At Home in the Universe

The night was cold. It was the kind of cold that shocks you, that offends the animal within on a primal, existential level. Nelly, our faithful Mazda 3, carried us over a long black tongue of country highway, signalling the essential information from the dash in a serene amber glow. It was midnight and thirty below. It was the dead of winter. The frost crept up the inside of the car window, filigrees of white ice summoned from the air, fed by the moisture of our warm breath and stretching across the glass.

I was half-asleep, and Andrew drove. There was some droning podcast on. I think it was the Undertale episode of Cane & Rinse, but I’d lost interest and retreated into my own thoughts. I don’t know what prompted it, but my eyes seemed to focus out the window without any conscious instruction from my brain, and I realized that I could see stars near the horizon.

You almost never see stars near the horizon, at least not near the city, where the light pollutes the air. I always thought that was an interesting way to put it — light pollution. As though light were an impurity, an infection. It makes sense, though. The night sky is a resource more precious than oil or gold.

I think I must have gasped when I realized how many stars were actually visible. I felt an old wildfire flare up within me, the one I’ve gotten really good at subduing in the interest of functioning as an adult, and I turned to Andrew and begged, demanded, that he pull the car over. It was suddenly essential that we witness these stars, even though it was freezing out there, even though the passing headlights of oncoming traffic might spoil the atmosphere. But he complied without question, understanding the intensity of the need. It’s one of the reasons I love him. The man takes me seriously.

I’m fairly certain he’d steal the Mona Lisa for me if I asked him nicely enough, but very luckily for him, most of my whims are centered around approaching wildlife or shucking off my clothes in dubious localities.

We pulled over next to a vast and silent field, threw on every scrap of winter gear we could find in the back seat, and got out of the car. He jogged around to the passenger side and slung his arm around my shoulders. It was bone-cold, death-cold, the air almost metallic with it. Our breath lingered in clouds as it left our lungs. There was the occasional zipping roar of a truck passing behind us.

But in front of us, above us, around us, the sky.

The sky! I could scream about the Alberta sky. I would write soliloquies about it, if I had the patience. You haven’t known true peace if you’ve never been at the center of the prairie dome. It’s like a dark veil draped over a mammoth snowglobe, comforting and mysterious all at once. You breathe more easily out there. Your ribs expand. You’re free.

We shivered and shook and took in the glittering empyrean above us, the crushed-black velvet flecked with soft silver, the spill of the milky way. The glinting eye of Betelgeuse, the stubborn bright flame of Venus, the cant of Orion’s shoulders, the familiar ursas, everyone’s first celestial friends. It was one of the most life-affirming moments of my life.

Some are frightened by the vastness of the universe. of how utterly incomprehensible it is to our little primate minds, so wrapped up in assigning significance to what boils down to murder and mating. Of how obvious a conclusion it is that our lives mean very little in the context of something so boundless and immeasurable. We are nothing but bundles of carbon. We are nothing but electricity.

But looking at the night sky makes me feel something different than despair. It’s a deeply spiritual and melancholy kind of joy. It’s a cleansing destruction of the ego. It hurts, but it hurts so damn good. It’s how I contextualize myself. If I am, as Alan Watts said, the universe experiencing itself, then contemplating the cosmos is an act of profound self-love. It reminds me of what I believe to be the purpose of life: to bear witness. It reminds me of what I am, what we all are — divine and earthly, infinite and infinitesimal.

It’s my place in the universe affirmed. I am here. I am right here.