Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Beautiful Things: The Eclipse

Since this is a semimonthly column, I’m in the awkward position of writing about the total solar eclipse two weeks after it happened. This may be far too late, given the pace at which we’re accustomed to receiving our news these days. On the other hand, given the quantity of news we’re accustomed to receiving these days, it may be excellent timing: It comes after the glut of eclipse images, stories, and reflections have faded. (Although, if you’re anything like our family, you still have eclipse glasses lurking in corners of your house and some eclipse cookies going stale on top of the refrigerator.)

Remember the total solar eclipse on April 8? How could I not make that event the final installment of my miniseries on the beautiful things of Addison County?

The eclipse took me by surprise on many fronts. It was a highly anticipated event that I didn’t anticipate, a big deal that I ignored – but it became a big deal despite my inattentiveness. I was vaguely aware of its approach about six months in advance, when some friends who live in Brooklyn told us that they were traveling to Texas in order to place themselves in the path of totality. That seemed like a lot of effort.

When my 13-year-old daughter, who gets wild-eyed with excitement about things like meteor showers and eclipses, started enthusing about the impending eclipse, I responded with caution: I honestly had no idea when, where, or at what time this eclipse might be happening. I didn’t want her to get her hopes up and be disappointed. I nodded and murmured some vaguely interested words. Did I do any research on the subject? I did not.

And so it was that I failed to realize what hundreds of thousands of people had apparently realized years earlier: That our section of Vermont would lie right in the path of totality on the afternoon of April 8.

What tipped me off in the end was the email from my eldest daughter’s high school, in South Burlington, announcing plans to start and end school late on eclipse day in order for the students to view the eclipse together.

Then came the follow-up email cancelling school altogether due to safety concerns around the amount of expected road traffic. One by one, all my children’s schools and activities were cancelled on April 8. The local police department sent out a safety bulletin. It appeared that this was, indeed, going to be a very big deal.

On the morning of April 8, we had plenty of eclipse glasses. (My husband had ordered some online, but he didn’t need to: They were handed out liberally at schools and libraries.) We had some eclipse cookies and tarts from the Middlebury Natural Foods Coop. Some of us had done homework sheets or watched Vermont Public Radio’s educational video about solar eclipses.

What we didn’t have was a plan.

It turns out that it’s a little strange to decide how to observe an event that roughly 160,000 people travelled into your state to experience. We could have watched the eclipse in our yard, but that didn’t feel special enough. Some of our children were in favor of attending the big eclipse-viewing event at the Middlebury recreational fields, pointing out that there would be tons of people, live music, and (as they emphasized repeatedly) food trucks. Other children wanted to avoid the Middlebury event for exactly those same reasons. Many were in favor of trying to get farther north, which would extend the time of totality.

In the end, the seven members of the Gong family piled into two vehicles and drove towards Button Bay State Park in Ferrisburgh, on the shores of Lake Champlain.

We left around 1:00 pm, a couple hours before the eclipse. We didn’t know what to expect by way of traffic, so we took the back roads and noticed little difference from the normal traffic patterns. As we approached Button Bay, however, we saw lines of cars parked along the road. Not wanting to push our luck, we pulled off and trudged into the nearest field, next to the Button Bay boat launch outside the park itself.

We’d brought plenty of snacks but had forgotten folding chairs or even a blanket to sit on, so we spread out what coats and bags we had and settled into our little portion of field. It was a very mellow scene: The field was dotted with small clusters of people, but there was nobody within at least five yards of us. There was no music. And apart from a woman wearing antlers, a man in robes, and the occasional faint whiff of pot smoke, there was nothing that would distinguish this gathering from a middle school soccer match.

Then we waited.

“Hold on, you mean we just have to wait here for two hours?!?” one Gong child whined.

Yes.

The time passed quickly. We alternately chatted and put on our eclipse glasses to track the moon’s slow progress across the face of the sun. We explained repeatedly to our four-year-old what was happening, and why it was crucial that he look through his glasses to avoid frying his eyeballs.

And then it was totality. We took off the glasses.

There are all sorts of metaphors and bigger meanings I could apply to the experience of seeing a total eclipse. But in those minutes, my primary thought was: I wasn’t expecting this to be so beautiful.

It was stunning. During the couple of minutes that it lasted, I was vaguely aware that people around us were clapping and cheering, but when I recall those moments it’s with a deep, profound silence.

We saw the blazing corona of the Sun flaring around the moon’s silhouette. We even saw Jupiter and Venus, on either side of the Sun. I usually take these heavenly bodies for granted, but on April 8 I saw them in a new light – literally — and I was filled with awe.

Then I looked at the surrounding world, which was bathed in a dusky indigo, a shade that I’d never seen at any other sunset. One of my favorite things about Vermont is the light: I’ve become a fascinated spectator of the sky, which puts on a seemingly endless display of seasonal light shows. But this was something new.

It took the words out of my family’s mouths. “Wow,” we said, “that was amazing!”

It took the words out of everyone’s mouth, I think. In the days following the eclipse, I had this conversation with almost everyone I met:

“Did you see the eclipse? Where did you go to watch?”

And then: “Wow! It was just amazing! So beautiful.”

I think about people in previous centuries: According to Vermont Public, they were often fearful that eclipses were a punishment and that the sun might not come back, so an eclipse was an occasion to increase sacrifices and penance. We tend to think we’re so much more enlightened now, with our satellite photos and knowledge of astrophysics. But still, we struggle to find the words.

All of us, transfixed by this beautiful gift that the solar system bestowed upon us for a brief moment; a beauty that we couldn’t control, manufacture, or manipulate. We could only gaze upwards.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and two quirky dogs. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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