People were looking forward to the eclipse the way teenagers look forward to losing their virginities. One million people were traveling to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where I lived, because it was in the “path of totality.” There were no vacancies at the hotels in town, and no reservations available at the restaurant where I worked. My neighbor said she’d filled up her gas tank because traffic was supposed to be terrible and she’d heard rumors of fuel shortages. Some friends of mine were throwing a three-day-long party. They had purchased a bubble machine. All I had done was walk to the library for a free pair of protective eye glasses. I wasn’t even sure about the difference between a solar and a lunar eclipse, and for a while, I didn’t know which was happening. I had been meaning to read Annie Dillard’s famous account of the 1979 total eclipse, but hadn’t gotten around to it. My best friend Kathleen was visiting from Washington, D.C., and I was busy showing her a good time: whale watching, hiking, and gossiping about old boyfriends. Besides, I didn’t get all the Dillard hype. All the writers I admired seemed to love her. One had even dedicated a book to her. But I got lost in her detailede descriptions of fields and stars and snow. I read whole paragraphs without comprehension. I reread them and they felt as unfamiliar as if I were reading them for the first time. I wanted people, their detailed thoughts and feelings. When the big day came, I still had not read “Total Eclipse.”
Kathleen’s visit lining up with the eclipse was a coincidence. She was on break from her graduate program, where she was getting her master’s in theology. She was thinking that, after her program was over, she might become a nun. I struggled to understand how our lives had taken such different courses when we’d had similar upbringings. I, too, was in graduate school, but studying creative writing. I hadn’t been to church except on Christmas in years. How had she ended up the religious one, when I’d been the one going to youth group for most of my teens? She attended a private school in our D.C. suburb, and I went to the public schools, but we’d known each other from a young age because our families belonged to the same Catholic church—we briefly played together on the parish basketball team, coached by her dad. But both our families stopped going to mass by the time we reached middle school. After that, I dabbled in several denominations—Evangelical, Episcopalian, Methodist—attending youth services wherever my friends and crushes were congregating. Every summer third through ninth grade, I went to sleepaway Bible camp in western Pennsylvania, and for a few weeks afterwards, I listened to Christian rock and prayed every day. Then my life grew busy with soccer practice and school, and my faith went into hibernation until the following summer. Kathleen, meanwhile, stuck to sports and student government.
But, after we graduated from high school, we traded places. While I went to the University of Virginia, lost my virginity, and avoided the many Christian ministry groups on campus, Kathleen took a gap year in Ghana, where she worked at a center for children with autism and Down syndrome, volunteered in an orphanage, and read the Bible in its entirety. When she returned from Ghana at the end of my freshman year, I didn’t recognize her: She was thirty pounds lighter, her round cheeks flattened and stretched taut, her curvy figure transformed into straight lines and sharp edges. Also, she was devoutly Catholic.
I figured her newfound faith was just a phase, that her fervor would wear off, as mine had in the weeks following Bible camp. But her faith deepened. In college, she took religious studies classes, joined a campus Christian group, and saved herself for marriage. She did not try to convert me or judge me for my behavior, but I quietly judged her and felt judged in turn. She was brainwashed and backward. Because I didn’t strive to live the way she believed was right, I assumed she saw me as morally inferior. Her commitment to a set of beliefs made me aware of how lacking I was in principles, and I didn’t want to confront that truth. So, I avoided discussing religion with her, convinced that it would only doom our friendship. I accepted that, now, there was a part of her I would just never understand.
When I insisted on making banana bread the morning of the eclipse, even though it would make us late to the viewing party, Kathleen remembered that I’d wanted to read Dillard’s essay. She offered to read it aloud as I baked. I agreed, predicting that Kathleen would like Dillard more than I had because they were both Catholic. I preheated the oven and collected ingredients from the cupboard. It was the night before the eclipse, February 25, 1979; Dillard was lying in bed in her hotel room in central Washington, staring at a forgettable painting of a clown. Not so forgettable, it seemed, because she was recalling plenty of details: his white face paint, his small laughing eyes. What did this painting have to do with the eclipse? A lawnmower buzzed outside, and I looked out the window. The sun looked no different than usual. A blur of brightness high in the sky. The earth looked the same as well. The grass was yellow from months without rain. I microwaved frozen bananas and crushed them. From the hotel, Dillard had driven to a five-hundred-foot hill, where it looked like people had gathered “to pray for the world on its last day,” she said. I measured out a teaspoon of vanilla extract and splashed it into the bowl. I crushed walnuts with my fists and toasted them in a pan on the stove. I added white flour to my mixing bowl, and combined everything. Into the oven went the loaf.
The clock said 9:17 A.M. The moon was beginning to move over the sun, I knew, but I couldn’t see anything different outside. I got dressed and brushed my teeth and Kathleen continued to read. Soon my skin would be silver, Dillard said. Soon Kathleen would look like a person in a black and white photograph. Soon I would hear screaming. I stopped brushing my teeth; riveted to the story, I wanted to hear every word. The screaming, Dillard said, would abruptly give way to silence. The sunny sky would turn navy like night and but amongst the stars would be something else, something strange: a silver wedding band, “a morsel of bone.” Suddenly, I understood what everyone liked about Dillard. She made me feel like I was with her on that hill, almost forty years ago. I saw the world turn silver, then dark. I heard the screams and the silence. I felt my heart screech. I was with her as the world returned to its former state, as she streamed down the hillside and drove to a diner. I was with her as she ate an egg and sipped coffee, waking and remembering things as if she’d been asleep, trying to fit words to experience. She couldn’t then, but later, in this essay, she had. She had found the words, and I wanted to hear them again, and so, when Kathleen finished reading, I asked her to repeat certain lines, not wanting the essay to be over.
The banana bread was beginning to smell sweet. I could continue to bake the bread until my fork, poked into the mounded center, came out clean, or I could pull the loaf from the oven, finish baking it at the party, and watch the moon slowly obscure the sun. I took out the loaf, wrapped it in white towels, and pushed it into my backpack, along with Dillard’s essay. She had convinced me that witnessing a total eclipse would change my life and now, I didn’t want to miss a moment.
When Kathleen told me she was thinking about becoming a nun, two years after her college graduation, I was not surprised. She had always done everything in the extreme—why be a vegetarian when you could be a vegan? Why bake a two-layer birthday cake when you could make a layer for every year of the celebrant’s life, even if they were turning twenty-four? Most of my knowledge about nuns came from The Sound of Music; maybe, I hoped, Kathleen would be like Maria, who was attracted to the convent but discovered that her gifts were better utilized in a life outside its walls. Why would anyone want to vow to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience? On the other hand, Maria’s habit-wearing sisters had seemed pretty happy. If being a nun would make my friend happy, what did I care? Ever since she had moved back to D.C. and started her program in theology, she’d been happier than I’d seen her since high school. In college, she stressed over becoming a scientist and struggled with her body image, but now, she seemed to love her work, love herself. Before, we plodded through periods of silence when she was overcommitted with school and various clubs, but now she was as present in my life as she had been when we’d lived down the street from each other.
Around this time, I stayed over at her apartment one weekend and a snowstorm prevented me from returning home to the suburbs for several days. On the Sunday, she invited me to join her at mass. We went to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the United States, because it was just down the street from her apartment in northeast D.C., and I’d never been. I was enthralled by the sparkling mosaics, the embroidered vestments of the priests, the hymns and prayers. It had been years since I’d been to mass, and it wasn’t as boring as I’d remembered; in fact, it was compelling in its complexity. When we returned to her apartment building, we encountered two young men who offered to shovel our cars out of the snow for us. “For how much?” we asked. For nothing. They were Latter Day Saints, just out helping people in the example of Jesus Christ. Hearing this, I was prepared to shovel out my own car and was impatient to get inside the warm apartment. But Kathleen asked them where they were from, how long their mission was for, how their beliefs differed from other Christian faiths. I didn’t listen to their answers. But I was awed by Kathleen’s effort to connect—how the Mormons’ beliefs were not threats to her own, but rather an opportunity to strengthen her own convictions and character. Was it God that made Kathleen so good? They shoveled out the car, and we brought them hot chocolate as thanks. I started to suspect that there was something to Catholicism, something for me. I wanted to be good like Kathleen, and maybe religion was the answer. I realized that I believed to be religious was to be ignorant, while being ignorant myself of religion. I decided to go to church.
We biked west, the sun to our backs. On a corner a few blocks from my house, a handful of people sat in lawn chairs with telescopes aimed east. They waved at us, we waved back. The green in front of the university—usually empty but for a few pedestrians walking along the center, tree-lined path—was clustered with people. They were all wearing protective glasses, staring up at the sun, riveted. What they saw was invisible to me. I felt the need to see it too. I pedaled harder. All around me, fixated on the sky, were people: In the parking lot outside the dorms, on the top tier of the parking deck, on the pavement outside the stadium.
“I have that feeling you get when you’re going to the airport,” I called over my shoulder to Kathleen, “like I’m going to miss my flight, even though I’ve left with plenty of time.”
Normally, the four-lane road whistled with lumber trucks, but today there were no cars. We crossed without waiting for a signal. We passed people in the field of the elementary school, more people on the sidewalk. We were nearly there—just a hill to climb, the hardest part of the ride. I downshifted, stood up from my seat. I was sweating, I was anxious, I was hung over and tired from partying late into the night. My legs ached. Halfway up the hill, I got off my bike and walked it the last two blocks. Outside the house where the party was already underway, we didn’t bother to lock up the bikes. Even thieves wouldn’t miss the eclipse.
I waited until I moved to Oregon for graduate school to try being Catholic because in Oregon I didn’t know anyone. My new friends didn’t know I wasn’t really Catholic, and my friends and family who did know weren’t around to judge me or say “I told you so” should I decide to quit. Mass—the music, the incense, the rituals—it all felt familiar, from my childhood, and yet I feared I didn’t belong. Everyone else knew exactly what to say and do while I stumbled over the words to the Our Father and scrambled to sit or stand at the appropriate times. I longed to be like the other parishioners—to know, to believe in something, to be good.
On Sundays, I was excited to go to mass; I liked the singing, the quiet time for contemplation, the often-helpful homily. I introduced myself to the parish nuns and asked to spend time with them to see what Kathleen’s life might be like if she chose their path, why it might appeal to her. The nuns were nothing like what I thought. They weren’t old and stuffy and cloistered. They were young and wore Doc Martens and went for runs in the fields behind their house, their white veils fluttering behind them. I was struggling to adapt to my new unstructured life, and I envied their scheduled days full of purpose: prayer in their garage chapel, cooking, exercise, Bible study, mass. Perhaps if I became a believer then my days would be full of purpose too; I would never doubt that writing was worthwhile, full of conviction that I was God’s mouthpiece on earth.
The nuns taught me how to pray the Rosary and gave me a delicate string of blue beads to keep. The repetition of the Hail Mary filled me with calm and, absorbed in the prayer, I often lost track of where I was in the chain, how many Hail Marys had gone by, how many were left. Mass was useful to me, the nuns were good, and I reported to Kathleen over the phone all that I was learning. I felt closer to her and hopeful that soon, I would be more like her.
But at the same time my Catholic curiosity was growing, I was developing feelings for another student in my graduate program. He was not Catholic, and despite growing up in a Methodist/Presbyterian church—whatever that was—he didn’t even believe in God. It was getting harder to go to mass because on Sunday mornings, he was often in my bed. Either I left him sleeping there or he dropped me off at the church on his way home. While the other parishioners filed out of the pews and up the aisles to the altar to receive communion, I stayed kneeling and prayed for grace because you weren’t supposed to take communion unless you’d gone to confession, and I hadn’t gone to confession because I wasn’t contrite about my sins. I was what the sisters called a Cafeteria Catholic, picking and choosing what beliefs I wanted to follow. God spat the lukewarm out of his mouth. I prayed for His help.
Our hosts, Patrick and Rebecca, a couple my parents’ age whom I’d met through a family friend, and their other guests were already in the backyard, watching the screen of the sky, and they urged us to hurry; the show had begun. Patrick was a crop scientist; Rebecca was a retired high school science teacher. They were the kind of people who make their own pie crusts, decorate their table with flowers grown in their garden, freeze and can summer produce and eat it all winter long. This was why I’d insisted on baking banana bread from scratch; I knew a store-bought good would have been unacceptable, though they were too polite to ever suggest so. Also in attendance was one of Patrick’s colleagues, a plant geneticist, her physicist husband, and Murray, their elderly neighbor. Kathleen and I put on our eclipse glasses and stared up at the sky. Behind their lenses, everything was black except for the sun, a cantaloupe-colored circle with a bite in the top right. The bite was the moon. We hadn’t missed much.
In the grass, the physicist had arranged brightly colored bocce balls in the positions of the planetary bodies, our map to the sky. Mercury was closest to Earth, the physicist explained, but usually, we can’t see it because when it’s in our sky, the sun is high, blinding us to outer space. But perhaps today, we would see it. Venus, he explained, would be brightest, off to the right of the sun and moon.
The moon moved across the sun, and the world slowly grew dimmer. I was much more interested in the world than the sky. The yellowed light of day fading to a dusty gray. The plants in the garden—the basil, the
joyful zinnias, the cauliflower with its stiff, long leaves and the squash with its wide floppy ones—looked alien, seeming to stretch toward the sky, just as eager for a glimpse of the eclipse as we were.
“It feels like we are on some strange planet,” I said.
“We are,” Rebecca replied.
As it grew darker, the air grew colder. A breeze passed over us. We counted down the minutes. We heard neighbors exclaiming with excitement, fireworks combusting and horns bellowing in the distance. The birds stopped singing; the bees ceased to buzz. The plant geneticist swore she saw the sunflowers move. For every living thing except us human beings, this was just another night.
The moon seemed to move so slowly and then, suddenly, totality was nigh. It was happening, and we all took off our glasses and stared directly at the ring of light in the sky. The corona, the crown, was white and glowing. It looked liquid to me. Like the moon had been dipped into glowing potion and some was dripping down its sides. “Murray! Take off your glasses!” Rebecca insisted. The old man must have been scared, but I didn’t look at him to confirm, I didn’t want to tear my eyes away from the sky lest I miss something. But I was not transfixed; each of my limbs was capable of movement. I attempted a photograph, but captured only a blur. To the right of the corona, I looked for Venus but could not see it. I searched for words to record in my notebook but my pen hovered above the page. Two minutes passed. I felt nothing out of the ordinary.
A diamond sparkled out from the top right corner of the crown—the sun, reappearing. I wanted to call out, “Not yet! Wait! Just a few more seconds.” I wanted to feel something more. I wanted to feel dead, old, lost, anything at all. I wanted to think deeper thoughts, about things science cannot name—good and evil, how we care for each other though it makes no sense. But the diamond grew until I was forced to replace my glasses or be blinded. The world was black again, except for a slice of melon in the sky. Totality was over, and I was the same. I would not spend my entire life chasing the sight, like the umbraphiles—shadow-lovers—I’d heard on the radio. I was not dead, as Dillard had felt she was. The world had not ended.
When I left Oregon for my first Christmas break, I found one of my father’s old gold crosses that he’d worn as a kid going to parochial school in the Philippines, and started to wear it. When I returned to Oregon, the nuns invited me to attend a weekly Bible study, and despite my misgivings about such a commitment, I attended the first one because I wanted to want to go. I was one of the only people under the age of forty, it seemed, and the other people at my table creeped me out: One kept rattling off the titles of books by various Catholics and asking if I’d read them, and another was sick with breast cancer and admitted she’d started going to daily mass only after her diagnosis. Brain-washed, desperate for meaning, I couldn’t help thinking. I didn’t go back, and I began to dread going to church. I preferred spending that time reading and writing, or even grading my students’ papers, which I normally procrastinated on. I preferred to watch TV with my boyfriend. I started to skip mass and, when I did go, I was bored and consumed with thoughts about all I would do afterward. The gold cross was giving me a red bumpy rash so I stopped wearing it. I was increasingly doubting the Catholic conception of God—why would He forbid some things that brought me joy? I was feeling like a fraud, my desire to be Catholic born out of my desire to have an identity, to have a purpose and to be told what to do. But Lent was approaching, and the parish priests said it was a good time to reflect on your relationship with God and try to improve it. I decided I was going to give Catholicism one last shot and take Lent seriously.
For Lent, I would read the Bible verses recommended by the fathers every day, pray, and write a reflection. In the nook where my refrigerator was nestled, I set up a prayer altar with candles and pictures of Christ. Dear God, please open my eyes to You. Help me to see inside myself and discover my inner disorder, what inside of me rejects your love. Help me to understand your word and live it out in my life, I prayed. I didn’t stop having sex with my boyfriend, but when he left in the mornings, I lit the candles on my altar, made the sign of the cross, and told God my heart was open to His will. For my birthday, which fell in the middle of Lent, Kathleen sent me a package containing a glazed clay cross for my altar and a Miraculous Medal, a silver necklace with Mary’s image that was supposed to help me receive God’s grace. Kathleen had lit a candle for me in the Basilica and prayed for me. I thanked her; I needed all the prayerful help I could get. For the most part, I kept up my Lenten promise, and if I missed a day of reading the Bible and writing, I would make it up the next. But I suspected my diligence had more to do with my desire to procrastinate from my other work, that my reflections were a microcosm of why I was attracted to religion in the first place: I wanted someone else to tell me what was worth doing.
On Easter Sunday, I put on the Miraculous Medal and went to mass. This day was supposed to a huge celebration for Catholics, the day our savior was resurrected, but even in church, I just didn’t feel God’s love, or even His presence. As a last-ditch effort, I decided I would take communion, even though I hadn’t been to confession, because what was the harm? If I wasn’t a believer, then there weren’t any consequences for bending the rules and, who knew, maybe the body of Christ was just what I needed to feel him near. I shuffled up to the aisle hoping that, in the Easter crowd, none of the nuns would see me and judge me for taking undeserved communion. The wafer, with its Styrofoam texture, took a while to dissolve in my mouth, releasing a bland taste, like an oyster cracker, that comforted me. I waited for something to happen, a small sign to convince me to return to mass the next week. I thought about the brunch I was attending afterward, the promised mimosa bar. As the choir director announced the recessional hymn, I put on my jacket and slipped out to beat the post-church traffic.
After totality, we watched the moon move for a few more minutes, then grew bored. The plant geneticist began to wander the yard, looking for signs of change. She saw three bees motionless on the petals of a flower. We watched them as the world brightened. They began to stir. Finally, one took flight.
The solar system was collapsing. Venus collided with Mercury. The moon rolled down the hill and disappeared in the flower bed. The sun flew through the air, hit the earth, and came to an abrupt halt. The sun, the moon, the planets were just bocce balls again as we played the game. Our hosts prepared lunch. The banana bread went back in the oven. Occasionally, I replaced my glasses to monitor the moon’s progress. It was slow; it had been slow at the start and was now slow to finish, but in between, the moon had sped. I felt guilty that something so rare was unfolding, and we were ignoring it.
As we ate lunch, we debriefed the main event. Kathleen and the two other women said that during totality, they had cried. The physicist couldn’t believe it was over. He had been anticipating this event for years. He had tried to see a total eclipse once before, had traveled all the way to Paris for it, but clouds had obscured the sight. The others marveled that we were alive in the million or so year interval when the sun and the moon were the right size to create a corona. Once upon a time, the sun had been too small and the moon too large to see a ring of light. But now, the sun was expanding and the moon was moving away from us, making it appear to shrink. I ate my salad and tuna fish and listened to the others talk. I wondered why I hadn’t cried. For dessert, we ate cantaloupe and, as I scooped it onto my plate, I confirmed that yes, the sun had been the color of melon. The banana bread was good despite being twice baked.
Later that afternoon, I called my boyfriend and told him the eclipse had been amazing. A few hours later, working at the restaurant, I smiled and nodded when my fellow servers gushed about the corona. How astounding, I agreed. Once in a lifetime. Going to the next one for sure. That eclipse was really something, huh? I said to my customers. The next day, I wrote to my family and friends about the eclipse, and I said at totality, I had felt wonder.
“Tell me more about that feeling,” Kathleen said. Yes, what exactly did I mean by “wonder”? Wonder was what Dillard had felt at totality, when she felt like she was dead, when her world became a movie filmed in the Middle Ages, when everything felt lost. Wonder was what Kathleen felt in relationship with God, what she meant when she said that God offered her all the treasure and eternal joy, that the Holy Spirit warmed her soul and blessed her with infinite tenderness. Wonder was what kept her going when she felt like she was crawling in the darkness; wonder erased her doubt. Wonder was what Mary had felt when the angel Gabriel came to her and told her she would give birth to the Son of God, and she said yes with all their heart.
Wonder was not what I had felt during totality at all. I had not felt unusually alive. I had not traveled time. I had not been lost. I did not feel fear. I did not cry. Not once had I felt wonder during mass, in prayer, reading the Bible. I often felt bored, inadequate, and guilty. I was constantly doubting that God was real, and the doubt prevented me from surrender.
I said I felt wonder during the eclipse because I wanted to have experienced something profound. I wanted to be captivated. I didn’t want to admit I was disappointed because I was worried what this said about me. Was I broken, insensitive to feeling, blind to beauty, permanently lost? I hid my feelings because I thought if I had not felt what Dillard had felt, what Kathleen felt, then there was a void within me. But if I don’t admit my disappointment, if I’m not honest with myself, how can I make space to find what truly makes me feel wonder? Perhaps what I felt when Kathleen read aloud the Dillard piece was wonder—I was awed by how Dillard had pinned down her experience so precisely that I was transported four decades into the past, onto a hill I had never seen, awed by how she had transcended that individual experience, revealing its larger significance: Most of us are asleep to the truth that death can seize us at any time. The eclipse had, if only briefly, awakened her. Yes, our experiences of wonder may be quieter than an eclipse, than a glimpse of God, they may be contained within the pages of a book, but they are no less important. Let us recognize wonder when it comes, wherever from, however loud or large: a longing for something we don’t understand. Let us pursue it, trusting that eventually, sometimes in slivers, sometimes in waves, sometimes after long silences, we will grasp more than we have before.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Four.