Thursday, March 25, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lift Your Head

We had guests over for dinner last night, nice folk and gracious too. They were quite understanding of the gong show that is meal time with a toddler. They also knew to beat a hasty retreat before the bedtime meltdown. Despite their social graces they did distract us from a few of our nightly routines.

It was already dark when I realized that the chooks* hadn't been shut away for the night. Its best to do it just on dusk because that's when the foxes come out looking for an easy meal. Em wanted to come with me. She snuggled in on my shoulder with both her pink blankets tucked up around her. She insisted on carrying the torch which made or progress a little slower as the notion that torches are for lighting your way hasn't really sunk in yet. She wished Bart, Barney and Beebee "Good night." and "Sleep well." each in their turn as I pushed the door shut, fastened the chain and blocked the bottom with its brick.

As we were walking back to the house she lifted her head and said "Look. Stars. Pretty." Indeed they were. There's nothing quite like a southern hemisphere night sky seen from outside a city. The crescent moon was up, it's light hiding much of the Milky Way, but there were still uncountable shimmering lights to be seen. We stopped just back of the bungalow where the house lights are hidden and looked to the sky.

I pointed out the moon peeking through the trees. Em insisted that it was a half moon even though it was more like a quarter. Ah well, fractions can come later. I also pointed out what I'm pretty sure was Mars. It was definitely a planet and was obviously red so Mars seemed the logical choice. It took a couple of minutes to explain where it was but once Em got it she was quite taken with how red it was.

We talked about that a while and I explained what planets were, at two and half she didn't get it. That's okay, it's never too soon to start practicing not talking down to your child. We stood and quietly looked at the stars for awhile too. Then she said softly: "That's my moon, my stars."

I had to think about that for a second. In the end I said "Yes Em, they are yours." Of course they're not, at least not in the sense she meant it. But that's a lesson for later.

The light of stars is ancient, it's been traveling for tens, hundreds and even thousands of years before it falls on our eyes. To look to the night sky is to look back in time, this fills me full of wonder and awe.

We know so much about our universe and yet we've barely left our planet. Quasars, pulsars, black holes: no one has ever been anywhere near any of these phenomenon but still we understand a great deal about them and are learning more all the time. Our ability to explore, study and learn the true nature of our ancient and huge universe despite the handicap of the immense distances involved makes me proud to be human.

Ancient and huge, those words don't do justice to the scope of our universe. It's 13.7 billion (billion!) years old. The edge of the observable universe is 46.5 billion light years away and a light year is 10 trillion kilometers. It contains approximately 70 sextillion (7 x 10^22) stars. I'm incapable of understanding just how large these numbers are. Every time I try and grasp them they just slip away and leave me feeling oh so tiny and humble, and yet they also fill me with a profound sense of peace.

With so much room, so many stars and planets and so much time for it to happen in, well, it seems all but inevitable that life would come into existence. That thought when it first occurred to me was profoundly liberating. I never again needed to wonder why I'm here: I just am. And that means I'm free to live my life, cherish my family and friends, and help make our unimaginably tiny little portion of the universe as safe and as joyful as it can be. It means there are no arbitrary cosmic rules that I need to fear breaking by doing so. It means I can be joyful, humble, proud, peaceful, loving, awe-struck and filled with wonder as needed, the universe is more than big enough to accommodate them all.

All of these things, in all of their immensity belong to all of humanity. But explaining that to Em can wait until she's old enough to reason for herself. For now it is enough for her to know that the pretty stars belong to her.

*Chickens. I'm getting to the point where some Aussie terms are becoming second nature to say. It still feels awkward when I write them though. I paused after writing 'chook' and wondered if I should change it to 'chicken'. One thing won't change though: tomato going to be a toe-MAY-toe until I die!