Two weeks ago I went to Big Bear on a club retreat and ran into a lamppost and a stop sign and more than a few trees. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sometimes people ask what your favorite place to be is. The garden, cooking in Grandma’s kitchen, Disneyland. I usually answer with the beach because that’s basically true, and it might take an essay to describe my actual favorite place, the place where I’ve never failed to find a connection. However, we are in luck because what we have here is an essay. So let me explain.
Lately, similar to every twenty-something’s existential crisis, I’ve been thinking I don’t really know where I belong. I’ve drifted through this city my whole life, never really giving thought to where I’m supposed to be. Yet when I look up, I know something bigger’s out there and it’s beckoning me to come away with it, because no matter what that great blue blanket will always be there over our heads.
“This city” is the city of Orange. I grew up in Orange, got taller and skinnier and maybe smarter and watched people come and people go around me, watched things change. When everything was changing, I could always count on the sky to remain the same.
My obsession with the sky and in particular the stars used to drive my mother crazy. I realize now that I too would be upset if I happened to check in at night on my darling angel asleep in her bed and she wasn’t, in fact, asleep in her bed at all.
“But mom,” I protested at the time. “I’m just outside, ten feet away.” Which I was, sitting on a blanket after my bedtime watching the sky.
She would then heave a sigh, a gesture I now understand to mean something along the line of “Why did God choose to bless me with one of the few kids crazy enough to sneak out of her bed every night to sleep in the backyard just to stare at stars?” She tried to explain to me why I must not sleep outside. I ran a high risk of dangerous bug bites. It was cold. I got dirty. Thanks to me my mom became the champion of grass stain removers.
So I eventually stopped slipping out of bed at night and falling asleep under the Orange County sky. But I never got my head out of the clouds.
People say that everyone is at different places in their lives. Although that might be true, we’re all in the same place if we stop and look at what’s above us, a place that we all have in common. Just sometimes, depending on our perspectives, it might look different from where we stand. When someone asks, “That’s a great photo, where was it taken?” It could be taken at the zoo or the farmer’s market but no matter what, it’s under the sky, too.
During the day the sky I know is usually cloudless and blue, that good old no seasons California weather we all know and incessantly complain about.
That cloudless blue sky has watched me grow up beneath it, when the times were good. When days stretched long and easy, sun wafting onto me and my best friend’s lemonade stand and games of hopscotch on the sidewalk. We counted the planes overhead and how many bunny rabbits we could make out of the clouds.
That sky also watched when the times weren’t so good, when mom and dad yelled at each other long into the night after they thought me and my brothers were asleep. When I was less scared of the dark than where my next meal would come from. The sky got a little darker then. Sometimes it would even rain. I was grateful to it for that.
I don’t think the sky will ever stop watching me grow up because I’ll never be done growing up, and two weeks ago me and the sky got a bit closer. About 8,200 feet, to be specific.
Yes, back to Big Bear. You never thought I’d get there, did you?
I never thought I’d get there either, because driving up the mountain all four of my roadmates’ Google Maps lost signal and we went twenty-two miles off track. But that’s another story.
When we finally did get the to the camp, the hundred or so other people on the retreat for the weekend were already in the common room, so we grabbed our duffel bags and jumped out of the truck.
On our twenty-two mile detour it had grown dark and I’d barely noticed because I was too busy positioning my phone at every humanly possible angle to try to get a signal. But when I stepped outside the car, the moment my gaze turned to the skies I was that little girl again who used to sneak into her backyard during the night to look at the stars.
Before we even made it to the common room I ran full force into my first tree because I was staring straight up, looking for the little dipper.
That night I was sorely tempted to sleep outside so I could find the little dipper and more, and may have succeeded in doing so if I had not been driven inside by temperatures so cold you could not only see the puffs of your breath but they stuck around long enough for you to have a conversation with them.
Despite sleeping inside the cabin, I still did get some quality time to stargaze when I was not busy bumping into inanimate objects. And I’m sorry to say, city of Orange, that the stars up in Big Bear are so much more breathtaking than they are in your quaint streets.
Sure, I used to sit in my backyard and think star-inspired thoughts, think that life is vast and infinite and terrifying, and wonder if someone else is out there too, looking up, thinking those same things. If I’ll ever meet them. If it’s in our stars. Well, up there on that first night, with those stars, I felt it could be true.
The morning of the next day, after waking up to the sound of twenty girls in my cabin blow drying their hair and cracking open makeup cases – I attributed my irrational anger about them caring for their appearance to the 8:30 AM wake-up time – we went hiking. I made the adventurous decision to go with the group that wanted to take the more challenging route, not realizing that ‘more challenging’ was apparently hiker code for the most dangerous possible path where at any turn you could trip and plummet to your death or impale yourself on a inconveniently fallen tree.
Two hours and three layers of shed clothing later, though, we arrived at a lake hidden in a recess of overhanging trees, cradled by the curve of the mountain. Although we had endured nearly vertical rock cliffs and downward slopes even the deer were avoiding to get there, it felt right that it hadn’t been easy. If it had been easy it wouldn’t have felt so rewarding to see the lake reflect the sky, both so blue and shining that when I looked across it I couldn’t quite tell where the stopping points were – where one ended the other began, where one began the other ended.
Yes, the sky was watching me where I was watching it, the seashell blue lighting up the day. I ran into the lamppost trying to figure out just what color blue the mountain sky was.
The day was pretty and all, but I’m going to have to apologize to the day too, because sorry Big Bear but your nights are what really captured my attention because – you guessed it – the night has stars. Flashing their smiles and winking with twists of light, both sad and happy, reminding me why they are my favorite place.
They are so much brighter there, fragments, shards in the sky safe from the pollution down below – smog pollution and light pollution. I always thought that was a funny phrase, light pollution. Down in the city, all the lights on the ground make it harder to see the ones up above.
So maybe I’ll never know where I belong or maybe I don’t have to because I’ll always belong under the night sky. It will follow me wherever my feet choose to go.
And two weeks ago it followed me to Big Bear to show me that there are so many more stars there than I ever thought I could see, just because I travelled up a little closer.
Stardust, fairydust, shimmering, expanding across black canvas. A promise that I’ll go up and down and sometimes won’t be able to see them as clearly, but they’ll be there. Whispering to all the little parts of me that are scattered across the city I grew up in. We’re broken, too, but we’re beautiful.