Parenting Lessons From a Partial Eclipse

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I didn’t know how badly I needed a supernatural event until I nearly missed it.

Five days before the solar eclipse last week, I woke up to my grievous oversight: I had failed to plan a family trip to the Path of Totality. An eclipse was time on an incomprehensible scale, older than the rocks and the earth, beyond even time itself. How could we miss a cosmic phenomenon the likes of which we might never again see?

It’s not as if we didn’t have plenty of warning. For decades astronomers had known that a total, transcontinental solar eclipse would occur on Monday, Aug. 21.

But I have two young daughters and I was finishing a book – the eclipse had hovered like a distant abstraction until it was nearly upon us.

I consulted an online map of the Path of Totality. The narrow arc was so delicate and yet so sure, sweeping east across the country in a beguiling curve. The closest point in to my home in Santa Fe was the town of Wheatland, Wyo., eight hours north on Interstate 25. Wyoming is the least populated state in the country and I pictured us tootling north toward totality on an empty highway, just us and the pronghorns and sagebrush.

Except for one detail: There was a major metropolitan center — Denver — between us and the eclipse. Wyoming’s population was expected to double to 1.2 million over the course of two days, and The Denver Post predicted that the city’s northbound traffic would be like six Broncos games letting out at once.

We stayed home.

Our decision felt like a major parenting fail. Ever since our daughters, now 7 and 9, were babies, my husband and I have tried to raise them outside, in the landscapes we love most, on rivers and mountains, in canyons and deserts. We hope our wilderness outings will instill in them a sense of curiosity about the natural world and of stewardship over it, as well as physical and emotional stamina and an appetite for wonder. Out of laziness and procrastination, I’d deprived them of a jackpot of awe, and even more important, an understanding of their place in the larger order of things.

“The sun will be 80 percent eclipsed here,” my husband said, trying to cheer me up.

“But I’m not an 80 percent person!” I cried. My motto in running and writing is to go the whole the way and try never to quit. As a mother and adventurer, I spend my free time planning backcountry expeditions for our family. Sometimes I feel like I’m running myself ragged, but with the exceptions of laundry and cooking, I don’t do partiality. Maybe it was finally time to try.

Eclipse day dawned gray and overcast. On any other day this would have been weird — Santa Fe has 320 days of sunshine each year — but on the day of the Great American Eclipse it seemed like a cruel joke. It never rains in New Mexico in the morning and when it does it is our civic duty to be grateful. The moisture is filling our reservoirs, soaking our forests! But I was not grateful. I stomped the girls to school with a pathetically self-pitying case of eclipse FOMO.

Even partiality was going to be a wash — literally — so I went for a run in the hills. As an ultra runner, I run long distances alone through the wilderness. I am often comforted by the magnitude of geologic time in the canyons and the mountains, carved by wind and water over millenniums. They are ancient, indifferent to our human troubles. It’s a relief to remember how small we really are.

On my run, the dirt trails were damp and pink wildflowers gleamed with raindrops. Everything smelled loamy and sweet, especially the ponderosas, wafting their butterscotch scent onto the breeze. A blue jay startled in a juniper tree and flicked its lapis wings in greeting. Clouds like thick cotton batting hung without irony over Sun Mountain. The fat pads of the prickly pear cactuses were practically iridescent in the low light. It was pretty beautiful, all told.

When I got home just before 11 a.m., it was still cloudy but the rain had lifted and so had my mood. I put on my eclipse glasses just for fun. Then I looked up to the sky. The sun was a thick-skinned apricot with a single bite chomped out of it, floating through spooky black clouds. My husband and I went up to the roof to watch. Across the dirt arroyo someone was playing a Native American flute, hauntingly, like a dream. My girls were at school and I hoped they were seeing it, too.

We stayed on the roof for a long time. The clouds scudded by, sometimes obscuring the bitten sun for many moments until it ghosted out of the shadows once again, smaller than before. It was possible to imagine that the slim orange wedge might never reappear, so that when at last it did, it seemed even more miraculous.

Just before 11:45, at the height of the eclipse, we lost the sun in the graphite clouds. The light went gloomy. To the north was a patch of cobalt sky, but all the shine had left the day. It was the light of a winter snowstorm pressing in from the west; it was the moody dimming of dusk at midday. The bottom of the massing quilted clouds appeared almost green. The wind puffed, then subsided. The fingernail sun had vanished.

When the moon and its impostor re-emerged, the moon’s dark edge against the crescent sun looked uneven, as though it was made of delicate paper that had torn slightly. Never before had I felt so much tenderness for the moon. Such a task it had to obscure the sun in its entirety! It was already pushing on, taking its racing shadow with it, its brief bid for glory fading fast.

Afterward, I climbed down from the roof and ran the whole way to my kids’ school. “Did you see it?” I called breathlessly to my daughters, pulling them into my arms. “Wasn’t it amazing?”

My euphoria lasted all day and into the next. With it came a faint relief. It’s tiring to try to live in the path of totality all the time, to go bigger, longer, farther, faster, better. Sometimes the greatest act of totality is to open your eyes and see what’s in front of you. I saw my daughter’s downy limbs relaxed in sleep, six snails in her palm on the soggy walk to school, lightning so far away it didn’t make a sound, rain falling from a morning sky.