Written Saturday, December 1st, 2007
FOR GINA AS MY GIFT TO HER ON HER 40TH BIRTHDAY
There is a verse in the Psalms that says, “The Heavens are telling the glory of God.” The writer looked at the Heavens as a friend, a night companion that communicated wondrous things to him.
When I look at the stars, I think of them in a way that is far more scientific than the way the Psalmist looked at them. I see giant thermonuclear furnaces that are often burning brighter than the Sun, only tiny in my eyes because they are incomprehensibly far away. I see stars in numbers beyond my ability to count, knowing all the while that there are far more stars I can’t see than those that are visible to my elderly and human eyes.
A shepherd from thousands of years ago, staying awake at night to guard his sheep had not seen all the documentaries I have seen. And yet I think he understood the glory of the night sky at a personal level better than I do.
For one thing, his view was far less obscured by light and air pollution than mine. Also, the fragmentary understanding I have of things enormously beyond my limited human intellect can pollute my sense of wonder. That is because I kid myself about how much I know, in order to feel more in charge than I actually am.
The old shepherd looked with pure wonder on a sky that felt like a close and intimate part of his daily life. The silvery illumination of the night sky bathed the world around him in a soft and becoming light. That light kept the world from falling into a darkness that would have felt dangerous to him. It helped the shepherd protect himself and the flock he loved and depended upon.
He could find his favorite constellations and watch them float serenely and dependably across the sky. He knew that the sun would follow the stars up into the sky and erase them, only to be replaced itself a few hours later by the reappearance of the celestial night.
However, there have been two occasions in my life that I saw the stars in a way that gave me a glimpse into the sense of wonder that the night sky gave the shepherds thousands of years ago. The first was a boyhood experience.
My family moved from the desert city of Tucson, Arizona to San Diego, California when I was 3 years old. World War II had just begun. My Dad wanted to go to work in the West Coast defense plants.
However, each year some of my siblings and I would spend the summer back in Tucson with the grandparents. We loved going there and were too little to realize that Tucson was not a place most people visited in the summer because of the high temperatures. We always had a grand time and were not bothered by the heat at all.
The house we lived in Tucson was an oven by the time evening came. Therefore, most of the family slept on cots in the back yard. We folded the mattresses over in the day and unfolded them at night. We put one half of the bed sheet over the mattress and covered up with the other half. I loved going to sleep with my siblings around me, knowing that when I woke up, some of the adults would be there, too.
I only had one bad experience. One night while I was sleeping, the covering half of the sheet came off of me and fell onto an anthole. Desert ants are huge and they sting painfully. I woke up at daylight covered with red ants. I ran screaming into the house. Someone put me into a bathtub filled with cool water. I don’t remember being stung, but I do remember the comfort of that bath and the sight of dozens of ants floating on the water. My Aunt Nellie somehow fished the insects out of the water. I stayed in the tub a good long time.
However, most of the time, sleeping in the back yard on beautiful desert summer evenings was wonderful. There was very little light or air pollution, and there was generally a pleasant, warm breeze. The sky was amazing.
The Milky Way was so bright and thick with stars that it looked almost solid. I would go to sleep awash with the wonder of the universe and wake up serene and rested. I believe that those summer nights have provided me the basis for the faith in God that has sustained me all my life.
The second time I shared sky wonder with the ancients involved my oldest daughter, Gina. She was almost seven at the time. In a way, it was the first time that I tasted the immense pleasure I have these days, fellowshiping with my girls as adults. Yes, Gina was only a small child at the time, but the situation made me need her to be more mature than I had any right to expect her to be, and she came through.
At the time, we wanted to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma. We had friends that lived there and I had wonderful relatives in Oklahoma. My wife had warm, loving family a few hours drive from Tulsa in Arkansas.
While visiting in Oklahoma and exploring my employment options, my wife got very ill with hepatitis. Her skin was bright yellow-gold. The doctor ordered months of complete bed-rest.
My family sent lots of money to help us, so we decided to fly her home to San Diego first class, so her folks could care for her while I drove the kids home to Azusa, California.
We owned a very solid automobile, but it was definitely older. I was worried about the car breaking down out in the desert, but I felt I had no choice but to drive the kids home.
We took off on the trip early one morning. JoAnna was one year old and rode in a car seat in the front. She hated the car seat and protested predictably for a few hours. Then she settled down and was no trouble for the remainder of the trip. The other three girls were in the back seat. They understood our difficult situation and were unimaginably cooperative. I felt so proud of them all.
The first day we drove to Amarillo, Texas. We stayed at a Holiday Inn (expensive by our standards) because they had a “kids sleep and eat free” program. I don’t think they had a dad and four kids in mind when the program was designed. They were very nice, though, and we got a little hotel-wide fame as in,”There goes the dad traveling with four darling little girls.”
At dinner, one grandparent-like couple invited all four girls to eat with them. Maybe the couple was missing their own grandbabies. They offered the bribe of, “You can have any dessert you want,” so the kids went along cheerfully. I read the paper over my dinner. That felt really good. No doubt the girls needed a break from me, as well.
The next day we drove almost all the way through New Mexico. We made good time considering the frequent play stops that seemed advisable. That evening at dinner, I decided to drive all night. I thought if we did that, we could make it almost home by the next morning.
Several adults had told Gina that she had to be a big girl and help me all she could. She took them very seriously and therefore told me she wanted to stay awake and talk to me to help me stay alert while I drove. I put JoAnna and her chair in the back so Gina could be in the front.
Before long, the younger girls were asleep. Gina and I had a good time talking and singing. Every time I stopped for another cup of coffee, I let Gina pick out a chocolate candy bar. We both were pretty hyped up after a few hours.
In the middle of the night, somewhere near Flagstaff, I stopped to get us a little exercise. It was a moonless night. As we were walking around, one of us looked up and saw the stars. We were both stunned. The Milky Way was flowing brilliantly across the sky.
We just stood there and gaped for a few minutes. Then I explained how the Milky Way was really our own galaxy and that we were looking through the galaxy as if it were a dinner plate and we were at one edge. I think she got it.
Then I told her that the God that made the Milky Way loved us and was going to take care of us. We were both deeply comforted. We were no longer just a dad and his little girl. We were two human beings that loved each other very much, feeling close and serene as the universe looked down on us with total acceptance and approval.
In the morning we drove to Nellie’s house instead of going home. Nellie watched the kids so I could sleep. I don’t know if Gina slept or not. My guess is that she did. Gina and I have never been very good at going without our rest.
The next day we went to San Diego and picked up Mommy to take her home. As sick as she was, Mommy was very thrilled to have her family safe and close.
As I have written this, I have gained an insight. That night in Arizona, the stars taught Gina and I the human emotion of wonder. Being able to feel wonder is a great thing, but the wonder of the night sky has been exceeded in my experience, by the awesome wonder of the privilege of being dad to my daughters, and the wonder of the women they have become.