In August of 2017, in a very hastily planned trip, we piled our family of five into the car and drove nearly a thousand miles into the very middle of the path of totality of a solar eclipse. There, in a field miles away from anything we were plunged into darkness in the middle of the day and in just over one minute of our lives, found ourselves transformed forever.
I had planned and read and intellectually knew what a total solar eclipse was. A quirk of the moon’s orbit and its particular size and distance from the earth allow it to pass before the sun somewhat regularly and perfectly block the intense rays of light from what is literally the most blinding object in the sky. The mathematics are well-understood and reduce it down to no more than an especially large shadow. Armed with a complex assortment of cameras and lenses and filters and timers and smartphones, there was nothing, no logic, no reason, that could prepare me for the experience of a total solar eclipse. As they always have, words will fail me here.
While the sky dimmed subtly for a long while and with a heavy filter we could see the moon’s dark sphere slide over the sun, without the filter even the sliver of sun was too dazzlingly bright to register as anything different from the friendly yellow-white circle we are familiar with. It was a charming little field trip, a “neat” thing to do with the family.
Everything was fine, until it very abruptly wasn’t. In seconds we were plunged into darkness, cold, and an eerie silence, as though life itself had been extinguished. Even together with my family, I had never felt more profoundly alone. An interminable heartbeat passed, and then another, and slowly, my eyes adjusted to this new world I stood in. The world was not pitch-black, but swathed in a glorious twilight all around. And when I turned my eyes to the dark sun, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of deep profundity. Blazing around the hole in the heavens was a breathtaking corona. The outer atmosphere of our sun, a white-hot plasma in its own right, reaches far into space like the unfurling new tendrils of a fern. Its shimmering beauty is impossible to see when the intensity of the rays coming from deep within our own home star blaze down upon us. The only time this delicate solar crown is visible to our eyes is during a total solar eclipse. And like jewels set into the crown, solar flares flung columns of fire and matter so hot it rewrote what we know about nature thousands of miles into space. We could, only just, see that too.
Enraptured, we stared at the sky as the moments flew past. My rational, unexcitable child, the one tasked with timing the event, cried out “Oh my god! It is so beautiful!” And then, just as soon as I fully accepted this dark world, and made peace with it being my reality forever, because nothing else seemed possible, a bright diamond flared along one edge and quickly became too bright to look at it. The moon rotated ever onward, unveiling the sun and suddenly it was over and we were drenched again with light.
I was left shaking, breathless, teary-eyed, at once emotionally and spiritually exhausted and yet aware with every fiber of my being that I had never felt so alive. It is a feeling I have experienced only a scant handful of times in my life and only ever once seen depicted anywhere else, in the animated movie The Prince of Egypt where Moses comes down from the mountain, overwhelmed by standing in the presence of God. On the ride home, we were all silent for a long while, except to agree that we felt that something deeply profound had happened, something we could not put into words, something for which all of our pictures were wholly inadequate. Kevin and I were incredibly grateful we had never seen a total eclipse before sharing this experience with our children, because we realized we could not imagine living with them and feeling so strongly THIS WAS A THING THAT HAPPENED and never being able to make them understand how or why a shadow flickering across the face of the earth transformed us.
When I returned home again, I found myself drawn to others who had also travelled to experience this singular moment. Though it has been less than a week since we had seen each other last, we would embrace and stare into each other’s eyes, and take comfort in the fact that together, we now KNEW what was unimaginable the last time we met. “Was it––?” “Yes!” “Right?” and we would fall into a silence, just feeling together what was marked on our souls.
Today, I happened to pull out and look at a print of the eclipse, taken by someone with a better lens than I’d had, but unmistakable in being the same sun, the same moon, the same corona I had seen with my own eyes. As I looked, as I felt, I realized that this past year has been a total eclipse for the whole world.
A year ago, together, we plunged into darkness and with the darkness, into a primal fear we all thought ourselves incapable of. No matter how rational, how learned, we were all uniquely unprepared for the world we found ourselves in and the primal part of our brains sought some measure of comfort because hope seemed far out of reach.
The heartbeats ticked past as we clung to the familiar in the face of fear, and in the darkness, our eyes were drawn to the glimmering fringes, the beautiful corona of humanity –– the old, the ill, the impoverished, the abused, the marginalized, the oppressed. What was hidden by the blinding light of the world was illuminated brilliantly in the darkness and what we saw was burned into our souls. We will never unsee, we will never forget.
We also saw the bright flares of heroes –– the medical workers, the researchers, the first responders, the teachers, the retail workers, the two-thirds of working adults deemed essential and burdened with stepping out into mortal peril day in and day out to keep our world from faltering, falling. We saw them blaze forward in heat and passionate and burn out and die off in the vast, empty reaches of cold space.
We watched in fear and horror and marvel and awe as the great shadow raced across the land, and when this strange twilight seemed our eternity, something shifted, something brightened, and the light began returning to the land. Some of you have been vaccinated already, vaccinated for something that a year ago was beyond comprehension or imagination. You stand blinking in the bright light and feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin again, and it is over so suddenly you almost wonder if it really happened. Others, (ourselves included) are still wrapped in the strange twilight, beneath a bright diamond ring, knowing but not truly believing that the light is almost upon us again. I’ve read reports that some people have wept when their turn for a vaccine arrived. Will I feel the same breathlessness, the same exhausted ebullience when the moment arrives for me?
I have felt the painful silence of the last six months and I am full of things to tell you on the other side of this strange darkness. After returning home from our trip and looking at our disappointing eclipse pictures, I learned that the history of astronomy is filled with spectacular mishaps and frustrating totality observations. Countless astronomers, photographers, spectators have lost count of the seconds ticking by, dropped their writing implements, forgotten to remove lens caps and filters, or forgotten to set up telescopes, cameras, or other technical equipment entirely. People who have waited their whole lives for a singular moment have been so overwhelmed in that moment that every priority has fallen away. And I now realize so, too, has been my experience in the shadow of the pandemic. At some point, there is only the unnatural world in which we are immersed and BEING through that moment is all a soul can manage.
But today, I also realized this about the pandemic. Like the eclipse, the pandemic is transitory, but its mark upon our souls will remain through this lifetime and well into the one beyond. It has burned itself into our souls.
When the light reemerges and we are reunited, we will embrace, filled almost to bursting with the selves-we-have-become. We will mourn together and grieve together and rebuild together but we will not unsee what we have seen, unknow what we know. We passed through the shadow. Though our rational selves will fight to deny this, it was deeply profound. Life will continue on again, but it will never be the same, will never again be “normal”. We are changed. We will carry a piece of beautiful, terrible darkness etched onto our souls into the light, and it will mean something.