My brother is the space nerd in the family. Months in advance of our one family trip to the mecca of all family vacation places—Disney World: where dreams come true!—he puts in his request to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This is his boy version of getting pulled up on stage to dance with Bruce Springsteen. He’s seventeen; I’m fourteen—peak eye-rolling-obnoxious-sighing-sacrastic-snarking-adolescent years. I’ve made no secret that I don’t think much of this excursion except to complain about how it greatly shortens my time gawking at Cinderella’s castle and gnawing on a giant turkey leg. My parents have made it clear to me that this is my brother’s “thing” and we’re all going to spoon up the glory and triumph of American space exploration with cheerful smiles on our goddamn faces because FAMILY and VACATION. We drive the hour on a bleached ribbon of highway dotted by palm trees across the bay to the space center where different kinds of dreams come true.
The space center ends up being a lot more interesting than I originally thought. I refuse to admit this out loud. It’s 1990, so I can’t ostrich myself into an iPhone. Instead, I follow my family around, taking in the massive exhibit detailing our first heroic climb out of the atmosphere and, later, squinting up in the sun at the towering Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo rockets permanently interred, privately marveling that, like, humans, like did this. Reward comes in the form of picking out a packet of powdered ice cream—just like the astronauts eat!—which will remain forever sealed in a box in my room until I leave for college.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate the brave efforts and punishingly hard work it took to put anything into space whether that was a man or a sack of potatoes, it was that I felt the sheer magnitude of the entire enterprise was so far beyond me, was something unfolding out there, quite literally.
This week America experienced a total eclipse of the sun. It was the first of its kind since 1979. The path of totality, where the sun would be fully eclipsed, blazed a track across the country from Oregon through Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, and South Carolina as well as other states. Different parts of the country saw different coverage ratios–30% in some places, almost 80% eclipsed in others. Eclipse glasses with special non-retina-burning-face-melting lenses sold out online and in stores. People booked special trips to unlikely places like St. Louis and Kansas City explicitly for the viewing. I got it: this was a big deal, but a part of me also thought it’s happening out there as it always has for thousands of years and the rest of us are specs of cosmic dust just breezing through for an alarmingly short while.
Thanks to my brother the space nerd, we viewed the eclipse in New Hampshire through his super-duper-high-powered telescope, complete with special non-retina-burning-face-melting lens filter he had purchased months in advance. We maneuvered the scope into position. I squinted into the eyepiece. I saw a large white circle like an incandescent bulb. A black curve, a scythe, cut into the field of vision.
“It’s not working or it’s not lined up,” I said. “It’s all white.” My brother laughed.
“That’s it. That’s the sun.”
“The black thing isn’t part of the lens?”
“That’s the moon.”
“Holy shit! Really?” I stuck my eye back to the finder, mentally attuning to what I was seeing. Further across the white orb I saw what appeared to be bits of dirt. I opened my mouth. Anticipating what I was going to say, my brother said, “Those specks are sun spots. On the sun,” he added in case I attempted to argue with him, the space nerd. As the eclipse progressed to about 60% coverage for us in New England, the temperature noticeably dropped a few degrees, a brief layer of cool settled over the 80- degree summer day. The light took on a pinkish hue like some kind of special effect in a very low budget music video.
Suddenly it wasn’t something happening out there. A quick spin around social media revealed posts and shared captures from all over the country: families gathered in parks and backyards wearing glasses or using cereal boxes with pinhole lenses to capture the reflection of the eclipse; people viewing in the path of totality; people who had taken a few minutes to leave their offices and stand outside on busy street corners; shots from those lucky enough to be on boats, in airplanes, at the top of desert peaks. It felt like everyone in the country was standing still, together, even if that wasn’t the reality. It felt as if, for a few minutes, the illusion of cohesion took hold. It had nothing to do with heated clashes over right or wrong (or left) or us against them or my beliefs as more valid than your beliefs. There was just this undeniable, incontrovertible phenomenon happening impervious to us tiny, inconsequential humans. Yet our collective witnessing somehow made it feel like a gift that was ours alone. A pause. And in that inhale, a glimpse of our smallness, a sense that what matters, what miracles ready to be realized, are always happening right here.