Outside of Totality

I keep a pair of eclipse glasses in a drawer next to my passport. To me, this is evidence that I have become an adult, but it might also be proof of something else.

Outside of Totality
The first in a series of posters I am making to go along with my writing.

Author's Note: I thought I was writing about missing a total solar eclipse. As I got to the end of the piece, I realized I was writing about a lot more - the creative process, jealousy, access to experience, the nature of truth, my ongoing struggle with the limitations imposed by my processing disorders, giving up my sense of destiny, becoming yoked to my own insignificance, and a lot more!

If you're a contributing Pocket Observatory member, there's a free poster download to go along with this piece. Just scroll to the end.

Last Monday, there was a total solar eclipse. The path of totality was almost 120 miles wide and stretched over a densely populated swathe of land from Mexico to Canada. Over 30 million people were blanketed in the moon's shadow. I was not one of them. In Denver, I could see a partial eclipse.

I keep a pair of eclipse glasses in a drawer next to my passport. To me, this is evidence that I have become an adult, but it might also be proof of something else. Five minutes before the eclipse began, I grabbed my glasses and walked outside.

Looking at the sun without a solar filter is never safe, even when the moon blocks most of its light. The lens of our eye bends and focuses visible light so we can see. But there is so much light we cannot see.

When we look at the sun without protection, ultraviolet rays smash into our eyes, their energy dispersing across cells like tiny bombs. The carbon particles in eclipse glasses block enough electromagnetic radiation to make it safe for us to look up. 

I held the glasses to my eyes and watched the moon begin to edge across the sun. People walked past me without looking up. Who could blame them? The light around us wasn’t changing. I could only see the moon’s tiny, creeping shadow because of my carbon particles. When my neck started aching, I went inside, discouraged.

I was just a fourteen-hour drive away from totality. How could such a small distance impose such different experiences? It was ridiculous! So I started to cry. And then I felt ridiculous for crying over the existence of material reality. And I felt ashamed for crying over not seeing enough when so many people were stuck inside and could see nothing at all. So I cried some more.

There are many things I will never see. The nature of linear time and my brain's processing disorders work together to narrow my field of vision. I learn about things I will never experience so that I can incorporate them into the parts of my reality that are less tethered to the material. So, I tried to calm myself down by remembering what I'd learned about total solar eclipses.

Here is what I know about total solar eclipses:

I know that total solar eclipses can occur because our moon is about 400 times smaller than our sun and about 400 times closer to the Earth than the sun. Even with those lucky measures, a total solar eclipse can only happen when the sun, moon, and earth are aligned in a way that happens only every year and a half or so. 

The path of totality - where the moon’s shadow completely blocks the sun - is very narrow. Usually just 60 miles wide. Totality lasts just minutes at every given point. On average, it will be another 375 years before each of those given points feels the moon’s shade again. Whether you see a total eclipse, a partial eclipse, or no eclipse at all is simply a matter of perspective. 

I know that when three celestial bodies in a gravitational system move into a straight line, they form a syzygy. Syzygy is an ancient Greek word that means yoke or union. So during an eclipse, the moon, sun, and earth are yoked by gravity - for a moment, or always, depending on your experience of time. 

A total solar eclipse requires a new moon! During the first lunar phase, the moon and the sun have the exact same ecliptic longitude. Usually, a new moon is an invisible to us moon because the part of the moon that reflects the sun’s light is facing away from us. But we can see a new moon during a solar eclipse; it reveals its shadow-self to us. 

And I suppose now that I’ve just written shadow-self, I want to tell you I wasn’t referencing Jung, the archetype-obsessed antisemite. He drew lines through people, the way imperial colonizers draw lines across the world. I don’t think he owns shadow or self. Or the darkness of a new moon.

When the moon blocks the sun completely, it reveals the sun's corona. Corona means crown. The sun’s crown is made of rarefied plasma and is too dim to be seen through the sun’s light. This outer atmosphere is a million degrees hotter than the sun’s surface. We don’t know why.

Solar winds escape the sun’s gravity with the help of the corona’s accelerating heat. They give comets tails, illuminate the northern and southern lights, and shape the earth’s magnetosphere. They scour Venus and might scour us one day, too. 

The dinosaurs experienced more total solar eclipses than we do because the moon was a bit closer to the Earth. Blotting out the sun required less precision. More isn’t always better.

I wonder if a closer moon hid more of the corona’s exquisite threading. I googled that wonder just now. The first two pages of results were mostly about asteroids. So much attention focused on big bangs, too little on picking at threads.

The moon continues to move away from the earth, an inch a year, give or take. Someday, the moon will not be close enough to completely block the sun. There are only another million years of totality, give or take. 

Total solar eclipses have helped humans understand that the Earth is a sphere, map the geometry of the cosmos, discover helium, and discover evidence of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Gravity bends light rays.

The oldest known records about total eclipses are from Chinese astronomers in 2000 BCE.  In many cultures, total eclipses were described as an act of consumption - the sun was being eaten up by a ravenous bear, dragon, wolf.

In some cultures, the total eclipse was experienced as a great abandonment. Eclipse comes from the Greek ekleipsis - forsaking. That meaning frightens me. I suppose I can imagine a cosmos where we find a way to keep a great wolf from devouring the sun. But I do not know how to keep the light from leaving me. 

Stories about sun-eating wolves generally lived beside an understanding of eclipses as routine cosmological events. I think this is perhaps due to the overwhelming nature of totality. Sometimes conveying the impact of an experience requires more than mapping the events that formed it. 

I know what total means. It comes from the Latin totus "all, all at once, the whole, entire, altogether." When you are in the path of totality, the sun is completely obscured and something else is completely revealed. 

When the moon has completely blocked the sun, observers can remove the filters from their eyes and look up. I do not know what that is like.

I know how people talk about totality. When the total eclipse is high in the sky, they say it looks like a hole in the sky. A plasma-lit portal that opens just long enough for a separate reality to steal in. When totality occurs near the horizon, some observers say the moon’s shadow seems to race towards them, holding out a different way of seeing their position in the cosmos. 

Where the moon's darkness anoints, everything changes. The birds grow quiet, the stars grow bright, the air grows cold, the crickets grow loud, the people grow quiet and then loud and then quiet again. The people in the path of totality often feel changed, permanently. The nature of the change seems difficult for most people to articulate beyond an earnest look and some variation of, “I didn’t know it could be that way.”

Totality seems too tethered to time and space to transmit through words. I can't learn about it from where I am, and so I can't make it part of my reality.

I used to think I existed in an orbit that would move me into the path of totality. I just needed to wait for gravity to yoke me to the movements of celestial forms. But I know better now. Totality is not inevitable, it is a matter of perspective.

I am a particle that wishes it were a wave.  

A partial eclipse can be enough—really, more than enough. Because, for me, it is all there has ever been. This is how I’ve always seen—through a glass, darkly. 

I went back outside before the eclipse reached its partial maximum. Tears are a lens that can magnify, but they can also distort. I pressed my shirt into my eyes until they were dry. And then I held my glasses to my eyes and looked up.

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