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The Great Expanse

The Great Expanse

When my daughter, Tilly, was fifteen, she and I visited the Big Island of Hawaii. One night, when the moon was new and the sky was dark, we decided to drive to the top of Mauna Kea, the highest point in Hawaii. We made it to the visitor center at 9,000 feet, but signs were posted prohibiting any vehicles without four-wheel drive from going further. We parked our compact rental car at the visitor center and stepped out into the pitch-black parking lot as though into a Star Wars movie set. The stars appeared so close and so profuse that I swear, we could have swooped them with our hands like sand at the beach. The swirl of the Milky Way stretched and twisted across the sky like some lacy fog. I have seen the stars so bright and so plentiful only a handful of other times in my life, as a child growing-up in what was then a remote part of Florida, in East Africa, and at Big Sur in California.

Ancient light, years, decades, even a century old, bending its way to earth, meeting us at the visitor center, and I wondered what, if we could see so clearly, those pilgrims with four wheel drive could see at the top of Mauna Kea.

Peering into a star-studded sky is like watching a movie of the past; it is looking into eternity. Bill Bryson explains that, were the earth the size of a pea, Jupiter would be 1000 feet away from earth, and Pluto a mile and a half. The closest star which is located in the Milky Way, Proxima Centauri, would be 10,000 miles away. The Great Expanse of Interstellar Space.

One can ponder this vastness in a variety of ways, from despondency (we’re so insignificant) to humility (the God behind it all loves me – completely) to awe.

The character Shug, in The Color Purple, wants to explain God to Celie. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. (Alice Walker) Awe and appreciation, but Shug goes beyond accusing people of blindness. God, she says, “love admiration,” not in that pig-headed, big-headed way. Rather, God wants us to notice. God wants to please us.

Imagine that, a God who wants to please you, who wants you to be happy. Not happy as in giddy, but happy as in fulfilled, or connection. To notice God, not because you’ve done something wrong and you are afraid God might be angry, or because God is the great and mighty architect of all of creation. To notice God, not because God can give or withhold good things from you or protect you from bad things. To notice God, simply because noticing – seeing – fills the soul. 

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, I would ride my bicycle along trails, one of which would lead me to a perch overlooking the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. At the elbow of the trail, where it turned right and down, there is a wild bush three or four feet high. I made a practice of stopping at that bush to observe. And I swear, I would experience that bush as burning, yet not consumed, as though God inhabited the bush itself. I would stand in the moment in raw thanks. Not give thanks, but I would stand in thanks as in full immersion, like walking into a room of gratitude. Gratitude did not come from within me; but from without. It would surround me.

God love admiration, and who knows, maybe the stars I’d like to scoop like sand at the shore were created for that one reason, admiration. So we would notice. So we would walk into a room of gratitude.

Peace.

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