Stars in the Sahara
You have to travel through the Sahara Desert to get an idea of the size of the world.
You have to sit on the lumpy seat of a Jeep for hours as it bounces across a dirt road and to be let out at twlight in the middle of nothingness, to gain some appreciation of the vastness of it all.
Then you have to lie back, let the sand take your weight and look up into the clear purple heavens. And try to count the stars, layered like glistening icing on a vast multi tiered wedding cake in the sky.
We may never know how many there are but astronomers estimate there are 100 thousand million in the Milky Way alone and countless galaxies beyond that. They glow with a light as icy cold as the desert at night but they are really on fire. And some are so far away that we are seeing light from a star that's now extinct.
It makes me dizzy to think of all this vastness and I always wonder if there's anything beyond these trillions of miles of galaxies. Are they all swept up into a tiny music box on the coffee table of a grande dame called Eve, who inhabits another cosmos of a trillion stars?
I haven't been far out into the desert, but I've been far enough to feel the pull of the planet and those empty spaces filled with dirt and rock and silence. And this was Tunisia, a small nation on the very edge of this vast ocean of sand.
In the middle distance, in the dustiness by a concrete house, a child stood impassive by the roadway. I wondered if she would grow up knowing there was anything different; if she would ever see a city or an airplane.
The desert is a world of simple outlines and hot and cold. It's the backdrop to the biblical Nativity story of three wise men who follow a star across the fastness of Arabia to the stable of the baby Jesus.
It's a simple but touching story re-lived in thousands of school plays. We've all been there when Mary has dropped the baby Jesus doll on its head and three wise social workers have come rushing in.
But Christmas is a curiously seductive time for children and even as an adult it doesn't completely lose its magic. I still remember the school hall and the makeshift decorations hanging from the roof comprising of hula hoops wraped in tinsel.
I thought they were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Then one day my parents took me to a department store grotto to see Santa. In those days it wasn't just a case of forming a line. You boarded a shining train carriage to be taken to this wonderous inner sanctum where elves made toys in a cave seamed with gold.
When I was so young I thought the magic of Christmas would never end. It seemed a million light years before the disappointments and rejections of life set in, the angst of teenage years, the endless responsibilities of adulthood.
But I read something today that convinced me never to never look back in anger. It convinced me that my moto in life should be Carpe diem, quam minime credula postero – "Seize the Day, trusting as little as possible in the future." It convinved me to run tomorrow through the ice in the park and to relish the bite of the wind because there may be no tomorrow after that.
The correspondence was the latest update from my father-in-law suffering with lung cancer. His will to fight was still in him, but it had waned a little; and there was a tone of resignation, a recongition that this will likely be his last Christmas on earth.
And all the shiny things we take for granted and the piped music we deride and the over priced grottos and the wonderfully fake joviality will never be his again to see.
Likewise the pure of joy of children that's unblemished by the realization of what's to come.
So I can't trust the future but I hope one day to return to the greatest of deserts and to feel the cool sand wrap itself around me and look up at the beautiful high canopy of stars and to wonder if there's one with his name on it.
Because there are enough to go round.