The phone rang, as it so often does when a book is fat with promise. It was my son, a young man diligent in his inspections of the outside world, and he was talking to my wife. The promise of the book gave way to a mother’s voice, appreciative at being thought of and understood.

The northern lights dance in the eastern sky over a pine tree at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Augusta in 2015. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“Yes. I can do that. OK. That’s what I’ll do. Yes, I’m serious. I’m going to get dressed and put my boots on as soon as I get off the phone.” 

She hung up and started finding her boots. I followed suit. 

Ever cautious of someone else’s idea of a miracle, we paused at the door before venturing out into the March blackness on this night. There we found that there was no blackness on this night. Instead was a sky so varied in color and contour, the eye couldn’t stay in one place long enough to be at ease or even comprehend it. 

Outdoors, for a full 360 northern lights.

I suppose we were cold. I suppose we had dressed hastily. I had also supposed I understood this phenomenon. I could remember clearly explanations in a sixth-grade science text, the accompanying black-and-white photographs and my perfect scores on the quizzes that year. But neither my memory nor my “knowledge” had prepared me for this. 


To the south and east the sky was the red usually reserved for distant barn fires, but without the severity. The rest of heaven’s lower rim alternated smoky greens and blues I remembered from a past display years ago. Directly overhead, powerful white shafts grew out of a single point, like viewing a cowlick from the inside. 

From high atop our hill, we looked eastward to Vinalhaven, now connected to the mainland by a prairie fire.

In our unique ways, we made our unique discoveries. My wife was delighted that her son saw this and thought first of her. I puzzled at the wake left by an airplane in the crimson fog, reminding me of the trail left by a muskrat swimming though an algae-choked pond. She said it made her aware of how deep and close space is.

We both speculated on the effects such nights must have had on ancient peoples. We agreed that on such nights poetry was born and shamans came to great power. 

I stayed out in the night a bit longer, selfishly hoping for more questions, more understandings, more ways to fail with explanations. And finally, as the battle of colors hot and cold subsided, I saw the closeness up close, as well as the vastness beyond. 

From my youth, I remembered glasses, tumblers and stemware at my aunt’s house. They had irregular red and green tints inside grainy Depression glass. I would look through them, turning them gently in my hand, making windowsills bulge and doing things to the faces of grownups. 

The unrealness of that night brought home to me the reality that we are all caught inside that glass. Our hurtling mote of dust is just another terrarium set in place by unseen forces. Maybe the sun, 93,000,000 miles away. Or so my sixth-grade textbook told me. 

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