A locked door is easy to ignore. You’d think its condition would ignite a gnawing temptation, but, no. Not worth it. You feel the handle resist your efforts, assume there are worthwhile reasons behind its stubbornness and handwave it away as though it was a barrier between you and a stuck-in-its-own-ways hamlet in the middle of nowhere. Another small town to casually pass by. You want to be that way? Fine with me. Moving on.
Small towns have small schools with bare resources and that was my reality from kindergarten through high school graduation. No frills or special accommodations. Cinder blocks painted drab yellow. Drop ceiling tiles adorned in random places with pencils that had been sharpened into projectiles destined to remain fast with the perfect throw. Two stories tall, not that many kids and a motley crew of instructors — many of whom held dual roles within the community.
For example, my science teacher was also my Junior High football coach. He was a formidable man. The kind of big that is forgivingly acceptable of men. As a gender we’re bestowed a bit of a pass on size, as long as it carries with it a level of potential force and kinetic presence. It’s fleeting, of course. Aging has a way of turning stature into mush. But for the young, it’s something you can pull off and still be admired. He carried himself well.
Five days a week I’d enter his classroom, walk past two rows of empty desks to find my assigned place near the back of the third, just a few feet away from a perpetually-locked closet door. He never seemed to demand access to this space — not for paper, chalk, beakers or other supplies. Sealed and forgotten. By him and me both.
I was neither a star on his field nor in his classroom. As such, when I wasn’t doing anything that required the focus of his discipline, I was pretty easy to overlook.
Which made his interruption all the more unexpected. Strolling through the hallway, passing his open door, he spots me and calls for my attention. “Hey. You might be interested in this.”
Pulling his keys from the pocket of his khaki pants, he unlocks the closet and swings the door toward us, revealing a deep opening. Not shelves of mundane supplies. Instead a hidden entryway. Into which, we entered.
It was as though we were walking through a large three-dimensional model of the very keyhole that protected this space — straight walls on both sides leading into a wide circular room. Looking up, the ceiling arched above us creating a dome. Every surface leaning in toward a lone dignitary — a complicated mechanical apparatus stationed in the very center. He strides to the machine, activates several switches and this fantastic room transforms into something even more amazing. The lights dim and the ceiling stretching over us becomes gently flecked — not with pencils from adolescent hijinks — but with precise points of light. A planetarium. The most perfect of secrets.
Planetariums fascinated me. At a younger age my grandmother had taken me to one where I stood along the edge in growing anticipation of the pending experience. Then the room darkened and a complete view of a cloudless sky extended above me. My mind was blown. I was completely taken by this illusion — the unobstructed heavens, held indoors.
I wanted to live in that room. Can you even imagine? Because I could. Sleeping beneath the constellations every night. Identifying my favorites. Discovering new ones. Inventing my own. It would be the greatest bedroom in the history of civilization. My own private world.
When the presentation ended, I walked with eyes slowly adjusting to the returning light, out of that room and away from my idealyc daydream. The place I’d be shown years later, behind my desk in science class, would be the closest I could get to that wish of my own sky-filled room.
So when it was, I asked if I could produce a short show for the upcoming annual scholastic open house. Granted permission, I researched and scripted a short piece spotlighting the animals that nightly lived above us in connect-the-dot form. “The Zoo in Our Sky.”
On the evening of the event, over and over I’d draw lines with a laser pointer, while one tape player broadcast my prerecorded voice and another aired a soundbed of gentle instrumental melodies that I had selected and stitched together from Metallica, Black Sabbath and other heavy bands. As they played for family after family, I felt like I was getting one over on them by anonymously filling their ears with music from performers I was confident that they assumed they hated. “Great show! I really liked the music, too,” I was told more than once as they were exiting. I loved every moment of it. Of all of it.
Because I loved the stars. As a small child it was a daily ritual to anticipate the skies darkening enough so I could wish upon one. Many summertime nights were spent lying on my back watching the deepening black slowly becoming jeweled and decorated with more and more dots of light. The longer you look, the more they are willing to reveal themselves to you. It’s as though they value your patience and are willing to reward it with their shine.
On the occasions that I’d see the tail of a meteorite, I’d feel like I had just witnessed a miracle. No need to bother with a wish, because nothing better could be granted.
The same grandmother that provided my first trip to a planetarium bought me my first telescope. It wasn’t strong enough to bring the stars closer, but it was perfect for enlarging the moon. I’d set up the little tripod and lock it in, then readjust as its orbit moved it closer and closer to the edge of the viewport.
Sitting alone, looking out into the opalescent distance, sometimes I’d ponder the prospect of seeing something otherworldly and less static moving across the sky — even feeling a quickening heartbeat when I’d notice one of the stars moving straight and slow, though knowing beneath my excitement that I was only seeing an airplane passing quietly overhead. Still, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I was wrong?
“Do you believe in aliens,” my friend asked? A question akin to “Do you believe in ghosts?” Drink enough spirits and smoke enough weed together and conversations will inevitably broach topics like these.
I replied that I was neither arrogant enough to assume that we’re the only living things in the universe, nor naive enough to believe in such a coincidence that their existence would ever correspond with mine. “Everything’s just too big.”
His face expressed that he was satisfied with my not-so-profound response, then he stretched out his arm to pass me back the joint we’d been sharing.
While the world above may not share its foreign existences with me, it still holds me in its wonder. Quiet time beneath its canopy communing with nature is such a priority that we plan our travels so we can be immersed in it. This week, to a secluded cabin in a remote part of Pennsylvania, notable for being one of the darkest places in the state. No urban lights polluting the night sky. No neighbors beyond the wildlife. A restful week with the world shut off. Reading, hiking, fishing and arts and crafts of all types. And, of course, stargazing. Astronomy buffs flock to the hilltops in this area for the spectacular view.
The five of us — husband, wife, son, dog and friend — meander through another keyhole shape. This one a path through the woods, opening into a large field atop a mountain. Entering the clearing well after the day’s full light has finally extinguished itself, we set out blankets and lay together looking up.
And I am awe-struck. Speechless beyond the repeated utterance, “I can’t even believe it.” Because I can’t. After nearly 50 years of staring at the heavens I had every intention of being impressed, but I was not prepared to be stunned — to have my high-level of expectation completely shattered. Because this isn’t stargazing. This is like peering into forever. Indescribably beautiful.
Layer behind layer of distant suns stretching out wider than our eyes can collect in a single view and stopping at eternity. Millions of points of light herded into a single collection and seemingly impossible to comprehend as my mind attempts to consume it all in a single bite. It’s almost too rich.
I don’t want to move. I never want to leave. So I lie silently amazed that the universe still manages to surprise me. That I’m still finding rooms hidden all around me. Doors I’ve ignored are still being unlocked, granting me passage. Waiting for me to enter.