A Skyward Burning Ring of Fire

We’ve been hearing it for centuries – how unimportant we are in the intergalactic void, how paltry our place in the evolutionary cavalcade. That’s us, mere bipeds and microbes, dust in the cosmic wind.

It hasn’t felt that way since last week. The Aug. 21 total eclipse interrupted this glum assessment of the species. With whoops and wonder we watched the burning ring of fire in the sky. Exquisite scientific calculations prepared us, and awe carried us through. Something or Someone for some reason has given us the skill to stop our routine bustle and rise to such a moment.

It was touch and go for a while. I wasn’t worried about sun or moon. I was worried about earth. As the moon floated across the sun, the August light lost power. Earth looked under siege: Twilight darkness was descending with alarming speed. The planet appeared at risk, with no one to speak for it. Moon and sun gazed down, in cahoots. Venus stood off to the right, noncommittal. I thought about the last total eclipse here, 1478, and the native people who perhaps saw it and wondered or prayed or cheered or panicked.

If this was apocalypse, it had a sweetness to it. The 95 seconds of totality created a deep lovely shade. There’s beauty even in the astronomical terms regarding eclipse: penumbra, corona, totality itself. As the sun smoldered above, we waited, we hung fire. Off White Bridge Road, it was quiet as Christmas Eve. A half dozen cars randomly rushed by, their lights on, pedal to the metal, dissidents to the celestial subversion.

Then it was over. The sun impatiently ignited around the right edges. Light flooded us again. I felt sad and greedy, wanting this eclipse of our problems and politics, this hooded calm, to last longer. The next one won’t come around here again until 2566.

An astounding condition made it possible: the moon’s perfect fit over the sun. The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon and also 400 times farther away from earth, creating this effect. We shruggingly call this a coincidence, the dumb luck of orbits and gravity, meaningless happenstance. It seems like more than that.

The Great American Eclipse brought together math and beauty, science and spiritual awe, without mutual distrust. No blame game, no special prosecutor required. A religion of head and heart aligned. Such alignments are way too rare. Nature does its thing whether we care to notice or not. Yet we have the power to make meaning of it. Something or Someone made humans capable of reason and spirit and solidarity. The Nashville eclipse burns in my memory to remind me of this.