My spouse looked at me as if I'd lost my mind when I suggested that we get up in the middle of the night to view the lunar eclipse. I can forgive him. We've had unfortunate experiences chasing eclipses and other astronomical events.
One time when we had a full lunar eclipse, it was going to occur earlier in the evening. I declared that we should go to the beach to watch, where we'd have the perfect view. We invited friends. We packed a picnic. We drove to the beach, where everyone else had converged. We spent some time looking for a parking space before returning home to watch the eclipse from the comfort of our back yard.
I remember years ago, when my spouse (who was then my boyfriend) and I drove to a dark country road where we hoped to see Halley's Comet. We were 20; we figured it was our last/only chance to see it. We looked in the direction where it was supposed to be and were underwhelmed. That smudge on the horizon? Was that it?
Far better was the Hale-Bopp Comet, which was clearly different from other sky objects, which stuck around. I was driving back and forth between Columbia, South Carolina, where my spouse was in grad school, and the Charleston area, where we had a house and roommates and where I worked. Much of that driving happened at night, and I felt a communion with that distant chunk of dust and gas. I loved its appearance and the fact that I could always find it.
What I love most about these celestial spectacles is that they reignite my childhood sense of wonder. When I was a child, I spent lots of time tracking the sky. I delighted in finding the constellations, although I rarely could figure out why the pattern of stars reminded ancient people of bears or archers or those other objects.
Why didn't I become an astronomer? I had many childhood passions that dropped away as I got older and faced that pressure to choose, to specialize.
But astronomical events, like the lunar eclipse, remind me of that child that I used to be, the one who watched the sky, the one who painted and wrote poems, the one who put on plays that she had written, the one who sewed costumes for her Barbie dolls, the one who followed her interests, wherever they took her that day. I lift a prayer of gratitude for my wonderful parents who said, "Of course you can have that big box to make a fort. Of course you can wear my old clothes as costumes. Here are some neat puppets. Let's go to the library to get some books. Let me show you the Big Dipper in the sky; let me explain how you can navigate if you can always find the Big Dipper. Look at this punch card; that's how a computer spells your name." On and on I could go.
Lunar eclipses remind me to look up from all the screens which consume so much of my time, from assessment reports and the other minutiae of my work life. Lunar eclipses remind me to appreciate the natural world, to reorient myself.
Here's a poem I wrote years ago, in the early part of this century, before I even knew the friends with whom I would go to the beach, only to return to the backyard (that's how you know you have good friends: they don't storm off in a huff, but they let you regroup and have a great lunar eclipse party from a different location). This poem is part of my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.
Waiting for the lunar eclipse requires
a certain amount of patience. I watch
for the first hint of a shadow. My eyes trick
me. I can’t be sure of what I see.
I always forget the time required
by these solar system spectacles.
I sit in the lumpy lawn chair, impatient
to be done with this show, to move
on to other commitments.
Perhaps this is the lesson the eclipse contains:
to savor the cool night air, the hot cocoa that warms
me twice, as I sip and as I cradle the cup in my cold
hands. To sit and watch and wait.
So often, change takes place in these incremental
pauses. A shadow so subtle we can’t be sure,
then the change consumes our mundane
lives, transforms the whole character
of our night sky.
Loving Lilly Ledbetter
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