A few days before Christmas last year, I posted about my boyhood fascination with stars. Not the Hollywood kind, but the jewelled display of God’s handiwork hung in the night sky. I wrote of an experience from long ago in which my wife and I went with some friends to Anza Borrego State Park for an overnight camping trip, and a clear view of the constellations away from the “light pollution” of the city.
I have a more vivid scene to remember today; this time, it was from Joshua Tree National Park, near Palm Springs.
My wife and I planned a mini-vacation to Palm Desert with our son, daughter, and daughter-in-law. The plan was to head out to Joshua Tree late Tuesday afternoon, to see which desert wildflowers were blooming, and then stay until after sunset to watch the stars come out. The weather was perfect; it was a good plan.
But the day we left on vacation, a death in my wife’s family compelled her to head home, then catch a plane to be with her family, while the kids and I sadly carried through with the original plan without her.
We arrived at the park about an hour before sunset. There was little in the way of flora to enjoy. It was too early for the ocotillos to be in bloom; we didn’t even see a single Joshua tree where we were in the southern area of the park. I decided to get a decent sunset photo and leave it at that.
We parked the car in a small deserted lot by a nature trail and waited for the sky to darken. Jupiter and Venus were already clearly visible before the stars began to emerge, a few at a time, as if by cosmic dimmer switch. Mars glowed faintly orange on the other side of the sky. In time, the night was gloriously alive with stars.
Since childhood, I had always looked for Orion first, as if he were an old friend. There he was, standing conspicuously next to the softly glowing band of the Milky Way. Over there, the Big Dipper, pointing to the North Star, and there, the Little Dipper. Behind it, Cassiopeia. With the small handheld telescope my son brought with him (a hand-me-down from a neighbor), we were even able to see the Orion Nebula.
It was breathtaking.
I had to sit inside the car from time to time to warm up. Leaning against the window, looking up at the sky, I felt a pang of sadness–I wished my wife could have been there to share the experience. It had been her idea in the first place; she, too, remembered her first experience of the desert sky and wanted a blessed encore. But it was not to be. Not this time. I was sad for her, sad for her family, and sad for us.
But the Holy Spirit spoke to me through the stars. Not audibly; not in clear, declarative sentences. Rather, I experienced a shift in perspective. What we call the Milky Way is the edgewise view of our galaxy. Gazing at it stretching almost perpendicularly from horizon to horizon, I realized that I had an implicit image of the galaxy expanding outward from where I stood, flat, in the same plane, as if all of reality should be nothing more than an extension of my own experience. Seeing the edge of the galaxy above me made me feel disoriented, crooked, as if somehow everything was leaning dangerously and might fall over at any second.
That’s what happens when you start imagining reality on a galactic scale. And suddenly, death and life seemed like mere moments–important moments to be sure, but moments nonetheless–in an eternal symphony orchestrated by the one who holds the stars in his hand.
That realization didn’t take away the longing for everything wrong to be made right.
But it did transform it into something that had more of the character of hope. That’s the memory I want to keep, the way I want to hold the galaxy in my off-kilter imagination.