So, I had the rare opportunity to witness Monday’s total solar eclipse. I traveled with a friend more than 500 miles northeast of our homes in New Orleans to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, just south of Nashville.
I had noticed early on in my research that The Volunteer State was referring to this celestial event as “The Great Tennessee Eclipse.” I’m not sure how the other states hosting the total eclipse felt about this appropriation. But for my part, I thought Tennessee put on a pretty good show.
We found ourselves in Murfreesboro because it was the only place in the greater Nashville area that had a hotel room at a non-extortionary rate. In digging around the Internet, I discovered that Murfreesboro not only houses the affordable and clean Candlewood Suites, it is also home to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). I thought a University might be a good place to catch an eclipse.
Turns out, NASA must have thought so, too, because MTSU was “an official NASA viewing site for the greater Nashville area.” Their eclipse event was held on a big lawn on the campus, ringed by a new science building, older science buildings, and the library. They had set up a stage, with musical acts from a student-run record label (Nashville is Music City, after all). The buildings were open to the public, in case the viewers might want to escape the pre-eclipse heat. They had telescopes set up around the lawn, and big screens showing the eclipse in real time.
And about an hour before total eclipse time, faculty from the Physics and Astronomy department took over the stage and talked about the science of eclipses, and invisible parts of the sun’s atmosphere that become visible, and lots of other cool stuff. I liked that there were professionals, who knew what they were talking about, commentating to the crowd.
When the light started to dim, they pointed out that Venus had become visible in the Southern sky. When totality finally arrived, they instructed when it was okay to remove the special solar eyewear, and look directly at the sun. And when that minute had passed, when we needed to put our special eyeglasses back on.
But here’s the thing about that minute, that minute of eclipse totality. (Totality was longer in other places, but a minute is what we got in Murfreesboro. I’ll take it.) I can honestly state that I’ve seen nothing else in nature to compare it to.
While corresponding with Husband Tim around the time of the eclipse, I wrote: “Can’t describe it.” To which he responded: “You’re a writer.”
Touché. My response back? “Can’t describe it YET.”
Herewith my attempt: there are the pictures at the top of this post, showing the difference in the light. And there are words: incredible, awesome, amazing – all overused, and thus, lacking in true descriptive power. Awe-inspiring and phenomenal do a slightly better job. But still not adequate.
The word that most closely describes the experience for me? It’s gestalt. The German word, which I’ve always taken to mean things coming together to become something greater, greater than just the sum of their parts.
The extreme rarity of the event, the appearance of the night sky at 1:30 in the afternoon, the drop in temperature, and just looking up and seeing a black hole where the sun should be – these all came together to create a very intimate and transcendent moment. Imbued with personal meaning beyond all the mechanics at play.
During totality, and for a few moments after, fireflies lit up around the base of the tree where we stood. I remember seeing fireflies at my father’s camp in the woods when I was very young. Back during a time when I was much closer to magic, and fantasy, and the surreal.
Before Monday, I couldn’t have told you the last time I saw fireflies. All of this gives me the feeling that maybe magic, and fantasy, and the surreal were never really that far away after all. It’s making the time to look for them that remains a top challenge.