To achieve the level of enlightenment wherein the above is all, not known but understood, the level where you can transcend human existence and travel unencumbered through the eternal light, the universe, you must see the face of God. Looking around the Gables or Overtown or Kendall ain't gonna cut it, pal.
Look up. To become one with the universe requires leaving the temporal world and soaring across the star-speckled blackness of forever. It also helps if you're hanging out with a bunch of easygoing, fun lovin' cool people in an idyllic natural setting.
That's the plan for Thursday night, when the Southern Cross Astronomical Society convenes (yeah, yeah under the stars) at Bill Sadowski Park in South Miami-Dade. It's time (so to speak) for the annual Perseid meteor shower, space dust tailing from the Swift-Tuttle comet and creating a cosmic illumination both visual and spiritual.
The moon this week will appear as but a sliver, and the park is dark and distant from the ambient lights of the overlit city. As the folks at the Lake Afton Observatory in Kansas explain, meteors are tiny bits of dust -- often as small as a grain of sand -- that incinerate upon contact with Earth's atmosphere. Meteor showers occur several times per year, but the Perseid is the most intense and best known.
"These are fast and colorful meteors," notes Barb Yager, a sixteen-year member of Southern Cross. "Every time you look at the sky you learn something. Last Saturday [at one of the society's weekly gatherings] we saw a half-dozen satellites. We've seen the Columbia space shuttle, the Hubble ... all with the naked eye. We will have high-tech equipment, and encourage people to bring their telescopes and binoculars, but it's not necessary."
She sees enlightenment in the skies, constant knowledge imparted from above. "Lawn chairs are the most vital piece of equipment," she adds. Earthly things such as pets, alcohol, and artificial lights are not permitted in the park. Dimming your car lights on approach is mandatory, or else a piece of space junk will fall through your windshield. Snacks, bug repellent, and comfortable clothes are other tools of the endeavor. "It's a lot of fun," Yager says of the weekly convergence of lookers up. "It's free, casual, family-oriented. And there's plenty to see up there besides the meteors." This week's gathering is a highlight because mid-August is when the meteors are at their most flamboyant and abundant.
When the nucleus of a comet nears the sun (as the Swift-Tuttle's did a few years back), its ice melts from the solar heat, releasing dust particles and gases. These form the comet's tail. As the particles move off, they remain in their orbit around the sun. Earth passes through the comet's exhaust orbit (known as particle streams), and meteor showers become visible.
"There's a curiosity about what's beyond," Yager says, "that's in every human soul. This is about pure enjoyment outside, not in some stuffy building with a bunch of special effects. This is the real thing."
As real as it gets, anyway. The lesson, besides having a blast, is humility. "You can expand your horizons," Yager declares laughing. "It all makes one feel very insignificant." Certainly. We are only a small part of the beam. And the meteors are, ahem, dust in the wind.