Whenever I step outside, I look up. We humans must be hardwired to expect to have around us not these little boxes that provide shelter, with their low ceilings pressing down on us, but wide-open spaces, where we stand upright under the great reach of sky.
We long to bust out of our houses. We paint clouds on the ceiling of our children’s bedrooms. We attach glow-in-the-dark stars and planets there. When we city slickers get out in the country on a clear night, we exclaim at the wash of stars up above, so far away, and point out the speckled white swath, the Milky Way.
In summer we go camping, no roofs to block our view. There we are, sitting around the fire gazing at the silhouettes of pines against a royal blue sky. Trees at night are like soldiers outside Buckingham Palace. They don’t move a whisker, they don’t blink, but you feel it takes great effort to stand so still. You are sure of it.
My husband had a convertible when I first met him. Coming back from St. Cloud on a summer night, we had the top down. I remember it vividly: he was driving, and we were holding hands. Our heads were exposed not only to the clear night sky, but also to the full moon shining down on us. That night the moon was ours.
Over the years we humans have imagined the sky to be many things, including a huge, inverted blue bowl, and a woman bent over, sheltering the world. Stars have been seen to be knots in the net of heaven that bind everything together, but let nothing fall through.
There has been a lot to look at in the sky lately, even here in the city. Near the end of February my husband and I, coming up the walk in front of our house, noticed the crescent moon to the west, and near it what we first thought were two ultra-bright stars. They were actually planets, Jupiter and Venus, in an unusual alignment. The three heavenly bodies, all in a row, caught our eye because of their arrangement, and because they were clearly visible so early, when dusk had only begun to fall.
Orion, the great hunter, a constellation I always look for, has been patrolling the skies over our house each night, as is usual in the winter.
And on March 8th a solar storm was to produce northern lights that would perhaps be visible this far south. We checked the sky at 10 p.m. that night and didn’t see them. They may have come out later while we were sleeping.
We want to bust out of our houses, to be under the spell of the sky, but we have the opposite urge as well, to snug up at home, to cocoon. According to a new biography called “Becoming Dickens,” by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Charles Dickens told Fyodor Dostoyevsky that there were two people in him, one who felt as he was supposed to feel, and one who felt the opposite. My husband told me Dostoyevsky is said to have replied: “Only two?”
While we don’t want to be confined by our houses, sometimes we want to feel contained. We had a cat once who would occasionally slip out the front door. Immediately he would panic and flatten himself to the ground. I assume that he had grown accustomed to the constraints of the house. Our ceiling had become his new sky, and the real one, all that open space above, frightened him.
Years ago I had a friend, who was in his forties, who lived with his mother, who was in her eighties. For much of her life his mother had kept to herself. She stayed home all the time glued to the TV. Soap operas were her favorite. She was bright and pleasant, fit for her age, but she did not so much as venture out their door. What friends she had came to her. I don’t imagine she had ever seen a therapist, or perceived herself as having a problem.
She was a woman whose life consisted of her son, her four walls and a television. But when I visited her in the hospital shortly before she died, she was distraught. She could see the end coming, and she cried out, “I am going to miss everything!”
Her worldview is described beautifully in a poem entitled “Agoraphobia” by Linda Pastan. Pastan writes: “What I mean is this house/follows all the laws of lintel and ridgepole,/obeys the commandments of broom/and of needle, custom and grace./It is not fear that holds me here but passion/and the uncrossable moat of moonlight/outside the bolted doors.”
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.