“Aunt Chel,” called my youngest niece as she bounded through the front door of my dad’s house, “it looks funny outside.”
I got up and went to check. I agreed, something was off. The sky was dimmer than it should be and an odd color, not the desert blue I expected late on a Sunday afternoon, but tinged green. Thunderstorm incoming? No, not a cloud in the sky. And I’m in the desert. Right. Fire? This is more of a worry, there is only one road out from my dad’s small farm. We don’t smell smoke, but still, I’m uneasy. And then there are the trees….something is just not right.
We go back inside to check if there is anything on the Cal Fire site about nearby fires. My dad and sister-in-law have worried looks on their faces as I describe the sky, will we need to evacuate? As I’m opening up my laptop , my stepmother mentions in passing that she’d heard something about an eclipse coming next month. Next month? “Or perhaps today?” I wonder aloud. I hadn’t heard anything, but I live on the other side of the continent, and I’d been on retreat for the last week, staying in a hermitage in a spot even more remote than my dad’s farm, and before that, spinning around in the end of semester chaos.
I type “eclipse” into the search box. We are indeed in the middle of an annular eclipse of the sun, the moon’s shadow will sweep over California, but not reach the East Coast. 80% of the sun’s disc will be obscured by the sun at the peak. This is not an insignificant loss of light, enough for my 9 year old niece to have noticed immediately when she went outside.
I breathe a sigh of relief, and take my niece and nephew out to show them how to observe the eclipse by making pinhole cameras with sheets of paper, and by looking at the crescent shadows on the ground (the leaves on the trees serve as ad hoc pinholes, or you can make your own grid with your fingers).
Fast forward five years. I know there is an eclipse tomorrow. The reports on the radio, TV spots, news reports are hard to ignore. I am prepared. I have glasses to watch with, and a pair of binoculars with the appropriate filters on them.I have a good sense of what the sky will look like; outside Philadelphia, where I live the sun will be just under 80% obscured.
But I wonder if being so prepared will change the experience. Will it be as viscerally disturbing, or just a fun science-in-the-neighborhood day, much like the Wallops’ rocket launches we gather at the school field to watch? What do I miss when I am not sitting uneasily on the edge of uncertainty?
The mathematics and science that let us predict eclipses, not only their time and track, but also the phenomena we ought to observe, take my breath away, but I confess I don’t long for a universe that I can completely predict. It reminds me of a line from one of Alice Walker’s poems (Before you knew you owned it): “Live frugally on surprise.” Surprise is part of the delight of doing science, the interesting questions for me come when molecules surprise me, in their structures or or in their behavior.
Similarly, my heart and soul are not captured by an utterly predictable God, a clockwork deity. I long to be surprised by mercy, ambushed by God, caught in a whirl of life and love beyond my comprehension, just as I was caught by surprise by that eclipse.