I am not easily impressed. My husband says I could stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a hole in the ground.” Or at the ocean’s edge, with the salt water lapping at my ankles and say, “It’s just a bunch of water.” But, on August 21, 2017 at 1:28 in the afternoon, I was impressed. More than impressed, even. I stood in absolute awe and wonderment at the spectacle. I have birthed three babies, even reaching down and pulling one into the world with my own hands, and this, well, it eclipsed that.
Learning that we were “in the path of totality” meant nothing to me. I had no frame of reference, no understanding. And while Brian took off work a year in advance, I could’ve cared less. I had seen a partial eclipse before and didn’t know that this would be a different animal entirely. So as Brian planned, I forgot. He planned to take the boys out of school, while I wondered how I would word that school excuse.
As the day approached, and the hunt for ISO 12312-2 approved eclipse glasses intensified, I actually got excited. McRae and her boys planned to come up from Atlanta. We planned to meet at the town center at 11:00 in the morning for the viewing party the town was holding. I bought Moon Pies and Sun Chips and Sunkist orange soda. I was finally into it.
We set up camp under a tree. The boys immediately wanted Kona Ice, even before lunch. We spent $40 on hamburgers and hotdogs at the Flying Pig food truck. Then we waited. The boys kicked the soccer ball and tossed a mini football around in an open space in front of our tree. Periodically, we’d don our glasses and take a look as the moon slowly ate the sun.
The true countdown to 1:28 p.m. began in earnest at 1:15. How much longer? Eight minutes, then seven, then five. Now four and we move to a field away from the crowds. A field where a fifty-something hippie is moving through sun salutations on her yoga mat unrolled in the tall grass. The temperature dropped noticeably and the eerie darkness descended. Two minutes, then one. Through our glasses, the diamond ring and Bailey’s Beads. Glasses off! And there the world stood, completely out of whack from all known reality. The moon had swallowed the sun completely. Just the burning edge of the corona left of the giant, burning orb that lights the day. Cheers and whoops and hollers went up from the crowd at the moment of totality. In fear? In awe? Both? And my voice joined in as people danced and stomped and clapped. A plane passed in the sky. I looked at Brian, my voice shaking, “this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!” My 10 year old fell to the ground. But I admit, I was not concerned about my children’s experience. I was completely wrapped up in my own.
A minute and a half of darkness and that burning, glowing ring in the inky sky. Glasses on! More cheers from the crowd as the sun was released from its captor, the moon. These celestial actors moving stage left and beginning the return to normality.
The crowd dispersed, even the hippie and her partner, a man who had set up his photography gear in the field apart from the groupings of lawn chairs and coolers and corn hole to document the event. We lingered, not wanting it to end. We put our coveted glasses on and glanced back at the sun, now partially eclipsed and dangerous to the eyes again, until we were nearly alone under the shade of our tree. The final act of the cosmic play was winding down, with no one to see the curtain call. Finally, reluctantly, we broke camp, packing the wagon with camp chairs, melted Moon Pies, and the cooler of Sunkist. We gathered the kids from where they had returned to kicking the soccer ball. Slowly, we returned to reality, our feet firmly on earth again. Although, my head was still in the heavens.
We started doing normal things. Calling at boys to come on and help get these things loaded up. And wait right here on the sidewalk while I load all of this in the van. We wondered what to do next, a bit lost.
It was an existential experience. One that reached down and touched the very core of who I am.
It was a physical experience. One that evoked a very real reaction with laughter and tears.
It was an intellectual experience. One that called into question everything that I thought to be true about how the universe worked.
It was a spiritual experience. One that moved the deepest parts of my understanding of myself.
The word “totality” is now a part of my narrative. A word that will conjure specific images and emotions upon hearing for the rest of my life.
I will search a lifetime and never come up with the words to describe that moment when the moon effortlessly slipped in front of the sun, leaving darkness, chilly air, and a burning ring where the sun had stood just moments before.
And so I turn to others, hoping they can express what I fail to do. Songs and essays and commentaries, the soundtrack of the day—from U2’s “Staring at the Sun” to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,”—and yet, nothing, nothing even scratches the surface. The cultural references to such a phenomenon, their words, like mine, fall short. Even knowing the scientific explanation doesn’t capture the experience adequately. Every person trying to explain it, to describe what they saw, it all fails.
My mind cannot let this go. Neither can my heart. Conjuring the image, tears pool in my lower lids and spill out of the corners of my eyes. At night, lying in bed with only my thoughts, Brian snoring beside me, the picture floods my mind and I see it again: the corona—the edges of the sun—burning behind the moon. Real, physical bodies in space married together, one lost behind the other.
It’s a big, over-the-top statement, but my life is now “before” and “after.” There was a time when I was unimpressed. Time when life moved along in normal fashion and only the regular, everyday happening keeping me company. The sun and the moon tracking time in their respective order, day and night, on and on. I live in a time now, and will for the rest of my life, where I saw the moon eclipse the sun completely. They say a total eclipse passes over your tiny place of existence only once in a lifetime. This was my once in a lifetime.
©stephanie g. pepper, 2017