words | adnan perwez
photos | sania elahi
It was a bitterly cold summer night the first time I went stargazing. The biting wind that twisted its way through the city blocks had pushed aside both the stray leaves on the sidewalk and the clouds overhead, leaving both street and sky palely glowing and utterly clear.
My friends and I had spent the better part of the past hour on those empty streets just getting out of town; our old, worn-out car slowly rumbling past sleepy shops and the seemingly never-ending expanse of the campus. The change, when it came, was striking; dimly lit apartment complexes suddenly gave way to barren, open fields as we finally reached the outskirts of Davis.
The car came to a crawl, before pulling off the narrow road to stop on one of the fields. We got out, shivering—the wind was so frigid that it almost sucked the air out of my lungs. I stepped forward onto the damp earth, my breath coming out in visible puffs as I walked away from the car—and looked up.
Perhaps the feeling that comes closest is that of swimming in a freezing river. If you slowly sink yourself in, inch by inch, you can brace your body and prepare for the inevitable cold. Throw yourself in, however, and the coldness will instead feel like a tangible, physical force, grabbing and pummeling your senses.
If we extend that tired parallel, stargazing would be comparable to hurling yourself into the depths of the Arctic. Suddenly, a thousand points of light from a thousand different directions flare out at you; the entire sky is filled with shapeless, ethereal fire. The great, familiar dull purple-black blanket that has always covered the city’s sky is suddenly ripped away, like a furious magician tearing away the curtain to deliver his final, heart-stopping showstopper—the twinkling, endless forms almost vindictive in their full, merciless glory as your head turns round and round, your eyes futilely trying to find a beginning or a middle or an end to stop, to rest, to focus on. But the stars are too many, and they twinkle and they dance, as the heart, the mind, the eyes, the breath - all are frozen in the frigid air.
What does it feel like to look out into infinity? Countless armies of philosophers and writers have tried to give a definitive, all-encompassing answer. Some state that the entire experience is one of Divine awe and can surely inspire nothing but humility. Others state the opposite—that the grand view does nothing but spur man to greater heights, providing an empty canvas to map his endless ambition onto. Those with a darker, bleaker worldview claim that they find the entire thing unsettling; that the stars remind them of nothing but their own insignificance, and so become an inescapable symbol of meaninglessness and nihilism.
Faced with these wildly different interpretations, it seems impossible to find a common thread that could somehow unify and connect all the clashing views—in fact, the single similar thing is that the views were expressed in the first place. The act of gazing upon the stars seems to evoke some primal, ancient instinct—the need for humans to somehow capture an indescribable experience; to boil it down and distill it into a substance that can be more easily understood and shared. Much like witnessing death or falling hopelessly in love, stargazing is a uniquely universal human experience that appears throughout nearly every major writer and poet’s work, across time and cultures.
Perhaps gazing at the stars reveals nothing more than that which is found when we gaze within ourselves. Perhaps we reflect and project our desires whatever is inside our heart out into the endless skies, and so find the same thing staring down at ourselves when we look up. Perhaps not - perhaps there truly is some type of inherent meaning among the stars, one that silently and even unknowingly affects all human hearts the same, universal way when one first truly looks upon them.
One thing I’ve come to know for certain is that stargazing warps one’s perspective of time. One moment you’re staring upwards; the next you find yourself losing your balance, feet scrambling to catch purchase on the damp earth as you barely stop yourself from falling in time. When you glance upwards again, you’re shocked to see countless of the stars fading, as light starts to bleed in.
And so you turn, hands deeply in your pockets as you walk back towards the car. It’s already packed with yawning friends; you step inside the warm, sleepy interior and close the door. There’s a brief pause; then the silence is broken once and for all as the car rumbles into action, tires scratching against the fields, headlights bare against the thin veil of darkness.
Slowly, the familiar buildings and town start to come back into view, as the gentle babble of conversation starts up once again. But though you’re nodding and laughing along, your face is pressed against the cool glass of the window, heart still reflecting on the memory, eyes still gazing upwards.
Far, far above, the purple-black blanket stretches itself tightly, firmly reclaiming the sky and cloaking any glowing shapes underneath. Farther still, tendrils of pure pink light start to unravel themselves across the horizon, as dawn begins to settle in.