Last summer, I got caught up in EclipseMania.
It started unremarkably enough at about 12:05 pm in front of Papa Manzo’s most excellent pizza joint in Greenville, Kentucky.
As my friend Eva and I stepped onto the sidewalk outside of Papa Manzo’s, we were greeted joyfully by a group of Totality Day revelers with the news that IT’S STARTING! Two of the women in the group loaned us their eclipse glasses so that we could gaze upwards to behold a bright orange and perfectly round cookie with one tiny bite missing from the upper right-hand corner. It was charming and sweet to watch the moon start swallowing up the sun, and it was exciting to be there in a place sparking with the energy of a great, grand holiday, but it wasn’t really all that spectacular.
Eva and I went quite unremarkably about our business, buying a blanket at the Family Dollar in lieu of eclipse-observation chairs; retrieving our eclipse glasses from the trunk of my car, and checking on my 2-meter ham radio transceiver for activity on the Muhlenberg County repeater. (Sadly, I was unable to make contact with the repeater.)
We spread our blanket on the soft grass of the lawn in front of the Greenville Public Library’s arts and cultural center, Thistle Cottage. The atmosphere was a bit like that of the boring, restless few minutes before a fireworks display kicks off. Or perhaps it was more like the atmosphere of a picnic short on food, but long on the company of strangers, some of whom were a bit irritating, and none of whom you would probably ever choose to spend five seconds with.
The strangers – all natives of Greenville or the immediate area – chatted amongst themselves. Eva read the book she had brought along. I lay on my back on the newly purchased blanket, eclipse-glasses perched over my regular glasses, and held my pinhole camera aloft, pointing it in the general direction of the sun, holding the shutter open, attempting to remain perfectly still, and probably capturing nothing but overexposed blobs of light on the film. Things were lazy and uneventful and not very exciting for a short eternity as the moon’s shadow crept with agonizing slowness across the face of the completely unperturbed sun. Yet there was a tiny jolt of anticipation in the air.
And then the anticipation became reality.
When the inexorable shadow had swallowed approximately 50% of the sun, I turned to Eva and said “It’s like summer in Wisconsin; the sun’s not so intense.” She – a native of Michigan – agreed.
As if in response to our brief exchange, the temperature obliged by dropping drastically. Then, inexplicably, the wind ceased to blow. The sudden stillness might have been stifling, had the temperature not continued its inexorable downward spiral as the moon continued its inexorable journey across the sun’s path. The day’s light grew dimmer, stranger, more eerie.
The birds became increasingly hesitant: TWEET TWEET TWEEEET-Y-TWEET TWEET TWEET TWEET. TWEET. TWEET? twee—–t? tweet? tweet
Then entered the crickets: EEEEEEE, EEEEEEE, EEEEEEE, EEEEEEE [pause, as if to say, “Wait a minute; is this right? Eh, whatever; let’s just give it all we’ve got!] EEEEEEE, EEEEEEE, EEEEEEE, EEEEEEE, EEEEEEE, EEEEEEE….
All the while, the light continued growing dimmer, stranger, more eerie.
Suddenly, a young child pointed and shouted, “Look, Mama! The sunset!” We turned in the direction he pointed – north – and beheld a pinkish reddish gray-tinted sunset. When we turned back to the south – and to the east, and, finally, to the west – we realized that we were surrounded by sunset horizons.
And still the light continued growing dimmer, stranger, more eerie. It wasn’t dusk; it wasn’t dark; it wasn’t the light of an incoming storm. It was a heavy gray thickness that brought silent stillness with it.
The stillness asserted itself subtly, yet powerfully, blanketing the earth and all of her inhabitants in sweet, silent peace. For a few moments just before and during the point of totality, all of us there on the lawn; all of the creatures of earth and air; the earth and air itself became calm, still, aligned, united: at peace. For five minutes, we were bound together in wonder and awe by a natural phenomenon that dwarfed our differences, our hatreds, our fears, our envies into nothingness. We were simply living creatures taking delight in the mysteries of the Heavens, one with our world and with one another.
But in a matter of minutes, it was all over: the sun vanished; the sun was replaced by a thin burst of light that looked for all the world like a diamond ring; the sun gradually strolled back into view again. As the shadows lifted from the sun, so lifted the stillness and peace that had descended upon us.
That was it.
I drove 372.1 miles to see the sun disappear – almost – for about two minutes. I endured road construction, heavy traffic, drastically different radio-listening preferences, and petty arguments about road atlases because I knew that August 21st, 2017 would likely be my only opportunity to experience a phenomenon as beautiful and rare as a total solar eclipse. I didn’t know that August 21st, 2017 would also be an opportunity – hopefully not my only one – to experience a phenomenon as beautiful and rare as the gathering of human beings who set aside their differences and their prejudices to be one in peace, awe, and joy with all of God’s creation.