My morning routine, when done “right,” starts with a cup of coffee out back and under the stars if it’s the right time of year. Wrong time of year and it’s either too cold or the sunrise doesn’t align with the my-rise. I take a chair from the porch–one of those white plastic armchair jobs you might find at your local pool–and move it into the yard, far enough out from the house so it feels like the invisible roofline doesn’t extend over my head and far enough from the neighbor’s tree to the left to avoid feeling hemmed in. I feel exposed there underneath that what-is-it?-ness, and that feels good. And “good” not in terms of comfort; rather, quite the opposite. The moon is waning toward a new moon on Saturday, so its light at my back is still bright enough to cast a faint shadow from me onto the grass yet dim enough to allow that shadow to be whatever fear my mind might conjure it to be. We have a black cat, and typically all three cats are raring to get outside when I get up. The black one, Bucket, stations himself just outside our bedroom each morning, and when I crack the door and move my right foot forward, he wheels around without looking up and heads for the backdoor, just to the left in the living room. (Frankly, I think he’s reached a point of taking me for granted, which cats are wont to do.) So he’s the color of a shadow, but only darker. His midnight-purple fur absorbs the light, as might a black hole. Outside, and as I shift slightly with my coffee, seated in that white plastic porch chair, I notice out of the corner of my eye–don’t ask me whether its rods or cones that afford me night vision; I always have to Google it and have yet to assign a heuristic to distinguish them; please drop a comment if you have a good one–I notice a shape also moving slightly. I don’t catch on that the movements are synced. The shadow is dark, and so is my cat and so is a skunk because, frankly, at my age either an eye rod or cone may have decided to sleep in and not help me determine whether I’ll have my leg brushed up against by Bucket or spend the rest of the day in a tomato juice bath. (That simple solution wasn’t what was required, by the way, when our chocolate lab, Leo, was sprayed last year. It was a combination of Dawn dish detergent and like baking soda and something else, or some such concoction. I know it was three things mixed together. And who keeps even one jar of tomato juice in their fridge, after all, let alone a sink or bathtub full?! But back to having coffee under the stars.) I sit there and wonder if Bucket is a skunk or is even there at all. So I “pss-pss-pss” the way one does with cats–as if there’s some magic to that primitive call; but we all know that “pss” substitutes for a cat’s name regardless of its identity, because names are meaningless to them; in fact their name for each of us is as generic. It’s “piss off, yourself. I’ll come when I want affection. Not before, not after.”–I do that universal cat name sound, and then I take my leg and kind of swirl it gently around the area of the shadow to see if Bucket is there. I do that while telling myself that I’m trying to rub his back with my foot. But if he were there, which he isn’t, I’d actually be kicking him in his face. But I do that because it might be a skunk and I don’t want a skunk anywhere near me–half invisible because of the mediocre work of my rods and my cones. Yet that would have been an unwise thing to do with my foot anyway because of the whole day-spent-in-a-bathtub-of-tomato-juice-and-HEB’s-closed-now-anyway. But I do that to feel less exposed sitting in that chair as if before a firing squad–does one ever get to sit during executions, or is it always standing or lying?
I get up out of the chair and look up.
Navy blue with pin pricks.
The waning moon is to the southeast, and Orion is due south at almost eleven o’clock on an imaginary overhead arc. It requires me to tilt my head back at an angle at which I can’t drink coffee with enough confidence that I won’t pour it down the front of my hoodie. I hold my left hand, the one not holding my coffee cup–do you do that, too? Hold your coffee cup with the same hand because after a few decades of holding your coffee cup, it would almost be as unnatural as writing with your untrained hand?–I hold my left hand at arm’s length and, with one eye shut, I raise my forefinger up against Orion’s belt. It fits neatly within the outer two stars, obscuring only the middle star (planet? cluster? galaxy?). I start to wonder what cataclysmic event would have to happen that, at a distance these stars are from us, the left and right stars would travel even slightly toward or away from that middle star. I decide, standing there, that once inside and before writing to you I might Google–again with the free advertising–how far the left star is from us and how far the middle is and, using my A+ in 9th grade geometry, I’d determine how long it might take for the left star to travel to that middle star. I remind myself that the three stars constituting Orion’s belt are vastly different distances from us, and I’d spend the better part of the workday trying to solve this math problem, becoming more knowledgeable but also more unemployed. I remind myself that the whole purpose of coming out here first thing in the morning with coffee only, no phone, is to connect to the Maker of those pin pricks around me. I conduct this connection half mindlessly. I don’t really think about the Creator, to be honest. I simply enjoy where I’m standing. Standing there both mindlesssly and also incredibly aware. I figure that such mindless awareness is itself an acknowledgement that there is a God outside me.
So I realize that the left-hand star might be millions of light years closer than the middle star and that I might have no easy way to determine how long it would take for it to meet the middle star in this pre-dawn sky. And when I put my mind to determining such things, I realize that I’m aware and focused on placing myself within this reality around us. For a moment, I forget about Bucket and skunks and tomato juice. I forget about the lights from the houses behind me now as I look over ours; I forget about the dark smudges of live oak trees or the pickup truck that turns from its side street same time each day and drives deeper into the development (because I’ve already witnessed that somewhat foreign-to-the-dark-and-still-silence event). I forget about those things, and I start to wonder about where Lyra is. Where’s Vega; its anchor? It’s the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere. I can see that through the branches of the neighbor’s tree is Jupiter. Compared to my forefinger at arm’s length, it’s practically the size of a pinhead. “How many angels,” you ask, “can dance on the head of a pin?”
Tell me please, if you find out.