Entranced by the sky, I often find myself looking upward, especially in the early morning as the sun gradually lights the heavens, turning them from silvery gray to pale blue, and again as it sets with vivid pink and coral flourishes as day becomes night.
There is immense comfort in the cyclic phasing of the moon, the constant circling of the earth around the sun, the promise of light dispelling darkness.
There is solace in the mystery of what lies beyond, perhaps divine presence, perhaps the souls of those departed, ascending higher and higher as memories become blessings, or so the sages teach.
And so I find myself on my birthday this year, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, just miles from the earth’s northern most point, on a quest to see the night skies alight.
The Aurora Borealis has held fascination for me ever since I first learned of her in grade school, enthralled with the notion of days turning into long nights, of skies illuminated with riotous color, of the rare opportunity to see them.
Named by the Italian astronomer Galileo in 1619 – aurora after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and boreas after Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind – they had been sighted thousands of years before by indigenous peoples. But the phenomenon was not explained until the early 20th century when a Norwegian scientist found it was caused by thousands of energized particles from the sun hurtling through space and colliding with the earth’s magnetic field.
The result are dancing waves of color that skywatchers only hope to glimpse, optimally between late September and late March, in northernly or southernly locations near the earth’s poles, particularly when the air is dry and cold, the skies dark and cloudless. And even then, there are no guarantees of a sighting.
Just days before we traveled north to Swedish Lapland, one of our daughters had been lucky on her second trip in search of Aurora, happening upon what appeared as a pale green mist overhead that changed magically into a luminous swath of emerald, tinged with glistening orange.
So we kept watch as we arrived, with fingers crossed, following in her footsteps, taking late evening walks, peeking from our windows just before dawn, then heading out one night with a pair of local guides deep into the enchanted forest, tall pines dressed in snowy white, bushes heavy with frosty globes, trails glistening with ice.
The aurora forecast was not promising but conditions could change quickly.
After a ride by snowmobile through the winter wonderland in the bitter cold, we came upon a tiny cabin in a clearing and stopped to rest. Inside, our hosts laid a crackling fire in the wood burning stove, illumined the space with glowing candles and garlands of twinkling white lights.
They pulled out thermoses of hot coffee and mulled Swedish wine redolent with cloves, laid out an array of local cheeses and homemade crackers to munch, warming us up and lifting our spirits.
We sat close around a wood table to nibble and chat, talk that ranged from marriage to family, from life choices to chance, from unexpected surprises to disappointments.
So it was that the sky remained dark and the stars were not aligned for a sighting that night.
Yet as we sped back through the dark night, I came away with a renewed sense of wonder at divine creation and earthly splendor, the power and capriciousness of Mother Nature, the limits of human endeavor.
And the warmth of human kindness and connection.
So it is in nature, so it is in life.
As the new year begins, I wish for ever more glimmers of light to dispel the darkness, more delight in the ineffable beauty of every moment, more peace and joy, and more hope from the heavens above and a force beyond our knowing.
And perhaps, another year, another time, to meet up with Aurora.
May it be so.