Peering into the portal

First-person perspective

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Peering into the portal“Behind all seen things lies something vaster; everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something other than itself.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Wind, Sand and Stars”

My over-reliance on the late French adventurer-poet, dear Reader, is fueled not only by a shared appreciation of the desert and stars, but because his pithy framework is a perfect launch point for my related meanderings. (Try not to think about how many words I already wasted in explaining the benefit of this device …)

What better time than now, when the underpinnings of our society seem more unstable than ever, for us to examine and contemplate what exists beneath the surface?

Each summer, our family looks forward to viewing the Perseid meteor shower — a consequence of the comet Swift-Tuttle dragging a vibrant trail of space rocks past our planet. The experience offers varying degrees of spectacle, depending on the phase of the moon (not to mention when it rises and sets), our cloud cover, our air quality, and that unpredictable factor of luck. But we end up with a satisfying experience at least half the time.

This year’s conditions were not ideal (smoke from the fire season, a short window between nightfall and moonrise, a conflict on the night of the meteor shower’s peak), but maybe we knew we needed it more than ever this year. So we packed up our family, settled into one of our favorite viewing spots (look for somewhere remote, ideally with geography that blocks out ambient light pollution), and spent a few hours last Thursday night enjoying a show dazzling enough to prompt us to repeat the outing the following night.

On the first night, we were able to count several dozen meteor sightings each hour — a handful of them being of notable brightness, endurance and general delight. The second night certainly demonstrated the diminishing returns of Swift-Tuttle’s progress away from our planet. Most flashes across the sky ended up being satellites or aircraft. But the majesty of the Milky Way and other familiar astronomical fixtures were enough to behold even without further gilding.

This comparative quiet was also, perhaps, a better medium for peering into the portal. The experience of contemplating the wonder of our night sky never fails to give me an appropriate sense of my own insignificance, as well as my good fortune in being allowed to witness such celestial beauty.

Here’s what I took away: the human constructs that cause us such grief and anxiety — while real and exhausting and frustrating — are ephemeral in the face of our vast and wondrous universe. And perhaps even made worse by our lending them more credibility and import than they deserve.

So what is beneath the facade of political and social and economic turmoil? And how do I attune my senses to understanding those authentic elements so often obscured by surreality?

The Perseids, though long past the peak now, will still be somewhat visible for the next few days. If you get the chance, go stare at the night sky for a while. Even if you miss the last of the shooting stars, it will be a worthwhile experience. Sometimes just taking a moment to re-harmonize with creation is the first step toward getting the answers we are looking for.

***

I sent the above draft to my father immediately after writing it. So often the whisperings of my spirit seem untranslatable into English, and I often rely on him to help me interpret. Instead of offering revisions, he reminded me of a parallel passage from the inimitable J.R.R. Tolkien, describing the experience of a weary Samwise Gamgee toward the end of the Great Battle of Middle Earth, as recounted in the final book of “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien certainly gets closer than I do to expressing my own heart:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For, like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end, the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”

Pictured: Our family goes on a twilight hike through Red Rock Canyon before settling in to view the Perseids. — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2020-08-21