Photo ©Iskra Johnson, August 21, 2017

We Are On a Planet Going Around the Sun

I did not drive to Oregon.

I did not buy cardboard glasses.

I did not carve out a pinhole in a cereal box.

Instead in the week before the total eclipse I vacillated between annoyance at the commodification of a cosmic moment and guilt at my own sloth, nagged by the certainty that I would regret not having prepared. How could I have fooled myself into thinking I was immune from this moment?

The morning of August 21st as I rolled into my pillow for one last drink of sleep a dream crested over my head. The dream had that particular quality of stealth that can convince a person on the edge of waking it is true. I could feel the air. I could hear the wind in the maple trees. I could feel the surface of the peeling deck under my feet, every whorl of skin pressing down into the damp of early morning dew. I looked up and stared straight into the sun for 20 seconds, the exact amount of time required to burn a hole in your retina. And then I woke up, urgently patting my eyes.

I have had rehearsal dreams before. They are always cautionary and wise (if surreal), and make life almost unnecessary since the plot has been revealed. I turned on my device and read up on what everyone who had prepared had done and decided as consolation for not kicking back in a convertible watching The Best Sunset Ever in Madras (while also looking good) that I would go for a run. A friend told me the air smells different before an eclipse. If I turned on my animal senses maybe I too could smell it, and it would be interesting to run under the sky as it turned into a shadow.

I live in an older suburb of Seattle recently annexed, an area that never quite figured out how to make a successful cul-de-sac and instead settled for low-sloped houses in a sloppy grid with bursts of old growth forest. The trees are startlingly large, and have been sheared with genteel care as if planted on the grounds of an F. Scott Fitzgerald manor.

The path of my usual run takes me across a bridge below which a gated road winds down to private estates. A few minutes before I reached the bridge a cloud touched down and enveloped the trees. The scenery became muted and shimmering, like running through faded silk. Through the trees I glimpsed the mountains and the Sound, abstracted by mist into veils of palest blue behind layer upon layer of green. As I crossed the bridge the cloud lifted. There, positioned like an advertisement for the atomic age, sat an elderly couple in lawn chairs staring at the sky with cardboard glasses. They waved and I stopped, and the man handed me his glasses. In that moment as I put them on and the sky condensed into one small orange dot I stepped back in time to an earlier century. I was a child but not, on the farm, when operators had barely stopped listening in on peoples’ conversations and if you dropped a phone it would break your foot it was that heavy. Dim shapes of my father and a few others of different heights, a cardboard box and tinfoil. As my father guided my grip and I squinted to find the barely discernible crescent I remember thinking that it was like Dick Tracy, the brim of his hat as he left one cartoon frame for another. And then I took off the glasses and looked back at the man in his lawn chair and realized that moment could not possibly have been mine. I had glimpsed someone else’s first eclipse, before I was born. All I could do was smile.

I ran quickly and easily and did not feel tired, although it had been months since I had done this route. After half a mile I reached the end of the road where it curved uphill and began the loop home. Soon I came upon another couple, in their late 70’s or 80’s, also wearing viewers. The man had a laptop open and looked intermittently down and then up to check the world’s version against his own. They too offered me their glasses, and now the moon’s shadow had moved another third across the sun. I saw a woman named Edna in her yard waiting for the yard sale to begin. She balanced an upturned crystal punch bowl on the papery dome of her forehead and stared up into a thousand refracted moons and suns and kept time in her lap to the waltz playing inside there, inside that dazzling chandelier, until her daughter ran out and angrily snatched the bowl away and put it under a tarp on top of the card table and said, Mamma you’ll go blind doing that shut your eyes and behave. You know, I said to the couple as I handed back the glasses, this is getting interesting.

A few blocks later I came upon a tableau of the young. On a hill stood a boy of nine, a girl of 12 and a future prom queen staring into the sullen distance. In front of them on the lawn lay two discarded cereal boxes covered in aluminum and a sheet of white cardboard. The boy dangled a pair of binoculars and when I asked what he was doing with them he called me over so I could see. The trick was to turn the binoculars backwards so they could look into the sun for you, and somehow, through the miracle of optics, this resulted in a projection of the eclipse, with your eyes kept in their virgin state. He offered me cereal boxes too, but pointed out that it was silly, a sun and moon the size of a freckle. I struggled to find the refraction, the girls sighed loudly and looked down at their phones, and after several minutes the sun and moon appeared, now meeting halfway. I quickly thanked the boy for the reminder of science class and Life Magazine and those weird pre-color separation moments of magazines in basements now smelling more and more like a museum and ran on, wondering where I had put my binoculars.

And so it went.

This is how I saw the eclipse, in orbit from yard to yard, through everyone else’s eyes. The last person to offer me the sun was a pregnant woman in a long tight white shirt. Her belly formed a perfect arc, and we said nothing of the congruence. I looked up once more, noting from the looming darkness that only fifteen minutes remained. I wondered how many eclipses her child would see, and if by that time we would even have telephones or what would have replaced them or if we would have a world.

I ran the last blocks home on streets embossed with crescent-shaped shadows. Each leaf on each tree bent its shadow around the moon; it was hard to find my feet. After a frantic search I found my binoculars and set up a sheet of cardboard against a dumpster on the street. The one-eared cat came by and although nearly blind and deaf rubbed his other ear on my knee and seemed to approve. My neighbors stood lined up across the street with cardboard glasses looking up. I called to them and though they had only three minutes left they came over to see, for just a moment, the eclipse through my eyes.

We had only a partial eclipse. It was a shaved orb, an incomplete darkness. But it was enough to allow us to remember for one hour that we are on a planet, facing a sun, with a pale moon in between. If we could just remember that a little while, while we wait again for the moon to come around, it would be a better world, don’t you think?