All one could say was, 'There they are'

It was well after dark when we arrived at the public beach. By then it was just the dog and I; the rest of the family had returned to the motel after dinner. But he needed the run, and I the walk, in the tart autumn darkness. So neither of us minded that the authorities had closed the access road for the night. We parked at the gate, and under a sky all ascamper with stars we set off toward a light that burned lone and faint on the shuttered beach pavilion half a mile away.

Strange the way weekends shape themselves, I thought as we walked. First there had been the pianist, a young man playing jazz with such assured abandon that the audience tumbled to its feet in applause at end. There, I remembered thinking, was a real feeling of authority. Then there had been the young woman, lofting upon a crystal-cool soprano voice a song so flawlessly wrought that it climbed the belfry of its own sweetness and wrapped its sacred message gently around her listeners. That, too, was authority - that sense of simple confidence, setting the hearers so much at ease that they never doubted whether she would make all her notes.

Odd word, authority, I thought. And odd that I had thought to use it. For years I had tried to avoid the term. I had distrusted it: It had always struck me as a word you couldn't pin down, a slippery term that skidded out from under you just when you needed its foundations. I recalled hearing it used, years before, as a term not of artistic assessment but of journalistic appreciation. ''He writes with such authority,'' a friend had said about a political columnist we both knew. He was right. The word exactly described the writing, and I felt the truth of its characterization at once. But I could never define what, in his prose, accounted for that sense of authority.

Yet there it was, that suspect word, creeping into my own lexicon. What did it mean? Could I think of some other examples? Or could I think of some situations which the word would not describe?

We had come, by then, into the pool of that lone light. Escaping into the shadows on the far side of the building, I sat on an overturned lifeguard tower and examined the stars. What about them? I thought. To say of the stars that they shine ''with authority'' is to miss the mark, I felt. They simply are. It is not a matter, for them, of training to produce greatness - nor of reaching a point where even the fear of failure drops away. They just shine. They could be neither provocative nor tentative (it had been a slow walk in, and I had realized somewhere back in the darkness that those words described, in turn, the counterfeit and opposite of authoritative). Just as those stars ran no risk of being provocative or tentative, so they hardly needed authority. All one could reasonably say was, ''There they are.''

It was a smug bit of reasoning. But there was a chill descending in the lakeside air, and the dog was again at my side. Enough, I thought, to have seen what authority is not: I shall put it aside now and think of other things. And for a while, as we strolled back to the car, I did - thinking of fresh New England air and the leafy smell of woods and the darkness under the long canopy of trees.

And so it happened that I was looking up at the dark infolding of those leaves when, just before the gate, the road widened. The canopy parted. There again, spread silently just above the treetops, were those stars - some so bright you could hardly look away, others so dim as to be barely visible. And there, just as silently, was the answer. The stars did indeed shine with authority - for the simple reason that they had nothing to prove. Like the master jazzman and the bell-clear soprano, they did not set out to convince. They were there to express. The issue was not of notes hit or missed. It was far beyond that - a tolling of the heart, a shining inwardness made public.

It was almost enough, that insight - except for that fine tremor of uncertainty about the political columnist. What accounted for his sense of authority?

I had ducked under the barrier gate and was reaching my hand for the car door-handle when it struck me. It was the faint stars, I thought, without even looking up.Each one, I knew, was a full and glorious star in its own right - and would have appeared so, if only I could have gotten close enough to see. Had they not been there - had the sky had only the major points of its brightness - it would still have been stunning. But it would have been far less full and satisfying. What gave the sky its depth, nuance, and meaning was those faint stars.

And that was where his writing shone: in what he half-said, in the phrases which, examined up close, were as rich and fully conceived as those distant stars. That was authority - the ability to mean without fully explaining, to let dozens of fully wrought ideas subordinate themselves to one major point, to write prose glowing with nuance and twinkling with depth. That was enough.

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