The Sun and the Sky: Eclipse (part 2)

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.

Sun peeking out of clouds
8 a.m., three hours and 49 minutes before totality.

 

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.

me viewing partial eclipse
11:02 a.m., 47 minutes before totality.

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.

 

This is part two of a four-part series.

Part 1: The Sun and the Sky: Beginnings

Part 3: Skydiving

Part 4: Finding Magic

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Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark {a review & giveaway}

Me and the book

How do you know God is real?

Because you’ve felt him.

Until you don’t anymore.

Addie Zierman’s second book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, officially came into the world one week ago Tuesday. It arrived on my doorstep that night, and as I absorbed myself into it, I found myself within its pages. Like her first book, When We Were On Fire, it took me to familiar places, hard places, true places.

Like Addie’s debut, Night Driving is a memoir. This one chronicles a spontaneous road trip she took two winters ago with her two young boys, to escape the darkness of her even-colder-than-usual Minnesota home for Florida light … to escape the darkness and emptiness inside her to maybe, just maybe, find a Light she could take back with her.

The book flits between past and present, and I was carried along on interstates and into strangers’ homes. I was carried to beaches of yesteryear where fire lit the sky, lit the heart, and to beaches where the rain thundered down, where nothing was as simple as it used to be. Night Driving is achingly beautiful; Night Driving is achingly real.

It seems fitting to be writing about this book in the cold of a Colorado blizzard, in the darkness of Holy Week, in the sparseness of my own soul.

The morning after I finished the book, I found myself flipping back, a few chapters at first and then all the way to the beginning, filling three pages deep with quote after quote. I was going to share a few of my favorites, interspersed with reflections on why these particular words are meaningful to me … but then I realized that you don’t need my words right now, that what you need are Addie’s words, full stop. And so, here they are:

“In the dark kitchen, I feel as if my eyes are finally beginning to adjust. And I’d forgotten that this is how sight works. We move from someplace very bright to someplace very dark, and for several minutes it’s very hard to see. But then the pupil expands and the rod cells engage, and the whole eye is flooded with rhodopsin, and we can finally absorb photos, perceive light. I’d forgotten that we are made like this. We are equipped to see not only in the light … but also in the darkness. It just takes time to switch between the two.

And maybe this has all been nothing more than part of the natural process of things. I spent the formative years of my life, my faith, looking straight into the Light. It only makes sense that it would take my eyes a while to heal from that burning and to adjust to a world that so often is dark. But now I’m sitting at the kitchen table, blinking in the darkness, and God’s presence doesn’t feel at all like fog lights or romance or smoke or fire. It is as steady and commonplace as the wooden farm table between us, at the floor my feet brush against, the slant of the oven light barely illuminating the table. It’s almost pitch-black. I’ve never seen so clearly.”

Night Driving, pages 195-196

“I feel like I’ve spent the last several years twisting and turning the puzzle pieces of my faith, trying to get them to plug up that ‘God-shaped hole’ that is still throbbing like an abscess in my heart. But it never seems to go away – no matter how long I sit there, Bible in my lap, staring out the patio door of my kitchen, waiting. … ‘All sins are attempts to fill voids,’ Simone Weil said, and at some crucial point that I can’t actually remember, I figured out that burning down your own life felt strikingly similar to being on fire. That if I couldn’t shoot the gap via that bridge which is the empty cross, at least I could pour wine down into it. Such an easy shortcut. Such a simply fix to get tipsy on cheap cabernet and smile at some guy on some street and feel myself float to the top of that gaping, empty space in me – at least for a little while.”

Night Driving, pages 126-127

“It’s like this: Once upon a time, I learned that God came like light. I spent a long time, head against the window, peering into the darkness, praying for God to come like a spotlight, like a fire, like some wild laser show in the pitch-black sky. I learned to fear the darkness, and when it came, I struck myself against everything around me trying to make sparks.”

Night Driving, page 208

“I hadn’t understood, then, that love doesn’t always look like romance and faith doesn’t look like fire and light doesn’t always look like the sun – and that this matters.”

Night Driving, page 209

You can find out more Addie and her book at addiezierman.com, and you can find Night Driving on Amazon (or wherever you buy books).

Also, a GIVEAWAY! I have a copy of Night Driving that I’d like to give to one of you. If this book sounds like it’s for you, simply post a comment on this blog post, and you will be entered in the giveaway. On Easter Monday, I will randomly select one winner (so make sure you include your email address in your comment, so I can contact you if you win).

UPDATE: The giveaway has ended. Thank you to everyone who participated!