I’m here with four other women to experience the total solar eclipse which last occurred in the US on February 26, 1979. Here is the Best Western Suites near Opryland on the outskirts of Nashville, researched by our organizer as an excellent location for viewing. Many who have experienced such an event have been profoundly affected. We hope to be awe struck at the very least.
The event’s start time is 11:58 am. Janet, our group’s aficionado astronomer, is our guide and will inform us of essential phenomenon: Bailey’s Beads, the Diamond Ring, the Corona, and the Crescents Shadows which will appear among leaf shadows here on earth. Right now it is 10 am, a bright, hot August day. Cicadas are soothing my senses with their chants; a few kids, excited about being at a swimming pool are chirping away as well. As if the day were like any other, a lone woman calmly breaststrokes back and forth in the pool. But, it’s not an ordinary day.
My excitement range is at a muted hysterical pitch. I know that sounds contradictory, but opposites are in close competition: light-dark, sun-moon, clear-cloudy, eternal-momentary, like that. A heightened reality. I am trying to stay cool though expectations of a total rearrangement of my psyche and senses keep working at my imagination. Since 7:30 this morning the five of us have been plotting: how do we get into a locked pool area to stake out a table and five chairs for our viewing? We’re still improvising a structure for this cosmic spectacle. Do we bring food to our table or keep the focus skyward? When will Janet’s orientation occur? She also has to hand out the eclipse glasses recommended by NASA and explain their use so no one’s retinas are burnt. But at 10 am I’m still the only one here, so it’s me and my journal trying to get a handle on this once in a lifetime experience.
Before deciding to come, I fretted: what a luxury to fly to Nashville for an event I could experience in my own neighborhood of New York City. Wrong! Only a 78% eclipse will take place here. Why accept an almost total experience when 100% is a guarantee? The city’s super-tall buildings can easily interfere with even the 78% eclipse. But what about the expense and the time involved with such a trip? Still, all things considered, it’s not going to cost me that much to see a city I’ve never seen with it’s world-famous reputation for country music of a certain type. Of course, I’ve heard of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, but the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, the Ryman Auditorium where historic concerts have played? And even more amazing, the experience of a city throbbing with live music, block after block?
We did find our way by shuttle from the hotel to the Museum of Country Music, the day before the eclipse. However the $22 per senior charge to see instruments and memorabilia of the adored musicians, plus photographic life histories and such, was not our cup of tea: we were not aficionados of the honky-tonk blues by mainly white stars as opposed to the soulful blues of the Black musicians. However our curiosity to know more was satisfied by perusing the first floor free, where a photographic chronicle of Cash’s service to our country was on display along with an in-depth reportage on the role the Ryman Auditorium played in putting Nashville-style country music on the map. And then a special treat, a generous display of posters from decades of concerts (the Hatch Show Prints). The original printing press used to print them caught our imagination and set off stories of working such a press by one of our crew.
By early afternoon we were itching to explore the town and decided to venture forth to Broadway and 5th. (Had we flip-flopped back to our own city by mistake?) We trekked along blocks of cafes and music houses, jockeying hordes of tourists, oppressive heat, a barrage of guitar twangs, percussion gymnastics and mostly male voices wailing out stories of love lost and gained, the cadences not unlike Gregorian chants, Arapaho incantations, and Greek mourning songs. Finally, overwhelmed and aching, we spotted a five-story building, rocking with under-thirty crowds, stomping and swinging steins, limbs jutting out of windows on every floor. Tired and sweating, this was our last resort; air-conditioned or not, food or only booze, blasting cacophony or yearning ballads, we entered.
We lucked out. A beautiful hostess greeted us, asking our needs. She led us graciously to the top floor, a table of our own near a trio of male musicians, each having his own tale to warble. So we heard Nashville after all–through the confluence of beer, chicken wings, groupie ecstasy and downright jolly fun. But that was yesterday. It’s time to get back to the eclipse.
As I write and wait for the others, a middle-aged woman, at least younger than my four companions and myself, frantically if not determinedly sketches what she sees between the bars of the metal fence surrounding “our” swimming pool.
In my state of heightened imagination, I see her as desperate to notate what Nashville looks like before the cataclysmic eclipse occurs, just as I furiously pen down what I experience before the blackout, obliteration, wipe-out, curtain down, death of one way of being and transition to a renewed and more bearable world occurs. (See Virginia Woolf’s “A Writer’s Diary,” Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. l953. page 108, Thursday, June 30, 1927, where she chronicles a train journey with friends to a high point in Richmond, England to see the total eclipse. “…The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue; and rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over—this is the shadow; when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead….”
Weren’t we driven to think in such a grand metaphoric manner? Media hype has escalated this phenomenon as if propelled by a desperate need for an elliptical and catastrophic change to occur in our country. Heaven knows that most thinking people believe we need a massive turn-around. It’s clear to us: a horrific mistake has occurred in the white house. Don’t we all wish for some super amazing power to make it all better, right away like only the blotting out of our sun could affect? Like only a revolution could bring about?
Janet will be here in five minutes to escort us on our journey fed by some hope of an otherworld experience. I’ll try to inscribe the new beginning as it happens. In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God, and the Word was God…. OMG, John 1 has risen up in my mind. And now Janet and the others are here. She has demonstrated the use of the special glasses –“Don’t look at the sun without them until totality!”—then explained Baily’s Beads: Dots or patches of sunlight visible along the edge of the darkened moon’s disk in the seconds before and after totality during a full solar eclipse, caused by sunlight passing through valleys in the moon’s uneven topography. The Diamond Ring effect: The rugged lunar topography allows beads of sunlight to shine through in some places, and not in others and the diamond ring effect is seen when only one bead is left, a shining diamond set in a bright ring around the lunar silhouette. The Corona: A total solar eclipse provides a rare opportunity to observe the corona, the outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere. And the Crescent Shadows: Caused by sunlight passing through tiny holes between and in the leaves and projecting images of its own light source–seen at this time as crescent shapes because of the eclipse–similar to light passing through a pinhole camera.
“The first contact of moon with the sun is in one minute,” she announces. At 11:58 we watch the moon shadow’s first nibble of the sun in slow motion. “Only at Total Eclipse, when the moon completely covers the sun and the Corona of light haloes the blackened sun can we take our glasses off.” With our questioning glances, Janet assures us: “The light emanation around the sun/moon is as muted as moonlight.”
I see the moon’s first nip at the sun, like a finger on the crust of a pumpkin pie. But Janet is nervously gauging how fast and in what direction the large clouds are moving overhead. Feathery washes of cloud puffs have swept across our sun. Breaking News! Clouds have eclipsed the sun about three minutes after the first touch. Now three elements mesmerize me: 1) bright orange pumpkin pie sun; 2) black thumb nudging from one o’clock diagonally downward; 3) white wafts of whipped cream are moving across the sun. When we look again, the clouds have passed and moon shadow is eating up our sun-pie.
Since it’s hot, mid-90s, along with the disappointment, there’s some relief that clouds intermittently interrupt our sun-moon focus. But it means we have to stay alert to the next unencumbered showing. It also gives our craned necks a rest. Meanwhile, a yellow plastic ball becomes the bright orb focused on by the children in the pool near us, as well as for the adults tending them.
The ball, tossed where no one can catch it, inspires continual cries: “Oh, the ball is lost. Where is the ball? Who will find the ball?” loosely echoing our own plaints: “Oh, the sun is hidden. Where is our sun? Can you see the sun?”
Janet has just run off to see if the crescent sun, brightly shining again, is projecting its crescent counterparts we’ve heard so much about. And I am following her to the parking lot outside the pool area. At first it’s hard to distinguish them from the filigree of leaf patterns on the pavement, but soon we spot crescent suns floating everywhere throughout the lacy patterns of leaves.
The rest of the experience went by quickly, composed of periods of cloudiness and periods of clear viewing of the eclipse process. So much about the shapes and colors of the eclipse brought to my mind Halloween. Orange sphere as pumpkin; black crescent as witch’s moon…. But this comparison undermines the immense profoundness of the actual event we witness. To watch our sun appear as waning, than waxing, is mind-boggling.
But of the grand event itself! Now Bailey’s Beads will appear, and the touted Diamond Ring. Than the darkness and the cicadas cries and the cooling of the air. All accompanied by the hush of the small crowd around the swimming pool and the statuesque fixedness of our heads craned upward, protected by identical dark glasses.
When at last the moon was coupled perfectly with the sun and the corona flashed out (rebel sun rays that wouldn’t be blocked by the moon) everyone, in one spontaneous synchronized motion, peeled away cumbersome glasses, clapped and cheered. I ululated as we did in the 70s to show solidarity with all women working for the freeing of their bodies and souls.
Our leader, the one who had brought us to this place and time together, my partner, Janet, was in tears of deep joy. Her passion for astronomy has been a primary part of our relationship. I have helped her haul her giant telescope every summer to whatever vacation spot we’d planned. Of course we only picked ones with open fields or vistas, allowing her and I to see the skies that we are prevented from seeing all the rest of the year. It has been a joy and a luxury to view the heavens with her. I’ve seen the glow of Venus, the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the splendor of the Pleiades. I have learned how to look through the telescope lens with only one eye; how to use a red light to move in the darkness; how to wait patiently for a planet to appear, a meteor to fall, a plane to pass by. I’ve learned how to accommodate my unusual brain dysfunction (a certain disconnect between lobes) causing permanent imbalance and a disarming propensity for stars to appear to move rapidly as soon as I look at them. They simply do not stay still, as if not wanting to be caught by a mere mortal. They start skipping and jumping, sometimes speeding this way and that. At Olana’s meteor sighting event near Hudson, New York, I had to stop stargazing after only a few minutes or else collapse to the earth with profound dizziness. My brain’s tendency toward imbalance cannot handle skittering stars. Luckily, only a couple of times did the sun intercepted by the moon, start to take flight. By adjusting my position and blinking my eyes rapidly, I controlled this aberration.
The return of the sun to its normal self was not given the same undivided attention, as it’s counterpart. We had seen the total eclipse and now we needed to relax. All of us baptized ourselves in the chlorine water of the pool in assorted fashions. Only occasionally did we again don our NASA-approved glasses for the moon’s outward-bound trek.
The five of us had come together to experience a rare event, each with her own expectations. It was agreed: equally wonderful as the natural drama we had witnessed was the wonderment of our interchanges. We had interacted beautifully together, functioning as one empathic unit.
This experience of sharing a unique, four-day event (two days of travel, two days of Nashville and solar sight-seeing) with four brilliant, highly functioning older professionals has been as enriching as the events. I experienced again how travel with others takes cooperation, empathy and patience. Cooperation is needed in navigating airline travel: finding the right gate, the closest bathroom, healthy food venues; understanding garbled announcements. Empathy is essential for tuning into each other’s needs without laborious explanations A scarf left behind in the restroom shouldn’t cause irritation. Among five smart, feisty older women, not one didn’t at some time misplace an important item during our trip: “Can’t find my boarding pass.” “My driver’s license was in this pocket.” “I put the car keys in my purse; now where are they?” I personally left my hand bag in the breakfast area of the hotel with billfold, credit cards, driver’s license, ids, lots of cash, I-phone, glasses, pro-air atomizer for asthma attacks. Patience and good will, instead of moans and raised eyebrows, helped locate all lost items and no one was bent out of shape because of it.
Journeying mindfully through a once in a lifetime experience, we took turns initiating little expeditions and chores. What to do for a Nashville experience became a puzzle five minds solved together. How to work out food when each of us had particular dietary needs and tastes was juggled with ease. I’ve described how we staked out a lookout station at the hotel swimming pool without being overtly aggressive. Innumerable tasks had to be handled involving individual as well as group input and participation. For four days, five persons who had not travelled together before had to act for the good of all, culling up previously honed skills for our new situation. This complexity of performance is the stuff of team sports: honed skills interlace seamlessly with spontaneous responses for a winning combo.
Each of us had to go through our own particular meshegas, our own schedules and commitments and life interventions to allow ourselves this wonderful adventure together. That two of us were a couple and three were solo meant that any usual behavior patterns had to be reworked for everyone’s comfort. And all the while, we did not know what to expect when we got to our destination: a rainy day would have meant our Total Eclipse expectations were upended; Nashville could have been so hot or crowded we could not have survived any sightseeing. If the pool was in disrepair or overly crowded….
I have learned you can nudge the boundaries of your own habits, inclinations and assumed limitations and even break through familial restraints. ‘You don’t do something just for the heck of it,’ was a message I got as a child. Time and money consuming actions must be family-focused or work-oriented. And when your brother is in a rehabilitation facility for esophageal cancer, you definitely do not travel to Nashville, Tennessee to see an eclipse. If you’re expecting to hear at any moment that a beloved friend is about to die and you need to see her to say goodbye, or you will suffer the rest of your life for errant behavior…. If no one in your blood family was included…. And if not one of them said, “Have a great trip, Sweetheart!” How in the name of all that is decent, could you travel for several hours to watch the moon go in front of the sun! Are you lunatic or something? To the Protestant naysayers of my past I say this:
I have the right to try something new. It’s like creating a work of art, this traveling into the unknown. I grieve for my ailing brother; I called him from Nashville; I mourn my dying friend whom I have just learned died in New York City as the Eclipse reached 78% there. And now I have to disclose: before I could embrace the Corona fully, clouds covered the sun, and though my world became darkened, that expected total darkness and the end of the world feeling did not happen. My experience of a Total Eclipse was a fairly gentle type of experience, and for me, a most natural event and certainly less jarring than hearing the news on CNN, blasting out Trump’s latest horrendous acts at the airport terminals.
But, I feel changed, renewed and hopeful. The Solar Eclipse did happen as was expected. Our universe is running spectacularly. Then why can’t we humans also continue to evolve/revolve and become more developed versions of our potential-selves, evident at birth: loving, empathic and embracing creatures of our world? When people are seen and appreciated by those they are journeying with, even the most ordinary interactions do feel extraordinary, as do the people with whom we share such day-to-day exchanges.