23 August 2017

[Oregon Eclipse 2017] That Moment During Totality When Your Mind Gets Blown

I really didn't count on the emotion I experienced at the height of totality on Monday, about 10:18:30 AM. And that both bemuses and amuses me about myself.

What follows is fairly prolix and self-indulgent, so I'll forgive in advance anyone who bails now. But I discovered a valuable thing, even though I can't put it into words. Perforce:

When I was a lad, I figured I'd be some sort of scientist when I was grown. Science fiction always attracted me, as did the sky and the stars, so astronomy seemed likely. I devoured books on the stars and planets, avidly watched every space shot, drew and designed spaceships and dreamed of writing stories about exploring the cosmos with them. And, along the way, dreamed of seeing total solar eclipses.

The event of February, 1979, was a bust, in the looking-at-the-sun way. I was home from school that morning, why, I couldn't now say, but I remember sitting on the couch in my home in Salem, Oregon, watching 19th St SE in front of the house, watching the preternatural darkening, listening to the quiet that fell just like it did last Monday. Problem with February 26th, 1979 (coincidentally, also a Monday) was that it was overcast here in the great Willamette Valley, so all we saw was the darkening. My eventual hometown of Portland made the news, though; unlike this last event, the path of totality did a quick left hook through northern Idaho and Montana into Canada; Portland, Oregon, was the only major American city to be involved. Local totality was at 8:14 AM, and this being winter, it wasn't long after sunrise.

So, come up 37 years later, and here we were, all flocking down to the narrower path of this eclipse, and in an ironic twist, weather forecasters guessed that maybe August 21st, 2017 was going to be cloudy too, but it was nice and wide open and clear. And we all saw the thing, and we were hit with something we expected, but didn't know.

Mike Selvaggio, in another sly insight put it this way, graphically:

Courtesy Mike Selvaggio

My emotional experience wasn't quite exactly there, but it's largely congruent. In the general way, Mike nailed it. Look: when I was a kid, I, as I said, ate up astronomy books. I must have, by the time I was a teenager, looked at thousands of total eclipse photos and depictions and knew, as well as any layman could, what happened during eclipses. Before this, I joked a bit, took it lightly. I thought I was prepared. Well, I was - to look at another picture of an eclipse.

Watching this thing in the sky, in front of me, was something other than else.

After darkness solidified and I had got my observers foot tentatively back under me, I looked up directly at the sun's occulted disk. I saw everything they told me to be looking for: that perfectly-circular disk of black, the bright hard line of the edge of the corona, the filmy, wispy corona itself. I recall seeing a couple of little red dots, solar fires tipped along the rim of the thing, and an awareness of scale and significance and actual motion through space suddenly not only became apparent to me, it actually seemed to reach inside me and settle in. I suddenly also felt as though I was perceiving the Moon's very motion across the disk of the Sun.

Emotionally, it swept me up into a place I couldn't have foreseen. For just the briefest moment, I felt like I was watching the very clockwork of the cosmos move, with knowledge and awareness and clarity. Of course, the Moon moves, but it is, at least for me, even at best, impossible to perceive; but here it seemed as apparent as the spinning of a bicycle wheel. This had the effect of making me so awestruck that I began to fall backwards; The Wife™ remarked that she thought me about to swoon. Her arm around my back kept me rooted in reality, else, she wasn't too damned far off, actually.

I thought momentarily about relative insignificance because I, for the fleetingest of moments, had a concrete idea of my size against that the the Earth and the Moon and the Sun, and it wasn't a despairing sense of insignificance but a positive one; while it's true that compared to these great celestial bodies, I'm microbe-sized, it's okay, because that's the way the cosmos is and that's our good place in it; someone or something has to be here, in this niche, and it is us, and that's he way the whole thing is supposed to work. I felt, in a way at once prosaic and profound, utterly conscious of my physical place in the universe, and it connected me in a way this jaded observer had never been connected before.

It's amazing how much of the Sun can get
covered during an eclipse before things
get profound. Graphic courtesy Mike Selvaggio.
Anyone reading this has probably heard of the 'diamond ring effect'. It's the terminal grace note of a total solar eclipse, the point at which totality ends. As the Moon begins to move off the solar disk, a bit of the Sun's margin peeks through a lunar valley, and causes the appearance of a flare on the rim of the occulted disk, the "diamond" of the ring. The astronomical term-of-art is third contact. The flare is piercingly-bright, much mitigated by the fact that it's such a small point; then the flare lengthens and spreads along that rim, quickly becoming too bright to comfortably view, at which point the eyes must be quickly averted. Light floods back into the sky. 

After a short time of putting back together the blown mind, one may feel a little bit different. I did and I do. Commuting home from work this morning, I was more observant in a different way. The world sprang to life in a certain subliminal fashion. I was more attentive to the way things moved about in the world around me - or my attention was more quickly arrested, take your pick. And the transportive bliss I experienced at the moment was lingering, and that was the thing I hadn't planned for, the thing that picture after picture of totalities couldn't preview for me.

The memory reminds me of a study some years back which redefined the idea of what the LSD 'flashback' was. For a great long time, the popular, if uninformed, idea was that the substance lodged in the body in such a way that, every now and then, a bit of inert stuff was released back into the bloodstream and you'd experience an echo of a trip again. The study seemed to suggest that, rather than being reactivated chemical, the 'flashback' was nothing more or less than the memory of a very potent moment of altered perception. And this made sense; after all, if you remember a charged experience, doesn't it also seem to follow that the emotional and perceptive memories involved would bring you to a similar place? What are neurotransmitters but just another chemical, in this sense, another drug?

And that's the way It'll be with me and this eclipse. You have memories and you have memories, but just a few are cosmic-written-across-the-sky-bliss-out memories. I'll never forget the way that eclipsed Sun looked, and when I picture it in my mind, like a cascade, resonant notes of everything connected to it will come to the party, and I'll taste that indescribable, ineffable, unspeakably poetic bliss of cosmic scale and motion and perspective for a moment again.

I'll have flashbacks the rest of my life, but it'll be eclipse flashbacks. And I'll be a lot less jaded about some things, and since it's between me and the universe, it's something nobody can ever take away from me.

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