Yes, we'll be watching.

Yesterday was the much-awaited Great American Eclipse, a celestial event that spanned the continent and consequently garnered a great deal of media buzz. Although New England was outside the path of totality, partial solar eclipses are interesting in their own right, so months ago I bought eclipse glasses, looking forward to an opportunity to let my inner science nerd shine.

One of the things that struck me about yesterday’s eclipse was its (literally) universal aspect. The sun shines on rich and poor alike, white and black, left and right. Everyone looks funny and feels foolish wearing eclipse glasses, and everyone’s first remark upon seeing a bite bitten out of the sun is some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Eclipse watching

Eclipses are wonderful but not surprising: these days, we know far in advance when, where, and to what degree an eclipse will occur. But much of the wonder of any eclipse is the very fact that it happens just as predicted. We say “Oh, wow” because the bite nibbled out of the Vanilla Wafer sun happens just as expected and right on schedule. It’s the wonder of holding a newborn infant and counting her tiny fingers and toes: exactly ten of each, just as it should be.

It comes as news to no one that we are a divided nation, but as soon as we step outside and look up, we find something we all share. Yesterday here in lush and leafy Newton, neighbors spontaneously gathered at the local ballfield, each of us drawn to its wide, unobstructed sky. And just like that, a set of suburban Little League bleachers was transformed into an observation platform peopled by armchair astronomers.

Colander crescents

Some of us had eclipse glasses and others had homemade pinhole viewers made out of cereal boxes; everyone shared. One boy showed off a richly illustrated National Park Service booklet about eclipses, and I held aloft a kitchen colander I’d brought, casting a constellation of pinhole crescents onto a piece of cardstock. It was, I’d guess, the kind of ragtag gathering that happened in lots of neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces across the country yesterday: a spontaneous gathering of strangers that fell into place because word had gotten out that something special was happening. All you had to do to join was go outside and look.

And here’s the shocker: the sun is there every day, and so are your neighbors. Yesterday offered a rare and special light show, but every day there are weird and wonderful things happening in place you might not expect, but can readily see if you’re outside and looking.

Cicada killer

Yesterday as we were sitting on the bleachers gazing skyward, an enormous bug suddenly zoomed and buzzed us. It was an aptly named cicada killer wasp carrying a cicada that looked twice its size. Nobody could have predicted a two-inch wasp carrying an even bigger bug would fly by at exactly that moment, but we shouldn’t have been surprised. Cicadas, like the sun, are almost ubiquitous in August, and so too are the wasps that sting and paralyze them before dragging them underground to serve as living larvae-food.

Cicada killer

It’s a weird and wonderful world out there: sometimes we’re expecting signs and wonders, and sometimes they shock and surprise us, buzzing right by our upturned faces. As the sun gradually grew back into its usual round shape, J and I walked toward home with a neighbor, startling a pair of strolling turkeys before meeting up with another neighbor walking the other way.

He’d viewed the eclipse at home with a pinhole viewer with his kids, he said, but he hadn’t seen it directly. Leaving him with a pair of eclipse glasses, we told him to wait until the clouds cleared and then look up. Although we left him there alone, I can predict what he said the moment the clouds parted: some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Interior demolition

Yesterday morning’s dog-walk was sunny, with the kind of low-angled light that makes for good shadows. When you walk the same streets nearly every day, you become a connoisseur of local light, someone who notices when the light is shining this way rather than that. Yesterday’s dog-walk was sunny, and Reggie and I walked early, so the rising sun was glinting through the east-facing window of storefront in downtown Keene that’s in the process of being gutted. In low-angled morning light, the dirty window that had shrouded this process the afternoon before suddenly became transparent, and I could see the previous day’s demolition illuminated as if on stage.

Alien eye

I don’t go looking for local light shows; they just happen to happen when I’m out and about. If you walk the same old streets enough times in enough weathers, you’ll grow accustomed to the same old sights, and that makes it easy to see something Different and Unusual when that sort of thing decides to happen. I’m sure that there have been alien eyes my entire life and then some, but I started to notice them only upon moving to Keene with an antsy dog. Several weeks ago while walking with friends in a new-to-me-neighborhood, I found myself interrupting the usual conversation to point out an afternoon specimen.  “See? There. The same old light reflected and refracted in an unusual way. Now that you’ve seen it, you’ll start seeing it everywhere.”

But truth be told, I’m not sure my friends or anyone will start seeing alien eyes everywhere: my predilection for noticing light and shadow seems to be an acquired thing, an obsession that few others share. Yes, there are the likes of Shadow Steve walking the streets of New York, but elsewhere and among other folks, you have to point to something a bit more exciting than reflected light on a wall to make headlines. What’s the big deal behind another bit of reflected light?

Tree with shadow

And so you may or may not be surprised to hear that my own viewing of last night’s total lunar eclipse was only partial. Around 9:00, I checked the skies from inside my warm apartment to see whether it was clear, and yes, I could see the celestial bangles of Orion’s belt. At 9:30, I pulled boots and coat over my pajamas–yes, by that time of night, my own moon is surely settling toward the horizon called sleep–and went outside to see a half-slivered, half-silvered sphere hovering above my backyard. By 10:00 pm and beyond, I was nestled inside, imagining the half-slivered moon as completely shade-stained as I remembered past eclipses and the way something as simple as a shadow turns the usual flat white disk into a smoky orange popping from the sky with three-dimensional intensity.  In other words, my desire to see last night’s total eclipse was itself eclipsed by other desires, the warmth of my own apartment and its awaiting bed exerting a gravitational pull I couldn’t resist. Nestled in for the night, I knew someone like Dave would take and share pictures better than any I could. A lunar eclipse, after all, is something everyone stops to take note of, giving someone like me the night off from noticing.

This morning, though, was something else entirely. Walking Reggie before sunrise, we both were greeted by the same old non-eclipsing moon shining its flatly white, entirely ordinary face over the the center of the street as we set out in the frigid chill. Did this morning’s moon look a bit sheepish as it shone with the usual monthly fullness, embarrassed at the unaccustomed attention it garnered last night? Shadows are an everyday occurrence, but eclipses are rare: this isn’t the fault of the moon but of our imperfect and obstructed view, purely a matter of perspective. This morning, the only other folks out were drivers headed toward the morning shift at the local factory, and I doubt they’d stop for something as simple as shadows on the moon.