Letter to Camille: 135 Months

Hello sweet girl and Happy 135 Months! Right now you’re at orchestra rehearsal, practicing for the annual Halloween concert, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re feeling a bit sluggish after our late evening.

Yesterday, the night sky was cloudless and the air was cool when you, your Daddy and I walked onto the golf course green near the marsh around 10 p.m. We spread our blankets on the damp grass and laid down so we could see the stars while swatting at insects buzzing around our ears. Occasionally I would turn on my flashlight and shine it at the water where I kept hearing splashing sounds (raccoon? ALLIGATOR?), but mostly we focused our attention on the expanse of stars overhead.

We tried to spot constellations and pointed out every passing airplane, but our real goal was to see the Orionid meteor shower, which peaks this weekend. In the thirty or forty minutes we spent lying in the grass, I saw one meteor for sure and a few maybes. Sadly, you saw none. Finally, tired of offering ourselves as a late-night snack for the mosquitos, we packed up our blankets and headed home. “We can try again in December,” you said.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised you already knew the date of the next meteor shower. Lately you’ve become a walking, talking font of space knowledge.

It started a couple of months ago when your science class began a unit on space. Suddenly your notebooks were full of facts about the planets and stars, and endless doodles of your favorite celestial body, Saturn (though Uranus is always good for a giggle). Your science teacher suggested you and your classmates might like the TV show Cosmos,  so one night we sat down to watch. That’s when I realized how much you were loving the study of astronomy. You perched on the edge of our couch, remote control in hand, frequently hitting pause.

The narrator, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, would say something about a planet, and you’d pause the show, turn to me and excitedly fill me in on all the things you’d learned about that planet. You gushed about Saturn, told me about the Russian expedition to Venus, and filled me in on the origin of comets.

All of this enthusiasm for space makes me so very glad we took time to witness the recent total solar eclipse.

I’d been behind the planning curve on this – I knew there was an eclipse happening but I hadn’t given it much thought. I’ve seen partial eclipses before, and it’s neat to see the moon’s shadow creeping across the sun but it didn’t seem necessary to rearrange my life around the phenomenon.

But what I didn’t fully appreciate was the startling difference between a partial solar eclipse and totality. I began to gain interest after hearing news reports about people who travel the world chasing total eclipses. I mean, a total eclipse was happening just a couple of hours from where I live, and I hadn’t planned to go see it. Meanwhile, others were traveling from much farther away to bear witness. AND I have a science nerd in the house.

I kicked into planning mode at the last minute, which of course meant every hotel and campground in the vicinity was already booked. So, on eclipse day, we got up before dawn with a handful of other friends, heading to a small town in South Carolina in the path of totality. We left early, knowing the roads would be clogged with other eclipse watchers.

We arrived and staked out our spots on a lawn in the shade of a municipal building. It was a warm day and we had several hours to wait. You and your friends made a make-shift shelter from the hot sun and we waited. And waited. We ate a greasy lunch from the food trucks and then waited some more.

Finally, some time after 1 p.m., the shadow of the moon very, very slowly began to fall over the sun. It was like watching the hands of a clock move – it seemed there was no movement at all, but then you’d look away and look back and notice the slightest change. More shadow. Less sun.

As we got closer to totality, the temperature dropped outside. Suddenly a chorus of noise from night creatures arose in the grass around us. The light-sensing street lamps lining the boulevard buzzed and flickered to life, and we could see bats spiraling around the trees. It felt like dusk, and it was 2:30 in the afternoon.

There was a palpable excitement in the crowd. We all stared skyward with our cardboard eclipse glasses, watching the last sliver of the sun begin to disappear until it was just a single pinprick of light. Then it was dark.

All around me people began shouting, cheering and applauding. I snatched off my eclipse glasses and was stunned by what I saw. There in the sky was a dark black circle, but around it was the most beautiful halo of bluish white light, shimmering in the heavens.

I struggle even now to describe how it felt. To explain why I found tears in my eyes. Why I yelled and cheered along with everyone around me. Why I hugged you. Why I hugged your father. Why I have tears in my eyes right now just remembering it, and remembering the look on your face as you clutched your friend Lola and stared at the sky. But I’ll try.

Watching the total eclipse, I had an overwhelming feeling of being such a small, small part of such a big, big universe. I felt connected to the sky, and I also felt connected to every single person around me witnessing the same thing. I felt connected to the people who’d climbed mountaintops to see it, to my friends in Oregon, to my parents in Tennessee, to all the people who were also staring skyward that day, marveling at the wonders of the universe. I felt connected to the ancient people who must’ve interpreted a similar eclipse as a message from their God. And it felt like a message from my God too. A message that the world is vast. And beautiful. And I’m part of it. And I’m not alone.

I’m pretty sure you understand how I felt. Even last night, in the absence of visible meteors, you looked up at the stars with wonder and said, “It’s just amazing to think how small we are, and how big the universe is.”

After watching that first episode of the Cosmos television program, your teacher said you could write a paragraph summary for extra credit. You eagerly tackled the assignment, and I loved your closing words.

“My favorite part of the show was learning that we are all made of bits of stardust. That makes me think anything is possible.”

What a beautiful thought. I hope you keep thinking big, taking time to look at the sky, and appreciating our great big world.

I love you so much sweet girl, stardust and all.

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