July 2018: I go with family to the observatory at Herstmonceux. We listen to a talk about the telescopes. We are shown pictures of starry skies from when the telescopes were operational. One photograph has a patch of dark sky. Or so it seems. More recently, the story goes, the Hubble space telescope was trained on that patch for three months to intercept lonely, long-distance-running photons. Like a magic trick, a teeming starfield appears. That dark patch is bright.
Except, these are not stars, we are told, but galaxies.
I feel overwhelmed – by vastness beyond comprehension, volumes I can’t get my head around, sheer mass, and intimations of existences that shall remain forever alien. I want to weep for faraway family I can and will never know.
September 2019: Another day, another trip. I have a weekend by the sea with friends. The weather is cold and wet when we arrive. The sun comes out on Saturday afternoon. We go for a walk along the beach, swaddled in our winter hats and coats. I loiter, solitary, enjoying the sensation of walking in the land-and-seascape, having been cloistered all morning. Good friends let us be ourselves without care. They accept my desire for time alone, implicitly and willingly.
I sit on a rock for a while, take a few photographs, look at the sand and the sea, listen to the waves, see oystercatchers skimming the waves, and watch cormorants fishing and sitting low in the water as their feathers become waterlogged. I feel a kind of brotherhood with each. I love the oystercatchers. I love their whistling call, their jaunty pink legs and orange bill. We are made of the same stardust from which our planet is formed. We are kin, though theirs is an existence I cannot imagine. Even the sand is family. It has a different consciousness from the oystercatcher and from me – and not one better than the other.
… we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, ix
Sand cradles impressions of beachcombers, walkers and talkers, dogs, gulls, waders, and night-fishermen. These imprints are washed smooth each tide. Sand also whispers longer tales, in which rock was fractured and fashioned by ice and water, by ‘time and tide’, and a record of atoms of silicon and oxygen created in stars like our Sun. In another few billion years, the Sun will expand and wash all of these imprints smooth. I sit on my rock and see these stories in the sand. It is my story.
“This is my body.”
Once upon a time, there was no separation. We were one. Now we have existences that barely touch – except in the calamitous way we humans are making our Earth increasingly hostile to life as we know it. Most of the Universe is so far away that it is impossible for us to meet. I may look at stars, these glittering kin, but I can never get close.
[For more on loneliness, read this.]
And yet this is as one of a pair of hands. If everything is a brother and a sister, star(not as metaphor but physical reality)dust, then, as an assemblage of molecules, I belong. I feel it in this body. When I look at anything, even the most mundane, artificial, manufactured item – a chair, a frying pan, this keyboard – and remember that we were together in the beginning, but have become estranged, something in me unclenches and sighs. I am home.
“Abide in me as I abide in you.”