Our third contributor is Charles Bethea, a staff writer for the New Yorker. Charles has reported from a Finnish sauna, a cannabis greenhouse in Aspen, the top of the highest volcano on earth, and a south Georgia correctional facility on Valentine’s Day.
We invited him to reflect on his eclipse experience. He writes about the things that happened, and didn't; the things he felt, and didn't; and how we grow, and don't. His eclipses occur, appropriately, in phases, or cycles. In this writing, we trace Charles' own orbit around people: friends, lovers, and strangers. We hope you enjoy his work as much as we do.
Jess Bernhart and Scott Collison
The first one was partial. I was on the playground practicing my jump shot. A late fall in Atlanta, piles of freshly dumped woodchips steaming nearby. I remember my beat-up Reebok Pumps with the tennis ball protruding from the tongue. And somewhere close by, Justin, who later became a sommelier, wearing the new Air Jordans that I wanted as much as hair on my toes. Justin was mid-puberty, prickly, fast. He had better ball-handling and girl-talking skills. But he didn’t have eclipse glasses special-ordered by his grandmother. I’d drawn a Nike swoosh on mine. I drew Nike swooshes everywhere, with reverence.
There was a brief, odd dimming overhead, felt between shots. A skyward turning of kid craniums and twisting of necks across the school yard. An eclipse was happening, but, what exactly was that? It was back to H.O.R.S.E., Knock Out and the solipsism of being eleven-years-old, only slightly fissured. I threw away the glasses, or lost them. I forgot, for the most part, about the sky. I returned to drawing swooshes. One of them turned up in my mother’s closet the other day, with my name signed in careful cursive beneath it.
The second was partial, too. I was on the gravel roof of the adobe house I rented with a girl in the high desert of New Mexico. We’d moved in as strangers. I was twenty-five and preferred to sleep in a bag. I had a poetry degree, too, and knew a few holy sonnets by heart. Megan was practical. She wasn’t really into poetry. She was poetry, I thought. Especially on skis, moving. We stood on the roof together, inhaling pinon pine smoke from our neighbor’s chimney. The roof was where I came to do two things: make-out with her, or dampen the desert gravel with a poet’s precious tears. This time, I tried speaking words. Megan whispered, “Let the sky talk.” I don’t know how long my silence lasted.
She went skiing early the next morning. I stayed back to bake bread, for her grandmother’s visit: a sourdough that I haven’t made since.
The third eclipse was full, rare, worth a trip. I drove to Illinois, an ugly state, to a park that partially redeemed it. Totality was occurring very near here. Totality: Dave also liked this term. Dave is a scientist, a Wu Tang Clan genealogist, a friend from college. More importantly, he studies Mars and makes peanut butter sandwiches for long road trips. We take a long road trip together every two years, and say little to one another in between. This was our 2017 trip, to Carbondale, Illinois. He brought marijuana cookies this time, and his all-encompassing, post-Ptolemy knowledge of the cosmos. I brought along a small digital recorder and sunscreen. It was hot. We sat on a rock-outcropping, with strangers, waiting for the moon to block the sun, at 1:23 p.m. central standard time, on a Monday in August. As we waited, I, a writer, told Dave something that he did not know, which Google had told me: Ptolemy wrote an epigram.
“I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral,” a translation reads, “but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”
When the sun was fully blotted out, there was a chill in the air. Dave pointed out a few planets and then went silent. Insects made nighttime noises. I felt a lightness not entirely consistent with cannabis. Dave and I sat on the rock, jutting out into the Midwest, until it was hot again and the others had left. Then we split a beer and walked back to the car, wondering where we’d be in seven years.
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