I believe it was about a year and a half ago that I said to my wife, “Hey, do you have any plans on August 21st, 2017?”
“No…” she said, furrowing her brow.
“We’re driving to Tennessee to see the solar eclipse.”
“Ok.” she said, characteristically sincere in her openness to nebulous spontaneity.
I had just finished reading Annie Dillard’s stunning, haunting, hallucinatory essay (which I can’t recommend highly enough), “Total Eclipse” from her collection, The Abundance – read it here for free until August 22nd, 2017 – and I was hooked. I had immediately looked up the next solar eclipse and was thrilled to find one coming so soon. I marked my calendar.
Our home in McAllen, Texas, lies far south of the “line of totality” – the geographic line on which viewers will be fully under the moon’s shadow, experiencing the total eclipse. McAllen will see about a 55% eclipse. A region of the sun will darken for a time, a semicircular obstruction passing eerily across it. As Dillard says in her essay, “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane.”
Describing the total eclipse, Dillard – one of our era’s finest essayists – wrangles swirling images to try to pin down the experience.
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down. Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.
These lines have haunted me, and I have returned to them a handful of times over the intervening months. I was excited to be part of this natural insanity, the turning over of all we hold constant. I have read that roosters will crow as the sun returns, perhaps confused, thinking that they had dreamed the daytime prior to that darkness, and were in fact only just then awakening with the light. Car accidents inevitably happen as the rapid darkness envelops drivers who underestimate or forget the event. Workers will stop and marvel. Particularly human supervisors will plan a break to let their employees outside at the right time.
Then there are others, living smack dab on the path of totality, who will sit in their bedroom or at their desk through the whole thing. The world outside will swing from normalcy to shattering strangeness and back, and they’ll miss it, shrug their shoulders, and keep scrolling, digitally anesthetized.
That will be the most perfectly natural and ironic way to miss the eclipse. Buried in a Netflix binge, tapping out likes and shares, or pinning cat recipes, while another planet robs ours of light. Is there any event more elemental, more natural than an eclipse? More overpowering? Don’t we need that?
As our days are filled with stories of ourselves and the synthetic structures we’ve built up – politics, money, property, entertainment, work, relationships – a whole swath of our country will be consumed by the most natural: sun, rock, and sky. The day-night cycle around which we have built our society will be momentarily ruptured and reinstated, and we’ll be reminded of our place. If we’re paying attention.
And yet, I won’t be there. I looked at hotels months ago, and then connected the fact that school (I’m a teacher) starts right around this time every year. When the district’s calendar was released, it was the first thing I checked, discovering that I have required meetings and trainings on that day. To go would require missing work Monday and Tuesday, since we are about a 15-hour drive from the path of totality. Plus, my wife and son are out of town, so it would mean doing the drive alone, and losing two days off that I could use later on, with them.
Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be bitter and jealous, and I’ll get up at 1:12pm and walk out in the middle of whatever meeting I’m in to see my consolation-prize eclipse. But maybe on a day this school year, when it’s sorely needed, I’ll use one of those sick days and go out into deep Texas, away from lights and chatter, turn off my phone, lay out a blanket, and look at the stars with my family. Then I will continue to wait, my calendar marked for April 8th, 2024; the next total solar eclipse to cross the United States.