I was eleven when Haley’s Comet came, and it was a big deal. I was excited, convinced that it would be the coolest, most amazing thing ever. My family made plans to get away from the bright city lights on one of the nights it would be visible in the dark sky, large and phenomenally impressive. We watched weather reports to figure out which nights would be cloudless, we tracked the predicted path of the comet, and made strategic arrangements to go camping at the seashore. A bunch of families went together, and there was an assortment of young children in the group, running wild and having a good time, the wind in our hair and shouts of excitement in our lungs. Our campsite was not right on the beach, though, and one of the nights that we were there – presumably the night that had been calculated to be the best for comet-viewing – someone suggested that we all bring our sleeping bags to the beach and camp there, out on the sand. We would stay up all night, our view unobstructed by trees or tents, and wait and watch to experience a once-in-a-lifetime comet-sighting in the sky above the white beach right next to the ocean.
This was a beautiful night on the beach. Cool, with just the right kind of breeze. The ocean waves pounded away, creating their powerful, rhythmic melody just a few yards from where we had set up our little impromptu camping area above the high-tide line. The adults laughed, the kids ran around, we all sang songs, and when the breeze started feeling a little bit chilly we would cuddle together under blankets and sleeping bags for awhile until we felt like running around and playing some more. I remember feeling surrounded by people who loved me, an extended family or tribe, who would keep me warm and safe through the night. I felt embraced, free, and happy.
As the sun finished setting, the night took on a feeling of mystery. When would the spectacular comet appear in the sky? What unexpected events would the darkness bring? The moon had yet to rise, and it was very dark. The night deepened, and I noticed something strange about the waves. I had to look carefully to believe my eyes, so incredible was the sight. The waves were glowing. Glow-in-the-dark glowing. It was not just a reflection of starlight on the seafoam; it was greenish light coming out of the waves, bursting forth with each crashing break. I had not yet heard of bioluminescence, and I was stunned by what I was seeing. Glow-in-the dark waves, rolling and moving with strange light. I stared at the ocean, not daring to turn away lest this unbelievable sight disappear and leave me with the thought that it was only an illusion. And then the full, round moon began to rise over the ocean. At first, I didn’t even realize that it was the moon because it was so huge, and so red. Like the phosphorescent plankton, I had never before seen or heard of a low red moon. I simply did not know that the moon could be so enormous, and so deeply, darkly red. Was the sun coming back up, somehow reversing its course? I was astounded, and I could not completely comprehend what I was seeing. Even after I figured out that this was the moon I was looking at, I was still in awe, still ecstatic at what I was witnessing as the gigantic scarlet orb continued to rise over the luminous, glowing waves of the ocean. I felt that in seeing this sight, this event, this unbelievable concurrence of things happening, such rare and beautiful natural phenomena in the same moment, I was being initiated into some secret mystery. I had ceased running about and stared, amazed and transfixed, until I started to shiver.
Finally, I found a cozy place – a pile of sleeping bags heated by a bunch of my friends cuddled close together for warmth and camaraderie – and tucked myself in for the night, feeling even more beloved and embraced than I had before. I felt embraced by the circle of family and friends, embraced by the natural world, embraced by the cosmos. I was feeling peaceful and calm, but I didn’t go to sleep. I was still excited, filled with adrenaline from what I had already seen, and I had not forgotten about Haley’s comet – the real reason we were out on this beach. I stayed awake for a long time, staring up at the starry sky, anticipating. I remember this as being the first time I watched the night sky for long enough – so many hours without looking away – to observe how the moon and stars traverse slowly across the dark dome through the night in their grand procession. I stayed awake, cozy in the midst of my friends, keeping my patient vigil, as the stars and planets moved through their courses above. I was deeply, deeply content.
I never saw Haley’s comet. At some point, I did fall asleep. I don’t know if the comet came while I was snoozing, or if the adults just completely mis-calculated and we missed that event altogether. That sighting for which all of this build-up had taken place, for which we had put forth all of this planning and effort, for which I was so excited, never came to be. In the morning I had a sleeping bag full of coarse sand, a sore neck, and no comet. But I was not disappointed. I witnessed something else amazing and mysterious and awe-inspiring that night. I witnessed something so astounding that I can still barely comprehend it, even now as an adult when I know the science behind what I experienced. I did not get the experience I expected or hoped for, but instead received something so much more incredible and beautiful. That is often how God works. We do not get what we want or expect, do not have the experience we were hoping for. But in God’s loving ways, we receive something unexpected that is even more than anything we could have imagined or desired. That night was a revelation for me, in every possible way. I still remember it as one of the best nights of my life, even though I never saw the comet.