People watch the solar eclipse from the observation deck of The Empire State Building in New York City (OSV News photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters).

You need those special glasses. This is true.

It’s also true that “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him,” as Annie Dillard writes in her essay, “Total Eclipse.” “Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.” I had seen two partial eclipses of 70 percent or so in recent years. They impressed me at the time. But they were trifles compared to what I saw on April 8.

I had a minimal viewing plan: go to the park a block away just before the sun went dark. Maybe I was prepared to be disappointed, because clouds were forecast in Dallas for most of the day. And indeed, it was overcast in the morning.

At noon, after writing a long work-related email, I went for a bike ride around the lake. On the far side of the lake, I realized it was the perfect place to view the eclipse. It’s a pretty location in its own right, on slightly elevated ground, with a view of the entire lake and the city skyline beyond. People had set up their tents and telescopes and seemed to be having a nice time. I cursed myself for not thinking of this sooner. I didn’t have my glasses with me, and I didn’t have time to bike home, get the glasses, and bike back. I needed a real plan.

I decided that it was a good idea to be around a lot of people, so I biked over to the university where I teach. At the site where a new business school building is going up, a passerby handed out glasses to the construction workers. On the university’s lawn faculty, administrators, neighbors, sorority sisters, and fraternity brothers sat in groups of two or ten, as if for a free concert or fireworks show. I put on my glasses and looked up. The sun was an orange sliver. Then it vanished. Was that the eclipse? A few screams went up. But no—it was just a cloud. Maybe we wouldn’t see anything.

Then we got lucky. The clouds thinned as the sun slowly disappeared. My experience of the partial eclipses made it all seem intelligible. And then, very suddenly, something new appeared.

It’s a cliche to say that time stood still during the total eclipse. It’s a cliche, though, because it’s true. Time stood still. My hand reflexively covered my mouth. My breath quickened. I took off my glasses.

I had read that you see a hole in the sky, with blazing, but not blinding, light behind it. This is accurate. The sky was not completely dark. The space where the sun should have been was completely dark. Around it, yes, a perfect, silver ring, and then what I understand to be the sun’s corona, a wispy blur much, much larger than the black hole.

It’s a cliche to say that time stood still during the total eclipse. It’s a cliche, though, because it’s true.

Tears filled my eyes, doubling and then tripling the image. My mouth quivered. I do not cry frequently. Had I not been in public, I would have utterly broken down. “I had never seen anything like it”: another cliche. Also true. I had never seen anything like it. I could have looked forever.

You don’t have to be in a pretty place to view the eclipse. You don’t need the lake or the city skyline or a broad river valley. You do not look at them. You look at the shocking event in the sky.

After some time, a tiny red dot appeared at the 5:00 position on the ring. The dot did not seem to change for a long time. Then it exploded into the greatest brilliance. In an instant, the sunlight was once again overwhelming in its ordinary way. We applauded. I applauded.

“Well, back to work, I guess,” people around me said. It’s true, we had to go back. The students went to their next classes. The construction workers resumed constructing. Lawnmowers started up again. I walked my bike to a bench and ate a sandwich.

Lately, I have been thinking of Immanuel Kant, whose 300th birthday is in two weeks. Kant wrote, concerning the sublime, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” But the sublime, on his account, is not staying forever in the shadow of the moon, screaming or crying or breathless. It’s being in that shadow, then returning to normal life, somehow elevated. You see or feel something that entirely exceeds your capacity to understand, and then you come back to yourself, amazingly able to think through what you have seen. I understand now why people travel to eclipses around the world, chasing that high.

“It was evening all afternoon,” Wallace Stevens writes in his poem about looking at a blackbird. After the eclipse, it was morning, then afternoon again. The crescent sun sat in the live-oak limbs.   

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.