I first heard about the Great American Eclipse a couple years ago, from my local NPR affiliate in Kansas City, Missouri. The story was about hospitality workers in St. Joseph, a nearby city dead in the crosshairs of a foretold giant. The Path of Totality — shaped like a sad diminuendo across the storybook spread of the American continent — describes a 70-mile wide swath through which the moon’s vast, speeding shadow would be dark and briefly persistent on the afternoon of August 21st, 2017. Captivating stuff.
From the moment I heard that story onward — with “2017” still sounding like science fiction — the chatter would filter into my life from various media and conversations, increasing in volume and frequency over time. I could count on my science-nerd and marijuana-centric friends to be Totality-obsessed long before I was. And by late July of 2017, conversations turned to imagining what Totality might be like for the uninformed, and it was impossible to imagine. In the weeks and days before it came, hype gave way to desperate hope — at least among the media elite — that the wonder we would share could join a divided nation in the way that Nazism, Stalinism, or Exceptionalism used to.
My wife and I would only need to drive a few miles to be in the path. It was a foregone conclusion that one way or another, we would go and see.
But in those days before it came, my personal hopes for the event — loose images of a moment to hinge a life on — and the banal vibrations of reality collided. Plans fell through. New, provisional plans were propped up without commitment. Even so, the separate but co-dependent realities of weather, timing, traffic, relationships and chance itself seemed like forces intent on separating me from an experience with Totality.
Throughout Eclipse Day Eve, I privately waffled on even going as fraught conversations about traffic jams and deluges of rain dominated all contingencies. Making matters worse, as at last we drove to our destination — a nondescript field belonging to my good friend’s father — we heard a radio report that the heavy rain we were entering had cleared in places we had long since left behind. My wife, who had been nursing a good attitude in and out of consciousness, became tearful and distraught when the original hope was given new life from the radio. She wanted to turn back. Looking at a devilish sky in every direction, I urged that we press on — to bet on seeing it with friends rather than seeing it or not. Yet the sky was especially dark in the direction we were traveling. And now, thanks to a reporter’s off-hand remark, it would be our fault if we didn’t see the moon. And as the driver, it would be my crime.
It rained harder, the loose gravel road we sped down flinging cruel dollops of mud and water into our straining vision — easy analogs for these fractal uncertainties crowding our minds on this low and unenchanted plane. Will we stall trying to cross the muddy ditch? Will it rain here with sun only miles away? Will she ever forgive me?
Only twenty-four hours prior, we were basking in the sun on a manmade lake in Kansas. Sharing a long float like a formal dinner table, we pondered the eclipse. She noticed I was distracted by the question of how to film or photograph it — what equipment to bring — what combination of technical moves to execute to come away with something special.
“No, I know what I want to do — but only NASA has the equipment I need to do it. And so I’m sure they’ll do it. So I don’t know what to do.”
”That’s not true…you know you don’t need much to make something great. Something personal.”
“Yeah. But It’s a rare thing. It’s a huge deal. It’s all my favorite stuff. There’s wonder, there’s power. But I don’t care to make an image of the sun and moon. Those pictures are dull.”
OK, work it backwards. You’re in the future. What did you make?
“Well see that’s just it. I need a NASA satellite. Our little massive rock is spinning through space at this dizzying angle, and not far is this smaller massive rock, spinning too. And for a moment nature will do something so unnatural. The shadow is the thing! Like, for a minute, the universe sees itself. The boom drops into the picture. Continuity error, only not. It’s this haunting shadow and all these people. All of us here. And there’s no way to get it across. And it only lasts a minute. A time-lapse is too silly for that. A single photo can’t say it. A video is just another video.”
”Yeah. Well you’re usually better without a plan. Maybe you just go and respond?”
“Yeah. The risk is that I come away with nothing worth sharing. But you’re right — that’s the only risk worth taking.”
At the moment we pulled into the field, the raining ceased. We stepped out of our respective cars to discuss the options before us. 45 minutes to Totality. We compared radar screens and unscientific predictions for our chances. A torn up window of blue sky appeared to the west. Sun dappled and silenced our worries. But as clouds took turns dissipating and reforming, anxiety paced beneath our collective surface. We unfolded our blankets. This would be our gamble. If we were going to see it, it would be with very little promise or notice. The upside would be drama. I had given up on art.
20 minutes to Totality. I ate a McDonald’s Apple Pie and made simple jokes. It was during this short passage that I considered again what the eclipse meant to me in secret. Beyond any aspiration for making art — I had spent an assortment of moments in the months leading up to this one wondering if the eclipse would herald a profound change in my life. Would the professional exploration I’d been on since December finally reveal a path? Would the deepening silence be rushed by unswerving sound? Would the click in my left knee stop? Would the tightness in my chest yield some unknown confession? Would I learn to sleep?
Sure, my inner longings are operatic to say the least. They always have been. I distinctly remember my eighteen-year-old mind hoping and believing that Y2K could be the motivation I needed to never hurt another human being. And though I’m past the notion that I can dictate the meaning and result of such events, I’m not over the hope that something could happen without me. Isn’t that the draw? Aren’t we all looking for a part in something larger than our little lives? If even for a moment.
From cold logicians to romantic hearts of faith — we all have our symbols and our fluid superstitions. There’s a myth we’d all believe if we could only begin with a name. Beneath the stress of living is a search for truth. Beneath all truth is the finer search for meaning. Beneath the search for meaning, a love of beauty. And beneath that beauty is the hope to be awakened. Awakened by God, or G_d, or ___. Awakened by a friend. To not be somewhere along this search is to be under the spell of some cosmic distraction. Commenting on design as though you’re the end-user. Still price-shopping for eclipse glasses as Bailey’s Beads sparkle for the searchers.
As the eclipse began, we were beneath dozens of tiny clouds, shy enough to leave a craquelure of blue between them. Above them, a caravan of cirrus clouds warning of the system hurdling toward us. Below them, careless swabs of rainy gray dragging with no efficiency behind the storm we came with — as though they might just pull the whole thing back. For seconds at a time, we could lift our glasses to watch the orange Pac-Man widen his mouth. Countdown initiated, we studied the clouds and tried to will them away in time for Totality. By my own estimation, I was all but certain we’d see nothing but clouds. My friend Paul described the stakes perfectly.
“If it happens at all, it’s going to be at the most dramatic moment possible and the best experience imaginable…Someone play something from a Michael Bay movie.”
And when we were without vision of the event, our senses detected new inputs at profound speed. Crickets chirped. The rims of the highest clouds lost their highlights. The surrounding periphery didn’t make sense. It looked like a dim HDR photo, not the world. The horizons were pink and orange. Roughly forty miles in every direction, you could tell that the sky and clouds were in some amount of light. But we were under a twilight veil. Everyone stood without thinking, this had to be experienced in full. And then the darkness came so fast that we all chose the same description, “woah, woah, WOAH.”
Our timekeeper announced totality. “Here it is, we’re in it.” And we looked up to see the clouds had not miraculously parted. No one chose to dampen the moment with audible disappointment, but we all felt it. We stood quiet, and shared the humble honor of powerlessness.
“There it is!”
And there it was. An orb that felt so much closer and more dimensional than any photo had ever hinted. Bathing in the oddest violet light, it’s as though it was for us alone, like a lavish gift. But more than that, it wasn’t like anything. It simply was. Cameras can’t grab it, but our eyes can. The gift was real. We were seeing from behind the curtain. We were visitors to Earth, seeing unstoppable, ineffable light from the nearest star bend toward our periphery, standing in the shadow of her only moon. There would be no meaning, because there was no abstraction, no up or down. Totality leaves no room for metaphor. We really were on a rock that spins without trial runs or safety precautions. Sun rising and setting at once on a tiny moon and its unexplored canyons — how many millions of dawns and dusks have past in worlds men will never see? The universe; this perfect unspeakable miracle. And at that singular moment, I heard cheers in the distance from other human beings. And then a sonic boom.
We saw the “diamond ring” hang and sparkle for a matter of seconds, and that is when it hit me. Just as the present became the past — just as I dealt with what was now only a memory, meaning did come. Metaphor, too. What a human thing.
The thought I had is clichéd to be sure, but it would be so irresponsible not to report it. Watching the last diamond burn out, I whispered the simple revelation to myself. “That’s a life.” It was over so soon. And I couldn’t help but think the span of my own life has more in common with the duration of that eclipse than any natural occurrence in nature. The two brief stories are prone to seem especially short if we focus on their chapters—beginning, middle, and end. And neither is rare. Indeed, eclipses of the stars, planets, and moons at large far outnumber the humans that have walked the earth. Neither will ever be counted. Even so, each one is miraculous.
It was a relief to know my actual size in space-time. Nothing matters. Nothing but the search.
I looked around at my friends in the half-light. They weren’t “people”, they were upright fleshlings, and they were making noises in rude, counterfeit light. Those feelings changed with the growing light. And as normalcy returned, I felt embarrassed for what I had just experienced. As though it wasn’t true. But it was. The richest man couldn’t guarantee for himself what I saw for free. God is so beautiful, and we can only tell him by telling each other.
We took up our blankets and said goodbye. The rain and thunder returned only minutes after we began driving. We tried backroads and interstates, avoiding bottlenecks and flooding to no avail. My chest seized up; this awful pain. I had a syllabus to finish writing. Bills to pay. My wife fed me crackers. After three hours, we were home — and exhausted.
Later, we ate dinner. Between long pauses we logged various aches and pains, the President’s most recent indiscretions, and a mild fear that we had somehow inadvertently ruined our vision. My mind turned back to the eclipse.
“I wanted to say ‘hallelujah.’”
“Oh…I don’t remember.”
“Yeah,” she said, “It’s getting hard to remember.”