Thursday, January 28, 2016

look, count, if you can

“Look up at the sky and count the stars…” – Gen 15:5

It was the middle of September. It was the beginning of leaves changing to rich, deep shades of fire and gold, colors that could fool you into believing life was now just beginning. But soon enough you would see leaves turn and fall and be swept away with the wind.

He was my first love. One night after nightfall, he parked the car at the edge of campus and we walked onto the empty golf course, far enough from street lights and buildings and cars that the darkness showed us a full night sky. I would have spread out the blanket that we laid on. Our backs were held by the ground beneath us, his hand reach behind his head, my head rested in the pocket it made. We looked up. We would have talked about his day meeting students on campus, my work at the after school program, the shapes of constellations in the night sky. Or we would have been silent, knowing each other by what is communicated in warmth, breath, heartbeat. The sky was a dome that curtained us, our very own tent of stars and promises.

Three months later, all that possibility slowly fell in on us. Once, as a child, I made a tent with my best friend out of blankets and chairs and pillows. It stretched to the size of her living room. We hid inside and made up stories. Light filtered through the bright colors of blankets. But then her cat came and pounced on the blankets, and our imaginary world was just a pile of soft, flimsy material. The sky didn’t hold.

But it was true that in that moment, looking at the stars, all things seemed possible. I remember that night as my favorite with him. I was searching for something that, that night at least, I thought I had found.

A few years later, I sat with a therapist every other week. Our last session together, she gave me a piece of paper and crayons and told me to draw. I fashioned firm ground and a rooted tree, and covered them with a limitless dark sky with stars. Our interpretation didn’t seem all that nuanced at the time: look at the stars. It’s something that gives you peace. After that, I sometimes drove toward the mountains above my city, away from the lights, to see what kind of view of the sky I could get. I searched the darkness, but I'm not sure I really knew what I was looking for.

Here is what is true about the night sky: it is not a dome but the universe, which is limitless, and expanding. You could try to count the stars, but their number is infinite. New ones are still being discovered. If you look long enough, they will appear to be moving, some across the sky, some around each other. There are things happening out there we will never be able to know.

When an old, childless man wondered aloud if he would have to settle for a servant as his heir instead of his own son, the answer given him was no. The proof was the sky, and all the stars. Look and count, he was told. If you can. Even the One making the deal considered the infinite nature of what he was giving, the seeming impossibility of the promise. Now, as I read this story, I'm challenged to think of stars and sky as more than just a metaphor for something big and good. Look. Count. Spend your lifetime comprehending how big the universe is and how many stars live up there. Drive up the mountain again and again if you need to. Keep your tally, if you can. Then you will know my intentions toward you, I hear the One saying.

The old man went out, looked, counted. I wonder how long he stood there, how he could grasp what was being said to him, what made him believe it to be true.  

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