Monday, May 21, 2012

Eclipse Diary, Part 1: Anticipation and Entitlement

Deborah's attempt to photograph the eclipse
 To begin with, I did not intend to make a journey – a pilgrimage – to see the May 20 annular solar eclipse. The reason is not that I am indifferent to such a spectacle, but that for a long time, I have operated under the principle that if seeing the wonders of the sky – or any other wonders – involves expense or training or any significant break in the daily work routine, then I am not entitled to it. I suspect this attitude – what my husband teasingly refers to as my “poverty consciousness,” stems from being the child of working class parents who came of age in the Great Depression, and who as a young person myself rarely had much disposable income. What I did not understand then, and am coming to understand as I get older, is that life is an adventure to be lived, not scrimped through. Some years back, I had to make a choice between returning to school for training that would take all my time and energy for several years with the end result of earning a modestly comfortable living, or to keep on at my current day job and being able to write. I had to ask myself, what is really important? Being able to buy new clothes instead of picking through thrift stores? Or sailing on my dreams, spinning out the stories that are in me to tell? I picked the dreams, and I have never regretted that choice. It changed me, of course, not just the writing but the very realization that as far as I know, I will only go through this life once. The world and the heavens are full of mysteries and glory, just waiting for me to look.

At Wyoming Infrared Observatory, 2011
Studying astronomy had been somewhere on my list. I call it a “wistful list,” or maybe a “wishful list,” not a “bucket list.” The litany went, Someday when I have time…but Cabrillo College is a 45 minute drive away… but the classes are at night and night-time driving in the mountains is exhausting… but… but…” Then last spring I saw an announcement for Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, a one-week intensive course for science fiction writers held at University of Wyoming Laramie, created and directed by astronomer/sf writer Mike Brotherton, and funded by NSF. “They’ll never take me,” I thought, “I write fantasy these days.” But it’s just as important for fantasy (and horror, and Romance, and thriller, and mystery writers) to get the science right. So I applied.

They accepted me. I danced around the house, whooping with delight. That summer, I proceeded to get my brains stuffed with amazing facts and ways of looking at the universe; I met fantastic writers and scientists, and shared their passion for exploring – by telescope, space shuttle or imagination – beyond the borders of our home planet. Every day, my mind was filled to overflowing with story ideas and incredibly nifty data; at night, we gazed at the stars for ourselves. If I had not been willing to take that chance, to say, “Hey, what about me?” then I would have missed out on so much.

Fast forward a year, and I see on the astronomy and science websites that I now subscribe to that there will be an annual eclipse of the sun (one in which the occlusion is incomplete, so there remains a “ring of fire” around a dark central shadow), visible not too far away (but too far to drive and then return home easily in the same day). The old “poverty consciousness” voices began their murmuring. Never mind that this is the closest I’d be able to see a solar eclipse from (or that it doesn’t involve staying up until 3 am, another bugaboo that assumes more importance as the decades pass). My neighbor and walking partner said, “I’ve booked a motel room near Lassen so I can go up and see the eclipse, and I’m looking for someone to share the room.”

And the world stopped. 

I thought, “I’m 65 years old and I’ve never seen a solar eclipse. Chances are, I will never have another opportunity, at least not one so close and so convenient. Not to mention the congenial company. It would be an awful shame – no, an outright crime – to let a couple of hundred dollars become an insurmountable obstacle. If the credit card bill isn’t paid off by the time I die, at least I will have seen an eclipse.”

She arranged for the motel room. I obtained the solar eclipse shades. We shared the driving. 

Stay tuned for what happened next...

An abbreviated version of this diary series appears in Book View Cafe blog Tuesday, May 22.

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