The year I ended my marriage, I took my two small children on a 1,148.3 mile road trip from Iowa to Utah to find total darkness.
I’d heard a story about darkness on the radio. It was endangered. Light pollution from cities had made it hard for people to find darkness. And in losing the darkness we were losing the stars. I became obsessed with the night that year. I read creation myths about how heaven and earth were once one, only to be torn apart in a violent rending. In a Maori myth, both the heavens and earth, now ripped apart, ask why they have been murdered. In almost every story, life begins in darkness. It’s light that must be called into being.
Light pollution is harming nocturnal ecology—making it easier for predators to find their prey, harder for prey to stay alive in the night. I learn, sitting at night alone in my house, with only the glow of my phone in front of me, that baby sea turtles rely on the light of the horizon to find their way to the ocean, but are easily lead astray by the brilliance of the cities that surround the shore. In Florida, millions of baby sea turtles are lured away from the ocean to their death by artificial light.
I grew up in a faith of light. “I want to be in the light, as you are in the light!” sang the chorus of a popular Christian rock song. “I want to shine like the stars in the heaven.” In the gospel of 1 John, the writer declares, “This then is the message which we have heard of [Jesus], and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” God was light. The devil was darkness.
The book This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti, a popular Christian horror writer, tells the story of a town controlled by demons who move in the shadows, dark circles sliding like oil in water until they appear as monstrous beasts: the demons control the leaders of the town; a few good men fight off the demon’s advances through prayer. But they are attacked, when women, controlled by the demons, falsely accuse them of rape and assault. Demons were the darkness in your mind. They were what made women irrational liars. They were what made good men fall.
The book was published in 1986 at the height of the Satanic Panic. I read it when I was 11 in 1993. I didn’t know anything about the Satanic Panic, but I did know that I had been told actual demons lived in the world around me. I had been told that spiritual warfare was real. That my prayers fought off the darkness. For 10 years after I read the book, I would have recurring nightmares in which I was standing in a beam of light surrounded by total darkness. I could hear something out there in all of that, and I knew it wanted to hurt me. I knew I couldn’t move. Every inch of me must stay still and wooden, trapped in this small patch of light. I couldn’t even breathe because a piece of shirt might slip into the darkness and I would be consumed.
When I was 21, I started having different nightmares. In these dreams, a man was in my house murdering my sisters. When I ran into the street to tell people, no one listened.
When I was 33 my dreams changed again. This time a man’s arms were pulling me down into the dark water.
Sometimes I wish my dreams were less transparent. It’s as if my subconscious thinks I’m an idiot, like I won’t understand what it thinks, what it needs. I know we are afraid, I tell it. I just can’t do anything about it. When I am told I am drowning, I learn I can do something about it. So, I leave my marriage.
When I was 17, a youth pastor once turned off all the lights in the large gym where we had our Wednesday night gatherings. He’d put black paper over the windows and covered the cracks in the doors. Some of the girls screamed. Boys laughed. But the pastor lit a candle and held it up. “Look,” he said. “Even in the pitch black the light still shines. Light cannot overcome the darkness.”
He meant it as a message of hope. That we, the weary upper-middle class suburban teenagers we were, should take heart, the struggles we faced would not overcome us. The evil of the world would not prevail. Six months later, the youth pastor disappeared. The rumor was that he had been sleeping with a 17-year-old. I asked my parents what happened and they said they didn’t know, their voices stretched thin. I only knew anything because Michelle overheard her parents talking about it. Her father was an elder.
I grew up in a faith of light. We didn’t like to talk about the darkness.
My faith also taught me that divorce was a sin. That it was one of the few things the Lord truly hates. In the Old Testament book of Malachi, the prophet declares, “‘For the Lord God of Israel says That He hates divorce, For it covers one’s garment with violence,’ Says the Lord of hosts.” I’d been raised hearing that verse from the pulpit. I attended churches where divorce disqualified men from serving as elders and deacons. The only grounds for divorce in Conservative Christianity were adultery or abandonment by an unbeliever. Neither was true. Although later, I would come to understand that the second principle—abandonment by an unbeliever—was the interpretation my former pastor was advocating. Me being the unbeliever. When all I had done was become Lutheran.
I had memorized whole sections of scripture. I had grafted them into me. Even now, the words of the Bible fill me, like the song of the cicadas resounding through the night.
I wanted to find the night sky that summer, because I found myself in a place where I was falling into something deep and vast and where I couldn’t see and I needed to know how to navigate by the stars.
Artist and activist Amina Ross leads workshops to decolonize the cultural understanding of light and dark, black and white. I take one of her workshops seven months before I go to Utah. How we understand words is how we understand the world, Ross tells us. She reads us the words of activist and author Adrienne Marie Brown, who writes that the limits of our imaginations are the limits of our world, “Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability.”
During Ross’s workshop, we dance around the room to decolonize our sense of space. Then we sit and free-write about what our darkness is. For so many people in the room it is their skin, their wombs, their times of rest. I hear “womb” over and over. I think of my children. I think of the light pollution in their lives. Will they meet their demise one day in darkness? Because they cannot see the true reflection of the horizon? I decide to bring them with me on my trip.
I can’t afford much that year. I don’t know if I will have the money. I’m in debt, working as an editor and ghost writing op-eds to pay my bills and buy food. Luckily, I have some savings I can dip into for rent. The month of August worries me. I don’t know how I’m going to afford school supplies. For the first time since my wedding, I ask for help from my parents.
I think if I can just get there. If I can just see the sky at night. If I can just see the stars. If I can just look into the darkness, then all of this—this loss, this destruction, this wreck of my life, will be okay. And I want my children there, I want them to look up with me into the universe, so I can show them that there is beauty here. That what the night sky shows us is just as important and beautiful as anything the sun can.
The biggest risk for the ancient sailor was getting lost. Very few ships sailed into the open water. They hugged the shores, safety always in sight, the marks on the land, the first guide. But the stars gave explorers the ability to sail vast oceans. The ancient Minoans left records of using the stars to navigate. Over centuries, Polynesians migrated across the seas. There are no records of how they accomplished this. But people who have recreated their voyages believe they used the sun, the waves, the migration of the birds and the stars. I believe if I see the stars, really see them, I can find my way.
I rent us a yurt in Dead Horse State Park, buy cheap food and pack it in coolers. We eat peanut butter sandwiches almost every day. The drive takes us three days. And we stay at the homes of friends and family on the way to save money. I don’t give anyone a warning. I just call my sister hours before I arrive. “I’m sorry,” I tell her, “I’m a mess right now. I don’t know what I am doing, but is it okay if we stay?”
She is living at my parent’s house raising two children, working full time and finishing school. She too has just gotten divorced. She tells me I can come. She doesn’t even make fun of me, and where I come from, that means everything.
In the car, my children and I listen to audiobooks about the Greek gods and goddesses who are pinned forever in the sky. There’s Gemini, the twins. One mortal, one a god, Zeus put them in the night sky so they could be together forever. And there’s Sagittarius, the centaur, who gave up his immortality to free himself of a poisoned arrow and to free Prometheus, who had been chained to a rock for eternity, an eagle eating his liver each day, punishment for giving humans the gift of fire.
At night, as they fall asleep, I read my children star stories from Arapaho myth. There is the story of the splinter foot girl. A girl born from the splinter lodged in the foot of a hunter. After a lifetime of running from men, she catapults herself into the sky. “I am tired and weary from running,” she says.
The rain pelts us in Nebraska and I have to pull off to the side of the road, because I cannot see. The wind and hail jolt the car. The children, on their ipads, ask me why we stop and I keep my voice cheerful. Just waiting for the rain to stop! I say, brightly. So bright, my voice like the scorched earth.
I’m worried a truck will run into us. I am worried we will die. I am worried someone will see a woman alone on a trip with two small children and murder us, rob us. I am worried that I am looking for answers in nature, where none will be found. I am worried that I am offering up the meaning of my life to a cold and unfeeling universe.
When we arrive in Utah, we set up camp. The yurt is nicer than I thought it would be. I make us cocoa and play Uno with my five-year-old son, while my seven-year-old daughter draws pictures. I have taken away their screens. I told them they don’t work in the desert. I also tell them we are going to stay up tonight to see the stars. At dusk, my son points to a star and yells, “Dat’s Mars!” I’m skeptical and pull out my phone, which is equipped with an app that will help me identify the stars and their constellations. It is Mars. The year and month we are there, Mars will be closer to earth than it has been in a long time. It’s the first thing we see every night. There might be life on Mars. Or maybe there was once. Mars is the planet closest to being colonized. And when I see it, I think of letting go of earth, of no longer navigating by the shores.
The stars come out after that. They are a tangle of light. There are so many of them they seem more like a web than the pin pricks I see at home in Iowa. My children are crying from exhaustion and fear that a bear will eat them. I put them to bed and go back outside and lay down on the ground. I don’t need my phone. For once, all the constellation maps I’ve been looking at and holding up to the sky make sense. Each constellation pulses out at me, a perfect chiaroscuro.
Each star’s light tells the story of the past. Because light travels at a finite speed, brighter stars mean fewer years of travel. The fainter ones tell of many years. Light in the universe is a portal to time. The light from a distant galaxy, when it finally reaches us, is a relic of a past we never knew. And maybe I want to see the stars, because I need to understand my past before I can see my way forward.
No story I have heard explains what I see, so I create my own myth, speaking it out loud to my sleeping children every night until it’s perfect. Only then, do I write it down.
A long time before anything, Chaos was pregnant with the possibility of the world. Sick to her stomach, she vomited and out came Light and Dark. Light and Dark were the only two things in that space. They were lonely. And so, they found each other. Light and Dark were completely opposite. Light never stopped working, he did as he was told. Constant, dependable, productive. Dark was dreamy. She liked to sneak around in bits of sun, she liked to cloak the sky at night, she could slide around and watch and listen. Together, Light and Dark had two children Sun and the Moon. Sun and Moon were perfect. One reflective and wise, one bright and full. But Light and Dark, began to fight. They grabbed one another, holding and pulling in equal measure. Each miserable, each unwilling to let go. But Dark did let go. She let go first. She let go because she was hurt. And as she hurtled out into space, her blood flung across the sky creating the stars.
The next night, I ask my children to tell me their own stories. To make their own myths.
The stars are the web of a big mother spider.
The sky is just a sky and I don’t want to see it anymore.
The stars are a million eyes.
The stars are a million lives.
The stars are every single tear that children cry.
The stars are cat farts.
The universe is a God fart.
The night after that, it rains. My daughter believes she called the rain into being. Somehow in all of our mythmaking, she has begun to believe that she holds part of the universe. The part she holds is water, and for a whole year, she will sit and try to push away the storms that are scaring her brother. She will open and close her fists at the edge of pools trying to calm the waves so they don’t splash too hard. I will try to tell her that the universe, even just a piece of it is not her burden to carry. But I won’t because I also want her to believe in her power.
One year later, I will take them on another trip. This time to Washington DC. They want to go. I asked them to dream big, and my daughter said, “Fort McHenry!”
“Baltimore?” I said.
“It’s where Francis Scott Key saw the star spangled banner!” She tells me. We compromise on Washington DC with a day trip to Baltimore.
And we go, because it’s a wish that I can make come true. On the second day of our road trip, we are in Indiana and my stomach hurts. It seizes and cramps. And then, explodes. I shit in my pants, while driving 70 mph down I-80.
I hover above the seat, swearing and sweating, desperately looking for an exit. I take the first one and sit in traffic at a toll booth. I can’t find my wallet, so I’m bent over swiping through the pile of junk in the empty passenger seat.
“Mommy what’s wrong? Mommy?” They both repeat, indignant when I don’t reply. Once we are off the highway and looking for a gas station, I try to convince them it’s fine. Everything is fine, just shut up, okay. Just shut up. The smell fills the car. Isn’t this parenting? Isn’t this what being an adult is. Shitting yourself and trying to make sure everything is okay?
I find my wallet. We make it to a gas station and I grab a change of clothes, then prod and drag my kids to the bathroom, until I think they might cry. In the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, I tell them what happened. I tell them that I must have eaten something bad at the Cracker Barrel the night before. I tell them I pooped my pants. I tell them we have to clean the car and that I’m throwing my underwear and my shorts away. I tell them absolutely everything because I’m tired of my thin dry voice saying, “fine fine fine” over and over. I tell them because they deserve to know what the hell just happened. I tell them because we once held hands and peered into the night and saw our salvation. I tell them because what else can you say when you are scrubbing shit off your leg in a 7-11 bathroom in Indiana besides the truth?
My daughter is almost angry. “Good thing we didn’t eat all that food at the restaurant,” she says, “even though you kept trying to make us!”
“Wow,” says my son, now six, “I guess we all learned a lesson.”
“What’s that?” I say. I’m expecting something wise. Something grand. Instead he grins. He has the same wide smile that he had as a baby.
“The lesson is no more Cracker Barrel for you!”
I laugh. He laughs. My daughter mimes throwing up. It’s not until we are back on the road, still laughing about Cracker Barrel that I understand we have found our own way to navigate.
Lyz Lenz’s new memoir, Godland, is available now from Indiana University Press.