We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn

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Photo by Finnature Oy Ltd. Liminka, Finland

On the Fourth of July in about 1957 (when our family was living in a certain tiny house we hated―we all remember it too well 60 years later) our family had driven from our house on the farthest northwest corner of Scottsbluff (Nebraska) south through town and across the river in hopes of seeing a spectacular fireworks display put on by Terry Carpenter over his housing development, Terrytown. The show was a bust. Hardly anything more exciting than we might have put on ourselves in the vacant two acres next to our house where the new First Baptist Church building was about to be built.

Dad drove us home as we complained and begged him to go somewhere else to look for REAL fireworks. He became irritated and told us to “stop your bellyaching.” He drove into our longer-than-normal driveway (the “little house” was set back a good distance from the street, a highway to the sandhills). As we dragged ourselves out of the car in disappointment, nothing blocked our view of the farmland up to the crest of the hill about a mile away, the horizon somehow always visible, one shade of black separated by a line from another shade of black. We saw the vast open breadth of the nighttime Nebraska sky.

But with a difference.

The Aurora Borealis was hanging in the sky between us and the horizon, giant folds of green like a drape for the earth from the horizon almost to the sky above us.

I (we) had never seen anything remotely like it, have never again seen.

We stopped our bickering, our complaining about our disappointment. The family stood in our front yard, stupefied, speechless.

I don’t remember how the marvel closed, whether it disappeared or we watched until we tired and went inside.

What I remember is the sight and the mutual fixation of our family on the wonder, the wonder of the sky that brought us out of our disappointment and squabbling. I remember it clearly, with something like reverence, and, I believe, with accuracy. The memory has never changed in my mind.

Sixty years later I have the same awed puzzlement I had that night. What did we see? I know the name. I have searched and researched to find the scientific explanation. I know all of that.

I do not, however, know what I saw. I am loathe to use the language that comes easily to mind: the glory of nature, a glimpse of the eternal, those sorts of descriptions. But perhaps it is better to speak in mundanities than to try to explain how that sight affects me to this day.

Shall I speak in hyperbole: I am overcome with wonder when I think of that night? No.

I want to speak with humility. I have been allowed a glimpse of splendor that most of my friends have never had. Is that hyperbole? I don’t know.

What I know is that, when I am depressed, when I am at a loss how to live in this society, when I feel incompetent or unworthy, when I dwell on the fear of death, remembering that momentary, fleeting view gives me a sense of calm, of safety. The scientific explanation of the Aurora Borealis is quite simple. It is but a small nuance of our earth’s relationship with the sun.

But the thought of the Aurora’s amorphous, vaporous, impalpable ― but actual ― unexpected, unwarranted presence in my experience and its lingering in my memory grounds me in a way that I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out and perhaps explain.

A Light in the North

The fireworks did not thrill us that Fourth—they were bland and sparse.
A few Roman candles (why Roman?),
a few pathetic rockets, ordinary, dull, uninteresting.
What did we expect?
Fantastic fire to amaze, to astound, perhaps to frighten—
Streaking color, bursting flares, and then the “boom,”
the sound coming after the light, it was so far away.
We expected explosions,
the light spiraling,
the light coiled,
the light arcing,
the light streaking up toward the highest sky,
the light propelled outward by explosions,
and more explosions at the end of short trajectories,
illusive embers floating toward the ground.
We did not know their names (arguing what made some Roman),
these varieties of fire, these explosions of color.
We knew what we expected but did not see.
We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn,
flashes on the horizon, announcing daylight soon to come.
But no light exploded this year—the hope of thrill was preempted—
no child’s delight in destruction, crazed, wild, and sudden,
no lurching light tossing illumination gloriously aside,
plunging the sky again into momentary darkness
to rest before the next round of fiery excitement.

Our expectations denied, Father drove us home.
The ’57 Chevy was too familiar, the streets too predictable,
the family disappointed—please, Father, let’s find a better vantage point—
the night wasted, the dark country sky stretching unbroken to the black horizon
where the end of the wheat fields meets the beginning of the sand hills.
Home,
where
against the
star-riddled blackness,
her green skirts folding onto themselves silently, languidly,
not spiraling, not coiling, not arcing, in motion too slow to comprehend,
the goddess of the dawn rose strangely in the north above the black horizon.
She floated unexpected, mysterious, silent, amazing, awesome in her beauty.
Ten hours before the dawn she heralded, Aurora held sway,
suspended in the highest sky, deigning on this night alone to appear to us.
Never again.
One need see the goddess only once. It is epiphany enough.
We know what we expect—fiery excitement,
not pantheonic grandeur.

© Harold A. Knight, 2013

About Harold Knight
Retired English prof, SMU. Old man. Musician. Passionate about justice, equality, freedom. Therefore, I am a fervent supporter of and advocate for the Palestinian People as they struggle to survive genocide. That also means, of course, I have no use for US 45.

One Response to We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn

  1. Mary Kay says:

    Lovely — beyond words.

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