Last night, my friend Chad and I followed through on a plan that had been in the works for a few weeks. We met up with his mom for half-price wings at a little BBQ joint, and then Chad and I headed off to the beach together.
By the time our feet met the sand, the sun had just set, leaving pale pink and amber in its place along the horizon. The sole purpose of our visit was to spend some time being still. By still, I do not mean walking and talking together. We do that often. But last night, our goal was to be even more still than this. To be together, yet separate for a while. Solitary. Quiet. Reflective.
We navigated our way across the large, precarious boulders of the jetty to the very end, just past the lighthouse with its dutiful red beacon turning. The facility and coordination of the human body amazed me as we stepped and hopped and zigzagged along the stone surfaces, all set at random angles and distances from one another. I found my feet quickly acclimating to the terrain, reminded of their more nimble childhood days when making this journey would have been virtually second nature, and done seemingly without even looking down.
Once at the end, we each chose a suitable place and settled in. The gentle breeze was cool and damp without being chill. I set a blanket out and lay with my back flat against the rock, knees bent. I had no agenda other than to simply be there.
I was at first aware of everything going on around me. Fourth of July enthusiasts who hadn’t quite had their fill for the season let off distant fireworks. Steamers passed. A nearby buoy clanged its rhythmical gong – gong – gong as waves lapped against it. Still, it was peaceful, and I let it be what it was, without thinking too much.
I looked up at the sky. At everything. At nothing. I could feel the heat of the day still in the rock beneath me, warming my palms and the soles of my feet. Soon, the sounds faded away. The scene above me was framed by a near circle of cotton-candy clouds, pulling apart and drifting slowly. At the top right of my field of vision, other clouds formed airy, diagonal streaks. At center stage, the first faint pinholes of stars emerged as the evening sky began to shift to a deeper shade of blue.
I have seen many a sunrise and sunset over the years. But as I watched the scene unfolding above me, it struck me that I’d never before watched the stars fade into view quite like this. The thought made me smile a smile that didn’t touch my lips.
What I will say next must be interpreted correctly. For these are not thoughts that occurred to me as I lay there on the jetty, with the house lights dimming and the stars tiptoeing onto the stage. Rather, what I will share here are realizations I had only after the play was over, so to speak. As I lay there looking up, I did not consider (as is often my tendency) the magnitude of the universe. I did not ponder the unfathomable number of stars or that they were really gargantuan balls of burning gas whose light has long since gone out but which was only just reaching my eyes now through millions of light years worth of space.
In that moment, the stars – were just stars. Beautiful, yes. But just stars, as might be seen through the eyes of a young child. Points of glowing white, growing steadily brighter and brighter against a darkening canvas.
When I was a young boy, I could not look at the sky for long, for fear of falling up and never stopping. It all seemed so far and vast and frightening to me. As an adult, I know more about the scope of space (though what do any of us really know of it?). And yet, I feel less fright. Or, rather, less awe. And there are times for that awe. But in my “now-ness” as I lay beneath those stars, I felt a sort of antithesis to fear. It all seemed close and personal, a painting on the ceiling of my room. It was simplicity. And that simplicity was comfort.
A shooting star appeared briefly off to my left. Here again, it was only later that I considered that shooting stars are not stars at all. No, in that moment, it was not science. It was magic. The tune to “When You Wish Upon A Star” played lazily somewhere in my mind, and then whirled away, its echo fading to silence again.
I thought about the night that John and I had sat on the hood of my car, reclining back against the windshield and looking at the night sky as we talked about life. I told him that I see shooting stars all the time. He called me a liar. I smiled. I encouraged him to just look up without trying to see. To focus in on one star as we talked. Within a minute, an unusually bright shooting star streaked by. John’s laugh was pure jubilation as his hand shot upward, pointing. “Did you see that? I really saw one!” A half a dozen more followed, before our talk was done. I felt like a magician, as if I’d somehow, by act of will, had something to do with John’s seeing shooting stars for the very first time.
There on the jetty, the sky was now dark, the stars numerous and bright. I don’t know how long I lay there, but five more shooting stars went by – the last as unusually bright as the one I’d seen with John all those years ago. It felt like the finale of the fireworks show: my cue that tonight’s performance was complete.
I sat up. Suddenly, all of the sounds around came flooding back to reality. The water lapping. The boats passing. The buoy. It was an odd sensation. I’d truly been lost in the moment – or however many moments it had been. Chad was sitting on his perch not far away. Instinctively it seemed, he knew my personal reflection time was done. He looked back, smiling as if to say hello after we’d been gone a while.
Making our way back along the jetty was more of a challenge in the darkness, and with little moonlight to illuminate our way. Every so often, Chad – who was in the lead – would look back to be sure that I was getting on all right. Somewhere along the way, he commented how the jetty reminded him of obstacles and trials in life: if you don’t look at all the rocks ahead, just at the one under your feet – and then the next one – you can cover quite a lot of difficult ground readily.
Just off the jetty, as our feet welcomed the soft, cool sand, I put down my things and took Chad’s from his arms, setting them down as well. I hugged him silently, good and tight. He returned this with complete understanding. We then picked up our things and continued to the car.
I don’t know what Chad thought about during his time of reflection last night. I only know without a doubt that our mission had been completed, our goal achieved.