Tonight’s Yukon forecast for northern lights is calling for Extreme Aurora. My roommate, Allen, a First Nations elder who knows everything about anything important up here, thinks they’ll be coming out around 1am, so I ready my camera and set an alarm for 12:45. As it turns out, the alarm is unnecessary because I can’t sleep; too many questions. Will there be different colours or just green? (As if it’s not enough to see the northern lights, I’m preemptively disappointed in the case that they aren’t absolutely spectacular.) Do I even know how to shoot something like this with my obsolescent camera? Should I get a new camera? (I should). Can I afford it? (HAHAHAHAH, no.) Is it dark enough yet? Are they already out? Am I missing it? Did I forget to floss?
By 12:15 I can’t stand it any longer. Like a kid on Christmas morning defying the impossible rule of sleeping in until AT LEAST 6am, I layer up in every sweater I own and creep into the night. As soon as I step outside a shooting star zips right down the middle of my field of view and I blink. I also make a quick wish for good, not ordinary, northern lights.
I look northward because Allen had said this is where they always start. “That’s why they’re called northern lights,” he’d told me, like I was simple.
“I thought it was just because you had to be up north to see them,” I’d said in my own defense.
“Yeah.” Our conversations are usually pretty short.
I can’t see much but treetop silhouettes and a regular starry sky, so I move closer to the wide-open space of a field about 100m from my cabin. The view is better, but I can hear things rustling in the long grasses and it freaks me out, so I retreat to the cabin and resign myself to watching the show from my cheap seats at the back of the theatre.
Allen is outside having a smoke when I get back.
“See anything?” he asks.
“What time is it?”
“Should be soon. 1:00.” He always repeats himself. Sometimes he’ll tell me the same story three or four times in the run of a day, using exactly the same words each time. I don’t mind. I love his stories. He speaks with the accent of his people, soft and deliberate, and he has this fantastic, childish giggle. I should really record it sometime, just to have. Regardless, he has yet to be wrong about anything no matter how many times he repeats it, so I hunker down to wait for 1am.
I’ve no sooner taken a seat on the steps of the back porch than Allen looks up and points.
I follow the glow of his cigarette and squint into the night. “Really? I can’t see anything.”
“Just over there, it’s getting light. See?”
I can’t see. I suppose I can sort of imagine I see something, maybe, but truthfully the sky looks pretty normal.
“Another couple minutes, it will be bright,” says Allen. He puts his cigarette out against the trunk of a tree and shoves it in his pocket: A few seconds later I hear the door to the cabin open and shut quietly behind him.
I wait and I yawn and soon it occurs to me that if I’m going to fall asleep, I might as well do it in my warm bed as opposed to shivering out here on the back stoop. But just then, as if the cosmos were begging my patience while they make final preparations for tonight’s main event, I see another shooting star. This time I feel myself wish for a whole bunch of things simultaneously, the way you have a million random thoughts in the 2.7 seconds it takes to flip your car into a ditch. I wish for Ross and I to see each other soon and for a great winter. I wish for my grandmother to go peacefully and for my dog to live forever. I wish for good, not ordinary, northern lights. I don’t wish for world peace or anything noble. By the time I process all these things and argue with myself over whether or not I should pick just one wish, and then debate which one it would be, a very distinct, yet hazy green wave has started to spread across the treetops. It isn’t moving, isn’t dancing as they say, but it is shimmering and getting brighter by the second. It’s easier to see if you don’t look at it directly, kind of like those optical illusion prints that were so popular at strip mall poster stores in the ‘80s.
I stare and squint in the lessening darkness. The green fades and becomes bright again, widening and thinning out repeatedly. It’s beautiful… but not spectacular. I’ve seen way more impressive sunsets and photos of George Clooney, quite frankly. I stand around for another 10 minutes and it pretty much stays the same. When it doesn’t appear my wish for good, not ordinary, northern lights will be granted, I begin to indulge in self-pity but stop when I realize/remember something important: I’m an idiot.
If natural wonders were predictable they would be neither natural nor wonderful. Shooting stars, perfect sunsets, northern lights – they’re extraordinary because they catch us by surprise and remind us that we’re teeny, tiny beings with virtually no control over the stuff that actually matters. I’m glad seeing spectacular northern lights isn’t as simple as going to the Yukon, googling “aurora borealis forecast?” and setting the alarm on my iPhone. I get it. I’ll wait. And if this is it, that’s cool. I’ll just put good, not ordinary, northern lights back on the list with all the other amazing things I’ve never seen and continue fumbling around, making big plans only to be taught/reminded that I’ve got quite a nerve making big plans.
You win, Universe. Again. Thanks, and goodnight.