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Phantom Limbs and Shooting Stars

Phantom Limbs and Shooting Stars

One of the hard things about this COVID time is a licensing rule that prohibits preschool families from entering the building. Saying goodbye to families at the main entrance feels so unnatural. The absence of the families in the school reminds me of a phantom limb: I experience sensations as I walk past spots where they would gather in clusters, missing the way they would animate the space. 

Each morning after the required health checks, the children and teachers use a route through the (closed) children’s museum via an exhibit called Twilight Trail. In the first week of school, as we were walking down the trail, we noticed a big surprise in the starry sky above our heads. The children squealed as a row of tiny lights zoomed across the night sky. A shooting star! 

Together, we were transported from the previous moment of temperature checks and hand sanitizer to this one of delight. It reminded me of being with friends on Lopez Island during the Perseids meteor shower — except this time, we were inside, it was morning, and we were wearing a layer of PPE. So much was different, and yet that moment of unexpected light amid the darkness sparked collective joy. 

Without thinking, I said, “Make a wish.” My family has a lot of wishing rituals — birthday candles, 11:11, fallen eyelashes, dandelions, the first day of the month — and any time we try something new, our wishes often become a way of summoning courage. We also make a wish whenever we see an elusive shooting star.

The child next to me, a young three-year-old heaving a backpack that stretched to her knees, stopped walking, still gazing upward. I didn’t know her very well yet and I wasn’t sure what was happening. Was her load too heavy to continue? Did she suddenly need the bathroom? 

“Cake!” she exclaimed. Ahh, she was thinking so earnestly about her wish that she stopped in her tracks. I smiled behind my mask. I heard another friend ahead of us say, “I wish COVID would go away.” Me too, I whispered. This idea led me to wonder: What is the proximity of our wishes to our fears?

On a different day, another child noticed the full moon near the shooting star. He said it missed its mom. He added, rain is the moon’s tears. This is a friend whose whole family is at home as he ventures to school each day, a friend who has a hard time saying goodbye to his mom because he anticipates how much he’ll miss her.

Recently, a new colleague asked us to express our fears at our first meeting with her. I don’t know what compelled me to speak first, but I stepped into the silence to say I had a few hopes. As I was sharing them, I felt the weighty presence of my fears nearby. But I wasn’t yet brave enough to name them as fears. That would be too vulnerable in this moment, in this initial connection with a stranger. It made me curious about how our hopes — or wishes — make visible the places where we’re not (yet) recognizing our own agency.

Making wishes in the dark. Feeling hopeful in moments of powerlessness. Perhaps these are challenge-coping or agency-finding strategies for humans. They have a way of taking care of us. I wonder how often our wishes reflect the places we fear. I wonder how often our hopes feel like a safer way to share our slice of despair.