I am eight.
I have been given a subscription to the magazine Sky & Telescope as part of our preparation for Halley’s Comet, and I read through it, earnestly trying to make sense of the articles, studying the pictures.
I am trying to make sense of the thing everyone is talking with, and the thing that keeps hitting me is, “If I don’t see it, I’m not going to get another chance. This comet won’t come back until I’m 86, and I’ll probably be dead by then.”
We go out one night, with the binoculars on a tripod, and everyone takes turns peering through them.
I don’t see anything but grey.
I don’t know how to talk about it, so I said it was okay, I’d seen it, could we go home now?
I don’t remember how old I am, and research isn’t helping me right now. About eight, more or less. There’s a partial eclipse we can see from our house, and my mother helps me set up a pinhole camera so that I can see it.
I am wholly unimpressed, and resent the brightness of the sun, that doesn’t let me see what’s going on directly.
Mom manages to take a photograph of the arc of the sun revealed in thousands of water droplets from a recent rain.
I am eleven, and away at camp for the first time, a nerd camp in which I take a class over the summer. My first choice: astronomy. It is a delightful madcap romp, and every time we find a typo in the textbook someone is sent to run down the hall and tell the professor who wrote it.
There is a chart of eclipses, that runs into the next century.
I am eleven and the year 2000 is an impossible age away, a double lifetime.
The book does not go far enough into the future to reach 2017, leaving me with the impression that total eclipses never touch the nation of my birth, that I will never have the opportunity to see them. The future in the book was inconceivable; a future even beyond the span the book covered?
I am sometime in my teens, and we have set up the telescope on the back patio and aimed it at the narrow patch of night sky that is visible between the trees. It is a frigid night, and my aunt and uncle are visiting from Alaska.
We point the scope at something bright, and peer through, and we see that, by sheerest luck, we have chosen to look at the planet Jupiter. Three of the Galilean moons are visible in the view, and over the course of the evening we keep going back to look, fascinated.
We can see them moving.
I am awestruck.
I am seventeen, and struggling in college. Burnout and depression are swallowing up my capacity to cope. I am taking an astronomy class, going out into the frigid New England nights and identifying stars, constantly diverted from the beauty of the night by the need to catalogue and number things.
When I take astrophysics, it only gets worse.
The encroaching madness did not help. Not long after I turn nineteen, I drop out.
The warm and loving depths of heaven are not for me to quantify, perhaps. Or at the very least, trying to do so does not help.
I am in my twenties, and my partner is one of the engineers working on the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Our living space is increasingly postered with photographs from the satellite, stunning nebulae and pulsars and the mysteries of the invisible cosmos.
We get regular warnings of when the aurorae are coming, because every time there’s a solar flare he has to work overtime shutting down the telescope and aiming it away from the radiation stream. Unfortunately, none of them reach to where we can see them, particularly not while we’re living in the city.
I am in my twenties, and I challenge a laughing goddess to tell me who she is, and she tells me to do my research.
I do my research, and eventually I name her Hathor, Hethert, Hetharu, Hwt-Hor, House of Horus, the Eye of Ra, solar and stellar goddess – eventually I name her Hetharu-Nut, because it is the night sky who has always loved me.
I am twenty-seven, and I am learning a prayer, which begins, “Holy mother, in whom we live, move, and have our being….” and I think of all the times I have gone out into the night, and looked up at the sky, and felt the warmth of the depths of the infinite. All the times I have stretched myself up on the earth and hung there suspended over the cosmos.
I am in my thirties, and there is a lunar eclipse. I have gotten a perfume called ‘Eclipse’ and take out certain ritual tools to dedicate them under the blood-red full moon. Here is challenge and restoration and striving, and here I am.
I am in my thirties, and have gone out into the cold to look for meteors.
I am thirty-nine, and in the shower a few days before a road trip to Tennessee. I have been thnking about theologies and eclipses, and the way the ancients feared the swallowing up of the sun, parsing it as outside the natural order entirely.
I think of eclipse seasons and nineteen-year cycles and all the patterns of sun and moon. I think of the unnatural darkening of the sun made entirely natural by knowledge, turning the terroristic threats of A/pep into a precise alignment of that generative solar power and the precise machinations of time and wisdom that will reveal the extended lifegiving rays of the daystar.
I contemplate that this is both and and.
I remember my childhood resentment of the brightness of the disc and realise that I have a profound theological connection to the solar corona, and remember the time I heard the wisdom of the Aten, the holy power represented as the disc of the sun extending rays – rays that end in hands, each clasping an ankh.
“You can only shine what you have.”
And I think of the other power, the complicated power, the one who knows how to go into the dark and bring out and set free the light and life, the patron of werewolves, and I imagine her saying:
“And if you don’t have it, you need to go get it.”
I am thirty-nine, and I am in Tennessee with two of my children. The day after tomorrow, things will align, and the sun’s disc will disappear to reveal to us the sun’s blessings.