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Last Sunday afternoon, I had a garden party just in time for the solar eclipse. I had paid more attention to the food preparation than the celestial event, and I was more preoccupied with the possibility of rain than the certainty that the sun would go out, but I was glad when my friend the umbraphile arrived with eclipse glasses in hand for the viewing.
A vague memory crept up of marching in line with my elementary school classmates, shoeboxes in hand, to the flat plain of the school playground to view an eclipse, or a projection of an eclipse through pinholes, sometime in the 1960s. I remember feeling vaguely afraid, not that this was an ominous event as it was viewed in ancient times when Zeus or some other god would black out the sun, but that Art Slaughter, who could never follow the rules, would dare to turn around and look straight at the sun and would fall blind immediately. Our teacher had spent what seemed an inordinate amount of classroom time warning us about fried retinas. Still, out on that playground on an unusually cloudless Kentucky day, it felt disappointing to turn our backs to the sun. I couldn’t quite understand what we were supposed to see beyond the pinhole, and I remember the shudder that ran through my body when the afternoon turned darkish. I remember the relief I felt when the sun’s rays returned, warming the sight of my front yard, just across the street from the school.
Not much mystery remains in the 21st century, when the exact trajectory of the moon’s orbit is mapped and the entire event of a solar eclipse can be viewed anywhere in the world, in real time, on an electronic device. But there was something distinctly thrilling and faintly primitive about standing there, feet planted on our little piece of Earth, looking up at the sky and watching the moon pass in front of the sun.
We milled about as adult partygoers do, catching up, wandering around the garden identifying plants. I herded everyone toward the sangria and the mountains of food. Chairs had been set out but everyone stood, paper plates balanced in one hand. About an hour into the party, I noticed that a number of guests had migrated out the back gate into the alley, among the weeds and garbage cans I’d hoped would remain hidden. Someone rigged a pinhole viewer from two cardboard boxes and held them up, back turned to the sun, blindly searching for the perfect angle. Eventually the eclipse viewers moved to the front side of the house, the middle of the street, to watch the maximum event, the moment when earth and moon’s orbits perfectly aligned and the moon would appear to cover most of the sun.
This strange green afternoon evoked two images that have stayed with me for days. One is of being nine years old, in the soft grass of my childhood back yard, repeating back bends and walkovers and handstands for what felt like hours. In memory I am alone, arms stretched and spine bent, then I fall onto the carpet of grass and stare directly at the sun. I believe it will not damage my eyes because it is overlaid with a white haze. The other memory is of my grandfather, during his last days of good health before old age sent him to a nursing home, in the last job of his life — mowing the fairways at a municipal golf course, living in the tiny groundskeeper’s cottage, driving round and round beneath magnificent beech trees, circling the greens in perfect clipped rows. I remember being a busy grown-up with a houseful of young children and visiting him there and seeing the glint of youthful excitement in his eyes as he told me about his long work days in the beating sun.
On eclipse Sunday, sunset approached, the food was dwindling, and the light became silvery gray. Shadows sharpened along fencerows. People’s faces were illuminated, as if by one of those ghastly magnifying makeup mirrors that show every line and pore. Eyeshadows turned fluorescent and lipsticks cracked. The iris in the backyard, mardi gras colors in normal afternoon light, emitted an electric glow.
I joined the small crowd in the street just as the moon centered itself over the sun. We had to step farther and farther back, aligning our view through the eclipse glasses as the sun sank lower in the sky. A blur, then focus: around the edges of the blackened circle, a glowing corona of whispering orange gases, the ring of fire, everlasting light.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.