What Shape Is the Sky?


Sky Gazing

This is the final installment of Nina MacLaughlin’s six-part series on the sky.

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara, 1857.

I walked to a high place and slept at the top. The air there was thin. Someone sleeping in the space adjacent was ill. Coughs punched through the wall in the night. But wall is not the accurate word for the thin sheets of particle board that divided the space. A quilt hung by clothespins would’ve caught the sound better, baseball into mitt as opposed to baseball through wax paper. “Altitude sickness” had been whispered in the courtyard in the evening as the sun did a better and better job hiding itself behind the mountains, sending megaphones of cold light toward whispers of clouds. In bed, I worried as the sounds of the sickness graveled and percussed their way to my ears. Tunnel of throat, dark cavity of lung. Breath yolky and frothed. Go down, I urged the person in my mind. Go down. Get lower where your lungs and blood can feed on the oxygen they need. I wanted them to stop coughing and I did not want them to stop coughing because I feared that a stopped cough meant dead.

I lay in bed that night—a plywood platform on which I spread my sleeping bag—wearing double the regular amount of pants, four layers of shirts, a down vest, a wool hat. I pulled the hood of the bag over my head to muffle the coughs. I did not fear contagion, but the sickness in the next room meant the sickness was possible in my room, too. And by room I mean my body. I was far away, higher than I’d ever been on earth. I was afraid. I did not want to die. And it seemed so lonely to die so far away from everyone I loved.

At some point, I slept. And at some point, deep in the night, I woke, having to piss. I did not want to remove myself from my sleeping bag, slip into my boots, and walk the path outside to the squatters around the corner. But it wasn’t a problem that would solve itself so I emerged from my small room with thin walls and stepped into the mountain night.

I stood stiller than I have ever stood and I looked up.

Never so many stars. The snow on the peak glowed blue pink in the moonlight. I put my hands on my head and took the air into my lungs. Silence throbbed. Not noise, but vibration, the mysterious, mighty, silent vibration of the mountains and the sky. So far up. So far away. But far away from what? Far away from every person whose name I repeated in my mind as I walked the path that lead me to this mountain in some sort of stepping prayer of love. Far away from the drawers in my kitchen that hold the dish towels and the takeout menus. Far away from home and all that was familiar. And yet, and yet—

I was the closest I’d ever been to all of it, and everyone. All at once, it was not me looking up. I was gone. I, as I understand myself, evaporated. The body I was breathed in, was breathed in, and there was no inside-me anymore. A mingling instead with the night, the rock, the mountain peak, its snowy ridge. Not I, but star and wind and dust. Not I, but void, absence, everything. Not I, but a scattering of matter like tossed stones across the surface of a lake, touching everything at once.

The sky dissolved me. The stars dissolved me. The mountains, throbbing, shifting, laughing, they dissolved me. Then the laughter of the mountains moved through me and my atoms reassembled. I came back to myself realizing I was laughing. Tears all down my cheeks.

And now, here we are. An afternoon, summer, near sea level, in a new stretch of reckoning and free fall. My neighbor with the big dog is whistling on the sidewalk. Breeze moves the sycamore leaves. Flies dip and rise about the big blue recycling bins. A yellow butterfly flickers against the green. No clouds. The sky is blue. I came down from that mountain and I have been back down now for years and years. As René Daumal writes in Mount Analogue:

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

Daumal is incorrect. One need not summit to see. To know what is above, one need only lie on the grass and look up, float on one’s back on a pond and look up, tilt the chin toward the sky and look up. Any moment, a mountaintop. He’s right about not being able to stay on the summit forever, that’s true, but I argue: one descends, one sees still. What do I know? Only that for a moment I became the sky and touched everything at once. Only that this possibility exists. The possibility to reach a state of all-nothingness again. That somewhere way beyond the summit, sky, time, death — these things are the same.

I can’t identify all the different kinds of clouds. I only recently learned how high thirty-five thousand feet is. I didn’t know that the sky starts at the surface of the earth, that we are in it.

“When a man is hurt, he makes himself an expert,” writes Tony Hoagland. I knew one man, heart busted, who learned bicycle repair, adopted a new persona that involved, in part, those flimsy little racing caps. Another pursued his expertise in drug use. Learn through suffering, my mother told us over and over. But at some point, pain is no longer a visit to the store that sells wisdom. At some point, we enter the store, scoop our hands into the large wooden bowls, all of them empty, and ask, Is it worth it? We leave empty-handed knowing less than when we walked in.

A place inside holds our devotion, a suede pouch whose walls can spread without limit. When we lose someone or something we’ve devoted ourselves to, a vacuum is created, a void-space. This chasm of aloneness can barely be tolerated, so pain rushes in to fill the void, because pain is easier to tolerate than empty space. We mistake this pain for heartbreak and grief, but the pain is bandage. Heartbreak and grief come from touching the void that is revealed when we lose something or someone we have loved. Heartbreak, grief, are less about pain and more about fear, the great intolerable fear. Where once someone was, they no longer are; as I am now, I will not always be.

And so we fill ourselves with new devotion, we aim our attention, we pursue expertise—in the mechanics of a bicycle, the shape of someone else’s laugh, a flower garden, a new language, the sky. We try to soothe the hurt we’ve carried from the start, the secret grief over the nothing that surrounds us, that touches us at all times, the thin wall that divides our presence and our absence. I did not aim my attention at the sky because I was alone, it turns out. I aim my attention at the sky because I desire, and am afraid.

Nature doesn’t loathe the vacuum. The only thing Nature loathes is the leaf blower. Sometimes I forget that we’re part of Nature, too, like the clam, the cloud, the tide, the egg, the eclipse, the shifting bands of color that accompany the setting of the sun.

I do not know if the person coughing in the space adjacent made it off the mountain. I have not thought of them in years, but recently the sound of their cough came rattling back to me across thousands of miles and thousands of days. So little separated us that night. Are their bones calcifying, turning to rock, becoming part of the peak, flesh pecked by bird and carried in flight? Are you still there? Am I? Can we stay on the summit forever? At some point, yes, we will. We will always and forever be there, dissolved into the sky that does not ever end, returned to the stars, touching everything at once. Can you imagine? We will all enter our own inevitable endlessness.

Not yet.

The forecast calls for thunderstorms. Last night, a thunder came so loud it set off a car alarm. The clouds opened and the sound of drenching rain washed me back into dark and weightless sleep. I woke to a new morning and walked outside to rebehold the sun.


Read earlier installments of Sky Gazing.

Read Nina MacLaughlin’s series on Summer SolsticeDawn, and November

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