One person looks at the moon and sees a tilted sliver, a crescent on its side, and thinks, a child’s smile on a swing. Another might look and say, at apogee the declination is toward the ecliptic. But there are universalities in our thinking, too, when we look into the sky. Children think the full moon and the sun are the same size. They do not realize how significant this observation is. The coincidence of size and distance have made it possible to study the cosmos and allowed humans to witness a scrap of awareness of our movement through space.
Once when I was so young the memory is shadowy, the teacher told our class that it was going to get dark for a few minutes. We were allowed to put our pencils down, but we were not to talk or take this phenomenon as an opportunity to act unruly. The moon was going to block out the sun. I wanted to see it. I wanted to walk outside and look. This was not allowed. The teacher assured us that other opportunities would arise.
In 1994 I was taking an astronomy class at Georgia State University. We were lucky, our professor told us, because a solar eclipse was occurring during our semester and he would show us how to make a box telescope so we could experience it on our own, without a telescope. On May 10, 1994, I was at home, alone, except for my four year old son. I had learned my basic astronomy and biology, and a visiting historian had told our class that Galileo had gone blind from looking at the sun. I made my paper telescope. I watched the shadowy reflection on the ground. I wanted to take a picture. At that time I only had a cheap, second hand 35 mm film camera, but I needed to see where to point the lens. So I looked up, I felt the photons bouncing in. The moon and the sun together, burning into my retina, imprinted on my brain. There are worse things one could do to one’s body. Standing on the patio of my duplex, alone. Nobody was nearby, all the normal sounds were of people looking forward and back, not up. I thought in those moments, here I am witnessing this amazing thing, this recognition of a human moving through the cosmos, and everyone around me is oblivious.
I saw other things when I took my astronomy class. Georgia State was too near downtown Atlanta for viewing the night sky so we were sent to the suburbs. I went to the Fernbank Science Center. The helpful astronomer turned the dome while I made notes for class. I saw Orion with his belt and bow. I had seen the smudge in front of him, but now saw it resolved into stars. The seven sisters, the Pleiades, forever chased by the hunter turned into doves by their mother to escape the jealous Orion. I remember thinking, I will always remember this. If I’m out and its dark I look for Orion and the sisters, which is visible for a good part of the year right above my house. Like a grounding image to meditate on, it reassures me.
In 2016 I went to Tahiti for my fiftieth birthday. I lay on my back outside my hut in Moorea and looked for Orion. I found it but I was unsure of what I was seeing. The stars were there, in their usual brightness and orientation to each other, but they were not organized in the manner I was used to. Half the world away the images are upside down and inverted.
One other thing linked my astronomy class to my trip so many years later. I had to mount my personal camera on the telescope at Agnes Scott College to take pictures of the moon, and from those images identify certain features, the larger mares and craters. It seemed to me, then, an amazing feat that my cheap, overused camera and my feeble, eclipse-branded retinas could accomplish such a feat, even with a 30-inch reflecting telescope. I thought about that again, when I was in Bora Bora and my husband took pictures of a supermoon with a digital camera, which showed so much definition I would have aced that assignment.
In 1997, my family walked out of our house and down the streets of our subdivision, looking up through pines for the Hale-Bopp comet, said to be visible with the naked eye. I feared it would not be true, or an exaggeration by too-exuberant sky watchers. Or it would be nothing more than a dot, like another star. But we found it, an odd spread of expanding orange and blue. We were not disappointed and every evening for weeks we said to each other “Where’s the comet?” and we’d congratulate whoever for spotting it and marvel and nod until finally by the end of the summer it was so commonplace that we were like yes, so what, that’s just that shooting star we see every night.
A year before the masses got eclipse fever, I had my totality viewing spot picked out for the 2017 solar eclipse. I was not going to be told to sit in my desk or stay inside this time. I was scheduled to work that day, but traded my shift so that I could drive to Rabun’s Gap, GA. From my house I would have been at 97% totality, and for most things in life that’s a good enough percentage. But not for a total solar eclipse. I heard some people talking about the eclipse a few days later, and they were saying they didn’t understand what the big deal was. I asked them to explain. Turns out, they were in the 98% zone and so while they thought what they were seeing was ‘close enough’ they did not realize what a strange mental, physical, and psychological experience it is to be in totality. I also had that very special eyewear, ordered from Amazon prime and vetted by no less than three official agencies, so I was sure not to suffer any further damage. I was not alone, either, and thousands of people paused with me, looking upward, forgetting, at 2:38 PM, for two minutes and thirty-eight seconds, earthly concerns. We were given a chance to recognize the existence of us within the cosmos, close and beyond.