The spirit of totality ◉

May we all get existential in the shadow of the moon.

Today we’re driving to Vermont—where I grew up, and where my dad still lives—so that we can watch Monday’s solar eclipse from within its path of totality.

While Vermont rarely gets to be the center of anything, this weekend at least 160,000 people are expected to travel to my little home state to see the cosmic event. Government officials are recommending that visitors arrive with full gas tanks and a pre-booked itinerary, since Vermont’s rural infrastructure could get overwhelmed easily. The state is specifically nervous about eclipse-viewing procrastinators, i.e. the people who will wake up on Monday morning, feel a sense of celestial #FOMO, and jump in their cars heading for Vermont’s slice of totality—which extends from the Burlington area up through the rural, muddy North Country. How many eclipse-seeking roamers will drive out to the middle of nowhere and get stuck? Only time will tell. (I think Vermonters are still scarred by that legendary 2004 Phish concert, which swarmed the tiny town of Coventry with over 68,000 people and gridlocked the state’s main highway.)

My fingers are crossed that everything works out for all of us heading to Vermont this weekend, and for eclipse viewers everywhere. Overall I think it’s great and sensible that people are excited for the rare chance to witness a total eclipse of the sun. When else do we get the opportunity to look up at the sky together in awe, collectively remembering our small place in the vast vacuum of space?

^ A family viewing the 1932 eclipse, from The Boston Globe’s photo archive

The majesty and rarity of a total solar eclipse, combined with its accessibility (it’s just up in the sky, after all—no ticket required), make it ideal for a culturally shared experience. These kinds of saturating collective moments are something we simply don’t get enough of these days. Friday’s benign earthquake, which shook a hefty slice of New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia, was akin to one of these collective moments. But since seismic events aren’t predictable, and often skew towards the disastrous, I wouldn’t put earthquakes (or fires, or hurricanes, or any other natural disasters) in the same category as an eclipse. Unpredictable natural phenomena only become cultural moments in retrospect, as we all scrambled to figure out, “What happened? Is everyone okay?” Without preparation, we lose the opportunity to bear witness with awe instead of fear. As we make plans for the eclipse—where we’ll be, who we’ll be with—we are creating space for ourselves to be moved.

I’m tickled that practically everyone I talk to seems to have some kind of small but intentional celebration planned for Monday. Last week at our library’s Toddler Story Time, the librarian gave out eclipse glasses and recommended we talk to our kids in advance about how to safely view the event. (Remember that time Donald Trump stared at the 2017 eclipse without eye protection? That’s definitely something my toddler would do.) My kid’s daycare will fully close at noon for Monday’s eclipse, even though our area isn’t even in the path of totality. As their email explained, “It will become dark mid-day, which will seem quite odd for the children. Our early dismissal will make sure all families and staff arrive home safely and can then enjoy this special event together.”

There’s something that feels comfortingly humane about treating big earthly moments as holy, or at least as wholly worth our time, rather than churning on with life as usual. It will be, after all, a true moment of planetary upset, as the vast forces whose gravity and light have fully shaped our world fall into alignment—simultaneously misaligning our everyday rituals and the ordinary progression of daylight to darkness.

^ Eclipse glasses from the 1932 total eclipse, also visible in New England

Before humans had the scientific knowledge and technologies necessary to predict and communicate the onset of an eclipse, the break in the sky’s routine must have been terrifying. In these ancient pre-Copernicus times, different cultures came up with all sorts of mythical explanations to help make sense of the otherwise-confounding sight of the sun slowly disappearing. In ancient China it was commonly held that solar eclipses occurred when a dragon ate the sun; one Native American legend similarly blames a hungry black squirrel; the Inca of South America believed solar eclipses occurred when a jaguar attacked the sun, turning it red with blood. Medieval folk thought that conceiving a child during an eclipse could result in the birth of a demon baby. As the sun appeared to dissolve before their very eyes, many of these cultures feared for their lives, wondering, What (or who) do we need to sacrifice to reinstate the natural order of things?

Imagine feeling acclimated to such an open way of questioning: Collectively, what are we doing wrong—and how can we make it right? Has science dulled our sense of humility and enchantment; our willingness to see ourselves as small, and to imagine illustrious explanations for life’s most unnerving occurrences? It would almost be a relief to me if the eclipse could stir in us some sense of terror, or at least modesty, regarding our place in the cosmos.

Recently The Atlantic republished Annie Dillard’s classic (and much referenced) 1982 essay, “TOTAL ECLIPSE,” which manically captures the author’s experience of totality. Through her eyes, the astrological event seems to bend reality, thrusting her back in time and reconfiguring (demolishing?) her relationship with the earthly plane. As the event overtakes her senses, Dillard writes,

I saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky. I saw a circular piece of that sky appear, suddenly detached, blackened, and backlit; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black. If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once. (If, however, I had not read that it was the moon—if, like most of the world’s people throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing—then I doubtless would not have speculated much, but would have, like Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, simply died of fright on the spot.)

It is terrifying to think of the sun fully disappearing for no reason at all, and yet—couldn’t it? I’m often struck by a sense of irony around how mundane life often feels, even though it is staggeringly full of threatening, unbridled, glorious magic. We are woken up each day by the ascent of a flaming ball whose generous light and mass enable all of life to march along, but, if thrown out of alignment, that same heat-giving orb could instantly incinerate us all. And each evening, as the silvery white rock of the moon lifts itself up into the sky and plunges us into cool darkness, we don’t fear the night. Instead, we turn our backs to it and sleep, always trusting the circuitry of these planetary processes; feeling we know them.

What does it take to feel collectively awed by the wonders of our planet these days? As we go about our lives, how can we ever internalize the insanity of the universe?

Viewing an eclipse is an opportunity to lay bare the complexities of our earth-bound existence. We are people—people who have to go grocery shopping, commute to work, and keep up with doctor appointments—but we are also scientifically enlightened, spiritual beings; we are intrepid explorers of the universe; and of course, we’re also heavily burdensome occupants whose life choices have dramatically altered the chemistry of our planet. The question is, how can we hold all these to be true: We are tedious, we are transcendent, we are terrible?


I’m reminded of an old Vermont Life calendar I unearthed a few years back when I was home helping my mom pack for a move. As we sorted through box upon box of saved drawings and news clippings and other nostalgic accumulations, I spotted the vintage calendar under some other ephemera, and quickly noticed its historic date: 1969, the year of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Flipping through it, I browsed the handwritten diaristic notes of someone who’d used it to keep track of their daily appointments and household goings-on. (The calendar did not belong to anyone related to me, oddly; I’m not sure why my mom had it in her boxes; perhaps only for me to find it?).

In this relic of pre-computer date-keeping, most of the daily scrawls denote meetups, appointments, and bills to be paid. So, flipping to July, I was curious to see what (if anything) would be noted on the 20th—that fateful day when two Americans would carreen down to the lunar surface in a little tin can and set foot on its dusty, silvery sand.

As my fingertips traced the days in July, I felt a shiver when I saw the scrawly note for July 20, written in all caps: “TO SET FOOT ON THE MOON.”

Seeing this small note thrilled me. I love the idea that on that day, at just after 8pm EST, almost everyone—even this unknown person whose weathered calendar I now held—was looking up at the moon. And what’s more, everyone was wondering what it was like up there, and considering the strange miracle of being a living, breathing little person on this wildly spinning pale blue dot.


During an eclipse, peculiar things happen. The sun-given saturation of the landscape bleeds out until it is a metallic silver hue, and the sky exhales twilight in all directions. Birds stop chirping, and the wind often dies down. I wonder what else will feel different, or strange—more alive, or more dead?

In a Reddit post I stumbled upon recently, a user tells a story of dark figures surrounding his friend group during the height of an eclipse’s totality:

They were like reflections and shadows projected around us. Standing around us. Dark, human shapes. There was no sound. No movement. With the glasses on, you'd have never known they were there… There were hundreds. In the woods, behind the trees. At the shoreline, in the water, on it. Like silhouettes, only round, palpable. Real.

In this tale, the writer stood on land where the Cherokee people once dwelled, until their rights, and their lives, were taken away from them. Whether this occurrence really happened or not, it made me wonder: What if during an eclipse, everything becomes possible; wrongs can be righted; spirits can breathe again?

With tales of the supernatural, I’m easy to convince—especially when something as energetically intense as an eclipse is taking place. Bring me aliens, bring me ghosts, bring me past-life visions. My desire for a full-on encounter or moment of transcendence might not pan out into anything during those three minutes of totality, of course. And even if it does, nothing miraculous lasts very long—certainly not when there are meals to cook and kids to care for and jobs to be done. But even if it’s just for a few minutes, feeling the interdimensional pull of the cosmos, and seeing it, will be well worth it.

^ A photo captured during the 1932 eclipse, of “a phenomenon stirring” in Lake Champlain. Viewers hypothesized it might be Champ, Vermont’s lake monster, surfacing to view totality.

After viewing the eclipse on that roadside hillock, and having what reads like a complete existential meltdown because of it, Dillard describes the surreal moment’s quick collapse:

When the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over… At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now: We all hurried away. We were born and bored at a stroke. We rushed down the hill. We found our car; we saw the other people streaming down the hillsides; we joined the highway traffic and drove away… From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.

We can’t relish in the dark oddness of the universe for too long, or even that often. But when we’re offered the chance to lose ourselves in the wondrousness of it all, and to truly feel the vastness of our existence, we should seize the moment(s) for what they are: pivots out of the ordinary, and brief exposures to the chaotically magical cosmos that somehow, some way, we are all lucky enough to be a part of.

To round out this newsletter, I’m including some tangential eclipse-related facts, which my dear husband Daniel helped collate. I hope you enjoy—and I hope that if you live somewhere where the eclipse will be visible, in totality or partially, you will make time to look up. <3

Tangential eclipse facts ~

  • Though 400 times smaller than the sun, the moon is also 400 times closer. This is a cosmic coincidence which results in the moon perfectly matching the size of the sun—resulting in our neat eclipses where the corona of the sun is only just barely visible around the moon’s outer edges. There are no other known planets that experience full occlusion like this, though other kinds of eclipses do occur frequently.
  • The moon experiences eclipses too, where the Earth blocks out part of the sun, but the Earth doesn’t fully obscure the sun so it doesn’t look as cool. (Here’s a simulated video)
  • In 1969, when struck by the Apollo 11 ascent vehicle, the moon “rang like a bell” for an hour. The Apollo 15 mission in 1971 references a “Chapel Bell” mission, the results of which are classified. We now know the moon isn’t hollow, but it took us a while to determine that.
  • The moon’s full orbit is ~0.6% shorter than an average menstrual cycle (about 14 hours).
  • Our Sun is “middle aged” for a star. Astronomers believe it was formed about 4.59 billion years ago, and is in the prime of its life right now, slowly using up its hydrogen fuel. In about 5 billion years, it will enter its red giant phase and swell up to consume the inner planets, Earth included.
  • The moon is slowly drifting away from us at the rate of 3.8cm per year.
  • Tides generated by the moon may have been instrumental for enabling Earth to become a living, breathing planet.
  • It was during a 1919 eclipse when scientists could finally observe stars in the daylight sky near the sun. Since they were in the “wrong” spots during the day, this confirmed Einstein’s theory that light bends gravity. [more]
  • Due to its “libration” (i.e. how it wobbles on its orbit), we can actually see 59% of the moon.
  • There have been 3,742 eclipses over the last 5,000 years. You can view all of their paths here.

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