Counting Stars

I was 21 years old the first time that I touched the stars. Up until that summer I had seen writers talk about the feeling of insignificance you experience when gazing up at the vastness of the universe, but it wasn’t an idea that I understood or even believed existed. That is, until the night that I really slowed down and looked.

The year leading up to this had been the worst year of my life. Depression and anxiety were commonplace, and every time a person cocked their head and asked me, “How are you doing? How’s the family?” I grew a little more angry. Comforting hugs were brutal reminders that I was thought of as a porcelain vase, ready to shatter with the slightest nudge and in need of constant protecting. I hated being babied, I hated help, and all I wanted was to be left alone. I was immensely relieved when my dad told us that we were going to our family cabins up in Canada that summer. Our cabins are quiet and away from the world. They are nestled in the woods in a cozy part of Ontario and sit up against one of the bluest lakes you can hope find. It smells of wood and pine and gives you the chance to run away from the hot summers and enjoy the cooler temperatures that grace the north. There is no cell phone service, no telemarketers, it is perfection for those with a quiet soul and a book.

Despite my relief I was, of course, somewhat miserable. I was happy to have time away from home, happy to be out of the hot weather, happy to have my camera with me, but there are always those nagging thoughts in the back of your mind that say “Your mom isn’t here,” “You’re not allowed to be happy,” and my personal favorite destroyer of self-esteem, “You are a horrible daughter.” No matter how much you try to ignore them, they are always there. Even now I know that they are filed away somewhere deep in the back of my mind, waiting for just the right amount of anxiety to be stirred up that they can hammer in the spike that crumbles the wall I am always rebuilding.

In-between these awful thoughts I did remember the reason I was most excited to go to Canada that year:  a meteor shower. It had been rare that I had seen shooting stars, and having the chance to view a meteor shower further north with less light pollution and clearer skies had me excited. It was chilly that night. I wore a pair of sweatpants over my pjs and the warmest hoodie that I had with me and trekked outside. Everyone else was inside or sleeping so I was on my own, which is exactly how I wanted it. The lights from the living room faded the closer I got to the boathouse, and were non-existent by the time I laid myself down on the dock. If you can imagine, this wasn’t one of the fancier new floating docks that you usually see. It was the old fashion kind with splintery wood and four long metal rods to plant the dock into the ground. Still, it was comfortable and I was happy for a little time to myself.

Nothing happens when you first look skyward. You expect it to be this sudden inspiration that causes your eyes to glow as you recognize your place in the world, but it isn’t. I laid there on the dock still and silent for I don’t know how long, my eyes searching the immense black canvas looming over me. A few meteors passed that caused me to smile, but the more you search the sky the more overwhelming it becomes. There were more stars than I had ever seen in my life. I was looking at the arms of the Milky Way stretching long over my head – millions and millions of miles long but I was seeing at them with my own eyes. The more you shift your gaze, the more you begin to realize how grand the night really is. It covered me in an intense dome, and the longer I tried to take it all in the clearer it became that I couldn’t. My heart started to pound harder in my chest, the world around me vanished, and a feeling of panic that I wasn’t expecting washed over me. I was terrified. In a universe so big how could my life, my problems, possibly matter? I know this sounds cliche, and maybe you are even rolling your eyes thinking that I’m just being silly. Believe me, I get it, I was one of those people. It is a feeling too intense to describe. It is real and, I won’t sugar-coat it, it is very scary. That feeling of insignificance is one of the most horrifying things that I have ever experienced in my life. I cried on that dock, silently, still too mesmerized by this terrifying expanse to move.

But then something changes. Somewhere in the experience a feeling of calmness washes over you. My breathing slowed, my tears stopped, and my soul warmed. The immensity before you can easily provoke fear if you allow it, as I did, but after the initial fear fades away all you are left with is its majesty. It is beautiful and it is yours. Never again will you look on that same sky, and in that moment it is as if it was created just for you. I felt myself slowly break free of the chains in my mind that kept me from soaring through the stars. That was heaven, it had to be, and for a split second I knew my mom was looking on that same sky and smiling.

You might be hoping at this point for a “happily ever after” ending. Maybe I saw the error in my ways and decided live each day like it was my last? I’m sorry to disappoint you with a flat “no.” Life doesn’t work that way in my experience. I am after all inherently me. I am high-strung and timid, I don’t know how to be very assertive, I take time to place my trust in new people, I complain (a lot, sometimes too much) and, most importantly, I am human. I make mistakes and I attempt to right my wrongs. I have my good days and my bad days. I put my faith in the wrong people and sometimes expect too much for all that I give. Still, through all of this, I have my sky. In the end the meteor shower didn’t matter very much, but rather the memory of those stars. I carry them in my heart every day, and when I find a spare moment to remember them they greet me with open arms as I lay on the dock.

Life is fast, both day-to-day and long term. I often get caught up in the busy world and forget that there are bigger things going on around me, which is why having that experience to look back on is so important. Maybe we really are insignificant specs in the universe, but it is a universe created for us. Every night those stars are in the sky, and every night millions of people ignore them. I have no doubt that if every person took one night to touch the stars their lives would look very different to them.

My Dock, Under My Sky

Three words, Eight letters

For lack of time it has been several weeks since my last post, and for that I apologize. Today, however, I sit in my room with a blizzard whiting out the world on the other side of my window and find myself pondering three words:  I love you. It may be fitting with Valentine’s Day on our doorstep – a holiday for which I, admittedly, grow a little more disdain for each year that I am forced to stay inside and examine my flaws.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one you can find who will say that these words have lost their meaning. I have always been a firm believer in telling someone that you love them, but only if you are speaking honestly and not hoping for the allowance of sex or money. This concept – loving someone honestly – seems to be a rare find anymore. People say “I love you” because they think they are supposed to, because they want something, to make someone happy, etc., and because of this the purest and most innocent definition of love has been somewhat lost to our generation. I have spent a lot of time the past several years trying to understand what love really means, and here is what I have come to believe:

There are two kinds of love. The first kind is one that I don’t actually think is lost on us, but I want to talk about it anyway. It is the unconditional affection you feel toward someone close to you:  a parent, a sibling, a friend, the guy who brings you your morning coffee, whoever. This kind of love lacks desire, but it is just as important as the second kind of love that I will talk about later. This kind of love is a basic human right, one that I hope everyone has in their life. It is caring and being cared for, for no other reason than wanting to. Is is getting into a huge fight and knowing that at the end of it you will still be the same people you were before, and for better or worse you will always be there for each other.

This kind of love is one that I took for granted until I was 20 years old. I had believed in telling the people you loved that you love them at this point, but every time I tried to it felt forced and awkward even though I meant it because I wasn’t used to expressing myself in that way (I’m much more open with my emotions now than I used to be, there was a time that I was so stubborn I even annoyed myself). But there was one night, the night before my mother passed away. I went into the back room to sit with her for a few minutes before going to bed. I held her hand carefully, because it felt so frail and weak, and sat in silence as she rambled things I didn’t understand. Her mind was gone then. It had been a few weeks since she had said anything coherent and I wasn’t even sure that she could understand us. When my dad came back into the room I stood to leave, but not before quietly saying to my mom “I love you.” Without hesitation my mom replied, “I love you, too.” That was the moment I understood the strength of this kind of love. My mother was gone at that point, we all knew it, but she still had it in her to understand those words. The next morning I was woken up to my dad wrapping his arms around me in tears, apologizing and saying that mom had passed. My mind shut off, I was uncomprehending, and after he left I jumped out of bed and ran to my mom’s room to see for myself. I stood there lifeless and pale, not thinking or feeling anything, and only thanking God that the last words we had ever said to each other were those. My mother drove me crazy, as I’m sure I did to her. We argued and fought like any mother and daughter would, but when it came down to it she was still one of my best friends. I would give anything to talk to her one more time, but at the same time I don’t want to take away that last moment we had when I said “I love you” and I really meant it.

The second kind of love is the one we all dream of being able to share in – the intense passion that causes you to look at someone so flawed and human and see nothing but absolute perfection. Years ago I thought I understood this love, but now I know that it is something I am still discovering. I don’t know much about it, but I can tell you in its most innocent form it requires nothing more than the desire to be near the person. It is a kind of love that is terrifying, and at the same time completely wonderful. It is both debilitating and uplifting, greedy and unselfish, and confusing yet so very clear. All you want is the privilege of being a part of the person’s life. Not to change or shape them in any way, but to have them look on you every day with that smile that slows your heart. You crave their attention and desire to be their perfection as they are yours, but knowing it’s impossible because how could you live up to the standards of someone so amazing? This is the kind of love I fear our world is missing and is mistaken for infatuation. I’m not even sure if this definition of love is correct, since as I said I am still learning about it. I hope to one day understand what it is more completely.

Unfortunately I can’t go into much more detail about the second kind of love, because for the most part it is still a mystery to me. Instead I want to bring everything full circle and come back to the original point that I feel I may have strayed from a bit. Love, in any form, is the most important feeling you can experience. You grow and learn about yourself through love and through your love of others. Since it is so important, it is not something that you want to keep to yourself. If you love someone, honestly, tell them. I tell my family and my friends I love them and with my entire heart I mean it, because if today is my last day on Earth then I want to make sure they know.

Any and all feelings for the holiday aside, Happy Valentine’s Day. Make it a meaningful one this year 🙂