by Josh deLacy
About a month ago, someone told me he looked at the sky seven times every day. He said it calmed him down and smoothed out anxieties. It wasn’t a spiritual thing. He called it “a way to spend time with myself.”
Since then, I’ve tried to look at the sky more often. While standing in my new living room, walking through humid Florida, or driving past shuttered stores and take-out restaurants, I’ll suddenly notice colors and pause for a moment. I don’t count to thirty or take ten deep breaths or anything like that. I don’t even pause, really. I keep following the car ahead of me as I glance upward through the windshield. It’s more about my background attention. A net of powerlines and traffic lights and road signs tie me in place like lashings on a ship, but beyond them, beyond the apartments and office buildings that line San Marco Boulevard, I can see open sky. The other week, it was solid blue, as bright as baptism. In the midst of that expanse, I saw a single whisp of cloud. Then I found a parking spot, sanitized my hands, and put on a mask. I returned to ceilings of lights, HVAC systems, and to-do lists.
I don’t know why people find the sky beautiful. It doesn’t make evolutionary sense. Marveling at clouds doesn’t help anyone catch a bird or reproduce. That I see beauty in the natural world feels like a bonus: humanity could multiply and fill a bland earth just fine, like chickens in a factory farm, but instead, I get to see the world around me as wonderful. People paint it, film it, imitate it. Last week, I flew from Florida to Washington, hauled a backpack to Gothic Basin, and scrambled up Del Campo Peak. I sat on an uncomfortable rock and watched the sky like so many others have done before me and will do after me. I don’t know how to explain this innate appreciation. It seems like a gift.
A week after that Cascade peak, while wringing as much as I could from a two-week trip amid Washington’s mountains and wilderness, I hiked with my father to Harrison Lake. We crossed from the Olympic National Forest into the Buckhorn Wilderness, switchbacking through damp and drifting fog. The Olympics feel cozier than the Cascades. The moss softens everything. The low clouds wrap you in silence. The underbrush grows dense—green and heavy with abundant, undisturbed life. We were picking our way to the top of a mossy outcrop when the fog lapsed for a moment and we saw Mt. Constance roaring upward right in front of us, solid and massive—right there, this whole time—a snowcapped behemoth of cliff and scree. A patch of blue shone behind the ridgeline, and then the sky closed, and the mountain vanished again behind a cloudy veil. My father and I hiked through an ancient hemlock forest and tossed our packs in the car, and yesterday I flew back to Florida, which has no mountains.
For a while, every time I looked at the sky I tried to think of it as a sort of micro-pilgrimage. Tweet-sized. But along with trying to notice the sky more often, I’ve also been trying to leave my phone behind, so I don’t trust that analogy. More often than not, compression sacrifices quality; I can’t equate a half-paused skyward glance with a week-long journey. On the other side of it, I suppose I could consider looking at the sky as the stitches that sew together a lifelong pilgrimage. But I don’t find the truism “life is a pilgrimage” all that helpful, and it’s a cliché besides. Gross.
Jacksonville’s sky storms every afternoon. I stand in my living room and watch the rain approach across the river, all grays and flat blues. It splatters against the window, thick and warm and claustrophobic. The storm pushed a wave of humidity in front of it and drowns everything with an hour’s deluge, and when it passes, the world around me will be damp but a little less humid, and everything will grow. Everything grows here, in this place that storms and sweats.
I think it’s more like an ingredient. Whether in a pilgrimage or in stasis, looking at the sky helps me appreciate the world. The “at the sky” part is optional, like raisins or jalapeños—it’s the pausing and noticing that matters. I think appreciation will happen on its own, if I only give it time. Time to look up without an agenda, without assessment, without a preconceived idea of value or rightness.
After the storm passes, the sky’s gradients and swaths of solid color splotch and sparkle like something painted by Makoto Fujimura, like something that takes thousands of dollars to own or a journey to see in a museum, but I get it to witness it here in Jacksonville, right out my window, every day. The sky changes, bigger than a fresco and moving, always moving, and it’s not about me.
This is simple—too simple, it feels, to matter. A virus keeps spreading and an administration keeps failing. Like art or prayer, looking at the sky doesn’t change anything. I live in the hard, real world. But since I heard about that “not-spiritual” practice—which is, of course, spiritual, like everything else—I’ve tried to look at the sky seven times every day. Why not? I feel better. The world seems fuller.
Whenever I pause and look up, I promise myself I’ll do it again an hour later, yet the most I’ve managed is four times in the same day. More often, I look up just once between breakfast and bedtime, or not at all. What’s that about?
Josh deLacy is the communications director of St. Luke’s, Renton, a lay deputy to the 2021 General Convention, and a trail guide for the Youth Creation Care Pilgrimage. He lives in Florida and Washington. More of his writing is available at joshdelacy.com.