Starry, Starry Night
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it really is: infinite.
“Look up!” said my wife Sandy in a voice that caused me to stop in my tracks. I raised my eyes on that moonless night and felt (or heard) an explosion of stars that appeared to be in several successive layers, the nearest ones so close they seemed like I could touch them (the poets were right about this), the next circle larger and farther away, and the next—so on to infinity. Imagine a lit Christmas tree viewed from the above. We were at the apex of a cone of lights.
We’d had dinner and drinks with friends from the mainland in a cottage they’d rented beside the sea in the little town of Puaco, Hawaii. At midnight we’d said goodbye and traversed the narrow walkway across a pond to the asphalt road where we’d parked our rented car, looking down to make sure our steps stayed on the planks.
And then this, a sky so magnificent yet strangely intimate that it stretched our credulity. Because both of us saw it, I assumed it must be an actual phenomenon. I doubted that we were experiencing a folie a deux, a shared illusion, but wondered if other people on the island were viewing it too. I knew that in many locations ambient light would obscure it while we were in a pure black velvet night.
As a check to our perceptions, I considered asking our hosts to come out and look, but that would mean reversing our steps across the dark walkway which we’d been barely able to cross without falling into the water. That couple struck me as rather mysterious and had hinted they had powers beyond the ordinary. They also seemed to lack normal limits as to what they’d do. I wondered if they’d given us some drug that affected our perceptions because the experience appeared to come from more than just atmospheric conditions, but included a supernaturally clear state of our perceptions.
After standing fast in awe for many minutes, we finally decided to get into our car and drive the twenty miles to our vacation condo in Kona. When we disembarked, the sky had returned to normal, but we climbed the stairs to our rooms with heads still full of stars.
As soon as we got in, I sat at the desk and wrote the following poem:
The night seems so clear
It freezes attention.
The sky looms so near
It’s another dimension.
This hour’s a great gift
Not given to many,
A molecular shift
Of stunning intensity.
We gaze at the universe
But stare at ourselves,
Within us a source
Of incredible wealth.
The sight brings us truth
We’re loathe to deny.
We’ve outlived our youth
My partner and I.
We stand in deep space
Our beings quite naked.
With love as our base
We’re one with the sacred.
Back on the mainland a year later, I read in the San Francisco Chronicle about Jacob Needleman, a philosophy professor at San Francisco State University who might have had a similar experience. As a young child in Brooklyn he’d been sitting on the back steps with his father when the heavens opened up and he saw far into them. The sight was so powerful his father exclaimed, “That’s God!”
Sandy and I stand halfway between agnostics and atheists, so we don’t think attributing phenomena to God explains them, in fact we believe it precludes genuine understanding. Far better to admit we don’t know, and leave space for it to be explained (or not) in the future.
Could we correctly call our experience of that night spiritual? Some people assert that one can’t have spiritual experiences without religious beliefs—which neither of us hold (I’m rather partial to Buddhism, but not a formal Buddhist). But no matter how we label it, our experience remains a high point of our lives.
Perhaps as the poet Blake stated, the doors of our perception had been open for a spell (dual meaning intended). Or maybe we were out of Plato’s legendary cave that night. Now all one of us has to say is Puaco and we see it in our minds’ eyes and re-experience that shared awe and the closeness that came with it.
The next spring we returned to Hawaii and rented the same cottage our friends had occupied, and we also did so in succeeding years, but never saw a night like that again, a fact which added to our gratitude for that one exceptional occurrence whose effect remains, a mystical tie that binds us together, reminds us that we aren’t alone, but part of the very fabric of being and related to all of it, large and small.