ACCORDING TO THE MOST RECENT THEORY of the formation of our Solar System, when the universe was about eight and a half billion years old, the swirl of gas and dust left over from the Sun’s formation, like hail rising and falling in a thundercloud, gathered itself into larger and larger fragments. Bits and pieces and strings gravitationally held and spun about their central star had done this dance before. Our Sun is at least a second generation star and the matter which made it had been transformed and enriched in the fusion furnaces of earlier suns and exploding supernovae. This was the necessary debris of cosmic history. A handful of sand from a tide-washed beach is quite literally a precipitation of stardust.
For 500 million years the solar system was a slowly careening arcade game with ever larger pinballs. One late collision between the nearly-finished Earth and another Mars-sized wanderer hurled millions of cubic miles of incandescent debris into orbit, forming the Moon and knocking the Earth’s axis 23.5 degrees from vertical. The seasons and the tides were invited.
THOSE WHO FIND THE UNIVERSE A BLANK CIPHER with no meaning would call all this just the coincidences and accidents of cosmic history. But even using the word “history” to describe what happened already betrays the awareness that this was an unfolding—a necessary accident, known from the Beginning, like the bloom of petals from a seed when light, and water, and warmth are just right. Without a catastrophic collision, no moon. Without a moon, no tides. Without tides, no life. Not life as we experience it, anyway.
ALL THE TIDES BEGIN AS A SINGLE WAVE, with a wavelength half the circumference of the Earth, set in motion by a concatenation of gravities and centrifugal force. Earth, moon, and sun tug and dance about each other and the entire world ocean is stretched and bulged and a single tide wave begins to travel the globe with half the speed of the world’s spin. Not two feet high, the tide passes unnoticed and unfelt through the open ocean, lost in the windblown restlessness of the sea. Broken and slowed by continental shelf and meandering coastlines, the one tide becomes many tides, fragmented by time and place. Yet always, beneath them all, is the one Tide.
LIKEWISE OUR LIFE COMES TO US AND WE GATHER IT ONLY IN FRAGMENTS. We hold each event, relationship, terror, tear, and joy and we turn it this way and that, trying to see how they interlock, looking for the common edges in the arrow of time and the expanse of space. We read, we are told, or we imagine the whole and so try to arrange all the pieces of our lives in some way that we hope will tell us who we are, and why we are. And when we have assembled enough pieces we build stories and try to tell ourselves who we are, and why we are. We want our stories to all be true and to all have happy endings, yet often they jostle and bump one another, sometimes they clash and break. Beauty and despair, anger and love, mix and tumble violently. Often the stories we tell ourselves as much conceal hurt as they reveal truth. It is sometimes hard to tell what the truth is, and harder still to tell the truth, even to ourselves. But if we can’t tell the truth, perhaps the truth can tell us: God moves through every one of us, like tide and memory. The One Tide beneath all tides. And if we will sit by the sea and quiet ourselves, and wait and watch and listen, I believe we will see and hear.