Where Does the Sky Start?


Sky Gazing

Nina MacLaughlin’s six-part series on the sky will run every Wednesday for the next six weeks. 

Claude Monet, Coucher de soleil, c. 1868

I have been alone and because of my aloneness I have started a relationship with the sky.

The sky said: “I am open.” And I knew: this was a place to aim my attention. Such is how relationships begin. It was no different with the sky.

I realized quickly I didn’t know anything about it. I did not hear its voice the way Charles Simic heard its voice: “Come, lovers of dark corners, / The sky says, / And sit in one of my dark corners.” I began to learn the way one comes to learn a new love, that initial state of revelation, of curtains pulling open. Show me: the major events, the altering traumas, the enthusiasms, the aversions, the fears. What do you eat? What do you dream? What is your favorite month of the year? The sky wasn’t showing me any more than it already always was, but I had wasted a lot of time not paying attention. It can be good to start at the beginning. What already always was turned out to be much more than I had anticipated.

The sky is a clock. The sky is an atmosphere, a mood, a temperature, a density. The sky is home to our home. The sky is each moment’s shifting fingerprint. I devoted myself.

The questions came.

Where does the sky start?

What a simple question. How obvious. But it unsteadied me; I was walloped by the force of how much I did not know.

When are you in the sky? There are the obvious times: in an airplane; a hot air balloon; a rocket; the moment of peak height after being launched from a diving board. But if you are in a room on the second floor and lean out the window and trees outside your window are taller than the roof, are you in the sky? If you are on a mountain and you are higher than the trees but there are peaks higher than you, are you in the sky? What distance must one travel up to meet it? Is there a scientific measure with numbers and variables and exponents riding the shoulders of the regular-size numbers? Does an equation exist? Sky = 11.19 squared over weather to the third times Time times light times height of person measuring minus birds? Does an invisible band like the Tropic of Capricorn trace a line above, an invisible eggshell of guarantee that delineates: this is sky, this is not sky?

“The front of my looking out pulls / beauty taking me taking you. The scab in the sky / is gone. We have to go beyond our calculations / and the small words,” writes Alice Notley. If answers exist, we’ll have to abandon our math, and make a new language. I was alone, and I was ready.

The Chilean poet Raúl Zurita knows about going beyond small words. In the sands of the Atacama Desert he used a bulldozer to scar words onto the surface of the earth. In letters a kilometer tall that stretched three kilometers long, he wrote “ni pena ni miedo.” It is illegible on the ground; it can only be read from the sky. One must be above it to see, to receive the message:

ni pena ni miedo
neither shame nor fear

These are words for how to approach an end or a beginning. At the beginning of my relationship with the sky I learned: the sky starts at the surface of the earth.

Does every child know that? They seem to, in their drawings. The single-line horizon, and the blue above. The sky starts at the surface of the earth! We are always in it.

The sky. Up. Up above. The bright-dark uncollapsing dome. Where the stars are in their dairy field. Where the rain falls from, and the snow. Where the clouds gather, swell, drift, draw, and then withdraw. Where the sun lives and tips its pitcher of light down on us. Crescent moon. Constellation. Thunder. Sunset. Gull. Way up.

But also, right here. All around. You’re touching it. It’s touching you. An intimate lifelong relationship. We penetrate it. We take it into ourselves. We are all in its embrace. This thing I thought was up was actually all around, this thing I thought was elsewhere was everywhere, seen and unseen.

Since when? That’s another question. We emerge into it from the bodies of our mothers. Before we emerge, for the time we are alive inside, we are not in the sky, the same way a person underwater is not in the sky. To dive below the surface is to leave the sky.

Is water the opposite of sky? Ankles shins kneecaps. Pause. Thighs inner upper. Pause. Crotch zing hips. Pause. Three inches above the belly button. Pause. Then, the lift and slow fall and the entering, all the way underwater. Deep comes quick at Walden Pond, where I often swim in summer. In the deepest part of the kettle, it’s nearly 110 feet deep. A little less than half the wingspan of a 747. Not far to walk, but a long way to sink. They are not opposite, water and sky, they love each other. The sky sees itself in the water, the water flings the sky back to itself. They touch all the time. And when I tread water, head, neck, shoulders above the surface, body below, I enter both at once, absorbed at once in both, a love triangle. This is what you realize when you are alone.

We are not in the sky when we are underwater. And we are not in the sky when we are alive inside before being born. And before that? That’s another question. Some people talk about stardust, suggest we’re all descended from the sky, that our pre-origin origin starts in the stars, which is to say, perhaps we’ve been in the sky the whole time, before we were born, before even the planets were born. Our bodies are made of elements, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and so on, and these elements, the scientists say, were formed in the stars billions of years ago. That we came dusting down as star parts sounds a little like a fairy tale. Or—not even like a fairy tale because fairy tales are scarier and more gruesome. It lands on me as wish-wash, too beautiful to be true. But I’m no longer sure of anything. What happens after the future? What is this unremembered memory of nothing? Sometimes my imagination comes tap-tapping against its eggshell like a hatchling.

I started a relationship with the sky, and wondered, what took me so long? What am I forgetting? Did the relationship start long ago? I thought back, and back. I thought back to a first grade classroom in 1986. Lights dimmed, shades drawn, the TV wheeled in on a cart (a special day!) to watch the rocket. There it was on earth, everything about its posture spoke of upward thrust, potential energy, blast off. Here we were, children, gathered to witness an event. Astronauts, seven of them, exploration, history, Cape Canaveral, countdown, bravery. The rocket was orange. Three two one, great white gusty barrels of smoke we have lift off and




Into the sky, up and up.

And then, one minute and thirteen seconds later, it exploded.

A foamy curve of smoke against the sky, tentacular throbs, up, elbowing out, spitting down, a jellyfish of smoke against the high-up night.

We were six years old. We didn’t know. This must be how it’s supposed to look. This smoke plume in the sky, this beautiful shape, this beautiful power, spaceship so fast it’s smoke. So fast and so powerful the smoke curves against the sky, shoots curving paths against the sky. Wow. They are in the sky. Everything is different in the sky. Beyond the sky, in outer space.

But the vibration in the room changed. The vibration from the adults in the room changed.

I was almost alone in the hallway after. Two teachers stood near a classroom door. They stood close and spoke quietly and one touched the other’s shoulder. I didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t know what had happened. The rocket in the sky, the rocket rushing spaceward, the swooping torrents of smoke in the sky. Was this when my relationship with the sky started?

But no, no. It wasn’t that day. That’s not when it started. When I think of that day, I do not think of the sky. I did not know what had happened. I did not know what would happen. What I did know that day: sadness and fear. Which, like the sky, were there from the start, and maybe before.

Remember: disaster means ill-starred.



Read Nina MacLaughlin’s series on Summer Solstice, Dawn, and November

Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, MassachusettsHer most recent book is Summer Solstice