already burning

Posted by on September 30, 2017



There is a hidden kind
Of humble goodness
I love in others

Only an aeon
Of refining fire
Could make it mine

But sometimes it’s as if
I were already burning.

(by Ann Porter, from Living Things: Collected Poems)

* * *

I first heard about the 2017 eclipse in the unlikeliest of places: an Orthodox bookstore. Among imported Ukrainian eggs, beeswax candles, icons, picture books, prayer books, and with Byzantine chant playing overhead. A thin, soft-spoken, slender, bearded man who filled out a handwritten receipt told me that a total eclipse was coming and would pass right over St. Louis. He said a special kind of glasses must be worn to view it– made of paper, only a few dollars a pair. Without them your eyes would be damaged. He was planning to stock these glasses in his store; it might be a good idea to order a batch ahead of time.

Imagine my interest, tinged by skepticism, and lack of imagination. I don’t remember what time of year it was, only that the summer of 2017–its heat, its plans, its particulars–nevermind the end of August, which would be about the time my kids would be returning to school again, when they were not yet even out of school yet for the summer– was then too far away for me to think about. This information, received amidst icons of archangels and incense packets, seemed as burdensome as it was remarkable. This special information having been imparted, was I now expected to go forth and evangelize? The world outside was not yet aware of any such eclipse. The few sources I could find online looked as if they might possibly be traced to a trailer home in New Mexico.

I work with Protestants–mostly reformed Presbyterians. They don’t use icons in their worship; they don’t understand Mary. They shop at Target and pin things to Pinterest. So do I, but I say that to point out that there is much more seamlessness between the Protestant faith and American culture. It looks and feels similar. I imagined how they would react to the colorful oriental-bizarre-like interior of the Orthodox bookstore, presenting a picture of Christianity that looks foreign, situated so close to the familiar, vanilla normality of Target. Standing there, between walls and shelves that were orderly but entirely covered and cluttered with an array of stuff borne out of centuries of a faith that has not been in American long enough to take on an American look and feel, I was keenly aware of how strange it would seem to my Protestant friends. But I am expert at being the only Orthodox among non-Orthodox, at straddling both worlds. I do this by not sticking my neck out, not trying to explain things or assert things that are unfamiliar, unless asked. I let them lie; I hide them in my heart, mostly without guile. I would not be sticking my neck out to explain half the things in this bookstore. Nor would I be sticking my neck out for the eclipse, or for any weird glasses. If it were real, let it announce itself. In the meantime, I was above it…or not up to it. I’m not sure which.

And of course I watched as it did announce itself, in a slow, creeping emergence at first, until the final trumpet blast, into the mainstream. The St. Louis Science Center created an exhibit on it, town halls were hosting events, and by midsummer everyone was anticipating and making plans for that day. Some friends of ours in Chicago even asked if they could come visit us so that we could watch the eclipse together.

At long last, a few days beforehand, I realized my family didn’t have the appropriate glasses in hand. Like one of the five foolish virgins in the gospel who didn’t have enough oil in her lamp and was unprepared when the bridegroom returned at midnight, I found myself calling around to different places in St. Louis, trying to find these now highly sought after glasses. I even called the Orthodox bookstore. In the recorded message I recognized the kindly voice of the man I had dismissed. He apologized that they were sold out of eclipse glasses and concluded with a warbling, “God bless.”

Thankfully we found some glasses just in time. The day approached in the midst of a sweltering heat wave. Our friends arrived–a family of five– and our tiny house was full. We debated about where to view the eclipse. There was so much build-up around the event, and being in the path of totality. If we stayed at our house, we would see much less totality than if we traveled somewhere closer to the center of the path. It was rumored that highways would be clogged with traffic. In theory, we could just drive to the middle of nowhere and get out of the car to view it alongside the highway, but somehow I couldn’t help but feel that would be a disappointing way to honor a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event. In the end, in spite of the heat, and maybe with me and my stubborn ideals driving it, we decided to go to a nature reserve that our family loves for hiking. It may not have been a wise choice, and it’s possible that I will always look back and question it. The oppressive heat, having to park, walk with little ones among us, pack picnic food, picnic blankets, water, bug spray, and sunblock. Well, it was a lot. And I don’t think I realized that anxiety was building up inside of me.

In the days leading up to the eclipse many people were posting cautionary tales on Facebook– of people whose eyes were permanently damaged by irresponsible eclipse viewing. It was causing anxiety to fester within me– anxiety for my children. They only have one set of eyeballs that will have to serve them for the rest of their life, long after I am gone. What if in their childish carelessness they were to burn their retinas?

So what happened? During the few fleeting moments of this once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, my anxiety presented itself, and I bickered with my eldest child. Yes, I did that. When she wasn’t letting the glasses slip from clumsy fingers, she was casually, purposefully pulling them a few inches away from her face, while still gazing up into the sun. And I freaked out a little. I micro-managed. I nagged. And not only did I do this, I did this in front of our friends, and in front of strangers who were also gathered in the same spot. One might say I kind of spoiled things. And my daughter got, understandably, really irritated with me. And then I was ashamed. But things weren’t entirely spoiled, because they couldn’t be. The eclipse was too amazing to be spoiled–objectively amazing, although fleeting. It was confusing; it was divine; it was human; it was mixed-up.

This is my not-so-illustrious tale of the 2017 eclipse, that the most awful aspects of my personality leapt up like a hungry flame in that precious moment, on that precious day, and engulfed me, in plain view of others. And I am not going to rationalize or justify my behavior (though I later realize that PMS was quite clearly having its way with me), but I also cannot explain to myself why such bad behavior was triggered so strongly in that moment. I was angry at myself, for one thing, that I hadn’t researched the facts about the eclipse well enough and did not know that during totality, it is safe to look directly at the sun without glasses. I really, truly, stupidly did not know that. So I was anxious about myself and my children looking at it at all. I also noticed later that a lot of parents had created special, crafty contraptions for their children–glasses embedded into a sort of paper plate mask. I wished I had known to do that– not because I really believe my kids would have been more safe, but because it would have taken the edge of my fears a bit, by tricking me into feeling like I had more control.

So what is wrong with me? I have no idea. I have no idea where my issues come from, or how deeply they are rooted or if they are possible to dislodge. I have no idea why, with abundant warning– months and months of warning–the most advanced warning anyone could have hoped for–I was still somehow unprepared and undone by the 2017 eclipse. Woe is me. I have no idea why I am capable of behaving in a way that I know is absurd, irrational, and hurtful to the people around me precisely at a moment that should be remembered fondly, with purity and awe, untainted by quarrels and conflict. These and so many more character defects would indeed take eons to be purged away from me in a refining fire. I hope that the slow fire of refinement is happening. There are days when I think it is. There are days when I am not sure.