a big beautiful mess

Arctic Skies

Yesterday was an awesome day.

On Monday, I finally got my copy of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green in the mail. I’ve been waiting for it since January, and since before then, when John and Hank started talking about it on their vlogbrothers videos. And yesterday, as we had the day off for International Women’s Day, at last I had time to devote to it. I immersed myself in the book in a way I’ve rarely done since high school, letting it take up my whole life. And really, this book can’t be read any other way. If it doesn’t take you over, you’re not paying attention. I can’t say that it’s been particularly fun or enjoyable to read this book– it runs the whole gamut of emotions, and many of them are unhappy ones.

I forced myself to stop at 8:00, because I could see it was upsetting me, making me angsty and crabby (and not having eaten wasn’t helping). So I decided to go to the grocery store on my own, with Van Morrison plugged into my ears, to cool down. As I was walking along the street, trying to take in the sky’s particular velvety shade of blue, I was startled by a bright orange light to my right. It looked like a street light, but it was a perfect globe shape, unlike any of the streetlamps in Arkhangelsk. “Is that the moon?” I thought. But it couldn’t be! It was too huge, too orange, far, far too bright. The possibility that it was the moon caught my fancy, though, and I veered off course to get closer, to find out. As I approached the end of the street, I became slowly more and more convinced that it was the moon, and not an ad or a man-made light, and the realization, coming upon me slow and uncertain, was like something rising in my throat. It was beautiful. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before; no Pennsylvania harvest moon could compare. I stood at the end of the street for a few minutes, gazing at the full moon in awe. And then I went on to the grocery store.

When I returned, Andrea, the German teacher, was visiting with Łukasz, and they were discussing, among other things, the news of a recent solar storm, which meant the possibility of the Northern Lights appearing. I responded with restrained enthusiasm. Łukasz and Nils and I had walked to the river and along the Embankment for a good hour and a half Tuesday night, in the hopes of glimpsing the Aurora, with no luck. Andrea admitted that though she’s been living here for three years, she has yet to see the lights. I made myself dinner and took a shower, planning to do some school work before going to bed.

I had barely stepped out of the shower, though, when Łukasz cried out, “Aurora!” Dorota, the other Polish teacher, had just called him from the street outside our building to say that she could see the lights! I changed back into jeans, pulled on my snow boots, and mashed a hat over my still wet hair, and we practically ran down the stairs to meet Dorota, staring up at the patches of sky visible between the buildings and street lights, where, lo and behold, a pale grey ghost of Aurora was hanging.

We shortly decided to take a taxi to the Embankment, where it would be darker. We walked out onto the frozen river, craning up at what looked like a greenish gray lunar rainbow arcing over the river, with the moon now fluorescent white, like a spotlight behind us. We moved slowly further out onto the ice, fiddling with the long-exposure settings on our cameras, talking about how cold it was, staring always upwards, watching for any little change. It was quiet and it was not spectacular, but at the same time, it was exactly as I imagined it would be. Just like the photos on the Internet, just like the description in The Golden Compass. Any words I could think of to describe it sounded like something I had read before.

Twice, the pale smudge turned into something like what you see in pictures– green and peach-colored curtains winking and dancing up above. It was like a cosmic, iridescent snake across the sky. It was like God finger-painting. And the whole time, the bitter, hard cold of the exposed river created this dissonance between my body telling me to get inside, to get warm, as soon as possible, and my soul telling me to stay.

And then, when we finally came home, I found out that the Russian representative to the Eurovision Song Contest in May will be a group of babushki from Udmurtia. Can this world get any more wonderful and whimsical than that?


  1. 19 March 2012    

    Your description here is pitch perfect. I’m delighted we had that second chance the following night, and that my first sighting of them was with you.

  2. 23 May 2012    

    Thanks for the comments on the northern lights – my 3min of research turns you up as the best (English-language) resource on whether to go to Arkhangelsk to see them! So I guess we’ll be heading up to Murmansk or Novaya Zemlya (less likely..)

    • 23 May 2012    

      Yeah, I was also disappointed by the lack of information on where to see the Northern Lights. Does seem that a little further north is better, though.

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