In the desert, you can see in the dark.
In my Phoenix years, my house sat at the edge of a gorgeous (if somewhat desolate) mountain preserve. You could see for miles out my back door, the horizon peppered with mountains, Saguaro cactus, and the faint lights of a highway far out in the distance. Cities in Arizona are intentionally low-light, on account of there being major observatories in both Tucson and Flagstaff. Us Phoenix folks in the middle just enjoyed the benefit of pure darkness for our own amateur star-gazing.
Even on a regular night, it was lovely to stroll outside at night (especially in seasons when the night was actually cool, a brief respite from the relentless afternoon sun). But in August, when meteor showers like the Perseid rolled around, we would haul some lawn chairs out back, pop some popcorn, and get ready for a SHOW. Like, no telescope needed, just sit back and watch something spectacular sail past your head. Miracle at the speed of light.
That was awhile ago. Of course, when you live there you can take it for granted that the sky will be there to dazzle and amaze any time you happen to look up. I’ve since lived in cities that don’t think twice about their street lights or their neon Wal-Mart signs mucking up the nocturnal views. So now, when I am lucky enough to find myself in a very dark place after the sun goes down--
I look up.
Last week I was on vacation in California. We spent some time with family in the Bay area, then we headed east to Sequoia National Park. We stayed in the nearest town (to the south entrance), a place called Three Rivers. It is at the bottom of the mountain, and while an hour’s drive and a few thousand feet elevation gain will put you smack in the middle of lush forest and the largest trees on earth-- Three Rivers itself is in the desert. So when I heard there was a meteor shower on track to peak while we were there, I knew where I’d be at night.
Y’all--my fam punked out on me! Every one of them. Even the 10-year-old science nerd. I guess several days of hiking, horseback riding, river-swimming and daily mandatory ice cream breaks (yeah, it was a rough trip all around) was just too much. Come nightfall, everybody was all done in. Evening alone in the dark and total quiet? Don’t mind if I do. (Like I said, rough trip).
Here’s what I quickly remembered about desert nights as I settled into my chair. Well, first of all, I remembered that you can hear ALL SORTS OF CREATURES scurrying about in the desert at night, and if you’re going to enjoy the sky view, you have to just not overthink it. There are other eyes--and feet, and possibly tails--out there enjoying the view and the evening snacks with you. Live and let live and just don’t go outside barefoot. Trust.
More importantly, I remembered that you can’t look too hard. If you want to take it all in-- or at least, all that you physically can take in, because there is so much the naked eye will just never see--you have to just sort of let your gaze drift and settle, and be as UNfocused as possible. In other words, if you are trying too hard to see something, you won’t see anything.
But if you are there and just present and still, (which, let’s be real, is not my spiritual gift) you will inevitably see something spectacular.
Maybe it’s not right in front of you though. Maybe it’s way off to the left, and you just catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. Or maybe it’s straight up above your head, higher than you would normally be inclined to look because who can hold their head at that angle for very long?
By some mystery of the universe, it is the not trying too hard that makes things visible. From the slightest movement to the most spectacular streak of light, somehow, your eye only catches it when not occupied with seeking it out.
And that, somehow, will preach.
Exhausted from trying to figure out what’s next, or where you should be going, or how you’re going to get there? Be still a minute. Maybe the path appears. You’ll see it in the periphery when you quit looking.
Overly focused on something you lost... or never had but feel like you should have? Let your eye settle on some nondescript point on the horizon--out of the corner of your eye, you might see something spectacular that you never knew was there.
Sitting in a dark place? Alone, turned around, aware of the unsettling sounds of wildlife all around you and realizing how vulnerable you are? Lean into that empty space. The darkness is inherently gorgeous.
It holds all the mystery of the world.
We’ve been conditioned to think that ‘darkness’ is inherently undesirable. Make no mistake, there are racist implications with that imagery. White supremacy is just as baked into our cultural assumptions as the certainty that light = good and dark = evil. As an English major hopelessly married to metaphor, I get the power of those images. They are canon, in more ways than one. But in trying to better understand implicit bias and white privilege, I also see how those associations are rooted in some of our baser instincts, the buried places where we’ve been programmed to value whiteness over that which is dark. That is some next level colonialism/Manifest Destiny kind of mess right there.
Can we ever unsee it? Can we possibly extract ourselves from this damaged way of seeing the world, and ourselves in it? Maybe if we can hold space for what’s out there--beyond what our eyes know how to look for. Maybe if we can learn the beauty of sitting in the darkness.