A girlfriend of mine and I camped in the backcountry of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last week. It was a lovely little campground in the middle of a white pine forest. About 1/4 mile away was an unspoiled Lake Michigan beach. When we walked out there, we did not see another human. The crystal clear Caribbean-like waters sparkled in the sunshine, and I felt like I was visiting a long ago time when humans had not tamed the beaches for their own enjoyment. There is nothing like Northern Michigan.
I asked Kathy one afternoon if we could go hang out on the beach to stargaze. We at first thought of waking up at 2 AM, but then we realized that if we woke up at 2 AM we were much more likely to go back to sleep than walk out to the beach. So, we decided to watch the sunset and then hang out until darkness overtook the landscape.
The last time I saw stars in the backcountry was in Arkansas. Another friend of mine and I were camping in Devil’s Den State Park, and I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathhouse. On the way back, I happened to look up and was shocked to see a night sky that I’m sure I hadn’t witnessed since I was a girl. It was disorienting to see our surroundings fade into darkness and the stars and Milky Way take center stage. The shift in focus made me feel small, and the magnificence of it all was unsettling.
We were facing the sunset over Lake Michigan, a sight that we are used to seeing on this side of the lake. It’s not unusual to walk downtown and see the giant orb dip into the cool waters of the lake to end an especially nice day or to accidentally catch the perfect moment while on a walk. It’s always a treat. This night was no different. But we weren’t leaving. It was odd how long it actually took to get dark. The last light flickered out at around 11 PM. As we gazed toward the retreating sun, the remaining light filtered out all of the stars. We could turn around to the east and see the canvas of stars taking over the sky. First there were a few planets and stars…. then there were thousands of stars… and finally the Milky Way showed up. It took awhile before the light settled down enough for the outlines of the comet to appear, but we saw it as it got brighter and brighter on the night sky.
Once again I experienced that shift of focus that I felt in Arkansas. That canvas of stars prompted us to talk about other beings and what they might be like. It made my life feel small and inconsequential. It also made me feel sad that we don’t experience this beautiful skyscape all the time. I think when I was a child in rural Louisiana we saw the stars all the time. Somewhere along the way, stargazing has been relegated to a special occasion reserved only for the backcountry.
This shift in focus made me think of the shift I’m making in my own life. With my 9-5 workday going dark, I’m looking at a whole new landscape of choices. It’s overwhelming and disorienting. Already in one month, I’ve started changing my diet. With so little time for cooking and planning, I defaulted to what I’ve done for many years. I’m feeling drawn to a completely plant-based diet. I know it’s better for me, and it’s better for the planet. I’ve cut out dairy and eggs for the past three weeks except for the very occasional splurge. With my focus shifting to plants, I’m becoming very aware of the variety of plant-based foods available. I feel overwhelmed with how many options I have to choose from.
I’m not as clear as to what comes next for me. I could move. I could stay put. Do I do contract work? Do I get another job? Do I wait awhile and try to at least semi-retire? Do I buy a camper and travel around a bit? I’ve even considered teaching overseas or moving to another country. There are as many options as there are stars in the sky. I just can’t see them yet, and I certainly can’t decide.
It took a long time to go dark on the beach so that I could see the many stars that the universe has to offer. I grew frustrated that the sun wouldn’t go down faster so I could adjust my vision. I wanted to shift my focus to something new. But I had to let the sun set, and even once it set, the light lingered for hours. Our normal blinds us to the opportunities that might be lurking right in front of our eyes. It is not until we let the darkness settle that we can see them clearly. I need to be patient. I need to wait. The shift in focus will come but it will not hurry.