On March 25, I was staring at the sky, and I didn’t know what I was seeing.
We were staying at a remote cabin, a campfire in front of us, the gathering darkness pressing in on us, our silhouettes illuminated by licking flames. We were hours from any city or artificial light and the stars were brilliant, scattershot against the infinite and inky black heavens.
Then we saw it.
A single, illuminated object was crossing the night sky. I thought it was a plane, but it was impossibly large and gleaming. Behind it, a trail of fire. The fire was small at first, and then grew, engulfing the whole. Suddenly pieces were breaking away, falling to the ground, consumed by flashes of light. Each piece glittered as it fell, creating the image of an expanding constellation, complete with connecting lines. Eventually these too were consumed, the brilliant display winking out of existence mere seconds after it had appeared.
While the event was occurring, my partner was fast enough to capture a brief video with her phone. We alternated between staring at the sky, and squinting at the small recording of that event for a long time. I didn’t know what it was, but it was a spectacular sight. One that was visible for mere seconds, but left a lasting imprint. One of us remarked that we were incredibly lucky to see such a sight.
Were we though? It depended entirely on what the object we just witnessed was.
We attempted to search for updates and breaking news but as remote as we were, we had little to no cell service. Our search attempts were met with the images of endlessly scrolling wheels as pages failed to load. In the absence of outside information we began to speculate. My brain latched onto the idea of an aircraft, and saw a giant plane on fire, the craft engulfed in flame as it was torn apart and fell into darkness. My partner's thoughts were less morbid, suggesting that it looked more like a meteor shower, but it was more spectacular and strange then any meteor shower we had ever seen.
If it was a meteor, we were indeed very fortunate to witness its dazzling end. If it was a plane, we had just witnessed an event that didn’t allow for any survivors. Wild conjecture and discussions of what we had witnessed continued through that night and into the next day. We wanted to know what we had seen, but we also wanted to know how to see it; how to categorize it. Was it good or bad, blessing or curse, fortune or misfortune. We didn’t know. And we wouldn’t know for a long while.
The next day we drove into town and our phones were once again connected with the outside world. The second stage of a SpaceX rocket had failed to make it’s deorbit burn, and had been orbiting earth for 21 days. The event we had seen was its reentry into our upper atmosphere, where it briefly lit up the night sky for onlookers across British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Some of the remains landed on a remote Washington farm, and the rest disintegrated upon re-entry.
All of our best guesses and conjectures of the event were incorrect. In the end, it was neither a meteor or (thankfully) an aircraft full of passengers. In retrospect, I can admit that the event didn’t really resemble a plane at all. It was merely the label my mind supplied, and in absence of a better one, I accepted it. Neither of us remembers reading of the rocket launch weeks earlier, or its failed deorbit. We had no clear label for this spectacular and novel sight. We were (literally and figuratively) in the dark. We didn’t know what we were seeing, and we certainly didn’t know what to do with it. Not yet, anyway.
“You don’t know what this is yet” is a phrase I repeat to myself often. I offer it to you as well. There are a lot of times that I have found myself in (varying degrees of) the dark, both before that night and afterwards. I repeat it to myself when I feel like I’m receiving only the initial, incomplete information. I utter it when I feel like wild conjecture is given more attention span than it should be. I whisper it to myself when I hear shouting and harsh voices speaking of a complex, nuanced and evolving issue as if it were the simplest thing in the world.
We may not witness a mysterious celestial event every day, but we are regularly surrounded by the unknown, the unfamiliar, and that which is only partially understood. The more we see and experience, the more things are going to fail to fit into our established categories and judgments. As we grow and learn, our world does as well.
We can expect a resistance to this ambiguity, both from outside and within. The last year and a half has been the most uncertain time many of us have ever experienced, but you might never know it from the certainty being peddled, both then and now. Repeated bold and certain predictions based on partial information and conjecture. A chorus of voices telling us how to immediately identify, categorize and react to information. I’ve been guilty of it too. Us humans like categories and labels that are familiar, clean, and certain. But certainty kills curiosity and inquiry. A familiar and well-worn label allows the brain to sort quickly and move on, but often at the cost of accuracy and wonder.
Some things are worth a little more time. Worth the uncertainty. Worth the benefit of doubt. Time, curiosity, and the uncovering of context are all often necessary before we can see the larger shape of a thing. There are bewildering moments when what you witness does not fit neatly with the well worn labels, categories and judgments. When there is the temptation to make the world smaller and simpler, there is also the grace to let things remain in unresolved tension.
You have the freedom to remind yourself that you don’t know what this is yet.
Maybe the responsibility to, as well.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.