Total Eclipse of the Heart

21 02 2008

At around 10:30 last night, we sat, watching flickering pixels on the television tell us that the lunar eclipse was still in sight. That we could catch it ‘at its peak’ if we went outside and stared hard enough through the film of clouds pouring over the lower part of Manhattan. The anchors told us that the next time we’ll get the chance to see an event of this astrological magnitude will be 2010.

The two-person consensus response: ‘well, if it’s gonna happen again in 2010…’

Interest in eclipses, especially lunar ones, appear to be fueled by dueling engines: first, a holdover from less scientific, more mystical and occult times; second, kindergarten.

The first solar eclipse ever recorded occured around 2134 BC (by some estimate), observed by the dynastic Chinese. Shu Ching records that ‘the sun and moon did not meet harmoniously,’ reflecting a certainty in a higher order — an intelligent and beautiful dance that could only mean for anomalies to signify disaster. This web site claims that common belief among the Chinese held that a solar eclipse was due to a giant, invisible dragon eating the sun. Ritual dictated that drums and trumpets be played to frighten away the dragon and restore sunlight. I’m inclined to believe that because it sounds awesome.

Later civilizations held eclipses with comparable wonder. The Greeks saw it — not so shockingly — as the astrological handiwork of Zeus. They were being punished for something, and much as a child has his favorite toy confiscated during time-out, the Greeks had the sun removed. Scary stuff.

Such was the terrible wonder at eclipses that two warring parties, the Lydians and the Medes, saw a solar eclipse on May 28 of 585 BC and ceased fighting because of it, an event corroborated by a number of sources, going back to Herotodus, regarded as one of the world’s first historians. Herotodus wrote that “day was all of a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it….. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on.”

The Bible uses its customary elevated language to describe the event. Amos 8:9, claims that `…on that day,’ says the Lord God, `I will make the Sun go down at noon, and darken the Earth in broad daylight’.” When it happened in Assyria, it was, as you can imagine, a pretty big deal.

Science, it seems, has only done so much to distill out the magic in an eclipse. Our ability to predict them, to the minute, has undermined the God-Did-This-Because-You-Were-Assholes theory. There appears to be nothing spontaneous about these things, working as they are in predictable harmony like magnets. The anomalies are as normal as the normalities.

But still, we can’t discount the power of young wonder in the immensely rare. Here’s where ‘kindergarten’ comes in. I remember, the day after we picked dandelions to make dandelion art, a few weeks into spring in kindergarten, an eclipse happened. To us, it was as if the world were supposed to come to an end — it just didn’t. And our teachers were somehow responsible. Somehow, our teachers were able to predict when THE SUN WOULD GO AWAY. That feeling still stays with me today, and although I have a bit more skepticism (yet no less respect) for the powers of those employed in education, that wonder still tugs.

So much of our lives derive from first experiences. The first glance at the biggest, brightest baseball diamond you’ve ever seen. The first kiss. The first time you read that book, be it by Salinger or Tolstoy, Fitzgerald or Seuss. The first time you saw that movie or heard that band. Hell, the first burrito. These things all dictate, to a certain extent, the trajectories of our lives. If only for their rareness in a sea of imitators, they stand out.

And I’m convinced, absolutely sure, that inside of us, we refuse to let that wonder wander off. Whether it’s remembering how those chords fired into our minds and stayed there forever or remembering, looking up at the sky as a shadow passed over something that we thought was as constant and unchanging as your birthday, we don’t want to let it go.




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