Thursday, August 24, 2017


Around noon on Monday, we pulled into the parking lot of the public library in St. Stephen, South Carolina - it's a stately old building, occupying the corner of a public park, complete with walking paths, a pavilion, and a number of athletic facilities. The library was closed Monday, but soon after our arrival, more cars began to park. Eventually the lot was full, as were the surrounding streets. We gathered in the pavilion and unpacked our homemade lunches, folding chairs, table games, and glasses.

The first order of business was introductions. People had arrived from all over the eastern US - New York, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, you get the idea. In an instant we were friends. The excitement bubbled over as we anticipated 1:16, when the moon would begin its slow march across the face of the sun. As far as I can tell, no one there had ever seen a total eclipse before. Some were clearly weather nerds - one family, toting an infant, had searched through three other locations and a plethora of cloud cover maps to choose this location. Another guy seemed almost embarrassed to be happy to be there.

Eventually the time came, we all stood, necks craned, staring at the sun. Then the real wait. It took 88 minutes for the moon to fully block out the sun's rays. Things were pretty normal right up until the second we achieved totality. It got dim, of course, but barely noticeable if you weren't looking for it - then all of a sudden it was dark. I've never taken much time to marvel at the power of the sun, the source of life on this planet (and any others where life might be hiding, in our solar system, anyway), but it's incredible. Just the mere sliver was enough to light the planet and in the blink of an eye it was gone.

I've seen pretty skillfully captured photographs of a fully eclipsed sun (my wife took the one on this post) - the dark circle with a ring of light around it - and they're beautiful, but nothing could ever capture the experience of seeing it. Celestial bodies, the size and scope of which we can barely begin to fathom, moving in intricate orbits, at predictable times. More than just the aesthetic wonder of the moment, is the subconscious realization of the profound expanse of existence.

We were just people, I suspect people who might not otherwise get along all that well, sharing an experience we'll never really be able to explain. I recognize that it's just mechanics, no different than the sun rising and setting every day, but there really is something more. I won't say a "spiritual" experience, both because its cliche and because spirituality is sort of my field and this was different. It's almost the opposite of a spiritual experience - a profoundly physical one - the eclipse grounded us firmly within the universe. We might be small and insignificant, but we're a part of something majestic and beyond imagination, and that something is real, physical stuff. We can see and touch and observe it as easily as we can our own arms (well, technically, not AS easy, but you get the idea).

There's not really a point to all this. When the eclipse was over it was a race to pack up and hit the road, where at least 90 minutes of extra traffic were waiting on us. Along the way, roads were littered with cars, people still watching, through those silly little eclipse glasses,
as the moon made it's exit from the scene.

It really does seem a silly little thing - certainly not one worth driving with a five year old for 1200 miles in three days - but I am insanely glad we made the trip. I enjoyed connecting with strangers - fellow humans - for a few moments, in a shared experience that represents something important to those of us who got to see it.

The next one's April 8, 2024 - it'll be coming up from Mexico, through the middle of the US once again, through Michigan and northern New York and New England. Totality will be right over the part of Vermont I grew up in; I hope there's still a few familiar faces there with an extra bed and some hospitality, because I'm going. Absolutely. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

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