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.