Last week I spent a few nights in the countryside. The days were bucolic, ‘English’ and blue – cleansing my locked-down, city-weary eyes with each postcard-perfect rolling hill, craggy cliff and crashing wave. Each night, however, a new dimension unfolded and offered itself afresh – a wholly different experience from the busy, never-quite-quiet city streets of home.
Each night, as Manchester turns from the bright of the Sun, day-light is seamlessly replaced by the LED glare of streetlamps and the glow from a thousand windows of homes and cars as people go busily on living their lives around me. The tall towers of the city, not far from my bedroom window, are silhouetted in a greyish-yellow shroud that darkens steadily, but is never truly dark. And the stars…. I can count them. There are six, maybe seven, I see regularly from the window. Meanwhile, when I go outside in the night-time it is often as noisy as the day…. Cars that fly round the corner where I live, cutting off the junction and avoiding the traffic lights, police helicopters overhead, people shouting and calling to each other, guard dogs barking, sirens wailing as they fly up-and-down the Princess Parkway. This is the lullaby of my city streets, the noises I’ve fallen asleep to and woken to for most of my life. Most of the time, I don’t see or hear them anymore.
When I was away last week, the dark and the quiet opened like a portal into another world. There was such an…. absence. At first it was jarring, a little unsettling…. Perhaps this apocalyptic-tinged year has got under my skin, but the sensation of being the last people left on earth felt a little too believable (or maybe I’ve watched too many movies on a theme recently!) Anyway, like a traveller to a new planet I began to adjust to the silence and dark after many, many months living within the same square-mile of my corner of the world.
The silence, it turned out, was actually heavy and alive with noise. The brush of air as bats skittled in the dusky bloom above, the settling of leaves as a thousand crows made roost for the night, the scuffling and snuffling of unseen animals as they made their way cautiously around my unexpected presence in their night-time world. Sitting amidst it, illuminated only by Insta-friendly fairy lights, I bathed in the inky stillness and listened to the dense, living darkness. And above me… stars. Thousands of them, going on and on. It was another world and fully enchanting.
A while passed, and now – hungry to meet a somehow forgotten need – a deep remembering called for deeper darkness. The fairy lights had to go! The lights from inside needed to be switched off… proper darkness called to me. And with that… somehow all the tension drained out, muscles relaxed, gravity holding me whilst I surrendered to the cradle of the night. And above me…. STARS! The thousands I had estimated previously now seeming like extra dustings of glitter that I brush from my daughter’s art projects as the full scale, depth and endless plains of galaxies spooled away into endless reaches.
Lying back and soaking in this abundant, velvet night I wondered how it would feel if I could allow my mind to travel to these unseen places. If I could detach from my mundanities, even for an hour, and space travel in my mind through the depths and heights of wonder. Of course, this is what space and stars are ‘supposed’ to do to us humans – to make us feel small, and to give us pause to contemplate both our tiny place within the scheme of creation and the contradictory sense that somehow our lives and loves, hopes and hurts and truths and troubles matter… if only for a fleeting second within the arc of time. What a gift, this so-often-hidden canopy of creation – holding and turning us ever towards heat and light whilst sheltering the very air we breathe.
Ever there, yet rarely seen, or seen through a veil of tallow light – how often do we miss the stars and their guiding light, so blinded are we by the glare of a thousand other little lights and screens, street-lamps, fairy-lights, flickering TVs and glowing halogens? How often do we think we can see the stars, but actually only see a tiny fraction of their number as the dark has become such a foreign place to us?
I wondered, lit only by the silver of star-light, how many other times this happens in my life? Things I don’t see as my world is ever semi-lit – whether they be the gifts right in front of me, or the inconvenient or painful truths I’d like to ignore? Times when we avoid the still, quiet moments when things could become clear – maybe even those things we already know deep down – by applying the numbing, blinding light of activity, distraction, company, noise, [you can fill in your own blank here…] and low-level light.
I know I do this, and the stars were a good reminder for me. Turn out the lights. Be quiet. Let the stars appear. Maybe there are gifts waiting for you in the darkness, maybe there are some hard things… either way, leaving things in the dark forever makes the dark an unknown place. So, maybe with a friend, maybe a therapist, or maybe happily alone in the light of the stars…. Tonight, why not try and turn out the lights?
A way that I find helps to explore things as they are right now is through Mindfulness Meditation. This is a way to explore moving away for a short while from ‘thinking’ to ‘feeling and sensing’. There is no right or wrong way to do it, and everyone’s mind wanders!
I lead a short session every Tuesday, 12.30pm for 20 minutes as an introductory drop-in, and my colleague Amy leads a longer session every Friday at 1pm. If you’re interested, look both sessions up and sign-up at www.stpeters.org.uk/live