Something Like a Star

When the sun sinks low in the sky by three-thirty, we pay attention. The mountains form an easel of sorts, and the sky a canvas, while the sun and clouds paint new magic every afternoon. Deep rose and mystical lavender one day, then an almost spectral yellow and ochre the next. How can so much change be visited on our broad banner of Montana sky in the space of one December? How much change can be visited on us, as well? There is no more fitting time to reflect on the road we have traveled the past year. We like to think that the yearly rhythm pauses just now, as we shift into late December, giving us a chance to look back, to take account.

What has the year meant to us, what should we release, what should we carry forward? The events of spring and summer, like buds brought to flower and then to fruit, have become the harvest of autumn, and now fill the granary of memory. The task we have, whether we watch the dazzling clouds of a solstice evening or the long golden shadows of summer, is to hold onto today or tonight, right now. Robert Frost, who knew how easily humans can be caught up in a tide of difficulty, wrote that we might “choose something like a star, to stay our minds on and be staid.” The astronomers might argue about the constancy and permanence of the stars, but to most of us, they are steadfast. Behind the clouds, behind the moon, behind the sun, there are the stars, symbols of the unrelenting constancy of hope. Our ancestors lived out in the open, under the sky.

Their world was about campfires and grass and earth and hides and feathers and bronze and animals and . . . stars. They watched the stars for entertainment at night and took inspiration from the shifting patterns in the vast dark vault of heaven. Even today, we feel that primitive surge somewhere in the region of the solar plexus when we go out on a crisp night and look up. It simply takes the breath away. For all our cogitations, for all our worrying and controlling, we are not much different from the ancients who drew close to their tribal fires eons ago. The legends and lore have changed, but we still sit around the fire and tell our tales.

They had their ale and their mead; we have our hot buttered rum and fancified drinks. Our ancestors told stories about the heron or the bear or the dancing children who whirled into heaven to become a circle of stars. Now we tell the stories of a sleigh in the sky, flying reindeer, or the ghost of Jacob Marley. When the stories are done, and we are left alone, there may be time to go out and catch a glimpse of that frosted heaven. If we’re lucky, we’ll choose something like a star to stay our minds on. And perhaps that surge of magic, that sense of oneness, will come again from within, like a heartbeat, just because we have stopped to listen.