That night the stars kept me awake. I couldn’t sleep, so I went to the open window overlooking the ocean. A green light flashed at the horizon beyond the cloaked meadow. Looking up, I saw more stars than I ever remembered, brilliant and gleaming. Elated, I felt my whole being inhaling the ebony sky teeming with star life. I stood in awe for moments, minutes, or hours—how long I couldn’t tell.
When I returned to my bed, I still could not sleep—not because of the mad convergence of memories, desires and fears that had been crowding in on me before those bright sparks against the black sky appeared to me. My mind was clear and pure in the imagination of those gems in the dark velvet hemisphere. I wasn’t drawn back to look again though, however compelling. Rather, I allowed them to live and expand in me—as they always were and always would be. I lay in the neutrality of that quiet wakefulness.
But not long enough. As the first light dawned, an awareness edged in of my own smallness against the expanse of the grandeur I witnessed. I wanted to remain in that blessed state, like one holding on to a fading dream. But my habitual, chaotic thoughts began pressing in on me once more—the absurdity of being human, the perpetual dirge sounding beneath the surface of mundane reality. I felt it within me—an impending void. I wanted to fill it with the beauty and mystery of what I had seen and felt. Out there and in here, “as above, so below,” these words were like pearls, on the strand of my desire to remain as I had been through the night. It was not to be.
That was the night the stars kept me awake.
Since then I haven’t been the same. I couldn’t even say what I had been. Why I don’t know, but I was determined to get myself back to what I’d come to think of as a “state of grace.” No matter the effort, I was not able to experience the sky in that same way as I had that night, or to be awake without the imposition of distractions. During the day, I went about my routine, but the other half of my life—the night—was obsession. I slept for only an hour or two, then would wander to the window to see if stars and sky were as they had been. They never were.
There had to be a way to relax, to be still. I began trying anything that might diminish my agitated condition. I tried to clear my mind through meditation. I read about it and practiced each day, but to no avail. I bought a bunch of self-help books; signed up for Yoga classes; devoured natural remedies for sleeplessness, anxiety and depression. I also started seeing a therapist, which I had meant to do when I came back from my travels several years ago. I also began to look up anything written about stars, trying to find some articulation of my own experience. I found many expressions influenced by stars and written about the starry sky, but the lines in this poem came closest to my experience:
And now,each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted
I count the holes they leave.
I knew it was crazy, but I was desperate to find peace, so as a last-ditch effort, I asked my therapist to prescribe something to help me sleep. About a week after I started taking the meds, this happened: While I was asleep, I got up, went outside and walked into my next door neighbor’s house, opened the refrigerator, picked up a bowl of cold pasta and ate it. I also took the dog out for a walk, after which I wandered back to my place and into my bed. Meanwhile, my neighbor, Dana, witnessed the whole scene.
When she came over the next morning to tell me of my strange adventure, I didn’t believe her—that is not until she showed me the “evidence.” She had heard me come in, watched me in amazement and followed me around with her phone videoing the whole thing, ready to call 911 in case things got even more crazy. Boy, did I feel like an idiot when she showed me that.So much for sleeping pills!
Dana and I went for a walk on the beach that afternoon, which was sunny and warm for late October. The sea was all lapis lazuli and silver wrinkles under a clear sky. We talked as we walked away from the sun into our elongated shadows. Until then, I hadn’t thought I knew her very well, but realized I probably felt closer to her than to anyone else. Even though I was embarrassed by the incident the night before, I felt safe with her, maybe because she had said more than once that I reminded her of her daughter Linney, who had recently come home after years away.
I started to feel like Dana could see through to the real me, (though I wasn’t sure there was a real me). I didn’t resent it though; at least that would have meant someone knew me. I told her about the night the stars kept me awake, and hinted at my obsession. I even told her about the poetry I’d found that could sometimes calm me. She didn’t think I was crazy. The thing was, I had never confided in her before, or anyone else for that matter, not even my therapist, not really.
How can I say what it was like—this insane quest? Waiting for the new moon and cloudless sky, going down to the ocean’s edge to star gaze in the “mystical moist night air” (another line from a poem I read). Even though, yes, the heavens were always majestic, there was nothing to catch me off guard like on that night.
That was it!
Why am I always on guard? I asked myself that question, to which I had no answer. Poetry was the only thing that could catch me off guard—revealing ideas and feelings I had never consciously thought about before, but understood the moment I read them—the truth of them. I found myself more at ease at those moments and a little less desperate.
My therapist said I did have the answer, and he would help me find it. Part of me thought it was all bullshit: his reassurances, my obsession, my strategies and remedies, and my question. What would it mean to come to terms with the answer (as if there were one)? Still, I continued the therapy and all the rest of it (except the sleeping pills). Why? Because I wanted to get back to that perfection—the ultimate distraction from myself—that feeling of the stars living in me.
A couple of weeks after Dana and I had walked together, she called me and suggested we meet for dinner soon. Her invitation made me feel good—comforting somehow to think of being with her again. She said she had a gift for me, and I got the impression she also wanted to tell me something. I figured she had been worried about me ever since the sleep-walking incident. I looked forward to our meeting and had decided that when we met, I would confide in her even more—tell her things and ask her things.
She was a wise person, an “old soul,” as they say. I respected her and trusted her. I would let down my guard, intentionally this time, and spill my guts (poor Dana). Maybe I would hear myself say something that would surprise even me, like when I read poetry.
A few days before our dinner date, I was driving back from a therapy session, thinking I would quit them. The therapist started bringing up stuff I didn’t want to think about, which I guess would have been good, if I really wanted to get to the bottom of things? But it didn’t feel good, and besides, I already was at the bottom—of something. As I passed Dana’s house, I saw a woman on the sidewalk with Dana's dog. It was a damp and raw November evening. Something was wrong; she was wearing a nightgown and pacing back and forth, looking like she was in a daze. I knew it must be Dana’s daughter. I pulled up next to her and rolled down the window.
"Are you okay? You're Dana's daughter, Linney, right?” She was crying, so I could barely make out what she was saying.
She didn't answer my question and kept saying, "Mom, why? What am I going to do? Why, why did you do this to me?"
I got out of the car and practically had to pick her up to get her into the car. The dog jumped in by itself! I brought her back to my place, cleared a spot on the sofa and made her some hot tea. Between her sobs, I found out what happened.
“My mother’s dead.”
“What? No…!” I interrupted her. “That can’t be; no, we were supposed to…”
“She was sick for a while, but she didn't tell me. Do you believe that? I went into her room to ask her something. I called to her. At first I thought she was asleep, I kept shaking her, but she wouldn’t wake up, and she looked funny, so I called an ambulance. I stayed with her until...until the end. It was horrible, and I…I…”
I didn't want to press her, so I let her go on and get everything out of her system. When the sobs subsided, she told me that Dana had regained consciousness for a bit, but the doctor told Linney that it was Leukemia, end stages, terminal, not coming home. There was only time enough to say goodbye. That’s when she told Linney about the things she had left for her. You would think it would have been something for Linney to hold on to, but maybe that's harder—holding on to things when the person who left them for you isn’t coming back.
“I’m not going to do it. I don't want to see anything—whatever she left. I...I can’t; I won’t. Anyway, she hated me and...”
I stopped her right there. I tried to assure her, "That's not true! Your mother did not hate you; she talked about you a lot. She wanted the best for you and loved you.” Although I wasn't entirely sure about their relationship, I did know Dana worried about her.
“No, no she didn’t,” Linney said, with a blank look, then starting sobbing again.
I saw that Linney was not much younger than me and was quite a beauty (so, Dana’s saying I reminded her of Linney had nothing to do with our looking alike). She had her own funky style, was a lot smaller and thinner than me (I tried to ignore the sharp twinge of that fact). She had the kind of looks, no doubt, that turned a lot of heads, opened a lot of doors, and maybe kept her from seeing herself as she was.
Dana told me that when Linney once said, “I’m starving,” Dana knew it was literally true! So, she somehow persuaded her to go out to lunch. "Linney ordered crudités, which sounds much better than 'raw vegetables.' They would have tasted much better, too, with the crab and cheddar dip." Dana had recounted how Linney was frantic to move the vegetables away from the dip, as if they were going to jump into it by themselves. “That dip should have come on a ten-foot pole,” was what Dana had said. She could be funny like that, but it was sad too, partly because I could relate to that fear big time.
I knew Linney had been away for a few years “traveling,” a nicer way of saying, “wandering” (which I also related to). She had come to stay, Dana said, “until she sorted things out and got her life back on track."
I tried to calm Linney, but didn’t know how. “You can stay with me tonight,” I heard myself offer, but hoped she wouldn’t take me up on it (until she didn't). That’s when I felt a dark and heavy weight looming and about to crash down on me. I didn’t want to be alone. For some reason, she wanted to sleep in her mother’s bed, so I walked back with her and got her settled in with the dog.
The next morning I checked in on her. She cried off and on, but didn’t say much about Dana's sudden "disappearance," avoided eye-contact, and kept repeating," I don't want to live in this house. I gotta get away from here. I can't stay, and I’m not going to go through those things, I'm not! I’ll go away. I’m not going to look at anything.”
Okay, okay already, what a big baby! I thought, but said, “Your mom must have had her reasons leaving things for you, don’t you think? Aren’t you even curious? She seemed like a wise person,” I innocently offered, but Linney looked stunned when I said that
"My mom? No, she was a crazy person! You didn't know her—not like I did. She did crazy things, like not telling me she was dying!"
"That's what I mean, she had her reasons. Yeah, sure…I guess I didn't know her the way you did, but it seemed like she kinda looked out for you.” I was realizing that Dana knew a lot more than she let on about a lot of things, and Linney didn’t know Dana the way I did either, or that she had also looked out for me.
I felt sad when I remembered that we were supposed to meet in a couple of days. I had planned to learn more about her then, but was most looking forward to learning more about myself (everything really).
“What are you talking about?” Linney whined. “She was not looking out for me. We never got along, and especially since I came back home!”
“She never mentioned anything like that to me. I heard only good things, maybe a little concern, but….” Then I was finished. I didn’t want to hear any more, or think anymore about it. I wasn't going convince Linney of anything. I was also trying to rebound from it all myself. I resented Linney for being so closed off, and for making me feel so protective of Dana and her memory.
I was blindsided when she begged me to go with her to make funeral arrangements. I wanted to say, “Oh, no, now you are the crazy one, not your mother. I couldn’t possibly.“ Instead I heard myself say, “Yeah, sure.” I mean, she had no one else.
When I got home, I was exhausted and hungry, but didn’t eat anything and stayed up until midnight. When I did flop on the bed, I tried to relax, using my techniques: visualizations, exercises, and all the other things that never worked. I ended up staring at the ceiling until about 2:00 am. Finally, I picked up one of the poetry books scattered around my room, and read until I was able to unwind a bit. I started to; “hear” these lines, chanting themselves in the dark, like a mantra.
“That’s how you came here, like a star without a name/Move across the night sky with those anonymous lights.” So, I closed my eyes and imagined I was one of those lights—a star moving through the heavens. It was the closest I came to the feeling I had that one night when I was left unguarded—outside the fortress walls.
Somehow, I got through helping Linney with the funeral arrangements. I was surprised by the unexpected feeling of loss, the finality of death, and the certainty of my own one day, which was something I had never thought about before.
The memorial service and burial was held on the day Dana and I were supposed to meet, the day I thought I was going to find out everything I always wanted to know, but was afraid to ask. The strange thing was, that night I slept through for the first time in months. I had never believed in magic or miracles, but now I wasn’t so sure. Maybe Dana was able to hear the things I was going to ask her and tell her and maybe my desperation was reaching Dana (wherever she was), and she took pity on me—again.
After the funeral, I didn’t see Linney for over a month, though I called her at least once a week, offering to help with anything she needed.
"Thanks," she said, "I'm okay. I don't need anything.”
"Sure, sure, well…you let me know if you do, okay?” After that, I saw her once or twice walking the dog. We waved to each other without a word.
Out of the blue, she called me tonight, as I came in the door. She sounded frantic. “You have to come over right now!”
“Okay, be right over,” and I broke out into a cold sweat at the prospect.
It was getting dark and icy cold. I could hear the ocean roaring, maybe churning up for a nor’easter. I walked over to Dana’s house and went in through the kitchen door—the one I had wandered into the night of the sleeping pill fiasco.
Dana had always kept her house as if it were staged for a photo shoot—a display of warmth, light and color. You could tell what season it was by little touches here and there—autumn leaves in the fall, tulips in the spring, seashells and feathers in the summer. I liked that, but now it looked more like my place: not at all inviting, no frills, dark and messy. I noticed flower arrangements left from the funeral on the countertop and kitchen table, wilted and dried up.
“In here,” Linney called from the little room off the kitchen, lamplight spilling over the doorway. The room looked as I remembered it, as if Dana had just walked out of it, and would be "back in a sec,” as she would say. It was now, I guessed, the single welcoming, orderly, and bright spot in the house. Looking up, Linney said, “I made myself come in here early this morning." I assumed she had been there all day until she called me only a few minutes ago.
“ I never wanted to…but I had this dream last night," she said. "My mom was calling me, but I couldn’t find her. I was wandering through the rooms, but it was kinda like I was outside too, trying to get in. You know how dreams are like that? The wind kept pushing me back, but I could see inside the house. There were waves crashing against the windows from the inside—weird! When I woke up, it was still dark, but I could see the light coming from this room. I kept Mom’s desk lamp on ever since…that night.
I feel like I’m still in a dream now, or…” she hesitated, “awake for the first time—not sure which.”
I braced myself when she said that—Me too! I noticed Linney looked different, still sad, but softer, more composed, and, yes, somehow more "awake." The glow in the room shone on her long hair, on the gold trim at the collar and cuffs of her nightshirt. I kept my gaze on her and tried to focus as she began to show me some of the things Dana had left for her.
Linney opened a picture album. ”These are pictures of us, of me, when I was a little, when Dad was still alive." She showed me a photo of her in a pine tree, taken from the ground up. The branches looked like a feathery green staircase with her looking down and waving. There was another one of Dana holding a little Linney up with one hand under a white beach umbrella with little blue fish swimming around on it.
"I didn't know. I didn't know so many things,” she whispered, as if I weren't even there. She picked up a worn, white journal, and held it close to her.“I didn’t know Mom wrote in this when I was growing up.”
"Maybe you didn't need to know…until now.”
There were other pictures and papers strewn over the desk and in its open drawers. She pointed to a letter. “I’ve been reading this over and over." She didn’t read it to me, but I could tell it must have broken a silence, shattered some walls and maybe filled a void.
Linney opened another small book with a black leather cover embossed with tiny silver stars. On the first page was the date of Dana’s diagnosis, a description of her treatment plan, and notes about wanting to keep the illness from her daughter. She turned the pages, pausing to read some of the entries. Her fingers traced along the lines Dana had written—lines from poems that had meant something to her: of hope as “a thing with feathers/that perches on the soul,” and of faith, like the moon, “faithful, even as it fades from fullness/slowly becoming that last curving and impossible/sliver of light before the final darkness." There was mention of a her last “year of miracles,” of gratitude, and joy for the last days spent with her daughter at home, but also of her companion, “constant sorrow.”
I was feeling like she left some of these things for me too. Linney asked me to read the last entry. I felt lightheaded—disoriented when I looked at the lines Dana had written in her beautiful handwriting. I heard my barely audible voice, which sounded strange and far away as I read, “Pain has an element of blank; It cannot recollect when it began, or if there were a day when it was not,” and continued, “The heart asks pleasure first, and then excuse from pain, and then those little anodynes that deaden suffering.”
I looked up at Linney, who was holding out a small package wrapped in dark blue tissue, tied with silver ribbons. "She left this for you.”
It was a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson with a note: For Stella, From Dana.
When I walked out into the night air, there was no sound. There were no stars, and sea fog was drifting in.
Title “The Holes They Leave” and “Each night I count the stars/…” from “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide” in S O S: POEMS 1961-2013, copyright ©2014 by The Estate of Amiri Baraka. Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Any third party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prohibited.
“as above, so below” from the Hermetic texts of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus.
“mystical moist night air” from“When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” by Walt Whitman.
“That’s how you came here/like a star…” from “A Star Without a Name”by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (Mathnawi III, 1284-1288) Translation by Coleman Barks in Say I Am You, (copyright ©Maypop, 1994), printed with express permission of Coleman Barks.
“a thing with feathers…” from “Hope” by Emily Dickinson in Poems by Emily Dickinson, First & Second Series, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson.
___“faithful, even as it fades from fullness/…” from “Faith” by David Whyte in River Flow: New & Selected Poems, printed with permission from Many Rivers Press www.davidwhyte.com, ©Many Rivers Press, Langley, WA 98260 60 USA.
___“constant sorrow” from“Man of “Constant Sorrow” by Dick Burnett (1913) originally published as “Farewell Song.”
___“Pain has an element of blank…” and “The heart asks pleasure first…” from “The Mystery of Pain”and “The heart asks pleasure first” by Emily Dickinson in Poems by Emily Dickinson, First & Second Series, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson