I remember hearing buzz late last fall about the upcoming eclipse and not thinking much of it. My sense of astrological orientation and lunar tracking (waxing, waning; aren’t they synonyms?) boils down to reading my horoscope in the P&C, but that’s about it. I fall in Pulitzer-winning author (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) Annie Dillard’s camp, who confessed in her 1982 essay, “Total Eclipse”, to being one “whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and 15 years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time.” Plus, back in November 2016 there was plenty of impending darkness already, and August 2017 seemed like light years away.
Funny thing about that light and those years, they come around. Day after day; dawn after dusk. Then next Monday when we all wake up, IT will be here. The past months have felt like one prolonged engagement and now the wedding day — in the destination wedding capital of the world, no less — has finally arrived. The culmination of all that anticipation and hype, of event planning, glasses ordering, and travel warnings — A million visitors! Streets impassable! Cell phones jammed! Of course in terms of floods of visitors and impassable streets, Monday, August 21, 2017, won’t be much different than any other Charleston Monday.
Except that it will be totally different.
Next Monday, we Charlestonians will wake up in our sea-level world, we who are used to soggy feet and low marshy horizons, we whose eyes are well-trained to look down for washed-up conk shells and sand dollars and watch our step on catawampus bluestone sidewalks, will look up. We will take to the streets and beaches, to roof-top bars and piazzas, and shift from our mundane worlds and minuscule perspectives to crane our necks skyward. A multitude of small humans in our flimsy cardboard glasses all starring slack jawed at the biggest big screen there is. At infinity; into galaxies; up, up, and away, to where our mighty star plays peek-a-boo in an indigo sky.
There have been other times when I’ve felt a powerful sense of collective pause and awe, but not counting Princess Diana’s wedding and Obama’s first inauguration, they’ve mostly been moments of poignant grief, a feeling of universal unmooring. Watching the Challenger disaster on television. The day Lennon was shot. And most recently, the stunned days after the Emanuel AME massacre, when we walked in devastated disbelief down Calhoun Street sidewalks that were totally familiar yet suddenly foreign, invaded by media satellite trucks sucking up our power, our stories, but not our sorrow.
This time will be different. We will spill out of our offices and cubicles, our cars even (imagine!), and for a brief two minutes and 40 seconds on August 21, we — citizens and neighbors, Eastsiders and SOBs, Republicans and Democrats, Sons of the Confederacy and card-carrying NAACP’ers — will all be on the same page, a page of squinty mystery and wide-eyed wonder. We will all be momentarily off-kilter, spinning and dizzy together as our planet tumbles through the harrowing chute of time, and for once, we won’t be able to avoid what we are so adept at taking for granted. We’ll become aware of that spinning and of time’s relentlessness in a visceral, unsettling way on this August Monday with its stupefying two minutes and change of moonshadow and corona and cool, dark breeze. No vote, no Executive Order, no goddamn Tweet, no insane wall can rob us of our sheer luck to be citizens of planet Earth who happen to find ourselves on a muggy August Monday on a small peninsula in the small path of incredible totality.
Two minutes and change. All this hype, all this build-up for such a brief flirtation with solar power. And change. My hope is “change” might be the lasting effect of Charleston’s long-anticipated, short-lived, raucous cosmic party. After having been witness to what Dillard and others describe as an indescribably surreal and eerie experience, perhaps we will take off our safe-viewing glasses and recalibrate our eyes to envision the unimaginable. To tune our senses to something far beyond Instagram and Cable. To embrace the possibility that our political outrage, fear, and anxiety can be eclipsed by planetary wonder.
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