, it happened too fast.”
Now everyone stared hard at the vast dome above us. If there was one, there could be more. Suddenly, there was another. This time almost everyone saw it. “Whoah! I saw that. I made a wish!”
“That was so cool!”
We had no idea what was in store for us.
Soon, we were up to five that we had spotted, some as faint streaks of chalk, others brighter. Now the count was ten. Then there were actually several flashing across the inky sky at once. I remember saying to my friend that I was running out of things to wish for.
We stayed up very late that night. We probably saw more than 100 shooting stars. It could have been 200. We lost count, but not interest. I remember lying on my back staring wide-eyed at the show, like the heavens had put this on just for us, eight kids and two counselors sprawled on a rock in the middle of the wild universe.
I know now that it was the Perseid Meteor shower, and that Earth passes through it every August around the 11th or 12th. I’ve gone outside on other summer nights, dragging family members with me, hoping to replicate that experience. We’ve seen “shooting stars,” and sometimes we’ve seen what could be called a shower, but it hasn’t ever been quite that same experience of deep darkness, solitude, and spectacle.
When I work with kids in my school these days, I want so badly for them to have an experience like that, free of frills and technology, free of complexity and competition, just a moment of simple, open-mouthed, peace and awe. They need it more than they know.
I need it, too.