I have always loved a view. Happily there’s a fine view from my California windows, a view more satisfying than I had once imagined it could be. It is not spectacular like the grand expanse my daughter looks on from her hillside home just a few miles from here. She can see San Francisco Bay from the San Mateo Bridge clear to the Golden Gate. The moon shows up in that vista regularly, along with rolling fog, gliding hawks, and a myriad of stars. What a wonder, the ever changing, ever new view. I am so happy she has it.
There was a time when I yearned for a more expansive view. Time and again I would mentally redesign our home figuring ways to add a second story over this end or that, hoping to capture that view of twinkling lights on the distant hills. I envisioned building a master suite above the family room. It would have a large balcony or maybe a sleeping porch. I would sleep out there under the stars. I got bids from contractors but the construction issues were always problematical. And besides, life had other ideas about me and my views.
My friend Jim, a builder, was aware of my fantasy construction projects. He understood the yearning, too, for broad sky and starlit nights to gaze on. Indeed he had fulfilled some of his own skyward yearnings with skylights and second stories. But his review of the prospects for a second floor on this bungalow came up negative. One time he was down here putting in some windows, and a new hearth and chimney. This necessitated multiple trips to the roof and back.
“You know,” he said to me one day,
“you could sleep up there now.”
“Well now there’s an idea,” I said dismissively.
“No really. The family room roof is not that steep.
And the view is really good.”
This proposal went from seeming out of the question to being the next logical step. A few nights later, with down bag and foam pad, I was up there. I climbed an extension ladder and set up my bag and mattress close to the branches of our old plum tree, which drooped gracefully over the roof, providing a tree house effect. Thus began the nightly ascent that, though I did not know it, was to go on for more than a year.
To be sure, the sparkling lights from the home-topped hills were clearly visible and the sight gave me a definite though brief sense of having attained my sought-after view. But as it turned out, the real view was straight up. Or at least, that was the prelude to the view.
At first the stars command all of my attention. And how I wonder at the vast forever between us. I test myself trying to remember the distance to the closest star and I fail. I know though that it is far, so far that nothing in my experience prepares me to grasp it. I accept the assertion of some elementary astronomy lesson that the light we see as a star shining or twinkling in the velvet night has taken so long to reach us that by now its source may no longer exist. And I recall that though our galaxy is vast beyond knowing, there are other galaxies, perhaps even billions of other galaxies…. Can this be right? Again, I try picturing a billion of anything, a billion apples, a billion butterflies, a billion smiles; then I try something easier, five hundred, maybe, or a thousand, a sort of gradual assent to infinite numbers.
A plane enters my night space, a small plane, wing lights flashing, and I think about this pilot, heading somewhere, up in the night sky, alone maybe, making his way above it all, and I cherish him and his journey. I wish him safe and happy horizons.
Over the months many planes, passenger planes heading for nearby airports or out from them, cut into my night reveries and I like thinking about those who travel in them. I feel very close to them as I lie there looking up. I send them my best. Then a star falls, and it has all my attention, as I watch, waiting for another. Some nights there are many, increasing the wonder exponentially. Meteor showers, though scientifically predictable, seem magical to me.
Night after night I climb the rungs and settle in for the trip. I begin to notice that the star patterns with which I am so familiar are moving across the sky, so that Orion’s belt in May is not where it is in October. I think about who might be seeing it now, in China or India, or Northern Africa. The sense of the earth’s roundness and of folks on the other side sticking out like pins on a pincushion makes me smile. Then I remember digging in my backyard when I was a small child and being told, if I dug far enough, I might get to China. I thought this might be true and when my dig unearthed a few artifacts, old parts from a wind-up clock and other small debris, I was both encouraged and concerned. What would I say to them, these people on the other side of the world? This is still a good question, I decide, one worth my attention.
While I stare into a sky with stars delineating what seems like the vast forever, the universe, and all of its inhabitants, seem closer to me. I feel a sort of infinite embrace. We are all canopied by the same sparkling gateway. I think of the early explorers, navigating by stars, or the earliest, the Polynesians launching outrigger canoes over thousands of ocean miles, the stars mapping their lonely way. And I cherish them, then and now.
I recall bending over a radio in 1961 with colleagues in the office where I worked, as Alan Shepherd manned the first U.S. flight into space. I’d think twice before climbing to the next level of my roof so I am humbled by his courage, and I wish I could tell him. Actually, I did get to thank him, years later in a phone conversation. He was so kind to me. I mentally embrace all of the astronauts and the space pioneers, their wives and their children. I envision the now famous photo of blue earth from space. “Thank you,” I think, “for giving us that.”
Night after night I continue the climb, both mental and physical. Some nights the sky is brilliantly alive, all diamond and glitz. Some nights it’s all moon, and I see in its crater-shadows (as I always have) the profile of an officer, a military man who looks like my uncle, a handsome army major. I never could see the round moon face supposed to be there. Whatever its face, the moon amazes me. I remember that it is shining by reflected light and though I understand it, I am awed by it anyway.
Some nights the fog rolls in from the bay and sits gently on me and my sleeping bag. Its immense quiet makes room for other views. Ideas flow softly. Sleep seems unnecessary. In the quiet vastness of my wall-less roof room, thoughts abound, good thoughts, inspired thoughts, sometimes even holy thoughts.
Although on the roof I must have been a mere 12 or 14 feet closer to the stars than when standing on the ground, I was, it seemed, in my own sort of outer space. That small distance, and the resulting isolation from immediate and small concerns, combined with looking up, enabled me to see better. I am not the first to wonder on a star, and be humbled by it. Doing it night after night though, can change you. It opens you up to a grander view, one fueled by gratitude and humility. The sheer awesome magnificence of it all must uplift the loneliest heart or pierce the most callous. I wonder, with all of this splendor going on above our heads, why we are not out under it more often. Clearly it would do us good.
I read once of an architect’s vision for mass living spaces which would uplift and elevate. These small, well-designed spaces would include a roof deck, or at the very least, an escape hatch through which the inhabitants could lift their heads above the fray, above the mist of day to day, where they could see the stars and encounter, in that small distance above the ground, a hint of the infinite, an unselfish thought, a sense of awe, some perspective at least, and be refreshed. How that might elevate the collective consciousness and make for a gentler world!That elevation improves a view, there is no doubt. Mere physical elevation is only a prelude, a small step in the right direction. Starlit nights invite contemplation of the infinite. Accepting the invitation, we get to travel, not so much to outer space as to inner. It is unlikely that we will all live in a house with a roof deck or an escape hatch, but as my friend Jim told me,
“you could sleep up there now!”
There’s no waiting. The stairway to the stars is available now.
And so it is.