MY DAUGHTER, Hannah Virginia, who recently turned three years old, is teaching me about the stars. Far from being a liability to her, my own profound astronomical ignorance has turned out to be her boon and, through her, a boon to me as well. The most important thing the kid has taught me is the brilliant, open secret that if you don’t go outside and look up, you won’t see anything. Every night before bedtime she takes my hand and insists that I get my bedraggled ass up and take her outside to look at the stars. If this sounds easy, ask yourself if you can match her record of going out every single night to observe the sky — something she has done without fail for more than a year now. That she has somehow brought her celestially illiterate father along is more amazing still.
Following the inexorable logic that makes a kid’s universe so astonishing, Hannah insists on looking for stars no matter the weather. At first I attempted the rational, grown-up answer: “It just isn’t clear enough to see anything tonight, honey.” But her response, which is always the same, is so emphatic and ingenuous that it is irresistible: “Dad, we can always check.” And so we check. And it is when we check that the rewards of lifting my head up and out of another long day come into focus. One cold and windy night we stepped out and discovered, through a momentary break in an impossibly thick mat of clouds, a stunning view of Sirius blazing low in the southeast. Another evening we stood in an unusual late-winter fog and saw nothing — but then we heard the courtship hooting of a nearby great horned owl, followed immediately by the distant yelping of coyotes up in the hills. We even stand out in snowstorms to stargaze, and while we’ve never seen any stars on those white nights, we’ve seen and felt and smelled the crisp shimmering that arrives only on the wings of a big January storm. Snow or no snow, Hannah knows those stars are up there, so she does easily what is somehow difficult for many of us grown-ups: she looks for them. And whether she sees stars or not, in seeking them every evening she has forged an unbreakable relation with the world-within-a-world that is night.
Questions are the waypoints along which Hannah’s orbit around things can be plotted, and she has asked so many questions about stars for so many nights in a row that at last I’ve been compelled to learn enough to answer some of them. In doing so I’ve stumbled into placing myself, my family, my home, on the cosmic map whose points of reference wheel across the sky. We’ve learned a surprising number of stars and constellations together. Now that we’re in our second year of performing our nightly ritual, we’re also having the gratifying experience of seeing our favorite summer stars, long gone in the high-desert winter, come round again on the year’s towering, dark clock.
The other evening after supper, my wife asked Hannah to make a wish. Without hesitating she replied, “I wish I could have a ladder tall enough to reach the stars.” As usual, I didn’t know what to say. It is impossible to dismiss a three-year-old kid when she articulates hopes that are at once so perfectly reasonable and so beautifully impossible.
Before she goes to sleep, Hannah and I look at the six-dollar cardboard star wheel I bought to help us identify constellations. Too tired to make much of it, I toss the disk down on her bed in mild frustration. She picks it up, holds it upright in front of her in both hands, stares earnestly out beyond the walls of her room, and begins to turn it left and right as if it were a steering wheel.
“Where’re you going?” I ask.
“Pleiades,” she says. “You want to come?”