Reality, childhood, and Orion waves.
The intersection of my laziness as a person and my seniority as a pilot is this: I seldom fly early mornings, which means I often fly at night. Since our flight schedules are based on seniority and I’m not a morning person, that’s usually my preference.
In all my years of flying, staring at a night sky like black velvet strewn with jewels of varying sizes and colors, I’ve come to find what seem like old friends in the simpler constellations (remember, I’m lazy) like The Dippers, the “W” of Cassiopea, and on most nights Orion. No matter what’s going on in the cockpit, no matter what’s transpired that day, there they are every night, brighter than ever once you’re at cruising altitude and above most of the atmosphere tainted with smoke and smog and the detritus of civilization as well as nature’s continuous slop of fires and volcanoes and disastrous what not.
It’s a touchstone of distance, too, the way they lay out in the sky depending on how far and wide you’ve flown. Down in the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and below the equator, the stars are all up there but at impossible angles and positions, not because they’ve moved, but because you have, having flown so many thousands of miles past your usual perspective on Earth.
I was telling this to my sweet third grader last year, describing how no matter what, when I’m flying in the northern hemisphere, I can eventually find my old friend Orion, “The Hunter,” usually over my left shoulder in the eyebrow window of the cockpit, steady as a faithful old friend. Then I know where I am in the world, in the sky, in reference to my celestial compadre.
Without a heartbeat’s pause, she asked in wide-eyed wonder, “does he ever wave to you?”
And I hated myself as a parent the very instant my mouth spoke the words, “Uh, no, honey; it’s just a group of stars in a pattern.” Because without meaning to, I’d done the adult thing, contributing unwittingly to the piece by piece dismantling of the childhood wonder I’d just been blessed to wander into. Like any imaginative child, she knew nothing of impossibility, rather, only what she could dream based on what she could see.
Me, on the other hand, after a thousand views of that night sky could only see what is, or at least what I know after childhood dominated by dreams gives way to reality dictated by fact over years and years of making a living in flight. I couldn’t see anything anymore with a perspective given over to knowledge of the impossible rather than the childhood belief in all possibility.
Maybe that shift in belief versus reality is inevitable, so maybe what I’d said was merely a part of the necessary exit from childhood, softened perhaps because it came from a parent who cherished her and her precious grade school years.
But more likely, I’m afraid, this whole incident highlights the coldness of adult-based reality: you give up your sense of wonder and with it, claim a heartless confidence in what you know, period. Then rather than living life as a dream of wide-open possibilities, time becomes a painless yet numb sleep walk from work to days off to work; lather, rinse, repeat.
I don’t really have an answer for this conundrum, and maybe there isn’t one. Clearly, the whole notion of constellations was born of some ancient but adult imagination and endures in modern times despite a millennium of science that proves all of it to be groundless in fact. Maybe that’s the whole point: it’s not that facts don’t matter because really, they do. But perhaps they coexist because there’s value in dreams, maybe even more so for the soul, than in reality.
That’s the lesson I’ve learned: my parenthood can be a bridge between the two for my precious child. I’ll strive to listen carefully and answer more slowly, with careful regard for what’s possible rather than the adult eye for what isn’t. I’ll try that perspective, too, at night at high altitude, stargazing during cruise. Not so much looking for Orion to wave at me, but grateful for the knowledge that in a child’s mind, he just might. Anything beyond that is really not important.