maybe Saturn


Just before I got into bed last night to read Mary Oliver’s essays, I looked out to see Venus and Mars in the western sky, near the waxing crescent moon. Each time I got up to look, they were brighter and more beautiful. I’d read that Mercury might be visible too, through binoculars, but mine weren’t close at hand. Jupiter was too low on the horizon to see. Each time I got up to look, the sky was filled with stars and planets.

Billions of years ago, Mars was wetter and warmer. Venus spins clockwise on its axis, unlike the other planets; supposedly it was knocked upside down by a collision with a celestial body. Mercury, the one I didn’t see, is moonless and ringless; Jupiter, which I also didn’t see, has 80 moons. And when I got up to pee at 3:36, I think I saw Saturn over Mount Hallowell, to the east of my house, large and bright above the dark mountain. Apparently its beautiful rings, which I didn’t see, aren’t solid but are made of bits of ice, dust, and rock.

I was almost dizzy with the beauties of the night sky. From one window, the moon, red Mars, glittering Venus. From another, Saturn! Maybe Saturn. Maybe there are other bright stars I’ve never seen from that particular window.

I haven’t been feeling very hopeful about our progress as a species these days. Gun massacres in American schools, book bans, the ongoing war in my grandfather’s country, our inability to provide shelter to our most vulnerable citizens, and, well, I need to stop, because that’s what I do when I wake in the night: I make lists and then lie awake, worrying. Yet beyond all our windows, all our doors, the planets are still visible on spring nights, the owls are at work in the dark. Some small creature, probably a weasel, races up the wisteria vines and the mice in the walls go quiet. A little wind, and the chimes of driftwood and shells clatter together.

Flowers in shadow, palace wall at dusk,
Chirping birds are flying back to roost.
Stars move above the ten thousand doors;
The moon is big nearing the nine heavens.
Not sleeping, I hear a golden key;
In the wind, I think there are jade pendants.
Tomorrow morning, I have to present a memorial,
Again and again, I ask about the night.
                 — Du Fu, “Spring Night in the Left Office”, trans. David Hawkes

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