The whole sky

It seems like about five minutes ago that I said goodbye to Cape Town: a thousand shades of green, evening walks and the scent of frangipani blossoms, endless beaches, nervous left-side driving excursions, and long orange weeks under the African sun.

And now I’m here in Portland, ten thousand miles away: gray-skied and bursting with spring, all mossy limbs and waterfalls, coconut tea and dinners with friends, the countdown to Easter, and the simple smallness of days. It's good to be here, but I have covered more miles in the last 30 days than I will at any other point this year, and I think all that spinning around the earth is still catching up with me. I'm doing what I can to feel anchored, before I spin off to yet another continent in April.

Last Thursday as the sun was setting I stood on the edge of the ocean, on a rocky stretch of coastal Oregon called Cape Lookout, and breathed it in deep. I'd come from Portland on a last-minute, one-night camping trip with my friend Jessica and her two young boys, and the timing couldn’t have been better: after ten solid days of rain, the sky had cleared to a thin and perfect blue. We spent the day scouting for shells on the sand, watching our long shadows bounce and bend in the golden light, and rolling out sleeping bags in a cozy yurt.

Near midnight, when the other three were in bed, the low rumble of the waves drew me outside. I buried my fists in my vest pockets and circled back through the tall pines, down the quiet path toward the Pacific. I hadn’t brought a flashlight but the moon was bright and high, and I could see well enough. Between the access road and the beach stood a tall, sandy ridge backed by a rocky berm. A halfhearted fence ran the length of the ridge, with a sign encouraging visitors to take the paved road a short distance away. I ducked under the fence and scrambled up the sand. Though I’d been able to hear the rhythmic sounds of the surf all along the path, the moment I crested the hill, it was like crossing through a wall of sound — the ocean appeared with a roar that blew with the force of wind and rose like the tide itself, wrapping me up like a blanket and chanting: alive, alive, alive.

I stood alone at the top of the ridge and looked out into the night at the blue-ink sea…behind it the gray murmur of horizon that deepened as it rose to hold the stars; below it a layer of frothing white waves that bordered the shore. The stretch of muted sand, narrowed in the high tide. The solid mass of cliffs sloping down to the south, heavy and silent; a dark cutout against the heavens. It was breathtaking, all of it.

And then…there was the sky.

The whole clear bowl of the sky, and all its bodies of light: the Dipper, the North Star, Cassiopeia, Orion. A million other stars, pierced and streaming out of the thick night.

There’s something about seeing the whole arc of the sky, all at once — from one horizon over to the other, and back again — that cuts right to the core of me. It feels like taking in a breath bigger than your lungs can hold; like being on a ship both anchored and unmoored. Like leaving, and coming home.

A sky interrupted by the geometry of buildings and streetlights is still the sky, of course. It's still vast and miraculous and watercolored in the evenings, and still worthy of long appreciative looks. But a sky like that closes you in, narrows the world into vertical slivers of day and night. And after a while it feels to me like we’re all hiding something, like we’re pretending everything is smaller than it is, and that we are more in control than we could ever possibly be. 

When I was a child growing up in the north-country woods of Wisconsin, I didn’t notice the sky. It was just there, always. After I’d gone away for some years and then come back again, though, I found that I could feel the sky around me differently, in the place I’d come from. And it was familiar, whole, like a blanket pulled overhead and tucked in all around the bottom. 

At 18, I moved away from the red farm on Brush Prairie Lane to live in small cities, and then in large ones. On visits home, I would sneak out behind the milkhouse when my family was asleep, homesick for the sky I knew. Standing there in the thick dark, at the meeting of yard and field, I’d fling my head back to look into the deep black, and remember how very many stars there really are — how many stars you can see when you’re in the tucked-away dark, the country-farm dark, the back-40 dark; far from the glow of manmade lights. 

On that ridge in Oregon, I found the same wide-open dark. And my eyes wandered to the constellation Orion, picking out his bold form in the sky. Years ago, when I was in a confusing and extremely difficult season of life, Orion became something of a lifeline to me; a reminder of hope and promise when neither was offering itself up without a fight. In the northern hemisphere, you see, the mythical hunter-hero Orion is brightest and highest in the sky in December and January, the darkest months of the year. The three stars of Orion's belt jump out in a short, straight row and are known as the Three Kings (the Magi), or the Three Sisters. If you trace a line down from this belt, you'll see a curved line of stars: that's Orion's sword. And in the middle of his sword is what's known as the Orion Nebula — one of the only nebulae, or "star nurseries," that you can see with the naked eye on a clear night.

Right at the center of Orion, then — this nebula — is a place where stars are being born. And we can see it with our own eyes. In the middle of the longest and darkest nights.

This is amazing to me.

Staring up at Orion, I think about how right now, in this moment, stars are being born; spread out across the whole sky. Light is being made in the darkness — something from nothing. I think about the Magi of the Bible: dreamers, outsiders; studying and charting the sky, following knowledge and seeking favor, navigating faith and politics. Traveling without a map. Continually adjusting their course. And I look at my small life, and my big questions, and the uncertain road, and all the things I long for that I cannot yet see. And I hear the voice of God whisper, "I am still making something out of nothing. I am still turning darkness into light." 

Here I am, on this Good Friday, seeking and stumbling and re-routing and charting my own journey. Just as we all are. Under the whole sky, and with a God who is, mysteriously, still able to make something bright and beautiful appear where we see nothing but the thick dark.