They come every year, as regular as the cold fall rain. The Perseids. The Leonids. And the best of all, the Geminids. And every year, it’s the same routine for me. I catch a news story online, forecasting brilliant showers of meteors falling from heaven, sometimes as many as two or three a minute. And every year I imagine it will be the year that I do what’s necessary to catch them at their peak: Rise at 2:00 AM. Fill a thermos with hot coffee. Throw a camping chair and warm gear into the car, and make my way out to the Blue Ridge, far from the lights of my city, any city. Once there, I’ll wait, looking to the north or the east, or wherever I’m supposed to be looking, and my patience will be rewarded with a display beyond measure, a glimpse of the infinite.
But this year, like every other year, I never got beyond the imagining part. The reality of rising so early, sitting still in the dark cold night, and surviving the long, long day that was sure to follow was too much for me to manage. So this year was the same as all the others. Well, almost the same …
It’s a Sunday evening. Mid-November. Night is gathering in the Ellett Valley as I drive north toward Blacksburg, but the sky overhead still holds that luminous blue-black light that follows bright fall days. I’m ferrying my son from Roanoke, where he has spent the last few hours, to church youth group in Blacksburg, where he will spend the next few. We are talking some, but not much. Our surroundings — the high scattered clouds tinged with purple, the deepening green of the surrounding forests going black where it folds into narrow valleys, the sky shimmering silver in the creek to our right — are too beautiful to be ignored. The landscape demands our attention. It silences us.
And then, suddenly, just above the crest of the ridge to my left, moving slow enough to track but fast enough that I know it won’t last, an orange ball arcs across the horizon, leaving an iridescent trail across the deep blue sky. And just as I manage to comprehend what it is I’m seeing — before I can even open my mouth to form words to call my son’s attention to it — it’s gone. There is no trace. No way to even know or prove that it happened. And, despite the preposterousness of the sight, the valley remains unchanged in its wake — still luminous, still breathtaking.
But in that moment, something has changed. Something in me. Some small part of my world has been peeled back, and something underneath — something miraculous even — has been made visible, if only for a few seconds. I spend the next few hours — days really– stunned by the revelation that the miraculous, something we all long to see, may be around us every day.
Of course that feeling, like the phenomenon that created it, faded quickly, leaving me wondering if I really saw what I think I saw.
But then just a couple of days ago, I came home for lunch, rushed and harried as usual, and as I draped my jacket across the armchair in the family room, I spotted a pair of birds that I’d never seen before– rufous-sided towhees, as it turns out — bathing and grooming in a puddle on our brick patio left by the previous night’s heavy rain. Oblivious to my presence, they luxuriated in the water and the sun — dunking and shaking themselves so vigorously that they seemed to be vibrating. Small arcs of fine mist rose from their trembling bodies, and the surface of the puddle itself rippled in the tiniest of waves. I called my wife to come and see, then my son and daughter, and for a few moments — there in the middle of our busy days and our busy lives — we stood together, shoulder to shoulder, transfixed by what we were seeing, knowing it wouldn’t last.
No gaudy light show. No celestial fireworks. No cosmic happenstance. But still, a miracle.