nto the moonless night of the desert outside the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama, our party of eight excitedly clambered out of the car. In the daytime, Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) exhibits barren, unearthly scenery and rock formations in a kaleidoscope of pastel colors. But at night, as the car engine clicked off, we were submerged in vast darkness.
The familiar sense of adrenaline filled my 10-year-old body. Looking straight ahead, I could wave my hand in front of my face without a flicker of detection. Closing my eyes or opening them, there was no difference—but keeping them closed made the darkness feel smaller and safer.
In 2004 we were on the cusp of our move from Chile to South Africa. Not only a new home, but a new continent. The fourth one within my first ten years of life. Maybe my insistence on keeping my eyes closed reflected my refusal to accept the fact that we really were leaving. Self-imposed darkness seemed easier to handle than the darkness of the unknown.
I heard whispers around me—my sister, three years younger, had not gotten out of the car yet. “Where is the flashlight, Daddy? I can’t see anything.” Although slightly panicked, she whispered out of shared reverence for the night. It seemed natural to respect the dark, as if noise would disturb the vastness of it.
Some keep quiet because we are trained to assume sleepiness in the dark; or the implicit correlation of secrecy with nighttime activities. When we work in the dark, people assume we have something to hide. But many useful things happen in the dark. Newspapers are printed and delivered, streets are cleaned. My father studied the stars.
“Just give your eyes a chance to adjust,” he replied, like I knew he would. Ever since I can remember, turning on a flashlight in nature at night bordered on sacrilege in our family. My mild-tempered, soft-spoken dad, an astronomer, never admonished us directly, but instead guided gently with information.
“It takes hours for your night vision to become fully activated, as the rod cells in your eyes are very shy and will only activate properly once they’re totally sure it is dark. Every time an unnatural light source hits your eyes, your eyes assume it is day and go back to daytime vision. The night vision process must begin again. And that’s just a waste of time, isn’t it? Time where you could be enjoying the view.”
A comforting hand squeezed my shoulder. Did he know my eyes were still closed? “There’s no view,” I sighed, “we are surrounded by darkness.”
But that is not how my father saw it. What he saw was light that had traveled thousands of lifespans to reach us exactly where we were. When he explained this to me, I knew there was no point walking around with my eyes closed, wrapped up in my own unfruitful darkness. So, I held my breath and opened my eyes wide, welcoming in the light. Because that is what eventually all natural darkness reveals—the faintest of light.
Looking up from the Chilean desert, slowly we watched the other world start to open. My pupils dilated to receive the night sky. Stray dots connected into a constellation, a sword hanging from Orion’s belt. What was a blanket of black suddenly revealed the streak of the Milky Way as it folded within the light of other smaller and further galaxies.
Christian jargon and everyday speech have taught us to walk in the light and stay away from darkness. We are called to “bring light to the dark places,” to “drive out the darkness of evil with the light of truth.” But it is also true that there is no greater joy than that which comes after suffering, there is no starker truth than that which stands out from the confusion of lies. The beauty of life often comes from contrast.
When everything around us is too bright, it becomes difficult to see the small lights. A city on a hill is not easy to hide, but how often does a single window in a skyscraper catch our eye? I found out that darkness was a gift because it discloses the light.
In my childhood there were many nights like these. At times we would be looking for a specific cosmic event. At other times we would hunt for satellites. The one who spotted first received the honor of wielding the laser beam, which seemed strong enough to reach all the way to the skies.
I thought satellites were more fun to spot than shooting stars. They lasted longer, and I could share the joy of my find with others and track one across the whole sky instead of that flash of a shooting star that disappeared before I could put it into words.
We would lie on the beach in Cape Town, or on a hilltop in Santiago, and my dad would describe, in the vein of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry´s The Little Prince, how we were at the cusp of the planet, on the very edge of a giant mass hurtling through space at 220 km per second. We would lie there in awe, staring out into the expanse of universe spreading out in front of us. We imagined we could feel the speed in our fingertips, entranced with how stable the constant motion seemed.
Those nights impressed on me how small I am in the face of the universe. How far I am from its center. How near I am to its Creator.
How great our Creator must be to hold it all in his hands. As a child, I believed him to stand upon on a cloud somewhere. Then I imagined a physically massive presence holding the universe in his hands. Eventually I just accepted that he is, in all and through all.
Those distances between galaxies that are impossible for humans to traverse, he holds together; those black holes that stretch existence into oblivion, he oversees. Through years of research and study, my earthly father understood many of the things that occur in space, but my Creator Father knows the beginning, middle, and end of all things because he is, has been, and always will be.
Perhaps my father sensed my apprehension that night in the Chilean desert. Taking the laser beam, he directed it at the Southern Cross, the constellation of stars that directs us to true south. “You can never be totally lost if you just look up to what the darkness does not obscure.”
This realization helped me in the next move that followed. Even though Cape Town was a new and foreign city, when we sat on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean watching the sky grow dark, those familiar lights started to reappear. The planets, Jupiter and Venus, reflected the sun. Sirius, the brightest star, hinted at where the Southern Cross would soon appear. I couldn‘t be lost when so much had stayed the same. Not all the light could be blocked out by the darkness of uncertainty.
My father’s passion for the universe intertwined with our everyday lives. We traveled to see eclipses and vacationed with telescopes. We lived at the South African Astronomical Observatory, and waved at the Hubble telescope passing by in space. I lived these things and knew no different. I assumed it was a normal life, and only when I left home did I finally grasp the rarity of my father’s profession, the uniqueness of my own upbringing.
As an adult, I feel the lasting imprint of my childhood as an astronomer’s daughter. I categorize people in my life as either shooting stars or satellites—those who are a brief, bright presences versus those who patiently plod alongside for longer.
I now live in Austria, on the opposite hemisphere from where I grew up, but I still orient myself by the stars. And now, when others say that it is too dark to see anything, I look up at the sky and I wait for my eyes to adjust. I do not own a flashlight.
Instead of the Southern Cross pointing me to true south, the Big Dipper helps me figure out which way is true north, and I sense the Creator more clearly than I ever have. I look up and know that there are constants in life. I look up and know that I am not alone—that behind the universe is a changeless Creator who is higher and greater than all that I see.
Cover Photograph by Daniel Olah
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