Northern Lights

from my “revisiting” series…..

I fumbled in the dark for the leg from my tripod. I had managed to get a glimpse of it as it fell off and sank into a mound of snow. Instinctively, I tried to shovel the snow with my hand, then felt a stinging sensation, reminding me that I had removed my glove in order to better handle my camera. I reached into my coat pocket for the heat pack inside and cursed at myself for not putting my glove back on first. Everything was just happening so fast. This moment I had waited for, had practiced for, had excitedly anticipated for months, was passing so quickly. My trip was about to be ruined because I had fumbled while assembling my tripod.

After booking my tickets to Iceland for a March birthday trip to see the Northern Lights, I practiced taking pictures at night. In the middle of winter, I stood outside my home in the cold and played with my camera settings, hoping that I was properly simulating the conditions I would face when the time came to see the Northern Lights. And I took some great pictures of the night sky in the suburbs of Baltimore. But when the time finally came, when I received word at my hotel that the lights were visible and therefore the tour was on for that night, when I no longer had to worry that after a week in Iceland I would go home without seeing any lights, nothing was working as planned with my camera.

We drove away from Reykjavik, so that the lights of the city wouldn’t obstruct our view. Although, my first sighting of the lights actually occured while I stood outside my hotel waiting to be picked up for the night tour. It’s still my favorite Northern Lights memory, because it was so unexpected. I was preparing to go to the lights, and instead they came to me. It almost seemed like something out of a science fiction or superhero movie, this flash of green streaking across an urban cityscape, like an alien spacecraft announcing its arrival. But out in the middle of nowhere, the lights seemed more ethereal, more benevolent.

I tried to take a few pictures while holding my camera, but knew I needed my tripod for a steady long exposure shot. As I assembled it, something I had practiced doing countless times before in the dark, pieces started falling off. I don’t know if I was rushed, unfocused, or simply incompetent, but nothing was working. As I saw the leg fall into the snow and then reactively reached for it, it hit me that I was wasting this moment. I looked at my friend, who had not made any attempts to take pictures, saying that she just wanted to watch the lights and form a memory of this night with the entirety of her senses. I realized that she was right.

It didn’t matter how much time I had put into practicing for this moment. Obviously, I had failed to capture a picture and was close to missing the entire experience. I had to come up with a new plan and do it quickly. Thank goodness my friend was there to shake some sense into me. Truthfully, she simply stood there, her head arched back as she watched the lights move across the sky. But looking at her was all I needed to recognize that I should be doing the same.

I put my camera away. If I needed a great picture of the Northern Lights, I could easily find one online. I wouldn’t be my picture, but it didn’t matter anymore. I wouldn’t have a picture of my own to post on social media, but I no longer cared. That wasn’t why I went on this trip. I went on the trip to see the Northern Lights, or rather, to experience the Northern Lights. Who knew if I would ever get the chance to see them again? No picture could ever replicate the feeling of actually being there, with frozen hands and toes but a smile on my face.

When it was time to go, I managed to locate my missing tripod leg quite easily, once I was no longer frazzled and frustrated. I think the universe caused it to fall off on purpose, as a reminder to focus on the moment. I wonder if the universe laughed during my nocturnal practice sessions, knowing all along that I was never going to get a photo. If the universe thought, wait until she actually sees them, she’ll put her camera down and just be present to enjoy them. If the universe needed to give me another prompt when I wasn’t receiving the message. Whatever the cause, I thank the universe, the tripod manufacturer, whoever is responsible. Not getting the shot was the best thing that could have happened to me.

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