Totality

So, the eclipse. I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t want to stop thinking about it, because then I might forget it. Maybe writing about it here will help…

You have to be in the path of totality, they said. But they also said it was going to be a madhouse, gridlock on the roads. And I’m in charge of a 5 and 7 year old every summer weekday. Kids and traffic don’t mix. So I figured we’d wing it, wake up Monday morning a little earlier than usual, see if the skies were clear, see if the roads were clear. They were, so we jumped in the family car, picked up breakfast burritos, and drove north on a quiet country road through the farmland of the Willamette Valley. No traffic at all. Soon we started seeing people in lawn chairs lined up along the road like they were waiting for a parade. The path of totality!

We stopped just south of Corvalis, pulled over into the shade of a nursery that was closed for the day. We had about an hour until show time. I called my parents in Florida and my Pop said, “We just saw it on the TV, a live shot from Madras!” What? I grabbed the eclipse glasses, looked up, and sure enough, the moon had taken a bite out of the sun. It hadn’t even registered to me that there was more of a show than the designated show time. “Gotta go!” I said, and I got the eclipse glasses on my kids. After some initial oohs and aahs, Audrey pronounced, “This is boring.” They began skipping gravel rocks across the parking lot and had more fun with that.

Things got cooler when the sun started looking like one of those little candy bananas they love. Then cooler, literally, when the day started getting darker. It seemed like every time we took off the eclipse glasses after checking on the sun, the dimmer switch had been turned down. It felt like there was something wrong with our eyes. And I think it happened exponentially. The closer we got to totality, the faster the light changed. We were way into it now.

I had preached and preached about not looking directly into the sun, so we watched through the eclipse glasses until the very last dot of light disappeared. And so we missed that diamond ring effect, as well as the shade that apparently flies across the ground. “Look now!” I said, and we took off the eclipse glasses and there it was, completely disorienting at first: a perfect black circle against a halo of light, and the long, silvery wisps of the corona. There was Venus, bold and bright against the darkened sky. “It’s so beautiful!” Audrey said.

I fumbled for my phone to take a photo and immediately got mad at myself, wasting precious time. I figured we had about a minute of totality, and here I was trying to press buttons. The photo came out terrible, probably because I was unwilling to waste another second holding the camera still. And then I remembered I was sharing my eyeglasses with Thomas.

Yes, we (I) had realized about halfway through the drive that we’d left his prescription eyeglasses at home. I had considered going back. But kids and going back don’t mix. I had him try my eyeglasses on at a stop sign and we determined they would be good enough. We would share. And so I got to see his reaction when he put on my eyeglasses and actually saw what Audrey had declared was so beautiful. He just kind of exhaled, “Whoa.” I did a 360 with my blurry vision to take in what I guess you would call the sunset effect, a rose tint to the horizon in every direction. Audrey was dancing.

I gave Thomas another 15 or so seconds with my eyeglasses and asked for them back. I looked up right away and focused on the corona. I had imagined I would see it moving, but it was fixed, which only speaks to the size and scale of what we were witnessing. And by now I knew the seconds were fleeting. By the time I consciously realized that we all needed to do our best to lock in what we were seeing – but how could Thomas, without his eyeglasses? – here came the diamond ring effect. So we did get to see it on the flip side – at least Audrey and I did, if Audrey was still watching – before I said, “That’s it, put your eclipse glasses back on.”

And the light came back so fast; it seemed to me much faster than the time it had taken to grow dark before totality. It was like the lights turning on at the end of a concert when you’re hoping for one more encore. But the show was over. Still, we were elated, high-fiving each other. “That was awesome!” we said. We looked through the eclipse glasses once or twice, but before Audrey could say, “This is boring,” I asked if we should hit the road and beat traffic. They said yes and we hit the road, and I’ve been thinking about what we saw ever since. That perfect black circle against a halo of light, and the long, silvery wisps of the corona. Venus, bold and bright against the darkened sky.

I haven’t even come close to putting words to it here. When we got home I tried watching some of the live television coverage – it was just wrapping up in South Carolina – but those images couldn’t compare to what I’d seen. None of the images I’ve looked at on the computer can compare, perhaps because the experience was more than visual. There was the sensation of standing on our planet, the coolness of space.

And now I think I’m one of those eclipse chasers. I went from the guy who would maybe drive a half hour to see it if the traffic wasn’t too bad, to already plotting how I can get my entire family to Texas seven years from now on April 8, 2024. I’m already imagining myself in Northern California on August 12, 2045, at the age of 75. And I say my entire family because next time I want my wife Carley with us. She saw it during a break from work in Eugene, in the 99% zone, and she said it was awesome, but “they” are right. You have to be in the zone of totality. You have to look up and see that indescribable sight through your own eyes (or through your eyeglasses, which we will NOT forget next time).

And that’s something else I’ve been thinking about: how this awesome experience – this vision that I’m willing to say was life-changing, just like we were hearing about – wasn’t quite right: Thomas missing his glasses, Carley not being with us, watching from a random gravel parking lot, not making sure all three of us could totally lock in what we were seeing before it was over. I’ve been thinking about how that’s kind of reflected in the word eclipse (noun – an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object is temporarily obscured) – how some things for us were obscured. But aren’t some things always obscured? What might go wrong in Texas, or Northern California, after years – decades – of planning?

All we get is a glimpse. As epic and awesome and beautiful as those fleeting moments in the path of totality are – so awesome that some of us are willing to travel to the ends of the earth to experience them again – it’s still just a glimpse. And isn’t that all this life really is? One big beautiful glimpse.

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