Eclipse

As with many old friends, I take this one very much for granted. Every day, he traverses the skies, as obvious as the warmth on my face, and as invisible. I don’t look at him, as I was taught from babyhood. I sneak a glance at sunset on occasion, or a peak when the clouds are curtaining, but otherwise, he’s there and I’m here and we don’t think too much about one another.

On the 14th of November, 2012, my relationship with him changed.

At 5:30, nearly half an hour before sunrise, we gathered on the beach. “We” included Rick and I, who had driven almost 2500 kilometres up the Inland Highway to get to Palm Cove, a few kilometres north of Cairns, smack in the centre of the skinny belt that the astronomers told us would host the totality of the solar eclipse. We were there with our good friends Diane and Carol who had flown up to participate in the sacred event – plus five to ten thousand other early risers, many from faraway continents, who lined the beach with cameras, telescopes and special viewing glasses in hand. We all surveyed the cloud-layered horizon.

The first miracle of the morning was a tiny peak as the sun pried its way out of the ocean. Its hello was greeted with a rousing cheer from its fans on the beach. I had a look through the viewing glasses: not a nibble out of its perfect red circle yet.

Then it rose quietly into the cloud cover and disappeared completely.

The beach was quiet. I thought about the Vancouver riots, where the fans of the losing hockey team had run amok in the downtown area. Would we, deprived of our win, become surly as well? I didn’t think so. Perhaps all these fellow travellers had lain awake much of the night, as I had, eager and wondering and trying to prepare for disappointment.

We stood on the beach, chatting quietly, thinking about the moon’s undetectable approach and about the sun slowly dwindling as the moon crossed its face. It was happening up there, hidden behind a burkha of tropical cloud. Diane and Carol filled their lungs and blew and blew toward the clouds, well knowing that every little breath counts.

Perhaps those puffs were what caused the next miracle: a glimpse of sun between two fat clouds. Ten thousand hands whipped goggles to face, and sure enough, for a few seconds, there it was: a crescent-sun. A quarter-sun, astronomically familiar because of our experience with the moon’s cycles, and yet wholly strange.

The sun dived back behind the clouds, and Diane and Carol blew some more. Diane, not normally known for reverence, dashed off a small prayer. I looked farther up the beach. People there had sun on their faces! I gazed longingly at them knowing they were witnessing the miracle.

And then our old friend came out again. He found a spot of clear sky and settled himself.

Black glasses in place, the beach quieted completely as the sun grew smaller and smaller. The light was detectably dimmer – but only just; there was no dramatic diminishing of light and warmth. Through the lenses, the bright crescent-sun dwindled to a  sliver, then a morsel, then…it was gone.

Glasses came carefully off. And there in the sky before us was a hole, an incredible black hole with a marvellous halo dancing around it. And now it was dark, as dark as late sunset. I noticed I wasn’t breathing, and I noticed a sob working its way up my throat. But mostly I just watched that beautiful, beautiful absence of sun, that big round hole in the universe, that sparkling corona. The only sounds were whispers of appreciation and the shoosh of reef-subdued waves.

For two minutes and thirteen seconds we stood in awe, witness to a miracle. I wanted to hold tight to Rick, and to Carol and Diane. I wanted to smile at every person around me, perhaps to touch them, to expand the connection.

And my old friend the sun? I haven’t felt quite the same way about him since. I keep my safety glasses where I can catch a look now and then. His face stays reassuringly perfect – but I now know one of his secrets.

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