Tonight I was thinking about gifts we are given. Gifts we don’t deserve. Gifts we didn’t ask for. And gifts we don’t even realize what they are until much later.
I was driving a girl I knew back to college about twenty years ago. That much I remember. I don’t even remember what car I was driving but I remember my finger dangling lazily on the steering wheel keeping time with the bumps in the New York State Thruway. I remember driving with my left foot up against the dashboard and my knee against the window which was open a crack because she smoked.
I remember her telling me that I should go to college like her. I told her I didn’t need to. After high school I worked and drank. Sometimes at the same time. At that point I had no intention of ever going to college. I thought I had everything figured out.
I remember the wind rattling the plastic bags in the back seat which she packed her clothes in. I remember we had to yell to each other to be heard over the wind hitting the plastic bags. But she was always quick to yell. She considered herself brilliant and misunderstood. In retrospect I think she wanted to be brilliant and didn’t want to be understood. But those are thoughts that came later.
To be honest at that moment, both of us were just mesmerized by our own ideas. We didn’t talk to each other as much as we waited until the other’s mouth stopped moving so we could start talking. But we shared a basic ideology. She’d introduced me to Ayn Rand. We were both sure that the world was an empty vast meaningless coffin but we were excited about philosophy. We’d talked about Nietzsche and finding purpose in a meaningless world. I remember that we idiotically agreed that if Dostoevsky were born later he likely wouldn’t have been so tied down by Christianity. We talked political philosophy and it was all so exciting in the manner of overcaffeinated youth.
Driving the car that night, it just seemed like one of those magic nights. You know the kind when you’re young and everything in life seems easy and there’s no reason to suspect it’s going to get harder any time soon. And every goal was just one decision away.
I spotted a rest stop sign and pulled over but it was just a parking lot for truckers to stretch their legs. No other cars were around. There was a bathroom with a glowing soda machine. I pulled change out for a soda and she laughed and said, “Good, get a soda so we can stop at every rest stop.” I laughed.
It started to rain lightly as I stepped out of the car and she rolled up her window. As I came back to the car with my soda I’m sure I had something brilliant to say mainly because back then I always thought I did. But as I approached the car I looked up. And my goodness. All the stars. Brilliant splashes of light shimmering like some clumsy angel had spilled a jar of stars over upstate New York. I stopped.
And that’s how it happens. An unsuspecting kid on the New York State thruway on a random Sunday night looks up at the sky and is amazed by it all. For the first time since childhood, believing in something not named Matt Archbold was easy, the world looked so…on purpose. And to a punky know-it-all atheist like me that was a shock.
I stood out there in the cold night for a minute. My first instinct whenever I see anything is to count it but these numbers were too overwhelming to count. I count cars. I count clouds. I count signs. But all the normal pathways of my mind were not in use. I just looked up. And felt the wind on my face.
I heard her roll down the window a little. “What are you doing?” she asked. And I could hear the smile in her voice. When I hear it now I hear the patronization but back then I didn’t realize anyone could think less of me than I did.
“Come out here,” I said. “This is amazing.”
What? she asked.
“I’ve never seen so many stars,” I said. “Come out here.”
The lamplight behind the car obscured her face and she sat in silhouette shaking her head. “They’re stars,” she said dismissively. “And it’s cold. Get in.” Her voice was still laughing but now it was trying to.
And there I was standing out there just outside the arc of lamplight, staring up at stars millions of miles away as the wind ballooned my shirt around me. And I felt something. I felt like everything I was seeing and feeling was…on purpose. My head insisted it wasn’t. But I felt something else. It all felt on purpose. The stars, the atmosphere, the wind, the trees.
I tried one more time to get her to come outside. To join me. I wanted so badly for her to share that moment with me but she didn’t even answer. She simply stared at me. She didn’t even glance up.
That was the first time I felt the distance between us. And getting back in the car next to her didn’t close that distance. I couldn’t logic my way back to who I was before. I sometimes think the distance had always been there and maybe I’d just noticed it. And while it’s sometimes hard to notice something it’s a heck of a lot more difficult to un-notice it.
I wish I could say my life changed that night. But it didn’t. I had a few more months of stupidity left in me. But it was one of the first intimations that there was something more. I considered at the time what happened. I considered if it was my way of getting out of a possible relationship that likely wouldn’t have ended well months or years later. I considered if it was my subconscious getting all Shakespearean on me and telling me there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. I considered if it was just a comfort to pretend that anything in this life was on purpose. I considered much. But I know what it was. It was a gift. The distance between the two of us that night was a gift. Though I didn’t understand it at the time it was a gift.
Within weeks, we didn’t see each other again. It didn’t end so much as we ignored we’d ever had much to do with each other at all. We pretended. We were always good at that.
I didn’t accept God as a reality then. I wasn’t the smartest guy in the world. I needed to be hit on the head a few times more.
But about a year later I went to college. A Catholic college. I met a girl outside the cafeteria. She was running for class President. She asked me for my vote. And I knew. I didn’t think I knew. I knew because I felt it. I knew that this was the greatest girl I’d ever meet. On our second date I asked her to come up to the roof of my apartment building where I’d spent much time alone watching the sun go down. She said yes and together we looked at the sky. And she talked about how beautiful the sun going down over the city looked. And although many of the stars were drowned out by the lights of Philadelphia’s synthetic dawn we still knew that what we couldn’t always see was still there.
I bring this up because last night I was sitting out on the porch watching my girls ride their scooters down the driveway and up past me. The boy sat next to me working on a puzzle we’d brought out with us and the baby sat in the grass.
I nudged the boy and told him to look up at the sky which had pinkened at dusk. He stared for a moment and he said, “Wow.” The girls noticed us (they notice everything) and they stopped and all six of us stared silently. And that too was a gift. A gift which was given to me. I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t expect it. But I knew that it was on purpose. And I thanked God.