February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Heaven in the heavens

By |2023-08-01T17:02:41+02:00July 6th, 2023|Area 51|
Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.
I

once fell for a girl who loved telescopes. Not astronomy or even the cosmos  in some youthfully existential sense, but the telescope itself, the instrument, and the fact that this all-seeing night tube was hers and hers alone, and thus all she saw through it also hers, to ponder and dream about.

This act of falling, my rapture, occurred in another century of another millennia. It also occurred in my youth, at twenty. But what does that matter? The writer Roger Kahn once asked the poet Robert Graves how he felt at age seventy, to which Graves replied the question was outside his reach. He still felt twenty-one.

The girl, about that age, was a redhead and lived in a brick manor house with a veranda that circumnavigated its brick squareness, the house an oddity of sorts since most around it were made of wood. On the veranda were loveseats and a rocking chair and at a far corner a kind of turret, an elevation made from brick, on which the girl had set the telescope, its triangular tripod legs sticking out like insects.

This was the summer I lodged in the home of an octogenarian dowager in the grass acres that formed part of the city of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I was there ostensibly to get my feet wet in journalism, working for the local paper, the “Spartanburg Herald-Journal,” whose editor, derisively disdainful of young bucks from the north — I had been imposed on him by the paper’s owner, a family friend who lived in Washington, D.C. —  assigned me to the obituary page in which my principle role was to read and edit death announcements sent in by local family members who wished their departed to leave in style, which meant much grieving, florid prose.  I was told to make it simple and subtract as many mourning modifiers as possible. Snippets such as “wonderful, decent, loving father of great Christian valor” were to vanish. I was to recast this into so-and-so died and is survived by, with correct notations regarding funeral arrangements.

So it was that I understood Cassie was already deeply in love, if not engaged, to the heaven she scanned.

I did not find this as challenging as pondering the redhead when she came out of the house at twilight and, alone, began her work with her instrument, which might have been a violin for how she tuned it, playing with knobs instead of strings. She was lean, lanky even, with bangs of red curls that fell across her forehead which she’d push away, annoyed at how hair could possibly deign to interfere with the dark and invitingly penetrable above.

I watched all this from across the street, from the window located in the ground-floor room my antediluvian landlord, a widow born in 1890, rented to me by the week,  since it was unclear just how long the paper would have me, or better said, wish to have me. I had long hair, and expressed a rueful fondness for the campaign of George McGovern, the open-minded and gentle Democrat who had been literally slaughtered by Richard Nixon in his 1972 run for re-election, a victory soon to be marred by Watergate and his ignominious resignation. But no one amid the sleepy elms and willows of Spartanburg had much interest in what was to come, and I would later imagine that news filtering south slowly, perhaps reaching the newspaper offices a decade after its northern announcement. The green neighborhood in which I lived embodied the flow of a trickle, and even the death letters often arrived well after funerals had been held and the dead interred.

I did extract one salient piece of information from the dowager, that the girl’s name was Cassandra, or Cassie, and she attended Tulane, where her father, a friend of my landlady, taught physics. “She’s been looking into that darn rolling pin since her father gave it to her as a kid.” I would later find out this was not quite right. She had indeed received a telescope as a birthday present, but that tube had long ago been archived.  She had, with funds set aside meticulously, bought what she now had, a full-fledged wide-lens sky enlarger that could – amazing! – bring stars into focus.

All this I came to know when, suddenly emboldened by who knows what, I emerged from my tiny room, brought my huge shyness to heel, and crossed the street to walk conspicuously in front of her veranda. I did this several times over the course of several hot summer dusks until, very suddenly, she shouted (not taking her eye from the lens socket), “Betcha you want to know what I’m looking at.”

I did, and soon we became friends. Her beauty, whenever I could even see her face, struck me dumb, and I entered this infatuation willingly.

The house was her mother’s, she said, but she was now alone, her mother, separated from her physicist father, on holiday in Florida. “House is all mine for a month, and so is the sky. I love it out there,” she said, as if she were in fact a mere tourist on the planet and her real home, her roots, situated somewhere among the rich and star-streak above.

As I peered at her peering at the heavens I was, it seemed to me, an accomplice, a rapt statue not there to share her love of stars but to assert something of course I could not, and never did, say aloud. In all, this beautiful love affair lasted some ten days, before she left without telling me. Soon after, crushed, I left the town and its dead.

Cassie did let me look into her world from time to time, speaking of stars whose names she knew by heart and pointing our that great blurs in the night heavens were not simply blurs but the coalescence of billions of stars that formed whole galaxies. I knew nothing of this and stared only at her dimples when she smiled and parsed light years in words I could understand, saving quasars for the night I so badly wanted to kiss her — I was close enough, near the aperture, our temples joined, her scent fragrant — but did not. The unaccomplished kiss was not a result of shyness. By then, by infatuation in full bloom, I would have dared — had she not spoken of how, inside her head and heart, she viewed the stars.

It was a first-time still boyish understanding that there were thoughts, creeds, and devotions that could, if you chose to allow them into your life, recast the pivots of a secular education.

They were, she told me, the purest expression of God’s tableau, part of a painting he’d wrought to demonstrate his fullness to those willing to see him, understand him, be at one with him and him only. “My father thinks it’s all about atoms and infinity, and diagrams the sky as if it were a long sentence with lots of commas. He doesn’t see it for what it is, for what I know it is.”

So it was that I understood Cassie was already deeply in love, if not engaged, to the heaven she scanned not for clues to universal meaning but as confirmation of the ongoing construction of the greatest cathedral of them all, its author still at work, his gifts, to her, like acts in progress, and the attention she paid to them no more or less than an ongoing prayer, a thanksgiving, a gratefulness swallowed by the eye’s ability to see but directed to the soul, a universe unto itself. This universe, I understood instantly, would not tolerate a carnal interloper. She was, in every way, on a journey that did not, could not, include a boy who scribbled for a living and for now was attached to the daily banality of death.

The last night I spent gazing with Cassie I was mostly star-struck at my own misfortune, which would later acquire a deeper meaning, a first-time still boyish understanding that there were thoughts, creeds, and devotions that could, if you chose to allow them into your life, recast the pivots of a secular education.

Nearly blind, I can no longer see, let alone perceive, the great arc of the night sky. Yet tilting my head up from time to time I remember Cassie on her veranda, and prepare to swim in her beloved beyond.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.