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The Size of Things

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There are things we remember and things we forget. I remember wishing I could see in three hundred and sixty degrees. There weren’t eyes on enough sides of my head to tell what was actually happening, and even if there were, I still don’t think I would’ve understood what was actually happening. I was on top of a mountain, ten thousand feet above the elevation of the home I left behind. When it started, a freezing mineral air came from the west, and with it, a blackness—a blackness that overtook the horizon faster than I could gasp. It moved across the green and silver valley below at two thousand miles per hour, which I didn’t really consider until I read about it a few hours later. How fast does the moon’s shadow travel during an eclipse, I asked the internet, drunk on the mescal that seemed to provide the only sensation buoyant enough to keep the previous hours afloat in my body. When the internet told me the answer, it gave retroactive meaning to something I’d experienced without words; it’s almost impossible to think in words when tears are pouring from eyes. I didn’t know why I was crying. But the tears came, and they came at something around two thousand miles per hour, because by the time the darkness had engulfed me, by the time I swiveled on my feet to cover the three hundred and sixty degree horizon, teeming on all sides with a technicolor sunset, by the time I gathered the wherewithal to actually look up at the main attraction, my face was wet with the saline that accumulates behind all eyes in some dark pool that no anatomy textbook can point to, waiting for the opportunity to be drawn out by the reminder of how small we really are, and how big we can become when we remember our smallness. 

There are things we remember and things we forget. Memory is built on reminders. Maybe the things we remember best are the things that give the strongest reminders. For thousands of years a total solar eclipse was known to be the most ominous phenomenon on earth. It was something to hide from—when an entire civilization is built upon the regularity of the appearance of the light, how else are you supposed to respond to the sudden disappearance of the light, other than to hide? So that’s what people did. For many thousands of years. Hide. But not us. We know more. Maybe. We know the moon’s orbital plane periodically lines up with the that of the earth, we know the sun is four hundred times bigger than the moon, but also four hundred times farther away, which is why the two appear to be the same size from earth. We know it’s perfectly normal for those spheres to align in such a way, that it’s not the end of times, nor the end of light. It’s just a few minutes—the only minutes the sun’s searing corona can be seen with the naked eye, the only minutes a person can get a truly visceral experience of the fact that we are, indeed, in space. And we know exactly where and when those minutes will transpire for the next six hundred million years, until the moon's slow drift has taken it far enough away from Earth that it can no longer totally block the sun from view. But what don’t we know? What have we forgotten that the people who were scared of eclipses didn’t forget? Maybe the manner in which we careen through life today erases the memory of many of the truest things. So we have to go seek them out. To get context. Of our size, of our place, of our time.

There are things we remember and things we forget. I traveled across the country just so I could spend two minutes and nineteen seconds in a shadow. I was hoping it would provide a reminder of something more vast than emails and news cycles and hopes and fears. I needed to remember that magic is real. Not because I read about it in a book, nor heard about it in the stories of friends who’d seen every eclipse since 2005. And now I have my own story. I could tell you about how I couldn’t stop shaking, heaving; I could tell you about how, before seeing it, I wished it would last longer than two minutes and nineteen seconds but how, when the sky was vandalized with an alien halo and the mountain top was vibrating with gasps and shivers and jumping and hollering, I couldn’t have handled it for a second longer; I could tell you about how I had walked away from everyone I knew so I didn’t have to use language or make eye contact or be anything other than what I was. But what I’d rather tell you is this: the connective tissue of the throat is connected the pericardium—the tissue that wraps around the heart. So you can physically massage the heart just by stretching the throat. This happens every time you look up. Every time you tilt your head back and make your eyes as wide as the sky, the skin around the heart becomes a little less calcified. I felt it happen on top of a mountain. As I looked up, my heart spread out inside its liquid barrier. I could feel it beating like a basketball in a gymnasium, its sound echoing off the walls of me. And then, minutes later, when the sun reappeared and the shadows turned slowly from metallic back to silken, I knew it was time to go find my friends again. But I wasn’t sure what I’d say. I walked back up the hill to where I’d left them, slower than I would have if I was walking anywhere else. And then I stood there. Chris laid his head on my shoulder. I put my arm around him. I didn’t say anything. Then a little boy next to us turned to his dad and said, I’m really glad you brought me here, Dad. They were beautiful words. They reminded me that the tongue stretches up from the center of the chest, that it’s far more connected to the heart than it is to the brain. I looked down into a river valley to the east, filling with a now-normal day, and I hoped I would remember what it felt like to be dwarfed by something so immense. But even though I hope to carry the sensations of those few minutes with me forever, what I really hope doesn’t get erased from my memory is the knowledge that I have a heart. It’s really small, but it’s really big.