Total Eclipse Day, in Total Eclipse Zone: Columbia, South Carolina
August 21, 2017 arrived as a perfect day, something difficult to pull off when there’s so much expectation, so much build-up, when there’s been so much prelude.
I mean there was a countdown graphic during the news, for heaven’s sake.
No wonder Tim and I could hardly believe our good fortune. We hadn’t needed to travel at all to experience the depths of mystery, and the heights of splendor as lovely Annie Dillard wrote in her classic essay, Total Eclipse. It was sunny and gorgeous and we were on the lake and our dear, dear friends were there, three boats-full. We were swimming, and laughing, and eating pimento cheese, and buoying it all was this magical (if unavowed) sublayer of thrill rising.
Then just like that it started, the carving out of the sun. Smaller than I expected. Slower, and less dramatic. And yet it was also more wondrous, more fascinating than I had ever considered.
Look at that, Mike, I said after a while. The shape is like the regular quarter moon but not. Because the dimensions are wrong.
Even if I understood this, it actually took a minute for my brain to comprehend the fact the bright shining crescent I was seeing was the sun.
What time is it? someone hollered.
That temperature is dropping.
It’s getting darker.
Look at the light.
Two minutes to totality!
That’s when the clouds came.
No, no, no, no, no, we all said, our breath getting shallow even if our hearts were joined in unbelief. (There was no way that could happen, right?)
Please, please, please, please, please, we thought, our hands moving unconsciously to our chests.
Not in prayer, exactly.
But not not in prayer either.
We looked to the sky. We looked to each other.
We looked all around.
It was happening. The sun and the moon and the earth were in perfect alignment. There would be 2 minutes 30 seconds of the nothing-like-it, once-in-a-lifetime magic of a total solar eclipse.
And all we were seeing was the big fat cloud covering it.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of that moment, disbelief eclipsed by disappointment eclipsed by pollyanna who jumped in quick with a multitude of reasons this was not nearly as heartbreaking as it seemed.* I mean we’d seen most of it. 128 minutes worth. And I was on the lake, with friends, with a fantastic eclipse playlist. We were grilling hamburgers later. There was a red and white checkered tablecloth. Cindy made moon pies!
And then the thought came to me: God must want you to see something else, girl. Look around.
And so I did.
It was indescribable, the twilight, the colors of that lake and the horizon and the low clouds, experiencing sunset not from the west but sitting smack dab in the middle of it, 360 degrees, dusk in every direction. My friends were laughing, still having fun, each and every one looking in awe even if it was a bit more tempered.
(Plus you could look up at the sky without safety glasses. There was that.)
Then a hurray as the clouds began to part.
The eclipse slowly reappeared, this time in reverse order. But totality was totally over.
It felt sad, too bad, like missing a field goal and wishing by golly you had one more shot at it, one more chance to get that ball through the uprights. We moaned a hot minute then carried on with our fun, getting another beer, another handful of pistachios, jumping back into the water one more time.
When you get home later your precious daughter is there, telling you she saw it all, she’ll never be the same, the moment of totality left her weak-kneed and awe-stuck and changed. (I really am thrilled for her.) And you click on Instagram and see the corona and Bailey’s Beads and the diamond ring and the crescent shadows all over Columbia and the depth of your sadness begins to grow.
Seriously, God? is what you think.
It grows and grows.
It becomes a late game field goal in a tie in the Super Bowl.
It has no limits, your disappointment, now that you understand, now that you know.
It was right there, the glory and majesty and wonder of a Total Solar Eclipse.
I cannot believe we did not get to see it.
*Forgive me the indulgence of this sentence; I feel like I earned it.
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