In 1990, when Halley’s comet was 1.2 billion miles from the sun, an eight-year-old boy heard a song called “Halley Came to Jackson” on a new CD on his parents’ stereo. Mary Chapin Carpenter sang about a father holding a baby on a porch in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1910, when Halley blazed its brilliant path across the sky. In the song, the father makes a wish that his baby girl will live to see the comet again when it next returns to Earth’s skies in 1986. Then the song flashes forward to the woman, at 76 years old, watching the sky from her father’s porch as Halley makes its return.
The eight-year-old boy listening in 1990 was confused by the song, a little dizzied by its cosmic stretch and near-century reach. He asked his parents to explain, and when they did, he slammed out the front door and clambered onto his bicycle. He pedaled furiously down the street to the cul-de-sac which he rounded again and again, tears streaming down his face, trying to make sense of the circles of eternity as he traced his own small orbit.
When Halley visited Earth in 1910, the first visitation Mary Chapin Carpenter envisions in her song, the views were dazzling. Halley was close—a mere 14 million miles from Earth—and about a month after the comet came into view, the Earth passed through its tail. Sky-watchers, awed, didn’t know whether to celebrate or cower. Creative jewelers did a roaring trade in bourgeois comet brooches, while gullible sky-watchers bought anti-comet pills and gas masks, fearing poison gasses, celestial collisions, and the end of the world. Mark Twain, born under Halley during its previous visit, died under Halley, as was his wish.
Early in 2007, when Halley was 2.6 billion miles into its trip away from the sun, my new friend Drew sat in my living room in a hand-me-down turquoise easy chair. Drew and I were swapping songs, guitars across our laps, trying to compile a set list for an upcoming coffeehouse open mic night.
“Do you know any Mary Chapin Carpenter?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “Play something for me.”
He obliged, his fingers remembering their way into the opening melodies. Then he sang: Late one night when the wind was still, Daddy brought the baby to the windowsill.
When Halley’s comet approached Earth last, in 1986, its performance was lackluster. At its closest, the comet was 39 million miles from Earth, mostly only visible with the help of binoculars and telescopes. The 1986 apparition offered the worst views in 2000 years. Still, the children’s publishing industry cashed in on Halley’s visit, producing books to inform intrigued students, parents, and teachers. One told tales of Edmund Halley and his comet in badly rhymed poetry. Another featured a pop-up telescope with insertable planet slides. Yet another included a model of the solar system with Halley slanting through it, its long, thin, elliptical orbit reaching up and out of the planets’ plane.
Poor views didn’t stop the astronomers either, and they made the most of Halley’s visit. Five different space probes from Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union collected images and data on Halley, and the most technologically advanced telescopes of the time provided new information on the comet’s structure and composition. Fred Whipple, who set forth the so-called dirty snowball hypothesis in the early 1950s was proven mostly correct when scientists found that the comet was indeed composed of mostly dust and ice.
On May 12, 2013, at 3:43 a.m., when Halley’s comet was over three billion miles away, almost as far as the orbit of Neptune, a baby boy was born. He bellowed as he blazed into the world after a labor so fast it left the midwives gasping for breath. A few hours later, his father and I lay on the bed side by side, staring into his face, trying to decide on his name.
“What do you think?” I asked my Drew, my friend, my cosmic eight-year-old now gazing at his son.
“Actually, I was thinking about ‘Halley,’” Drew admitted. The name was on our list, but not at the top. I wasn’t sure I liked it. I was pretty sure I didn’t.
“Me too,” I agreed. “I looked at him a few minutes ago and thought, I think he’s Halley.” And he was.
In 2023, at Christmastime, Halley’s comet will be at the farthest point of its elliptical orbit, 3.2 billion miles, roughly the distance of Pluto, reaching out into the blackest space it has ever known. The comet will be dark, too far from the sun’s heat for the ice to vaporize, and too far from the sun’s glow to reflect light. It will be traveling at its slowest speed, a mere eight miles per second. Our boy will be ten. He will be preparing for junior high, puberty, tracing his own orbit through the solar system of our life together.
When astronomers across the world studied the composition of the comet in 1986, they discovered they’d have to amend Whipple’s theory. Though he was right that the “dirty snowball” included both dust and ice, he was wrong about the proportions. The comet’s mass is made of much less ice than he thought, and much more dust. Plucked out of the sky and viewed up close, it would have all the luster of coal.
In 1986, my grandparents and my son’s grandparents got as close as they will ever get to the comet. None of them will see its return. If I do, I will be nearing 80. Our son will be 48; it will be his one chance to see the strange, blazing dust that inspired the song that gave him his name. When it comes back yet again, in 2137, we will all be dust, memory if we’re lucky. And still, the comet will approach at an unfathomable 500 miles per second, then turn outward and start again for the cold, outer darkness of space.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Shea Tuttle is the author of Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers and co-editor of Can I Get a Witness: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice. Her writing has also appeared online at Bitch Media, Greater Good Magazine, the Toast, and more. She lives in Virginia with her family.