Eclipsed

Nearly a year ago, when we first learned of the solar eclipse, most motels in the Northwest Totality Zone were either booked, or charging up to $750 for a room.  So we reserved a B&B in the Eastern Oregon town of Moro, a forty minute drive to Totality. As the day approached, epic traffic jams of eclipse chasers were reported.  We left a day earlier than we’d planned, taking two days to travel 270 miles, with emergency gear: food, water, sleeping bags, gas can, read-aloud book and our Kingston Trio CDs.

Traffic on I-5 was heavy, but we traveled east over the Cascades, cruising the speed limit, and sighting only the occasional RV heading to the Totality Zone from Yakima.

All the guests at our B&B were eclipse chasers.  There were two couples, first-time viewers up from California, and a German couple, first-time visitors to the US, who had crossed an ocean and a continent for a ninety second peek at a natural phenomenon they’d seen many times before.  I took that as a good sign.

Moro’s population is 316.  Its only cafe had gone belly up, and the tiny market closes early on Sundays, but the local history museum was open.  We picnicked and were playing board games in our room when Thom discovered on Facebook that college friends were also staying in Moro at the only other accommodation in town, just a five minute walk away. Lona and Scott were as enthusiastic about the eclipse as you’d expect a science teacher and a librarian to be, and they had spent the last two days scouting out the best view spots. They invited us over, pulled out their maps and notes, and suggested a viewing place just south of Shaniko, for its off-road parking and territorial views.

Taking no chances, we allowed four hours to travel the 38 miles into the Totality Zone. Rising at 5AM, we learned that the other guests were long gone. But the roads were clear and we were halfway there before the sun rose.  At least sixty people were camped at our viewpoint, with more arriving all the time. The buzz of excitement filled the air, though the eclipse was still two hours away.  One youngster kept a faithful watch, but I dozed, catching snatches of conversation between friendly strangers.

Finally the moon’s shadow began to pass over the face of the sun. Through protective glasses it looked like a sky cookie, with a bite taken out of it.

There was a drop in temperature and a subtle change of light.  We couldn’t tell over the noise of the crowd whether the birds stopped singing, but the people-watching was superb compensation.  For an hour, the moonshadow inched across the sun, its effect hardly noticeable, except through protective glasses. Without them, even with just a sliver of the sun peeking out from behind the moon, its light was blinding.

All at once, darkness eclipsed the world.  It was as if a one-eyed sleeping giant had suddenly awakened, and the sky was staring back at us.

The crowd erupted into wild cheers, and Thom and I shared their exhilaration.

I’d seen it depicted on canvas, demonstrated in planetariums and National Geographic specials. But seeing a total solar eclipse with my own eyes was like hearing ‘Ode to Joy” sung by a heavenly choir after seeing only the musical notation on paper.

(Ivan Generalić: Solar Eclipse, 1961, CMNA )

Our dear Sol had pulled off his glasses and shirt to reveal his Superman costume. Ninety seconds later–it felt like the blink of an eye–the sun emerged from the shadow.

We took a deep breath, hugged each other, and hit the road, hoping to beat the crush of outbound traffic. We were elated as we drove north, verbally processing the experience. We both questioned whether we’d used our few precious seconds wisely. Ironically, Thom regretted not taking a single photo, while I wondered if I’d made a mistake by placing a lens between myself and an awesome once-in-a-lifetime-celestial event.  Thom knew just what to say.  “Argentina in 2019.”  Yes, please!

A friend asked, half joking, if the eclipse had changed my life. Maybe. Especially if we go chasing the next one, which will appear in the Argentine sky in 2019.  Meanwhile, there is a whole lot of Awesomeness right here on the mother planet.

I read that awe is the emotion created by an extraordinary encounter that drastically affects one’s assumptions of the world.  Experiencing this emotion can make us feel small, yet connected to something larger outside of ourselves, especially when the experience is shared by others. This was borne out in Shaniko, where traffic bottlenecked at the crossroads with the only stop sign in town. Traffic on the big road had the right of way. I feared we’d be at a standstill for hours waiting for an opening.

Then some generous soul hit the brakes and gave cuts to a person who was stuck at the stop sign, before continuing on.  The next person with the right of way also stopped to allow a car through.  They were still graciously taking turns when we reached the intersection, and were also waved on.  There was a mile of backup, but not a single horn honked, no one hollered, everyone was patient and polite, and we all moved forward together.  It was an awesome display of human nature.



There are other kinds of Awesome that sneak up on you.

These days we live under a dark shadow that has eclipsed our country, and the planet too.  Instead of chasing shadows, it feels like we’re trapped in the dark, fumbling for the light switch. I found the light when I accompanied family and friends to the Women’s March in Seattle last January.

I was awestruck.

 And I was not alone.

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The solar eclipse did not move me to tears.  But at the sight of 135,000 people speaking up for equality and compassion, and speaking out against oppression, bigotry and hatred, I couldn’t hold back tears of relief.

Tears flowed again.

And again.

And again.

If it’s a solar eclipse that fills you with awe and purpose, you need only wait a year or two, and somewhere on this planet there will be a next time, another chance.  But in the United States, if you’re looking for an extraordinary encounter, or want to feel a part of something larger than yourself, if you want to be more than an observer, you’d better start now.  Because in a year or two, who knows what will be left to save.

We can’t sit on our hands hoping no one will get sick, or disenfranchised, arrested, abused, deported, or thrown into a concentration camp for no good reason. Our national parks, our environmental protections, our healthcare and social safety nets are being systematically carved up and sold to the highest bidder. Our politicians and our elections seem to be for sale as well. Our civil rights, our human rights, our right to protest in our own defense–these too are endangered by the deranged sociopath in the White House. We can only hope he won’t get into a pissing match with another tyrant and launch us into nuclear war.

We have no protective glasses for this unnatural phenomenon, but we can’t afford to look away.  It’s time to invoke our inner superheroes.  Our superpowers will be to speak for those who have no voice. To protect those who cannot protect themselves.  To organize, educate, donate, speak out, rally and march.

Again.

And again.

And again.

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And again.

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And again.

And again.

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And again!

This isn’t a solar eclipse; there are no do-overs.  I’m keeping the glasses, because I want to be prepared for the next big event.  2019 will be here before we know it.

And so will 2020.  

All images and text ©2017NaomiBaltuck.

Boots on the Ground

Last month concerned citizens rallied in Olympia in solidarity with protestors in fifty state capitals.  We had hoped to convince electors to vote their conscience. In light of all that has passed since then, it seems naïve to have hoped they might step out of the party line.

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Those who lived through the rise of Hitler see history repeating itself. As a student of history, I looked back even further. When Trump bragged, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” I thought of the Latin phrase, agere et pati, ‘to act and to endure,’ a perfect description of medieval society.

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Bodiam Castle, East Sussex.

There’s a striking parallel between our current social order and that of the Middle Ages, in which the wealthy ruling class acted and peasants endured. Peasants made up ninety percent of the population. Lords squeezed serfs for taxes plus three days of unpaid work per week. The church exacted two more unpaid workdays, and a compulsory tithe, 10% of their income, forcing peasants to live hand to mouth. Nobility had the power of life and death over them, while the church tortured and executed dissenters.  Protest was not an option.

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Traitors Gate, Tower of London. They go in, but they don’t come out.

Like Trump and the GOP, the nobility and the church had their snits, but mostly they scratched each other’s back. Nobles gave financial support to the church, and the church justified the social order by declaring it God’s will that nobles should possess all the wealth and power, and God’s will that peasants and serfs should live to serve them.

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To cement the pact, the church placed highborn second sons into powerful positions in its own hierarchy. This artful deal resulted in feudal nobility with an iron grip on peasants, and peasants who were taught from birth to endure their sorry lot and wait obediently for their reward in Heaven. Nothing changed for centuries.

Burying plague victims.

It took the Black Death to upset the fruit basket. The plague hit Europe in 1347, killing half the population over the next five years.  With the workforce so reduced, nobles hadn’t the manpower to till their fields or chase down runaway serfs. Surviving peasants finally had some choice about whom to work for, and could demand decent wages or leave, maybe even to learn a trade in the city. At last upward mobility was possible, and the middle class got a toehold in society.

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Thirty-five years later, in 1381, to pay for its pricey Hundred Years War with France, the English government imposed its fourth Poll (per head) Tax in four years. It was a regressive tax, hardest on peasants, who shouldered as much of the Poll Tax burden as the wealthiest landowners.  Just when the peasants thought it couldn’t get worse…

King Richard II

…King Richard II issued The Statute of Laborers, capping wages and forcing workers to accept the same miserable conditions they had labored under before the plague struck. The new law threatened severe punishment to serfs and peasants who dared seek better conditions or higher wages.  It also forbad merchants and tradesmen to charge the market price for goods and services, and ordered a return to pre-plague prices. King Richard even tried to cut the only social security the poor had by forbidding beggars to beg.  In other words, he wanted to make England great again.

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In an unprecedented protest, 60,000 peasants marched to London to demand an audience with the king. 2000 protestors died in the ensuing violence, and others did too, including the archbishop, the king’s treasurer, and a number of tax collectors. The peasants dispersed after the king made promises, which he broke, and granted pardons for the rebels, which he revoked. Rebels were hunted down and executed.

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Richard II meets with rebels by Jean Froissant.

After the dust settled, it might’ve seemed like nothing had changed, but historian Michael Postan says the revolt made history, “as a landmark in social development and a typical instance of working-class revolt against oppression.” If only for fear of another uprising, peasants were treated with more respect, the hated Poll Tax was never again raised, and it marked the end of feudalism. Most importantly, peasants set their sights on astonishing new, if distant goals; freedom, equality, and democracy.

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We face difficult days ahead. Our hard won democracy has deteriorated into an oligarchy—a nation ruled by a small elite group of the obscenely wealthy. Any power or constitutional rights we lose to Trump and the Republicans will be difficult to recover. In D.C., the House, the Senate, and the White House are controlled by Republicans. Trump hasn’t assumed office yet and they’re already ripping apart social and political safeguards, unbalancing our delicate system of checks and balances.

We can’t afford to surrender to despair or even resignation. We must resist. Since the Peasants’ Revolt, we’ve had shining examples of nonviolent civil disobedience from heroines and heroes like Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, Lech Walesa, and the Standing Rock Lakota. Nonviolent movements like the Underground Railroad, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, United Farm Workers, and the Dakota Access Pipeline Resistance have brought change that makes a difference in all our lives. Not without sacrifice, but with hope, courage, and determination.

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Harriet Tubman, civil rights activist, abolitionist, humanitarian.

Solidarity in Communist Poland began with strikes to demand a free trade union, and resulted in freedom and democracy for the Polish people. There was the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia. The Singing Revolution in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania began with people gathering to sing national songs forbidden by the Communists. Four years later they were independent nations, free of Soviet rule.

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Every protest matters. It’s an act of faith, almost a prayer. Not the kind in which you petition for a miracle or  just a quick win.  The kind that lends you strength to endure however long it takes, but also transforms you from silent sufferer to person of action. You’ll be there for those who have no voice, or who need help finding their own voice. You’ll be there to inform the public and to lift each other up, to remind yourself that you are not alone.

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Each act of resistance repays a debt to those who fought and sacrificed on a battlefield, in a courtroom, or on a picket line to make our lives better. And each act of resistance is a gift to our children and grandchildren.  One day this will all be history. When people look back, and they always do, I hope to be remembered for fighting for what’s right. It’s time to call out the lies, write our congress, gather those signatures, and save our nation from a shameful demise.  It’s time to put our boots on the ground.

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Copyright 2017 Naomi Baltuck