Seeing Directly Through the Clouds
Eclipse Day dawned cloudy in Chicagoland. The forecast had predicted clouds for days, so I wasn’t surprised. Plus, I’d convinced myself that an 87% eclipse of the sun, which is what we expected to see, would — I hoped – be awe enough for this lifelong lover of celestial wonder.
Several months before, I’d stood in the basement of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, tears streaming down my face, my eyes fixed on a looping screen showing thousands of people’s eyes fixed on the sky, and on a sun dimmed to a ring of fire. The solar eclipse eclipse was months away, yet already I was crying tears of awe.
I’d been a junkie for the wonders of the sky since before I knew how to spell the word “celestial.” My first-grade ambition was to go to space; luckily that was long before I had to accept the reality that astronauts need more science skills than I’ll ever possess. At night, I’d turn on the little star projector in my bedroom, and translate the dome of the constellations onto the cubed space of my bedroom walls. The explosion of the Challenger shuttle in 1986 left space-struck me in a state of sudden shock. We watched the launch from my second-grade classroom on a TV brought in for the momentous event of sending an ordinary teacher to space, and such was my shock when the mission ended in disaster that what should have been tears turned to disbelieving, distraught laughter.
Myths of humanity’s relationship to outer space formed the architecture of my childhood imagination. I grew up on classic movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “Open the pod-bay doors,” I’d regularly demand an imaginary HAL 9000 computer as I walked through the perfectly ordinary door of my bedroom, or splashed into the cold water of a swimming pool, perhaps expecting to find a monolith that would unlock the mysteries of human existence.
I didn’t dare shape my mashed potatoes into the tall form of Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, like the main character, Roy, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind–at least, not while my parents were watching. Yet I envied Roy’s ability to follow his seemingly nonsensical obsession with a faraway mountain, an obsession that led to larger and larger versions of the tower, culminating with a fantastical muddy version sprawled across his former living room, and a journey to the place itself.
I wanted nothing more than to approach the source of all the things that struck me with wonder and awe, the sky and its majestic moving bodies included. I wanted to capture the awe and take it with me, and I tried this in every way my child’s brain could conceive of, short of making my own Devils’ Tower mudroom, running away to find the aliens, or building and burying a giant black monolith in my backyard. But no matter how many times I begged my HAL 9000 computers (the little red dots on the computer consoles of space LEGOs), they never opened the pod-bay doors for either myself or whichever LEGO figurine to which I’d assigned the enviable role of Dave Bowman, the star-child flung through the monolith full of stars.
Experiencing a total eclipse of the sun, I knew, could have this power of celestial awe, but without the intervention of a movie camera. Totality promised to clear away some of the ordinary barriers that separate us from the stars. No camera, no VHS tape, would stand between myself and the reality of the movement of the earth, moon, and sun.
The day of the eclipse dawned cloudy, with occasional patches of sunshine, as I’d expected. As the eclipse moved eastward, I stepped outside to test the eclipse glasses against the clouds. There it was, the eclipse clearly visible through the haze of clouds, a small disc with a bite taken out.
I met my family outside the library of the college where I work, where several solar telescopes were set up to watch the eclipse more closely. The clouds continued to pass across the face of the sun, sometimes thicker, sometimes thinner. You knew without looking when they had parted because all of a sudden, a gasp of “ooh!” lit up from the crowd as glasses-covered faces turned upward.
I’d put my glasses on for a second, looking up, but then looking downward again, paying attention to my kids, making sure they used their glasses and didn’t look directly at the sun. I’d been able to pay better attention to the eclipse movie in the planetarium than I could during the actual moment itself.
As the peak of our 87% eclipse approached, the cloud cover came in thick. Humid sweat dripped down my back on the hot August day, and the clearest sign of our partial eclipse at its peak was not a growing darkness, but a drop in temperature, a brief respite from the heat. Only after it was over did we realize that the darkness we’d noticed was not simply cloud cover, it was the effect of the eclipse, hidden behind the clouds in a moment of celestial awe just beyond our sight.
I thought later that we don’t always know how dark it becomes until we see the light return.
When I turned to Facebook later that day, that’s when I found my awe. Friends posted photos of totality in St. Louis, calling it a life-changing event. In North Carolina, neighbors in the tiny Appalachian town where I used to live experienced a totality deep as night in their deep mountain valleys. Friends across the country posted pictures of sun crescents shining through colanders, sun crescents shining through pinholes in cereal boxes, sun crescents shining through the dappled shadows of maple leaves. I saw the undisputed evidence of an extraordinary moment filtered through the lens of the most ordinary of things.
And I knew then that I felt the awe through the filter of a wider shared experience, even if from where I stood, the sun in its dimming had barely flitted through the clouds. Awe strikes in the strangest moments, in the most ordinary and least expected, and in the grand ones we can all predict. And each time, it feels like magic.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.