“I’ve known thin places all my life, but I didn’t have the language for them until I took a trip to Ireland a few years back… Thin places are transparent places or moments, set apart by the quality of the sunlight in them, or the shadows, or the silence, or the sounds—see how many variations there are? What they have in common is their luminosity, the way they light the way between this world and another—I’d say ‘between this world and the next,’ but that makes it sound like one world has to end before the next one can begin, and a thin place doesn’t work like that. It works to make you more aware of the thin veil between apparent reality and deeper reality. It works to pull aside the veil for just a moment, so you can see through.” ~ author the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor
On the eve of Monday’s solar eclipse, my friend, J., and I converted to the side of all-in.
“Totality or bust!” she said, quoting a bumper sticker she’d seen. Late that Sunday afternoon, I had read—thank you, Annie Dillard—that the difference between experiencing a partial eclipse (which I could do swinging in the hammock in my front yard) and a full eclipse is akin to kissing a man versus marrying him.
Suddenly, I wanted a wedding.
“I’m coming in 20 minutes—pack fast,” J. texted as I threw together a sundress here, a bottle of white Bordeaux there. J walked in and frowned at my vintage-style cosmetics case—blush colored and faux snake skinned—as well as my freshly dry cleaned hanging clothes, the basket of stemmed wine glasses.
“Where do you think you’re going, fancy pants?” she said, pointing out for the dozenth time we were heading to her folks’ “rustic” lake house. “And who is going to serve as your valet?”
“You are, Jeeves,” I said, handing her a bag. “This is as pared down as it gets.”
Rustic or no, what does one wear to a cosmic event, the likes of which one’s never seen?
I woke up the next morning in North Georgia and stumbled into J. in the hall outside the loo; she had on pajamas—and eclipse glasses. She shot me a goofy grin. “Hey, one can never be too early.”
Too late, too prepared, too early—who cares? We were 90 minutes from home and pleased with our uncharacteristic spontaneity and, admittedly, smug about the 97-percenters back in suburbia. We were, in a word, keen.
J’s father, not so much. “I’ll be napping,” he announced from what I gathered was very much his recliner.
After coffee, J. and I messed about in kayaks—we had heard a house just beyond the bridge had been rented by eight umbraphiles from Massachusetts. Yankees in Georgia! This we had to verify.
“Where y’all from?” J. called as we paddled up to their dock, addressing a woman wearing a TOTAL ECLIPSE 2017 t-shirt. (Ugh, that’s what my wardrobe lacked.) “Is it Michigan? Minnesota?”
“Maryland,” she answered.
She might as well have said Mars. And we thought we were something, driving 57 miles through the hills from metro Atlanta.
She told us how she’d seen the total eclipse of ’79 and was eager for a reprise. Plus, she said, “If you listen to NPR, it’s all they talk about.”
More women in identical t-shirts streamed from the house, joining her.
“This seems as good a spot as any to see!” one said, plopping unceremoniously into a deck chair.
Back at base camp, three hours before the promised 2:36 p.m. totality, J.’s dentist’s office called to inform her they had a last-minute opening at 2.
“I’ll bet you do!” J. said. “No thanks.”
J. and her parents and I swallowed a hasty lunch on the patio. “Chop, chop,” J. said, glancing at the time on her phone. “Show’s about to start.”
“I’ll be napping,” her dad said.
J. and her mother and I bobbed belly-up on inflatable rafts, taking care not to get our NASA-approved glasses wet as we stared at blackness taking larger and larger bites of cookie. Our little flotilla’s mood was jolly—we talked about how awe inspires a generosity of spirit, the same brand of goodwill you get on Christmas Eve, when the stores are closed and church bells ring and almost everyone is doing more or less the same thing at the same time. Voices carry on water.
“I’ll be napping!” J.’s father reminded us from the lawn.
After long enough to render our fingers and toes raisin-like, we climbed out of Lake Nottley. The moon had gobbled two-thirds of sun. I uncorked the Bordeaux and poured, noticing a certain somebody—now raising a glass for his portion—had failed to disappear indoors for a snooze.
The Big T minus ten minutes, daylight dimmed as we watched a heron cross the water to roost. Shadows grew long, late summer’s greens went grey, and rosy faces faded to the color of sawmill gravy. J. and I, ghosts upon the earth, walked to the water’s edge.
We had stopped talking, though I could hear oohs and ahs from a band of teenage boys down-lake.
You know what happened next: the lights went out. I whipped off my glasses and did my darnedest to take it all in—dock lights that had automatically flipped on, crickets chirping their lonely night song, Venus beaming blue and bright to the west of the silver-rimmed, onyx dot in the sky that was neither sun nor moon but something beautiful and scandalous. I shivered—the world felt unfamiliar and upside down. Where was I? Was half a glass of wine too much? Things had gone all wrong.
And then it was over.
“S***!” J. said, punctuating the broken spell. I heard the boys across the water snicker.
“That,” J. said. “Was the fastest freakin’ minute and 59 seconds of my life.” As if the universe should have obliged us with a bit more bang for our buck, please. Instead, the moon smooched the sun, a mere peck, and the stubborn star reemerged for breath—all before we got our bearings. A kiss is just a kiss…
I want—and I’ll bet you do, too—this particular superpower: the ability to freeze moments, or to at least draw them out. We try in earnest, but we make a lousy job of it. We snap pictures. We talk a thing to death. In anticipation, we brace ourselves—over-planning, over-preparing, over-packing.
The second we start to forget ourselves and have an ounce of fun—sitting by the sea, eating an epic meal, hiking in the woods, we begin to speak hurriedly about the next time. When we come back we’ll do this, bring that. Even as we say it, we know there probably won’t be a next time.
As J. did quite literally, we can curse brevity, but the solar system stays (mercifully) on course. We tease about putting books on our children’s heads to stunt their growth. We slather on face cream to outsmart wrinkles. We linger in a kiss, but someone pulls away.
Imagine if we got what we wished for: more. Kids who stay, a caffeine buzz that lasts longer than 45 minutes, a love affair that never cools, not even a degree or two. What then?
Like it or not, the moon travels at a speed of 2,288 miles per hour around the earth. Now you see her, now you don’t.
My girls left for college last week, and the house is so still, I can hear the clock ticking on the mantel. When the house is full, I forget to wind the clock. I don’t notice its silence, its face fixed at 6:30, with the clatter of dishes and stomping on stairs and the countless openings and closings of the fridge door.
But then they go, birds testing their wings.
It’s all so unsentimental, so fleeting, so unkind. But the very transience that hurts our hearts has its beauty, its order.
Still, if asked, I’d probably run things differently.
I am sorry to report I’ve yet to discover a method for holding on, for making the slippery stick. If you meet someone who has, let me know, though I’d have doubts about his credibility. I, along with lots of you, have found it does help, though not enough, to remember to remove life’s eclipse glasses now and again, keeping eyes open wide. And there is one other tiny trick, I think. It lies in the looking from the wonder to the wonder’s author, and in the hoping that, in the end, grace will freeze the moment—all the moments—and place them in our palms, shining, splendid gifts.