Yesterday, I loved my body. I meant it when I said I didn’t care about its’ shape. I believed him when he told me I was beautiful. But today I am plotting ways to contain it: lotions to bring back smoothness, squats to lift and firm, green smoothies for everything else. Tomorrow I will eat a pint of ice cream and maybe love myself again. The next day, who knows?
We are huddled together in bed, my whole family, as the sun rises up over the hills and streams into the window. I am showing the kids my lines; the lines I have from carrying them. “These ones here, are yours,” I tell my daughter, pointing to the empty rivers below my belly button, nearly nine years old. Higher, and to each side, my son’s position is etched into my skin. It delights them to see proof of their beginnings, running their fingers along the lines that run like rivers on their original map.
The marks my third baby left are pink, my belly still soft from holding her. It is a softness that billows when they touch it, as if inside, it still holds oceans. This is what it feels like to be a woman in this moment of my life: a brief celebration of vulnerability and then a return to the tedium of perfection; a perfection unattained and yet, somehow, expected?
We are blissful hostages on new-baby-island, my husband and I, only this third time we are even more at ease. We accept the things beyond our control. We have moments that feel like falling. We celebrate and sleep deeply when they are finally, all three of them, in bed. But the grace I have allowed myself with each new baby doesn’t last. Soon I am back to measuring myself in all the ways that we do: Why can I not manage to fold the laundry and make the dinner and pick up and drop off and soothe and nurse and also attend to the real emotional needs of my children–the kind that make them grow into good, healthy, content humans? Why can I not also find time for “self care”, as in a shower? And now that I’m thirty eight years old (I planned to have my children before age thirty five, but plans, hah!) I also feel the pressure of making the most of life, of finally finishing that novel, and the menacing fear that is my body, with all its potential deceptions underneath: its aging, its march towards death.
I am afraid. Not all the time, but sometimes. My body is a symptom, and I can google it.
Yesterday, I read an article in a reputable newspaper about motherhood and feminism that bothered me. The author, a mother herself, tried to make the case that motherhood is not a job, and that being a mother is not selfless, but selfish. I spent the rest of the day making counter arguments, quietly, and to myself.
True, I am grateful and humbled and overturned by love. But what am I? Am I the cook we have not hired, and the nanny that does not come, and the house cleaner that we dream of? Am I the psychologist and nutritionist and chauffeur? Am I less or am I more? I can assure you I do all these jobs with mediocrity, and that I share most jobs with a husband who folds and follows a recipe better than I ever will. So what am I? Do I matter?
A friend asks me “What do you do all day?” “Hah,” I laugh. Ha ha ha. I want to tell you how I got here: how I refused to cook when I was a girl and took up the role when I became a wife; how a wedding was not something I dreamt of and yet I was married at 25; how I felt little desire to mother until I had children of my own; how I chose to “stay home” with my children and have “accomplished” very little society would deem worthwhile. Am I less because I have chosen a small life?
On days when I find myself struggling to count; when I put on a white top and bother to wash the night away; on days when a soft boiled egg is a dangerous choice; on those days when I feel, despite chaos all around, like the loneliest person in the world; on days when the kids don’t like me; on days when I put them in the car just for the break provided by seat belts; these days like all the others are hard and yet cherished. The babies that have been born from my body–whole and alive and flesh, as they are, do not belong to me. And the only song I can sing is I am blessed, I am blessed, I am blessed.
“I tried to show in this series how breastfeeding appears as a pulse that gradually takes its part in the other cycles of life — such as those of nature, the seasons, and of days and nights,” Vincent explains. Milky Way begins with frozen landscapes and concludes in spring, portraying a systematic format with the consistent use of composition and light throughout. The aesthetic of the pictures is determined by the feeding behaviour and its geometry of bodies. These images are characterized by family cohesion of classic icons as well as modern accents. This everyday moment emerges the force of exchanges between two human beings and the milk becomes, as in the Greek legend of the Milky Way, the vector of a world under construction.”
Becoming a father inspired Vincent Ferrané to create a series celebrating the sometimes-derided act of breastfeeding
In a powerful and intimate photobook, Vincent Ferrané has photographed one of the most natural things in the world – breastfeeding. After the birth of his first child, the French photographer was struck by the strength and resilience of his wife during the nurturing process, and started a six-month project to document how she and her child connected through it. Milky Way, the resulting series, demystifies an act that is so often hidden from view.
“I was struck beyond words by the beauty of these moments,” explains Ferrané. “When I say beauty, I don’t mean that it is only pure joy – these are ambivalent times of strength and emotion on one hand, but also difficult and sometimes harsh and tiring on the other.”
Ferrané regularly took pictures of his wife before she gave birth, and says that in this sense, he didn’t originally see this as a photoseries about breastfeeding – rather, he was a father creating a personal and candid series capturing these early moments in his child’s life. In the book, this creates a diaristic effect, conveying Ferrané’s emotions with each portrait.
“Taking pictures of people and moments you truly love is the most important thing,” he says. “During breastfeeding, as a father you are emotionally involved yet already in a distant position, so taking pictures gives you a role as a kind of ‘active spectator’. But picturing your own family is a real subject, especially toward the aspect of revealed intimacy.”
As the series progressed his focus sharpened, and Ferrané took inspiration from art – paintings from the Italian Renaissance and Dutch traditions that depict breastfeeding, for example, such as the Madonna Litta by Leonardo da Vinci and the works of Gerard David and Robert Campin. The title of the series is a reference to Greek mythology, in which Hera, the goddess of women and childbirth, created the Milky Way with milk spurted from her breast. The photographs are endowed with a sense of the sublime, and yet they balance these poetic symbols with everyday reality, as breastfeeding becomes an established part of family life.
“The vernacular side of this experience was very important to me,” says Ferrané. “It shows how the baby will gradually become such a big part of your existence. So I wanted to place so-called ‘noble’ images of breastfeeding with everyday experiences that lactating women know well on the same level, like engorged breasts relieved by taking a bath, or the fact that the baby is spitting up.”
This matter-of-factness may also combat a less positive aspect of breastfeeding – the low rates of breastfeeding in Western countries, and the spats in which women are shamed for publicly breast-feeding. Ferrané didn’t have this in mind when he started the project, he says, but adds that it’s certainly something he considered when he published his book.
“Doing this series doesn’t make me a specialist of ‘breastfeeding’ as a social issue, but during my involvement with these images, I sadly realised how much women still have to fight to normalise breastfeeding,” he says. “Breastfeeding in public is complicated and when my partner returned to work, drawing her milk created delicate moments. There was no private space or provision for that [in her workplace]. You have to be really militant to breastfeed beyond 10 weeks in France I think.”
As Ferrané points out though, this lack of social awareness is nothing new – the photographer quotes the French literary canon, referencing a Molière play from the 17th century in which a character is told to cover up their bosom, which “offends” the crowd. For Ferrané, there needs to be a change in how breastfeeding is presented – both in France and around the world.
“It begins at birth, the various health professionals you meet as parents – the paediatricians, nurses, midwives – have very varied speeches on breastfeeding. After birth, in France, you are expected to leave the maternity unit quickly, within three to four days, and the baby must gain some weight before that. Therefore, artificial milk can rapidly be introduced, which can discourage mothers from breastfeeding,” he explains.
Milky Way is intended to be part of this debate, and to present an empowered woman at her strongest, and Ferrané says it’s provoked a strong reaction in its audience – both positive and negative. “Maybe mothers are not ‘allowed’ to speak freely about these experiences,” he says. “Due to self-censorship, it sometimes seems that mothers have to look perfect and say it was only a merry experience.
“But things are changing and the warm welcome that these pictures get shows that a good way to normalise breastfeeding is to look at every aspect of it – its incredible joys, its occasional pains, its constant demands.”
There are elements of nudity in the photobook, which Ferrané says are deliberately done to reclaim the breast as a natural way of nourishing and feeding, rather than solely as a sexual fetish, which has led to a prudish attitude to breastfeeding. “My wife and I agreed that elements of nudity in the series, like a lactating breast for example, were not ambiguous but were revealing one role of a mother in a meaningful, modern and strong way.
“It is obvious that to say that the body of woman is often eroticised in modern iconography. More often than not, it embodies the indirect desire for something else, a consumer good in general. In this series, the idea is not so much to try to desexualise the body but rather to render its function, to show the beauty and poetry inherent in this function – for example, to restore the breast, the nourishing and powerful function that is refused too often. In this female body, I see a woman and a mother at the same time.”
Ferrané has described the experience of having a baby as a “small revolution” and says creating the photoseries has made both husband and wife even closer. “I have simply seen breastfeeding as an act of life and love that is not always an easy task, and that therefore is deserving of encouragement in its all dimensions – psychological, physical and social,” he says.
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
I lay in bed. My husband, Gary, was reading beside me. I lay in bed and looked at the painting on the hotel room wall. It was a print of a detailed and lifelike painting of a smiling clown’s head, made out of vegetables. It was a painting of the sort which you do not intend to look at, and which, alas, you never forget. Some tasteless fate presses it upon you; it becomes part of the complex interior junk you carry with you wherever you go. Two years have passed since the total eclipse of which I write. During those years I have forgotten, I assume, a great many things I wanted to remember—but I have not forgotten that clown painting or its lunatic setting in the old hotel. The clown was bald. Actually, he wore a clown’s tight rubber wig, painted white; this stretched over the top of his skull, which was a cabbage. His hair was bunches of baby carrots. Inset in his white clown makeup, and in his cabbage skull, were his small and laughing human eyes. The clown’s glance was like the glance of Rembrandt in some of the self-portraits: lively, knowing, deep, and loving. The crinkled shadows around his eyes were string beans. His eyebrows were parsley. Each of his ears was a broad bean. His thin, joyful lips were red chili peppers; between his lips were wet rows of human teeth and a suggestion of a real tongue. The clown print was framed in gilt and glassed.
To put ourselves in the path of the total eclipse, that day we had driven five hours inland from the Washington coast, where we lived. When we tried to cross the Cascades range, an avalanche had blocked the pass.
A slope’s worth of snow blocked the road; traffic backed up. Had the avalanche buried any cars that morning? We could not learn. This highway was the only winter road over the mountains. We waited as highway crews bulldozed a passage through the avalanche. With two-by-fours and walls of plywood, they erected a one-way, roofed tunnel through the avalanche. We drove through the avalanche tunnel, crossed the pass, and descended several thousand feet into central Washington and the broad Yakima valley, about which we knew only that it was orchard country. As we lost altitude, the snows disappeared; our ears popped; the trees changed, and in the trees were strange birds. I watched the landscape innocently, like a fool, like a diver in the rapture of the deep who plays on the bottom while his air runs out.
The hotel lobby was a dark, derelict room, narrow as a corridor, and seemingly without air. We waited on a couch while the manager vanished upstairs to do something unknown to our room. Beside us on an overstuffed chair, absolutely motionless, was a platinum-blonde woman in her forties wearing a black silk dress and a strand of pearls. Her long legs were crossed; she supported her head on her fist. At the dim far end of the room, their backs toward us, sat six bald old men in their shirtsleeves, around a loud television. Two of them seemed asleep. They were drunks. “Number six!” cried the man on television, “Number six!”
On the broad lobby desk, lighted and bubbling, was a ten-gallon aquarium containing one large fish; the fish tilted up and down in its water. Against the long opposite wall sang a live canary in its cage. Beneath the cage, among spilled millet seeds on the carpet, were a decorated child’s sand bucket and matching sand shovel.
Now the alarm was set for 6. I lay awake remembering an article I had read downstairs in the lobby, in an engineering magazine. The article was about gold mining.
In South Africa, in India, and in South Dakota, the gold mines extend so deeply into the Earth’s crust that they are hot. The rock walls burn the miners’ hands. The companies have to air-condition the mines; if the air conditioners break, the miners die. The elevators in the mine shafts run very slowly, down, and up, so the miners’ ears will not pop in their skulls. When the miners return to the surface, their faces are deathly pale.
Early the next morning we checked out. It was February 26, 1979, a Monday morning. We would drive out of town, find a hilltop, watch the eclipse, and then drive back over the mountains and home to the coast. How familiar things are here; how adept we are; how smoothly and professionally we check out! I had forgotten the clown’s smiling head and the hotel lobby as if they had never existed. Gary put the car in gear and off we went, as off we have gone to a hundred other adventures.
It was dawn when we found a highway out of town and drove into the unfamiliar countryside. By the growing light we could see a band of cirrostratus clouds in the sky. Later the rising sun would clear these clouds before the eclipse began. We drove at random until we came to a range of unfenced hills. We pulled off the highway, bundled up, and climbed one of these hills.
* * *
The hill was 500 feet high. Long winter-killed grass covered it, as high as our knees. We climbed and rested, sweating in the cold; we passed clumps of bundled people on the hillside who were setting up telescopes and fiddling with cameras. The top of the hill stuck up in the middle of the sky. We tightened our scarves and looked around.
East of us rose another hill like ours. Between the hills, far below, 13 was the highway which threaded south into the valley. This was the Yakima valley; I had never seen it before. It is justly famous for its beauty, like every planted valley. It extended south into the horizon, a distant dream of a valley, a Shangri-la. All its hundreds of low, golden slopes bore orchards. Among the orchards were towns, and roads, and plowed and fallow fields. Through the valley wandered a thin, shining river; from the river extended fine, frozen irrigation ditches. Distance blurred and blued the sight, so that the whole valley looked like a thickness or sediment at the bottom of the sky. Directly behind us was more sky, and empty lowlands blued by distance, and Mount Adams. Mount Adams was an enormous, snow-covered volcanic cone rising flat, like so much scenery.
Now the sun was up. We could not see it; but the sky behind the band of clouds was yellow, and, far down the valley, some hillside orchards had lighted up. More people were parking near the highway and climbing the hills. It was the West. All of us rugged individualists were wearing knit caps and blue nylon parkas. People were climbing the nearby hills and setting up shop in clumps among the dead grasses. It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day. It looked as though we had all crawled out of spaceships and were preparing to assault the valley below. It looked as though we were scattered on hilltops at dawn to sacrifice virgins, make rain, set stone stelae in a ring. There was no place out of the wind. The straw grasses banged our legs.
Up in the sky where we stood the air was lusterless yellow. To the west the sky was blue. Now the sun cleared the clouds. We cast rough shadows on the blowing grass; freezing, we waved our arms. Near the sun, the sky was bright and colorless. There was nothing to see.
It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away. We looked at it through welders’ goggles. A piece of the sun was missing; in its place we saw empty sky.
I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it. During a partial eclipse the sky does not darken—not even when 94 percent of the sun is hidden. Nor does the sun, seen colorless through protective devices, seem terribly strange. We have all seen a sliver of light in the sky; we have all seen the crescent moon by day. However, during a partial eclipse the air does indeed get cold, precisely as if someone were standing between you and the fire. And blackbirds do fly back to their roosts. I had seen a partial eclipse before, and here was another.
What you see in an eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and 15 years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.
You may read that the moon has something to do with eclipses. I have never seen the moon yet. You do not see the moon. So near the sun, it is as completely invisible as the stars are by day. What you see before your eyes is the sun going through phases. It gets narrower and narrower, as the waning moon does, and, like the ordinary moon, it travels alone in the simple sky. The sky is of course background. It does not appear to eat the sun; it is far behind the sun. The sun simply shaves away; gradually, you see less sun and more sky.
The sky’s blue was deepening, but there was no darkness. The sun was a wide crescent, like a segment of tangerine. The wind freshened and blew steadily over the hill. The eastern hill across the highway grew dusky and sharp. The towns and orchards in the valley to the south were dissolving into the blue light. Only the thin river held a trickle of sun.
Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountaintops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
I looked at Gary. He was in the film. Everything was lost. He was a platinum print, a dead artist’s version of life. I saw on his skull the darkness of night mixed with the colors of day. My mind was going out; my eyes were receding the way galaxies recede to the rim of space. Gary was light-years away, gesturing inside a circle of darkness, down the wrong end of a telescope. He smiled as if he saw me; the stringy crinkles around his eyes moved. The sight of him, familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from the other side of death: Yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive. I could not hear him; the wind was too loud. Behind him the sun was going. We had all started down a chute of time. At first it was pleasant; now there was no stopping it. Gary was chuting away across space, moving and talking and catching my eye, chuting down the long corridor of separation. The skin on his face moved like thin bronze plating that would peel.
The grass at our feet was wild barley. It was the wild einkorn wheat which grew on the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains, above the Euphrates valley, above the valley of the river we called River. We harvested the grass with stone sickles, I remember. We found the grasses on the hillsides; we built our shelter beside them and cut them down. That is how he used to look then, that one, moving and living and catching my eye, with the sky so dark behind him, and the wind blowing. God save our life.
From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down. Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.
It is now that the temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold has risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the strata again.
I saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky. I saw a circular piece of that sky appear, suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black. If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once. (If, however, I had not read that it was the moon—if, like most of the world’s people throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing—then I doubtless would not have speculated much, but would have, like Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, simply died of fright on the spot.) It did not look like a dragon, although it looked more like a dragon than the moon. It looked like a lens cover, or the lid of a pot. It materialized out of thin air—black, and flat, and sliding, outlined in flame.
Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The heart screeched. The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself. If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once that what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance. This is all I have to tell you.
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil. Its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.
The world which lay under darkness and stillness following the closing of the lid was not the world we know. The event was over. Its devastation lay around about us. The clamoring mind and heart stilled, almost indifferent, certainly disembodied, frail, and exhausted. The hills were hushed, obliterated. Up in the sky, like a crater from some distant cataclysm, was a hollow ring.
You have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse. The corona fills the print. All of those photographs were taken through telescopes. The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience. Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card. I assure you, if you send any shepherds a Christmas card on which is printed a three-by-three photograph of the angel of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a multitude of the heavenly host, they will not be sore afraid. More fearsome things can come in envelopes. More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can appear in magazines. But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.
You see the wide world swaddled in darkness; you see a vast breadth of hilly land, and an enormous, distant, blackened valley; you see towns’ lights, a river’s path, and blurred portions of your hat and scarf; you see your husband’s face looking like an early black-and-white film; and you see a sprawl of black sky and blue sky together, with unfamiliar stars in it, some barely visible bands of cloud, and over there, a small white ring. The ring is as small as one goose in a flock of migrating geese—if you happen to notice a flock of migrating geese. It is one-360th part of the visible sky. The sun we see is less than half the diameter of a dime held at arm’s length.
The Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, looks, through binoculars, like a smoke ring. It is a star in the process of exploding. Light from its explosion first reached the Earth in 1054; it was a supernova then, and so bright it shone in the daytime. Now it is not so bright, but it is still exploding. It expands at the rate of 70 million miles a day. It is interesting to look through binoculars at something expanding 70 million miles a day. It does not budge. Its apparent size does not increase. Photographs of the Crab Nebula taken 15 years ago seem identical to photographs of it taken yesterday. Some lichens are similar. Botanists have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at 50-year intervals, without detecting any growth at all. And yet their cells divide; they live.
The small ring of light was like these things—like a ridiculous lichen up in the sky, like a perfectly still explosion 4,200 light-years away: It was interesting, and lovely, and in witless motion, and it had nothing to do with anything.
It had nothing to do with anything. The sun was too small, and too cold, and too far away, to keep the world alive. The white ring was not enough. It was feeble and worthless. It was as useless as a memory; it was as off-kilter and hollow and wretched as a memory.
When you try your hardest to recall someone’s face, or the look of a place, you see in your mind’s eye some vague and terrible sight such as this. It is dark; it is insubstantial; it is all wrong.
The white ring and the saturated darkness made the Earth and the sky look as they must look in the memories of the careless dead. What I saw, what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world. We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing. We remembered our living days wrong. With great effort we had remembered some sort of circular light in the sky—but only the outline. Oh, and then the orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down the valleys and overlapped the towns. If there had ever been people on Earth, nobody knew it. The dead had forgotten those they had loved. The dead were parted one from the other and could no longer remember the faces and lands they had loved in the light. They seemed to stand on darkened hilltops, looking down.
* * *
We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust. As adults we are almost all adept at waking up. We have so mastered the transition we have forgotten we ever learned it. Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day, as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge. We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add—until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use.
I do not know how we got to the restaurant. Like Roethke, “I take my waking slow.” Gradually I seemed more or less alive, and already forgetful. It was now almost 9 in the morning. It was the day of a solar eclipse in central Washington, and a fine adventure for everyone. The sky was clear; there was a fresh breeze out of the north.
The restaurant was a roadside place with tables and booths. The other eclipse-watchers were there. From our booth we could see their cars’ California license plates, their University of Washington parking stickers. Inside the restaurant we were all eating eggs or waffles; people were fairly shouting and exchanging enthusiasms, like fans after a World Series game. Did you see … ? Did you see … ? Then somebody said something which knocked me for a loop.
A college student, a boy in a blue parka who carried a Hasselblad, said to us, “Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked like a Life Saver up in the sky.”
And so it did. The boy spoke well. He was a walking alarm clock. I myself had at that time no access to such a word. He could write a sentence, and I could not. I grabbed that Life Saver and rode it to the surface. And I had to laugh. I had been dumbstruck on the Euphrates River, I had been dead and gone and grieving, all over the sight of something which, if you could claw your way up to that level, you would grant looked very much like a Life Saver. It was good to be back among people so clever; it was good to have all the world’s words at the mind’s disposal, so the mind could begin its task. All those things for which we have no words are lost. The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work. With these we try to save our very lives.
There are a few more things to tell from this level, the level of the restaurant. One is the old joke about breakfast. “It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.” Wallace Stevens wrote that, and in the long run he was right. The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, and God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy.
The dear, stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious, clamoring mind will hush if you give it an egg.
Further: While the mind reels in deep space, while the mind grieves or fears or exults, the workaday senses, in ignorance or idiocy, like so many computer terminals printing out market prices while the world blows up, still transcribe their little data and transmit them to the warehouse in the skull. Later, under the tranquilizing influence of fried eggs, the mind can sort through this data. The restaurant was a halfway house, a decompression chamber. There I remembered a few things more.
The deepest, and most terrifying, was this: I have said that I heard screams. (I have since read that screaming, with hysteria, is a common reaction even to expected total eclipses.) People on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun. But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream.
The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?
Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the Earth’s face.
Something else, something more ordinary, came back to me along about the third cup of coffee. During the moments of totality, it was so dark that drivers on the highway below turned on their cars’ headlights. We could see the highway’s route as a strand of lights. It was bumper-to-bumper down there. It was 8:15 in the morning, Monday morning, and people were driving into Yakima to work. That it was as dark as night, and eerie as hell, an hour after dawn, apparently meant that in order to see to drive to work, people had to use their headlights. Four or five cars pulled off the road. The rest, in a line at least five miles long, drove to town. The highway ran between hills; the people could not have seen any of the eclipsed sun at all. Yakima will have another total eclipse in 2086. Perhaps, in 2086, businesses will give their employees an hour off.
From the restaurant we drove back to the coast. The highway crossing the Cascades range was open. We drove over the mountain like old pros. We joined our places on the planet’s thin crust; it held. For the time being, we were home free.
Early that morning at 6, when we had checked out, the six bald men were sitting on folding chairs in the dim hotel lobby. The television was on. Most of them were awake. You might drown in your own spittle, God knows, at any time; you might wake up dead in a small hotel, a cabbage head watching TV while snows pile up in the passes, watching TV while the chili peppers smile and the moon passes over the sun and nothing changes and nothing is learned because you have lost your bucket and shovel and no longer care. What if you regain the surface and open your sack and find, instead of treasure, a beast which jumps at you? Or you may not come back at all. The winches may jam, the scaffolding buckle, the air conditioning collapse. You may glance up one day and see by your headlamp the canary keeled over in its cage. You may reach into a cranny for pearls and touch a moray eel. You yank on your rope; it is too late.
Apparently people share a sense of these hazards, for when the total eclipse ended, an odd thing happened.
When the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over. The black lens cover appeared again, back-lighted, and slid away. At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now: We all hurried away. We were born and bored at a stroke. We rushed down the hill. We found our car; we saw the other people streaming down the hillsides; we joined the highway traffic and drove away.
We never looked back. It was a general vamoose, and an odd one, for when we left the hill, the sun was still partially eclipsed—a sight rare enough, and one which, in itself, we would probably have driven five hours to see. But enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
A few days ago, my eldest daughter left her carefree childhood days behind to enter her tumultuous teenage years. The tween years were trying. The endless eye rolls, the heavy stomping, the slamming of doors, the unexpected tears, the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. It was bittersweet. I watched the child my daughter once was slowly disappear, leaving me with this new person who no longer called me Mommy, but Mom.
In all of the changes, this is what stopped my heart. The first time I heard it, I looked around, wondering who said that. No one in my house called me Mom. I shrugged it off until I watched that word come out of my daughter’s mouth, meant for me. I felt like it was a word bullet, hitting me directly in my chest. Stopping my heart, halting my breath. Mom. Was I now Mom?
It may just be a word, but it was more than that for me. It was leaving behind not only Mommy, but the little person that once called me that. It was closing that chapter, twelve years of arduous work and interminable joy. Mommy bounced off her tongue the way her baby curls would bob up and down as she ran. Mommy had a childhood softness and need that wrapped my identity tight, like her pink cast in the summer of her third year. I knew who Mommy was, Mommy was me.
Mom, I had not met her yet. Would Mom be curt and cutting as the word sounds? Or would Mom be the same no matter what is thrown at her, a parental palindrome? Would Mom carry softness in the center, like the letter o, flanked by consistency and stability? Would Mom still have Mommy tucked inside of her, only now more grown up?
I don’t have the answers because I’m still getting used to Mom. I’m getting used to the fact that Mom has a teenager. A beautifully smart, creative, and witty teenager whose response to why she changed my name was, “Mom, I think it would look weird if I, a person taller than you, was calling you Mommy. Think of it as a nickname. You’re still Mommy inside, you’ll always be Mommy. Just like I’m always your baby.”
Point taken, ruminated, and received. Just like I’ve watched this child grow into a young woman, I’ve grown right alongside her. That’s the tricky nature of motherhood, allowing for growth while savoring the present. Not only in our children, but ourselves. Encouraging them to find themselves and expand into independence, while we tend to our own selves and get to know who we are in the present. Even if that means leaving a piece of ourselves, Mommy if you will, behind and openly embracing our new selves. Mom.