It is 113° in Redding, California, and the Carr Fire continues to burn, destroying boats at the marina and buildings to the west, and filling the sky with ash and smoke. Those who haven’t been forced to evacuate stay inside to keep from breathing it in.
Blood-red skies and flickering horizons bring perspective, especially if it’s your family holed up in a motel hoping their home is still their home at the end of it all.
As all fires worth knowing about tend to do, this one leapt out of control quickly. As far as I know there haven’t been any casualties at this time, but there are no guarantees.
A week ago, I dreamed that I died. It wasn’t a dream of monsters chasing me, but it felt as real as those nightmares often do. I was in the liminal space between death and life; time had stopped, the time had come, and I was about to find out what really happens when you die. I only knew it was a dream when I woke up, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Have you ever almost died?” It’s a question that surfaces on social media and road trips, and like others I have stories I dust off for just such occasions. Those of us who haven’t gotten nearly as close as we think we have laugh about our near-misses, but it’s only a temporary reprieve. I am a future dead girl.
Those who were once living wrote about beautiful and terrible places in their sacred books, but whether they have gone to those places, I don’t know.
We will all die, but we don’t like to talk about it, except in the wispiest of language. Maybe that’s why we love stories of resurrection so much. In fact, I’ll be telling one myself soon, with my fancy editing tools, and with my body. The camera will find me lying on a table, still and gray, then it will move close to my face, and, just as we planned, I will open my eyes.
I dreamed about the eclipse several times before August 21st. Sometimes they were happy dreams: The sky did strange things, things that would never happen in the waking world, but I was there to see them. Most of the time, though, they were anxious dreams: I wasn’t able to find a place to stay along the path of totality. Traffic held me at a distance until it was too late. The weather was bad.
And it wasn’t just my dreams that held a sense of dread. I, who had known about this event for ten years, I, who should have known better, didn’t think to find a motel until most of them were gone. The eclipse was still months away, and I was already doing it wrong.
It was no longer a little secret between the sun and me; now, everyone knew, and they were just a little bit faster.
I was still an eclipse apologist, converting people and counting the days, but all the worst-case scenarios hung about me, the reminders that foreknowledge was no guarantee.
So there I was, spending the night on a field in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, hoping like everyone else in this 60-mile stretch from coast to coast that I had won the weather lottery.
I wake up engulfed in cloud. Dribbling fog hides the sky, but there is hope, stronger than before, that the sun, the wonderful sun, will burn it all off long before midday.
Living in Denver, Colorado, the sunshine is our most familiar meteorological feature. Rain and even snow are welcomed as visitors, but the sun melts and dries and acts as if nothing else ever was or would be.
The beginning of an eclipse isn’t First Contact, when the moon takes its first, tiny bite out of the sun. No, it’s that morning when the sun comes up over the horizon, it’s when the clouds part and the sun, the whole sun, fills your world, and it’s a better pick-me-up than coffee, and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” must have been written for this time.
For the sun to disappear, it must first appear.
Less than ten thousand people live in Alliance, Nebraska. The main street is long and wide, and to the south is the train yard. As another train, probably a coal train, thunders by, I wonder aloud how many young people growing up here had, at one time or another, wished to take a train Somewhere Else.
The evening before, everyone seemed to be Somewhere Else. Traffic was light. A roadside booth and a K-Mart clothes rack showcased eclipse souvenirs, but otherwise the town was going about its rhythms with little interference, unless you knew where to look for the tents and the RVs.
And now, Monday morning, everyone is Here. Our makeshift campground begins to fill and the downtown coffee shop is already full and out of food.
You can’t see the sun from the big windows there, but you can see above the storefronts, and the ratio of blue to white is tilting in our favor. I sip hot chocolate or tea, one of the two, and I duck out once or twice to call my parents and look up.
My parents are with extended family in Albany, Oregon, doing the same thing I’m doing. They are an hour behind me, but today they are roughly half an hour ahead. I don’t reach them, but then it is time to put away the board game and get off main street, time to drive fast to the outskirts, me in the passenger seat opening the sunroof and tilting my head back, watching, watching for The Moment, but it is still minutes too soon, and we don’t miss anything at all.
Here comes the moon, do do do do.
A man on a loudspeaker announces First Contact, and for a few seconds I can’t tell which direction the moon is coming from. And then there it is, and the orb is no longer quite an orb. It is like seeing the moon go through its stages, only faster and more dangerous.
I have never seen a partial solar eclipse before. The closest I got was in Shanghai, several years ago. An annular eclipse would begin in southern China after sunrise, then cross the Pacific Ocean and pass over my hometown in northern California before sunset. I was thrilled at the chance to see the same celestial event my family would see from the other side of the world, even if only in partial form, but it was not meant to be. City lights and city smog shielded the sky, but perhaps it was just as well as I had no way to look at the sun safely.
Today, I have my eclipse glasses and they have theirs. We have both traveled to see this sight, and it is now that I reach them, for a few minutes when I am seeing a small sun and they are seeing one smaller still. We watch the waning together, and then I leave them for their totality and wait for mine.
I sit and stare for a few minutes, and then jump up and put on sunscreen, or throw a bag in the car, or look around at my fellow sun-gazers and this bit of green we are choosing to remember for the rest of our lives. It is about an hour and fifteen minutes, this pre-show, but it goes by so quickly.
Little by little, the lighting begins to change. There are no trees to cast strange shadows, but it is as if it is overcast, the sun behind a thin cloud, and then a thicker cloud, but all the actual clouds pushed to the edges, the sun high and alone at midday but for the moon. I need my sweater and I can’t contain my joy.
All that light becomes an ever-more-focused sliver, and it looks a manageable orange through my glasses, not the fiercest yellow that ever there was. And there is so much strength even in this tiny ray.
I know in my mind everything I’m meant to be watching for, everything I want my surroundings to be so everything will fall away, everything except the sun and me, and we will have our little secret again. At some point, I forget about my lawn chair and it’s impossible not to be standing.
In the last seconds, the light goes slant and otherworldly, the sky darker but the ground brighter, like sun and smoke, or sun and storm, and then we can look up unprotected, or nearly, as the last of the fierce yellow glint disappears.
And there it is, the black moon, backlit by the sun’s corona, a soft whiteness that in some ways resembles the nighttime moon, but is its own wild and beautiful animal, not a reflection but a reveal.
We are caught somewhere between dusk and nightfall. It is pink at each horizon, and we are the epicenter, suspended just before birth or death or both. For right now we are in the front row seats, and there are no rows behind us. The world had changed slowly, almost imperceptibly, for over an hour, and then everything happened at once, and now time is stopped for almost two and a half minutes.
If I could only look at you for two and a half minutes, how much would I remember of the features of your face?
Is that enough time to memorize the features of the sky?
Everyone around me is talking or taking pictures or both, but I am silent and my hands are still.
This new world is only ours for seconds, and then everything will happen at once, again, and it will be gone.
When the sun comes back, the sun I knew before, there are fractions of a second when it doesn’t seem so bright, when I can take in the light on the edge, before I have to tear my eyes away for their own sake.
We are ready to leave and so we do. I open the sunroof again and watch the sun grow back. I call my parents and we are mesmerized together by our memories. I keep looking up, and the saddest part for me is when the partial eclipse ends, and wherever you look, it is as if nothing has happened.
The first time a friend of mine went skydiving, I was 17 years old and relieved I was too young to join her. But I put it on my bucket list. I wasn’t sure if I would ever have the courage to initiate such an adventure, but I knew there would come a time when people I knew would look to the sky and ask me to come along, when there would be an opportunity to say yes or no. And I would say yes, I was sure I would, one day.
I was also 17 when the sky drew my attention in a different way. I found NASA’s website on eclipses, the world maps with the splashes of red and blue that can turn anyone into a dreamer. No one knows for sure what her life will bring even tomorrow, but I knew what the sun and the moon would be doing in 10 years’ time, and I was determined to be there to see it. Long before anyone called it the Great American Solar Eclipse, I was joining my first group in the early days of Facebook and committing the far-off date of August 21, 2017, to memory.
And then I settled in to wait. Wait for time to pass, wait for courage, wait for other dreams to emerge, to incubate, to come true, to die.
There is romance in the narrative of dreams fulfilled. Until fulfillment was almost upon me, however, I didn’t realize how much I wanted them to be fulfilled in certain ways. It wasn’t enough to be in the right place at the right time, or to do an activity that hundreds or thousands of people do every day. I needed to bear witness to everything, everything happening around me and within me, every nuance of light and shadow, of falling and flying, of fear and joy and sadness. It’s a fearful pressure, an enormous responsibility, a catch-22 that inspires me to be more fully present while at the same time the fear of missing something can make me too anxious and preoccupied to be fully present. To trust that by “just being” I will gain everything I need to know and remember is a dance I have not fully learned.
Skydiving involves less than a minute of freefall, and then it’s a canopy ride. The total eclipse is bookended by hours of waxing and waning, but only two-and-a-half minutes of the high drama of darkness.
When a decade’s worth of anticipation is all over in a matter of seconds or minutes, will you remember what it looked like, what it felt like, or will you just remember the anticipation and the aftermath?
I saw the total eclipse in August, and I went skydiving in September.
Today, I’ve been reading this year’s journals and reflecting more on the past year than perhaps I’ve ever done before on a New Year’s Eve. And I have a few things to share…
12 Changes of 2012
I wrote something similar in the eleventh hour of 2010, two years ago now. Now, after such a landmark year, I think this is an idea whose time has come again.
My three weeks overseas prior to this year has turned into more than seven months this year. I’ve lived in the UK, I’ve lived in China, I’ve tasted and seen and heard the good and the bad music of culture with eyes wide open.
I was used to having friends all over the country, but now I have friends all over the world! It’s been wonderful connecting with people from (sometimes vastly) different cultures and backgrounds.
My outlook on life, myself, and, well, everything has been radically transformed this year. I know myself more, and I am more real with others. It’s all thanks to God, who used my experiences this year to grow me and help me find true freedom in Him. I have more hope and joy than I’ve ever had before.
Growing up, I always wanted to be a writer. At university, I got discouraged and set that dream aside. This year, I’ve dusted off the dream of writingand picked it up again, daring to believe, decrying the fear, dancing in hope. I’m discovering the kind of writing I love to do, and I’ve been doing it in journals, blogs, and devotionals.
In the six months I’ve spent with my parents and sister this year, I’ve realized with great joy that my attitude toward my family has changed, and, thus, that we’re connecting and relating to each other better than ever before. This has been one of the greatest blessings of the last six months.
Through my improved relationship with my family, as well as my improved perspective on life, I’ve been able to “redeem my time” here at home. Incredibly, amazingly, thankfully, I’ve enjoyed living at home for the first time since I left for college six years ago.
“You enjoy meeting new people” reads one of the statements on many job application assessments. Before this year, I wouldn’t have been able to honestly respond with “Strongly agree.” But now I can. I’ve become more outward-focused and more willing to step out of my comfort zone with greater confidence and into new things.
Speaking of stepping out, I’ve found a niche for speaking to and teaching groups, both seen (Sunday School and youth groups) and unseen (radio audiences).
I’m learning how to enjoy and fully live in the present, rather than living off of memories of the past or expectations for the future. There is joy in today.
Head-knowledge has become heart-knowledge in a number of areas. I’ve learned so much more about relationships and communication, what it means to truly love, how to deal with doubt and unbelief, and so much more.
I’m learning how to be more intentional in relationships, and my fears and sense of self-worth are no longer at that all-time low they remained at for so long, freeing me to love and care about others more.
My personal devotional time has exploded! I’ve written through almost three complete journals this year and read a good portion of the Bible. But I can’t stop there. It comes back to relationship: my relationship with God. That is the change I’m really celebrating, and I’m grateful for the means He’s used to bring it about. I’m learning how to seek God with all of me.
And on that note of seeking God, I want to share something I wrote this summer that I rediscovered today. I’ll call it The Greatest Commandment, and it is my prayer for 2013:
To love the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength, that is more than burnt offerings. Not just to seek You and serve You with all of me, but to love You.
I want to love You with all my heart – to turn my depth of feeling toward You; to trust You with my heart in all its frailty; to give You the outpourings of my heart, and to give them to You first; to experience true joy in You; and to let You awaken my heart.
I want to love you with all my soul – to pray to You; to listen for Your voice and be ready to act when You speak; to lift my soul to You and no other; and to keep coming after You.
I want to love You with all my mind – to use my intelligence for Your glory; to battle through any doubts I have about Your character or Your actions; to think for You, not just feel for You; to come to You with any and all questions; to commit my mental energies to the purpose of knowing you more; and to listen when You speak to me through the logic, the reasoning, the processes of my mind.
I want to love You with all my strength – to run to You with all the speed I can muster; to stand up again each time I fall, even when it feels like the weight of the world is pressing upon me; to do everything for Your glory; to not give up, or believe the lies that I am not strong enough and never will be; to live the truth that I can do all things through You who strengthen me; and to step out to You and for You, even when it seems like all the odds are against me.
I came to England with several hopes for these six months. One of them was to experience God in undeniable ways. That desire grew during our first week, as “hearing the voice of God” became a major topic of conversation and practical application.
In an upcoming blog, I will describe in detail a “day in the life” here at Holmsted. For now, however, all you need to know is that we spend a significant amount of time in intercession, and in sharing things that the Lord reveals to us. What does intercession look like here? Well, sometimes we’re in a large group all praying and listening for a word from God on a certain issue, and those who get a picture, a word, or a verse from God share them. Other times, we’re in smaller groups doing essentially the same thing.
And just how do we hear so directly from God? We received some teaching on that very subject during orientation week, the crux of which is a multi-step process of preparing one’s heart to hear from God. The steps are as follows: coming to God with a clean heart, inviting the Holy Spirit in, submitting our thoughts to God, silencing the enemy, thanking God for what He’s about to do, and then, finally, waiting and listening.
So far, it hasn’t really worked for me. And you know what? I’m okay with that.
At first, though, I felt a bit pressured to “hear something.” I don’t doubt that God can and does speak to people directly. When I hear stories of how God told someone something at just the right time, or how He woke someone else up in the middle of the night to pray for a specific person, I don’t disbelieve them. However, God doesn’t speak to everyone in the same way … right?
It’s one thing to come together for a prayer meeting and be open to hearing and following God’s leading regarding what or who to pray for. It seems like quite another, however, to follow a series of steps during a practice session with the expectation that at least some of us will hear something from God. Is this a good way to practice listening for God’s voice, or does it teach us that we should be able to hear from God whenever we want?
For everyone who genuinely hears something from God, I feel like there inevitably will be someone who didn’t hear anything, someone who just heard his or her own thoughts, and someone who just doesn’t know. Our God is not a God of confusion. Hearing God’s voice isn’t a game we play, where some are winners and others … well, they’ll get better with practice.
Then again, I don’t come from a charismatic background, and it’s only week two. Maybe my concerns are for naught, and eventually we all will hear from God, and we will realize that He does want to speak to us in this way, and that we just needed to know how to listen for His voice.
But back to the present. While I haven’t heard from God during these small groups, I’m learning that hearing from God at different times and in different ways is okay. In fact, it’s beautiful.
Five days ago, I had a dream that I’m sure was from God. I dreamed that I was talking to a friend of mine whom I haven’t spoke with or thought of in a long time. In my dream, she was telling me about some things she was struggling with. When I woke up, I knew that the dream was from God, and I immediately began praying for her. I don’t know if all the “facts” of the dream were correct, but the prayer points fit with what I know of her.
During these times of practicing intercession, I will continue working on setting aside what distracts me and focusing on God. I will listen, all the while praying for discernment and believing that He may very well speak to me in this setting. However, I don’t want to “make things up” or share when I’m not sure. I’d rather God spoke to me in His timing, not mine. And if His timing is 2 o’clock on Mondays, I’m all for it.