I was returning a Willie Morris book to the living room shelf the other day when I spotted a slender length of cardboard wedged inside. It was the folded pair of paper eyeglasses I’d used last August to view the solar eclipse, an event I had gone hundreds of miles to see. The eyeglasses, later used as a bookmark, reminded me how quickly national fads come and go.
Maybe you remember how many people scrambled to find the dark viewing glasses before the total eclipse arrived last summer. A shortage forced up the price, and a few days before the big event, some of the flimsy eyewear was being sold online for hundreds of dollars. I bought my pair at a local planetarium for a couple of bucks.
Because Tennessee was one of the best places to see the sun go fully dark in the middle of the day, I joined my brother and his friend on a road trip to Chattanooga. We arrived at a park just outside town, where dozens of other families had pulled in to enjoy the spectacle through an open patch of sky.
The gathering resembled tailgaters before a football game. Food and drinks filled the backs of open trucks and cars, Fords and Toyotas crammed like horns of plenty. Families sat in folding chairs or picnic blankets, warmed by sunlight that would soon, though just for a moment, disappear. None of us knew each other, but there was a warm sense of fellow-feeling as we waited for the curtain to drop on the day.
As darkness descended on all of us, confusing the birds in the nearby trees to sing their bedtime song, everyone in the park spontaneously applauded. In the smartphone video I made of the moment, I can hear myself sniffling a bit, and the jumpy frame betrays my hands shaking with emotion.
I was touched by the crowd’s heartfelt and unrehearsed outpouring of joy.
What we were applauding I can’t really say. Maybe, in a world that so often seems wounded and broken, there was relief and wonder at watching a small part of it work so flawlessly, just as promised. What we also felt, I guess, was the simple and comforting unity of just being a few people under the same piece of heaven, undefined by party or gender, religion or race.
All of this came back to me when those paper eyeglasses slipped from a book — and when skywatchers last week brought the news of a lunar eclipse.
Willie Morris, the Mississippi writer I was reading when I left my eclipse glasses in one of his essays, belonged to a generation of Southerners who kept up with the natural world, finding wonder in everyday happenings like an evening rain. Maybe we’ve lost something when it takes a rare eclipse to remind us of the privilege of being alive.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.