“Orrery (noun) – an apparatus showing the relative positions and motions of
bodies in the solar system by balls moved by a clockwork.” – Merriam-Webster
At no time of the year does the daylight flee at a greater rate than now, at the autumnal equinox. With every turn of the earth on its axis, the losses mount — three minutes a day for those of us in Boston. When I come downstairs in the morning and switch on the fluorescent lights in the kitchen, the artificial glow reflecting back at me from the windows only makes the dark outside seem darker. When I finish practice in the afternoon, the sun is almost below the horizon. I shiver to think of the twilight even now overtaking the trails where I’d like to run. Nature’s clockwork is telling me and every other creature, “Take heed, for the day of your life is far spent.”
On this particular Thursday evening, I’m driving through the city telling myself there’s still time. I fend off seasonal thoughts of my own mortality and ultimate insignificance with a stubborn determination to sneak in a run before it’s too late. Thankfully, it isn’t too cold or the warmth of hearth and home might be too hard to resist.
Had I been an hour earlier, I might have been able to join Terry and Patrick for a twilight tempo run around Fresh Pond, but as I glance at the clock on my dashboard, I calculate that they finished their exertions over half an hour ago, and surely by now have returned home for supper. Not me. Not yet. I’m headed to the last refuge of the evening runner, the local track.
I park in a lot that is almost empty, and grab a pair of lighter shoes that I carry with me as I head to the gate and enter the facility at Newton North. As I was driving over, I was hoping the lights would be on, but now that I’m here, the lack of illumination suits me just fine. I begin to jog, slowly and stiffly at first, but reserving judgement about “how I feel.” I’ve found that it’s better not to think about that sometimes, and that a more useful question is “what do I want?” Basically, I’m trying not to think about what might come next, just focus on my footsteps as I circle the track in the outside lane.
Although it is dark, the track is not empty. As I jog, I become aware of my nocturnal companions – a woman walking alone carrying a flashlight, two women walking together in the inside lanes chattering away in Korean (need to watch out for them later), a man walking slowly along one straightaway (he turns out to be a security guard), a woman with a child who tugs on her arm. Under the cloudy night sky, this chance collection of human beings making circuits of the track in different lanes and at different speeds resembles a system of planets making circuits of a dark sun.
I remember that the word planet traces its history all the way back to the Greek verb planāsthai, to wander, and I am struck by the thought that we are wanderers here. The woman and child, the old friends in conversation, the overweight man with a night shift, the runner — we pass one another aware of, but without acknowledging, each other’s presence in this of all places. Sometimes we overtake one another, or are overtaken.
It takes me a while, but I finally begin to warm up. Out of habit, I switch into my lighter shoes, and out of habit I begin a tempo run. I start my watch but can’t read it so it is useless to me. In solidarity with my buddies, I run 4k at the pace I imagine they ran the first loop of Fresh Pond. And that’s enough. I was tired when I started, and I’m tired when I finish. It wasn’t much of a workout, but at least I won’t go home regretting anything.
I cool down, and now there’s only the lady with the flashlight still walking slowly around the track. As I finish up, and jog to the gate, I wonder whether the eternally wandering planets in the night sky imagine they are choosing where they wander, or whether they know they are following inevitably the arc fixed for them by the immutable clockwork laws of the universe.