08 June 2012

the transit of venus {part 3}

I tried to remember all I could about telescopes as the man arranged his, aligning it to see the Transit of Venus.

Concave and convex: one of those terms applied, maybe both, and do you ever fear how much knowledge you've lost?

I once sat in a windowless classroom, hair in a high ponytail and tied with a purple bow—next to a boy who stared too much when I wore my cheerleading uniform—and drew diagrams of telescopes. Mr. Summerson, the physics teacher, had graded those; what would he say now if I asked him, "But if you point the telescope at the sun, doesn't it just intensify the light?"

That's what the man was doing: looking to the light.

"I got this"—here he patted the telescope before taping a piece of paper to a ladder he had set up about a foot away from the telescope—"when I retired from the school. They said it wasn't good enough for the classroom any more, but it's good enough for me, so I took it when they offered. Kind of a retirement bonus, I guess."

I liked that he didn't bother to explain which school he was talking about; it was as if, only for a moment, we lived in a small town out on the prairie: one school, one church, one store. Everyone knows everyone, and too many people know too much.

We don't live in a small town, this man and I: we're in the suburbs of Chicago, surrounded by millions of people, not millions of ears of corn, and he could've taught at any one of the hundreds of schools around us.

But he just said "the school," and for that moment, on a quiet street in the suburbs, our town shrank, and I suppose that makes sense: we're all, big towns and small towns, under the same sun, aren't we?

"Ah, yep, there it is: Venus." The man had channeled the sun's light, down through the concave or convex lenses {or both?}, letting it bounce around inside his telescope from the school, and out onto the piece of paper a foot away came a big, bright circle—and a small black dot.

"Do you see it?" he asked the little boy, who had spent most of this set-up time telling Miss Daisy about his toy pug. Perhaps he wanted them to be friends, and he was some sort of modern-day Christopher Robin.

"The sun! The sun!" the boy yelled, jumping up and pointing it out to Miss Daisy, who did nothing more interesting than sniff one of the telescope's legs. "And look, pug, there's a planet!"

And there it was indeed: moving so slowly across the paper, Venus was making itself known. It was blocking out part of the sun: how audacious of it, that tiny planet taking on that fireball.

I wanted so much to glance up at the real sun, not the circle on the paper. I wanted to stare at it and say: There, even though I can't see it, something amazing is happening. Something that will never happen again for me. Something that you have to trust is there.

How many other amazing things are happening right now, even though I can't see them? On mundanest of days of to-do lists and stress, planets are crossing the sky, and we don't even know it. Or remember it. Or pause to wonder at it.

And then there's this: on those days when you feel that everything is shifting—and your own street looks like a stranger—on those days, there is a level of comfort in knowing that planets are in motion as they have been for generations. There is order to the world, even when we can't see it.

I watched the Transit of Venus with the little boy, his parents, and the old man for several minutes. We all stared at the paper and said nothing but "Wow" the entire time.


The Transit of Venus, and it has to mean something, doesn't it, that I saw it on that Tuesday night?


  1. OK, this is one of my favorite things you have written. Of course, it appeals to the scientist within me, but I think it appeals to the human desire in all of us to share an unrepeatable moment with a community around us. Awesome. Sad that I missed the transit but glad I experienced it in your story!

  2. Perhaps the next time you're over, you can explain telescopes to me, my dear physics teacher :)

    Thanks for reading!



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