Less than a week ago, I drove about two hours into Tennessee to experience the Great American Solar Eclipse in the path of totality .
I had seen partial eclipses before, watched the moon take bigger and bigger bites out of the sun. I had made pinhole viewers and taken high school classes outside to observe, amazed at the change in the sun, at the difference in the view of what we take for granted every day.
But none of those experiences came close to comparing with what I experienced on Monday, August 21st.
Nothing can top totality. Nothing.
Annie Dillard said it best:
A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.
I had been buzzing with energy for about a week before the event. Electrified migraine auras, three in one day. Not sleeping well. Feeling that something was imminent, something powerful.
The first part of the eclipse was like the partial ones I’d experienced before. The sun had first a sliver and then a small bite taken out of it.
We were part of a group of 30 to 40 people who’d shown up in the same church parking lot, surrounded by open fields with hills in the distance. We were from NW Georgia and the Chattanooga, TN area, Birmingham, AL, Manchester, UK, Long Island and Brooklyn, NY – strangers gathered to experience totality. We enjoyed watching with our eclipse glasses, sharing pinhole viewers, peering through a telescope equipped with a sun filter, and pointing out the half moon leaf shadows on the ground as we ate our picnic lunches and chatted.
About 30 minutes before the eclipse, we started commenting that everything looked different somehow. The light seemed diffuse. We watched the colors wash out, change.
Everything looked weird. We even felt weird. Several of us talked about that. My eyes felt odd, as if there were a pressure behind them, not in a usual headache way – something more than that, different from that. I wondered if my eclipse glasses were sufficient to protect my eyes, so I looked at the sun less often. My head hurt in an odd way. (I think now it was my pineal gland being affected).
I was very aware that the temperature on a hot August day had cooled off. It continued getting noticeably cooler. The sky, which had been a little cloudy, cleared. Then a breeze began.
Later, as the sky dimmed more, the air felt noticeably damp. Crickets started chirping.
We were close to totality. We could feel it in the air, both physically and emotionally. Everyone got more excited. One of the young guys checked his friends’ pulses, seeing if theirs were racing as fast as his.
Several of us went up on a knoll and looked to the northwest, where we hoped to see the shadow of the eclipse coming. I had read that sometime you can see it rapidly approaching.
As the time of totality, around 1:30 PM CDT, grew near, the sky got darker and darker. The clouds on the northwestern horizon became black (perhaps that was the shadow, which I never directly saw).
A glow on the horizon surrounded us. . . . 360 degrees.
Our entire world was in sunset.
The lights came on in the parking lot where we stood.
As the sky darkened more, someone exclaimed, “There’s a star!” A planet had appeared – as if it were night.
We looked up through our eclipse glasses, waiting for the moon to obscure the sun completely, waiting to see the corona, that black hole where the sun should be.
And suddenly the rim of yellow light disappeared under a great black circle.
There it was. The corona.
We took off our eclipse glasses. We wanted to see it with the naked eye.
That black hole, a perfect circle with wispy white-light filaments emanating from it.
I’d seen it in a thousand photos.
But now I was seeing it live – with my own eyes.
There are no words truly to describe this sight. No words to describe the total experience.
I could say spectacular, awesome, beautiful, surreal, evanescent, incredible, marvelous – but none of those are entirely accurate.
It was something more . . . deeper, profound, sacred.
Beyond words and description. Beyond even ritual and art and music.
For two and a half minutes we stood in awe, exclaiming, watching, feeling, absorbing.
And then the yellow light of the sun flashed back on at a point of the rim, creating the diamond ring effect.
And then – just like that – the white-light corona vanished.
We put our eclipse glasses back on.
And once again there was the rim of yellow sun, brightening more with every moment.
Totality was over.
It got light very quickly, seemingly more quickly than it had gotten dark. The air warmed. It felt like a hot August day again.
I looked up one last time through my eclipse glasses at the diminishing darkness covering the sun.
I said goodbye to my new friends, those with whom I’d just shared a profound experience.
And I got in my car and drove home.
I wondered if I was the same person who got out of bed that morning, excited for a new vision.
I some ways I am not.
It seemed all who watched it with me felt changed. My friends who posted on Facebook about their totality experiences seemed to agree.
We witnessed something indescribable. We saw one of the universe’s most amazing events – at least of the ones that you can observe from earth’s surface.
I buzzed with energy for three days. I couldn’t get to sleep until late at night.
I felt electric.
I’m already thinking about April 2024. I want to be in the path of totality again.
Because nothing can compare with the experience of watching and feeling a total eclipse.