by Elisha Gechter
Last week my husband Sam and I endured a connecting flight from Boston to Knoxville, TN with our 5 year-old and 9 month-old. We were eclipse-bound and willing to make some sacrifices in the name of science. Aside from all the planning that went into the week we would spend in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the day of the eclipse itself included a lot of prep time. We rose before sunrise (something our family is not in the habit of doing) in our hotel room, shuffled the kids and all the eclipse gear into our rental car, and drove an hour through the park to Cades Cove, a field my husband selected as the spot to watch totality from. He and several hundred (okay, maybe a thousand) other families narrowed in on the field as well. By 7am, hundreds of cars lined up at the entrance gate to this area of the park, each of us hoping to secure a spot to spend the many hours waiting for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. By 8:30am, we were driving through the gates that had finally opened, and by 10am, we were set up on our blanket in the shade. And then, we waited.
Well, actually, I waited and sat around with the kids, while Sam scurried around setting up all his eclipse gear: tripods supporting cameras with solar filters, an eclipse telescope, safe binoculars, plus eclipse glasses. All around us people were doing the same – and they were also passing the hours snacking and playing; adults chatted companionably, lending tools and tips, and kids shared toys, blew bubbles, and read books. People had come from all over. We met Canadians, Indians, and Asians, we sat next to a Christian family, saw a Muslim family a few blankets over, heard young ones next to grandparents. Everyone had put thought into what to wear. T-shirts marked the day in style – from NASA to Star Wars and all manner of eclipse-branded tops (including ones designed for Smoky Mountains). Sam wore “Tatooine – a place in the suns,” and my son and I had on matching “Goodnight Moon” shirts. They served as a point of conversation; folks complemented those they passed on their clever clothing choices.
After three hours the eclipse began at 1pm and people got up from their blankets and chairs to get their first looks from protected lenses. We had to crane our necks way back to catch the ever-so-slowly disappearing sun. Then we sat down, but in steady increments we rose to check on the progress of the moon dancing over the sun. An hour and 15 minutes in, and the light started to get weird. There were not just crescent-shaped shadows falling, but the light started to feel other-worldly, and the un-shaded parts of the field didn’t feel quite as hot and unbearable.
As we approached 2:35, it got dark, and the sky was purple. The moment when we saw the crown of light around the shadow of the darkness of the moon, there was collective clapping and whooping because we all had the need to give sound to the amazing, tingling feeling in our bodies. My eyes started to tear up, and I held my kids close as I looked at the sky, without any glasses, and marveled at the mystical thing I was witnessing. That bright white ring amidst a dark sky lasted less than two minutes, and I tried to be in the moment, and connect with myself, my family, the crowd and, really, the universe. I quietly cried for the entire totality. And I also smiled so much as I watched my daughter take joy in the sight and as I watched Sam snapping his camera set on the tripod as he repeated “wow, wow, wow.”
When it was over and the light returned and our glasses went back on, I was so grateful we’d traveled for this, and immediately wondered when I’d be able to see a total solar eclipse again, and brush with the divine in a way I never imagined possible. The day was long and hot, but next to my wedding day, and the birth of my children, it’s up there with most moving, awe-inspiring, and emotional moments. Of course the moment of totality had passed all too quickly. We had spent such a large amount of time preparing, not only leading up to the trip but that very day. We’d been up for hours, driving, sitting, moving, waiting, and the thing we’d been preparing for had passed in less than three minutes. Maybe that’s why we felt the need to stay another hour and a half until the eclipse had totally vanished. We felt the need to balance the time.
But I also was reminded of the way we use mikveh. When I first started going to Mayyim Hayyim after getting married, I remember feeling disappointed that I had just spent 45 minutes getting ready to immerse and then once I went into the mikveh room, the actual main event was over in just a few minutes. The proportion felt off until I started to view the entire process as an experience in and of itself. I embraced Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation to guide my preparations and enjoyed the moments to myself that were not rushed, as my normal goings about typically are. The time preparing became an opportunity for reflection before even entering the mikveh waters. And then I found myself able to use each second in the mikveh, even counting the seven steps I descended before dunking below the waters surface three times, as an intensely intentional way to more deeply process whatever was on the horizon – something special (getting ready to conceive or give birth) or something mundane. It’s my hope to bring those kavanot to help me prepare in the mikveh before a second-in-a-lifetime event when a total eclipse again crosses the US on April 8, 2024. Or if my husband and I follow our hearts to Chile to see a total eclipse in July 2019, to dunk before that, because once you’ve danced with the divine, can you really wait seven years to do so again?
Elisha Gechter is the Senior Program Manager for Wexner Israel Programs at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. She is passionate about Jewish learning, is a lover of bluegrass music, and lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband Sam, daughter Zoe, and son Erez.