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Restless Bodies and Celestial Souls

The presence of comet NEOWISE, a celestial soul visiting us after nearly 6,800 years, has helped me respond to the restlessness that I carry in these months of quarantine.

Four weeks ago on a Monday in the middle of July, I spent my night in the company of comet NEOWISE. My father and I packed our backpacks and drove up one of the highest hills we could find in San Jose, California. As the sun began to set, everything around us became awash in golden light. I know how ethereal this window of time is, but in these months of quarantine, when the days bleed together, I have a renewed appreciation of this time that slows down the world around me.

A sense of calm washed over me. But when the sun went down I was filled with not only excitement, but a bit of nervousness, too. Looking into the night sky always excites me, but the thought of being in the presence of a celestial body that traveled to us after nearly 6,800 years from parts of the cosmos I may never know thrilled me. Searching for this comet was unlike searching for any other celestial body: meteors, the new moon, the planets and stars as they rise. All of these bodies swim in and out of the sky in regular cycles. But this comet, though it appeared still in the sky for a short while, was still journeying. It was already planning its eventual leave for another epoch. The possibility of missing this moment felt like missing out on a life itself. The excitement and hope I initially felt turned into an anxiety for what was to come. 

An hour must have passed with no comet in sight. I felt pangs of frustration, annoyed that I could not look upon the thing I was desperately searching for. I wasn’t just looking for this comet, but for a type of relief from the tension I couldn’t shake off. As the night went on, different stars began to peek through the darkness— a familiar sight. The points of light gave me something to focus on. 

And as I stood there under the veil of night, I began to make out a faint white wisp under the Big Dipper. I held my breath for a moment, questioning what I was seeing. I directed my father’s gaze to the white wisp. He looked back to me and smiled. I was overjoyed and immediately flooded with a sense of relief. The comet had revealed itself to us. Its splendor in the night sky left me in complete silence and stillness. This moment brought together a human soul and celestial soul, from different parts of the cosmos in such a tumultuous time. For a second time that night, the world began to slow down around me. But for the first time in a very long time, I found a respite to the restlessness I felt. 

I often struggle against this internal restlessness— of recognizing a moment, and being present within it. These past five months have compelled most of us to enter a state of retreat or withdrawal from the outside world, forcing us to confront and inhabit the great chaos and void within ourselves. These past five months have also revealed a chaos in the world around us: the global pandemic propelled us into an amorphous future, and the ongoing fight to dismantle systems of oppression reminds me that we are deeply entrenched in our past. 

But while there are collective responses to these crises that help me make sense of the world around me, I am still left to make sense who I am when I am truly alone, in the presence of no one except God. It’s during this state of withdrawal and solitude that my restlessness and my absentmindedness is most apparent to me.        

Ironically, it’s during the night, when I am most alone, that I can begin to collect my thoughts and reorient myself. In the Islamic tradition, among countless others, the night is a sacred and intimate time for seekers and people of devotion to connect with the Creator, the world around them, and their own selves. And while I seek this type of presence through prayers and litanies, I always find it in the night sky. 

Looking up and into the cosmos evokes a child-like sense of wonder and deep longing within me; in complete silence and stillness I am able to connect back to the natural world, bearing witness to both its grandeur and subtlety. As I lay under the gaze of planets and stars, the sky becomes a theatre where the celestial meets the terrestrial, reminding me this union exists within each of us as well. Though our bodies are from the earth, and we will return to it, there is an element within us not of this world. This is the soul— a subtle spirit permeating our bodies that yearns for something Higher. 

The night sky teaches me about the harmony between body and spirit. In the time I spend stargazing, the presence of the stars overwhelms me, leaving me in a state of awe. But it is in those moments where I feel rendered immobile, that my spirit feels free to rise and convene with other celestial bodies, journeying to God. As I leave the company of the night sky, I come back into myself more fully, and with this return, find a stillness and presence within myself and with God. Though this doesn’t always remove the confusion and, at times, tension around me, I am filled with a calm resolve that carries me through the moment. 

I’ve never felt this more clearly than when I was able to see comet NEOWISE. The recent discovery and appearance of this comet is no doubt another unprecedented event of the year. In a time of collective grief and confusion when our gaze is fixed on the world around us, on the ground and on our screens, looking up to the night sky in search of this comet can be an insignificant if not foreign notion for many of us. 

Perhaps the presence of this ancient guest is a reminder and opportunity for us to look to a world beyond our own in hope that we, too, can find respite from the restlessness that unsettles us. And with this respite, we return to ourselves more present with each other, and God. 

3 replies on “Restless Bodies and Celestial Souls”

Absolutely beautiful piece mashaAllah. You’ve put into words many feelings I’ve experienced but couldn’t quite figure out how to express. I’m amazed at how you drew so much from that unique sighting and turned it into a magnificent frame through which we can view the tumultuous tapestry that has been this year. Thank you for sharing.

This is beautifully written, so evocative and meaningful. I have definitely been struggling with my connection to myself and my spirituality during these times as well, and reading your experience really put my own thoughts into perspective.

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