Where better to look, in this summer of our discontent, than to the heavens?

“It’s just you and the universe. That’s the nice thing about it,” said Eric Harrison in the wee hours Friday as the stars passed – some more quickly than others – over a grassy hilltop in Kennebunk.

Harrison is a proud member of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England, which operates an observatory up a long dirt road off Alewive Road just inside the Kennebunk-Lyman town line.

It’s the perfect place for an extraterrestrial light show.

It all started with the realization last week, somewhere between Hillary Clinton’s latest emails and Donald Trump’s latest call to arms, that I needed a break.

Not just an hour or two with the TV off and the laptop shut tight. No sir, I wanted something totally different, something as far away from American politics as I could get, something truly out of this world.

Something like … the Perseid meteor shower.

I’d read about it for days – how this year’s shower was supposed to be the best since 2009, how the activity would peak with between 100 and 200 meteors per minute just before dawn on Friday, how all you needed were clear skies, a pair of eyes and a blanket to stretch out on and catch the greatest show not on Earth.

So many times I’d resolved to do this kind of thing, only to whack the alarm and go back to sleep. But not this time.

The alarm went off at 2:15.

By 2:30, I was in the car with my ever-accommodating wife, Andrea, who cheerfully agreed to come along on a work night.

By 2:55, we’d found the dirt road and spread out the blanket when …

“There’s one!” Andy exclaimed, pointing directly overhead.

“There’s another,” I said seconds later, this one off to the north.

OK, so it wasn’t exactly the Fourth of July.

It was better.

One after another after another, the streaks of light scratched the dark sky, most leaving a luminescent trail of ionized gas in their wakes.

Want to feel small?

Lie on your back and look at the night sky for an hour or two. Let your eyes adjust to the dark until you realize that the whitish haze behind the brightest stars is actually billions of more stars.

Then watch as dozens of fireballs, burning at up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, criss-cross the universe – or what little of it we can see – like tracer bullets with no gun or target.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I told Andy as we soaked it all in. “Never.”

Enter Harrison, the last holdout from a meteor-watching party that had broken up just an hour earlier.

Ten years ago, Harrison underwent transplants of both his kidney and liver. Just over two years ago, he survived three heart attacks. Not long after that, his girlfriend passed away.

Thus it should come as no surprise that Harrison rejoined the astronomical society a year and a half ago after a prolonged absence, or that he comes to this hilltop every chance he gets.

“It’s my therapy,” he said. “It changes your perspective.”

Harrison, who also enjoys scuba diving (with its near-zero gravity), thinks we’d all do well to get out more after dark.

“People just don’t see it,” he said as we craned our necks (“There’s one! … There’s one!”) skyward. “They live their lives and they turn on their TVs and they’re disconnected from the night sky.”

Or they just don’t bother to look up.

Not long ago, Harrison and a few other society members set up their telescopes outside a bar at a local beach late one night and invited the late-night crowd to come have a look-see.

As one tipsy gent peered at a double star 400 light years away, Harrison tried to put it all in perspective.

“When that light left there,” he said, “we had the Jamestown Colony down here.”

Blew the guy away.

“Oh wow,” the stargazer replied in awe. “I’ve gotta stop smoking weed tonight!”

Behind the razzle-dazzle, it gets even more enchanting.

The Perseid meteor shower gets its name from the constellation Perseus, but that’s only because that’s the point in the sky from which the meteors seem to radiate.

In fact, they come from the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 133 years and leaves a trail of space debris in its wake. When Earth’s orbit crosses that wake each August, the meteors hit our atmosphere about 60 miles up and the fun begins.

What makes this year better than most is that fact that Jupiter’s alignment put an extra gravitational pull on the debris field, putting it more directly in the path of Earth.

In others words, the meteor shower isn’t passing over us. We’re colliding with it at about 132,000 mph.

Want to hear something even more astounding? I just went at least an hour without thinking about Donald Trump.

But since we’re on the topic, Harrison has an interesting take on all this “Make America Great Again” business that’s been clogging up our earthly atmosphere all these months.

He points to New Horizons, the NASA reconnaissance mission that just over a year ago passed within less than 8,000 miles of Pluto; Juno, the NASA spacecraft now orbiting Jupiter; the James Webb Space Telescope that will lift off in 2018 and provide NASA unprecedented direct imaging of planets in faraway solar systems; the OSIRIS-REx launch next month that will collect an asteroid sample and ferry it back to Earth.

How, fellow Americans, can we pull off miracles like that and not be great already?

“This is revolutionary,” Harrison said. “This is like when Galileo first lifted his telescope.”

But back, if only for a few more blissful minutes, to the meteor shower.

At times they seemed so close you could reach up and touch them. Other times they appeared far off on the horizon – I found myself hoping some other lucky souls were out there, flat on their backs, staring straight up at those.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to witness such a spectacle and still think it’s all about us.

“It’s a gift, brother,” said Harrison, eyes still on the sky. “It’s a gift.”

Amen to that.


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