The first time I touched the universe, I stood outside the Paparoa Marae near the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, surrounded by dozens of people I barely knew. I was thirteen and almost ten thousand miles from home on a three-week trip with People to People Student Ambassadors. After our traditional Maori dinner of meats and vegetables slow-cooked by heated river rocks in the ground, I looked up at the sky.
The milky way, clear as the sun during the day, spread out in gentle waves above me, and I am sure that every single star visible to the naked human eye from the Southern Hemisphere burned its mark on my soul. I felt like I must be looking at a photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, because I couldn’t believe something so beautiful, so expansive, so true, surrounded me.
My world stood on the edge of change. In a few days, I would experience my first kiss under those same stars. In three weeks, I would return to the United States and start high school. In two months, the World Trade Center would fall and my country would launch a war that would, in many ways, define my adolescence.
Left alone, I would have been happy to sit outside in the cool winter air, staring up at those points of light. The longer I looked, the more individual stars became clear, each one a gift from the night. In return, I gave something to the night that I still cannot put into words, something beyond words.
I didn’t understand the significance of that exchange right then, but from that moment on I tried to get back to that feeling of complete connection with the universe. I wanted to feel like I was a part of something, like I mattered, like my words mattered.
I mostly failed for the next seven years. Things seemed to disconnect all around me: in domestic politics, environmental degradation, an ongoing war that echoed Vietnam, the angst and endless existential crises of teenagehood, a failing belief in the religion I’d grown up with. It took another trip across an ocean for me to find that feeling again in its purest state.
On that second trip I finally understood the gift, the wisdom the stars meant to give me: You do not need to travel across an ocean to touch the universe. You simply have to be open, and it is easier to be open when you have crossed an ocean, don’t know anyone, and are worn down and ragged from travel and jet lag. But if you know your walls are there, you can choose to take them down, and the stars will reveal themselves to you wherever you stand.