We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn


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.
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

“I Go for Joe” (Smith, that is)


The home of the richest man in town. He said so.

On Facebook yesterday, I posted the following grouse:

I have an old new theme song from junior high summer camp. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. . .” At least this country’s not my home. What happened to the place I used to live where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for?

Silly, yes, but several of my friends responded positively, one – who is not quite my age – at some length.

My complaint could have several meanings, of course. The old camp song is about mortality and heaven.   I wonder what a bunch of junior high school kids could possibly have known of mortality. The Baptists were preparing us to believe we will be ushered directly into heaven if or when we die. However, at that age we surely did not think the angels would, in point of fact, beckon us. Ever.

The song raises and, for the faithful, puts to rest the question of mortality whether or not a bunch of 13-year-olds might understand it.

However, these days I take it to mean more, much more. In fact, I find it meaningful even though I have long since given up any belief in heaven.

In 1956, one of the most influential men in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, my home town, was a delegate to the Republican national convention. He was indignant about the inevitability of the nominations. When it came time in the roll call for the Nebraska delegation to pass so Richard Nixon could be nominated for Vice-President by acclamation, the delegate took the floor and nominated Joe Smith, a fictitious person. I wrote about this event awhile back.

Terry Carpenter  was not, at least by the reckoning of the adults I knew, admirable. He was wealthy, egotistical, and politically opportunistic. He famously said he wanted to help the little man because when the revolution came, they’d go for the biggest house in town, “Which is mine.” It was his – a two-story mansion on half a block of property, just down the street from our home. During his career, he was a member of Congress, mayor of Scottsbluff, and a member of the Nebraska legislature, switching back and forth from Democrat to Republican depending on which party was in power.

Something I read recently about the new “populism” reminded me of Carpenter (which incidentally indicated to me how bizarre the use of that term is in our current political milieu). I googled him. He died in 1978 at the age of 78. If we had been septuagenarians in the same place at the same time, I would like to have known him. I know no rich and powerful folks well enough to engage them in conversation about what they think and feel, but I’d like to ask such a person if riches and power preclude a person from thinking

. . . the angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.

Terry Carpenter’s life and career remind me of other folks. For example, do Donald Trump and members of Congress, more than half of whom are millionaires, think “This world is not [their] home; [they’re] just a-passin’ through”?

As a kid at Baptist camp, I memorized the entire Sermon on the Mount from the book Matthew. I know the admonition, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:1-2, RSV).terry-carpenter-lincoln-journal-star-file-photo-1968

Senator Terry Carpenter opposing 1971 course in Homophile studies at the
University of Nebraska.

I’m probably judging (my friends would say there is no doubt about it), but I’m trying to understand how one might (apparently) live in such certainty of one’s place in the world, if not in the universe, to seem to have no awareness that “[their] treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” Is it possible to be unaware? Why does Donald Trump need to own towers all around the world? Why does Betsy DeVos need to be head of a government department? Why does Darrel Issa, with his half-billion dollar fortune need to be in Congress? He’s only 63, so perhaps it makes some sense that he’s not thinking about heaven. Yet.

I’m moderately certain that nowhere beyond the blue a treasure is waiting for me when I die. Or for Terry Carpenter, Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and Darrell Issa. I am, however, relatively certain that whatever meager treasure I have this side of the blue is not going to keep me from dying. I am more and more certain with each passing day that this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. And I may be wrong, but I think  those other folks are just passing through, too.

My Facebook post was incorrect. I have never lived in a place “where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for.” Terry Carpenter was around when I was a kid, and all those other rich and powerful folks are around now. I was in Scottsbluff then, and I’m in Dallas now, judging and criticizing and being cantankerous (and perhaps jealous) as I apparently always have done.

Oh well. It doesn’t matter in the long run if we are civil or work for equality or do any of those things that seem like nice ideas – because there is no long run.

I think one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way. . .  in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of self-criticism.  (Quoted in John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church. A Chosen Faith. Boston: Beacon Press (1998) 81.)