I travel on, following the winding trail of pale orange lights through the darkness. There is a spectral aura about them that makes them slightly less than comfortable. What else would one expect upon a blustery night in October? Shadows rise on all sides, and fallen leaves scratch and tumble across the road, visible for a few moments in the orange glow before casting off into the shadows again. In the car all is silent. Silent, warm, and safe — I think. This kind of night leaves an uneasiness about the edges. As I wind through the thickening trees, an occasional shaft of comfort flickers into sight. I have always enjoyed seeing houses at night, with the warm light spilling out of their windows into the darkness, giving you a glimpse inside, where you imagine it is safe and happy and beautiful, where people are drinking warm drinks and laughing. Or maybe where someone is sitting quietly in a favorite chair, reading away. They are like small Rivendells standing against the darkness. They grow fewer and far between. The city is long past and I am out in the wilds, where the darkness advances hard, pressing up through the trees to the very edges of the road. Now the trail of pale orange lights flickers out, and I am led on solely by my headlights, tracing out the road. I brave the night and the edge of uneasiness because I am on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage into the darkness.
Trees begin to fade and the sky opens up, windswept and star studded. If my windows were open I would be starting to hear the soft thunder, for I am going to the rural coast. A wild place for a wild night, and so I creep on through. The trees fall away and now the darkness presents a new face. It is no longer pressing close, but has flung itself wide and eternally expansive, equally frightening. The headlights dimly sweep low, grass-topped dunes and wooden fences. I am there, I can tell. I hear the gravel crunch and then everything stops. Slowly I turn the key and switch the lights off, their glow retreating before the pressing dark.
I remain for a moment in silence, gathering myself. Then I open the door and suddenly it is all there. I hear the pounding of the surf invisible ahead of me in the darkness. The cozy feeling that surrounded me within the car is swiftly stripped away by the brash autumn wind. I pull my hood over my head, feeling like some holy man or dark-cloaked hero, ready to face this elemental foe. Overhead, amid this dark well, a million brilliant eyes open upon me.
I feel uneasy as I stand in the gravel parking lot, surrounded by silence and wind and darkness tinged with faint diamonds. I am suddenly afraid to walk onto the beach, the kind of fear you have of closets and the undersides of beds at night as a child. It’s amazing how the blanket of night blankets our minds as well. Letting cowardice prevail for the moment, I lean back against the familiarity of the car, taking in the vaulted flickering dome — except I cannot take it in. How can mere human eyes take in a billion and more stars flung out like so much seed on a blue field? I try to open my mind to great thoughts, to ideas equal to what I am beholding, to a language fit for such visions. Yet all my efforts fall smoldering to earth before they barely take upward flight. I am merely left to behold and receive, not offer any of my gifts to this experience.
Gradually, I ease myself off the car and across the lot onto the narrow road. I stand on the yellow lines, torn between desire and my irrational fear. The sea calls from beyond the dune, but I am still afraid — of what? Have the waters cast about them the shroud of night and become a malevolent monster? As I said, night transforms things, if not truly then at least to the mind. Finally I screw my courage to the sticking place and pass from gravel into the soft yielding sand. Threading through the dunes like mountain passes into the unknown, I come to the sandy plains before the unmitigated sea. The waters, so great in sound, only glimmer in sight, betrayed by the thin froth of surf moving on its own horizon, for it is the only horizon that I can behold. I stand as on the edge of the world.
I am thankful for my hood, for here unbroken by dunes the winds whip off the unseen waves and into my face. Like the tossing of the sea, the gales stir the surface of my soul, calling forth something the ancient poets called “fell” or “fey.” Something deep and wild stirs. If there were sea dragons emerging from the depths I might face them. At least that is what my heart says. But there are no such beasts, so for the time being I must be more poet than warrior. I lie upon the sand to gaze upon the field of heaven. It is easy to see why men have tried to trace their destinies here. There is something about attending to the cosmos that silences us. It is a presence so entirely other and apparently indifferent to our pathetic little cares. Our cries, our protestations, our self-inflating efforts are simply swallowed up into its vast depths, while it is occupied with singing its own ancient, deep, slow-wheeling song. I am trying to listen for its strains, which I can imagine move slowly and beautifully like Beowulf in Old English — slower at least than the pop song pace of our modern culture.
I try to concentrate upon a single needlepoint of light. Who knows how long ago the light I am seeing started its journey towards this moment with my eye? Light-years — whatever that means. I can barely get my mind around calendar years, much less astronomic cadence. Does the light feel like its long journey has been wasted in this climax, this meeting with my optic nerves? I hope not. I hope that I have honored its achievement with all the attention due. I wonder how many years down the road someone will see the light that is leaving this star right now.
I listen to the waves slowly come in. Where did the waters of that last wave come from? Did they once lap the docks of Hong Kong? Were they whipped with fury around Cape Horn? Did they trickle down the Rocky Mountains, seep their way to San Francisco Bay, pass through the Aleutians, lay bound in the ice of the North Pole and gradually melt their way down from Greenland? What tales of travel are they telling me in the whisper of their retreat back down the sand? I try to listen for the names of faraway places in the space between two waves.
The wind, waves, sand, and darkness have things to tell, and that is why I have come. They speak in a language other than men, and I have come because of a hunger that I cannot put into men’s words. We often hide it for a time under the incessant noise of our culture, but there comes a point when its rumblings will not be quieted, and we must go. And so I have come to listen into the night, being filled and satisfied in some untouchable but real place. Like a forgetful soul, each part of me begins to remember the notes of the song, and slowly, stumblingly, aligns itself to the dance. In this song there is life, a life that we need to be whole. It is like breathing for our souls. In this song there is also groaning as well, the groaning of the stars pushing their light through the empty reaches of space, of the sea achingly heaving each wave onto the shore, of the shore being pulled back into the sea. Groaning is also part of life. It is a hunger waiting to be filled, like my soul must be filled. We also like to hide groaning. We hide it behind makeup, music, magazines and Mustangs. But the song that is alive and slow and deep is also the song that groans with deep longings that cannot be expressed. To be alive is to groan. And so as I sit in silence my soul aches in the ache of the cosmos, the aching that I must everyday hide from the eyes of men, that aching that is anathema. We must not ache, and therefore we must not be human. We must twist ourselves into something we are not. But I do not want to be what I am not. I have come to untwist myself, to become unbent, to be alive and to groan, knowing that to groan is to hope for the end of the aching, to wait for a life that will be a different sort of alive, in which hurting is not part of living. But until then we listen and wait for the revealing of that which lies behind these indigo-veils of night.
So I sit into the night, but I know that I cannot stay. I know that I will soon be filled, though I could never be filled enough, not because there is something wrong with the song — there is something wrong with me. I am inadequate to feel the full weight of the symphony. If the universe were to all suddenly burst out upon me it would kill me. So I must like a child take small sips before running back off to play, until I grow into a man that can shoulder the weight of this glory.
Having been filled as much as I can receive, I ease myself up from the sand. Casting a wistful glance on the foamy horizon, I slowly thread my way back through the dune-passes to the parking lot. I sit in the seat of my car, staring through the wheel into the starry vision that still lingers before my eyes. Slowly I turn the key, ease the car onto the road in the slow crunch of gravel, and head home.