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Spring Equinox Solar Eclipse: On Cycles, Revolutions and the Relative Size of Things

March 20, 2015 is the vernal equinox, the first official day of spring in the northern hemisphere. This year, it happens to coincide with a new moon and a full solar eclipse, when the moon will completely cover the sun as it shines over the Arctic. A partial solar eclipse will be visible to much of Europe, northern Africa and parts of Asia. This unique occurrence is the beginning of a series of four March Equinox/Solar Eclipse occurrences that will happen at 19-year intervals this century, for the first time since the 1600s.

What is the shape of the universe?

When I was a kid growing up in Indianapolis, I would spend summer nights outside on the swingset my dad built in our backyard. I remember lying on my back on the wooden platform, looking up at the stars, marveling at so many points of light in the sky, wondering what they were, how they got there. Wondering who I was, how I got here. Sometimes my dad would be outside with me, too, and we would talk about the great wide expanse of the universe. I would ask him about it, because I couldn’t quite fathom it all. I learned the basics in elementary school – mnemonic devices for remembering the order of the planets, creating mobiles with brightly painted cardboard to simulate their rotation around the sun – but this information just seemed like the tip of the iceberg when I looked up at the night sky.

The biggest question I had for my dad was about the size and shape of the universe itself. Did it just expand out, infinitely? I couldn’t imagine that, there always seemed to be some invisible barrier in my mind. Try as I might, I couldn’t contemplate the universe without imagining an edge. I’d see it as a sort of giant balloon, with us being the tiniest prick of dust somewhere inside. But if the universe were a balloon, what was on the other side?

My dad would listen as I posed all my curiosities, and encouraged me by confessing he had the same. He didn’t know the answers, but he valued the questions. He would share ideas he’d heard, perhaps from scientists, perhaps from science fiction. I remember trying to wrap my seven-year old mind around the idea he told me one night, that the universe was like a giant curved creature (an endless glowworm?) that wrapped around itself – at every edge it was merely folding back onto itself. I could both understand this and not quite fathom it at all, but it only increased my wonder as I stared up at the sky. Years later in high school math my class constructed mobius strips out of paper and I remembered these summer conversations with my dad. Years after that, I attended a Center for Courage and Renewal with the marvelous Parker Palmer and he led a session he about “life on the mobius strip,” how we integrate our inner and outer worlds, and it all came full circle for me, once again. But throughout all these journeys, I retained a sense of wonder in the night sky.

Bigger than randomness

This wonder hasn’t gone away. In college, I was able to take an astronomy course with the great Richard Berendzen (who has a series of audiobooks if you’re interested in learning more astronomy). Every day I’d leave class with my friend John Cheney-Lippold, and I’d declare “John, can’t I go to grad school for astronomy?” He’d remind me that we were taking astronomy for non-science majors. Oh yeah – all that calculus I never learned might be necessary to go further in the field. So much for that.

I was teasing, anyway. It wasn’t that I wanted to be an astronomer, per se, it was just that I felt so lit up and alive when learning about what we think we know (which pales in comparison to what we don’t know!) about the universe. Since before wifi became ubiquitous, Astronomy Picture of the Day has been my favorite website. Thinking about the planets, stars and galaxies tickles my imagination, and gives me faith – yes, faith – that there is a meaning and purpose to life bigger than me, bigger than an accident, bigger than randomness. The universe, giant, astounding, unfathomable, is so clearly alive with meaning and purpose, the whole of creation beautiful, magical, mystical, material. Yet I consider it equal folly for humans to think we can know exactly what that meaning is, exactly how creation occurred, exactly what lies on the other side of the edge of what is known, exactly what lies on the other side of death.

Patterns within patterns: The upcoming Eclipse/Equinox cycle

Here’s an example of how patterns work in us, around us and through us. I began this daily blogging experiment on the new moon of February 18 partly inspired by what seemed to me a happy coincidence that this month’s new moon – March 20th – also happens to be a solar eclipse AND the first day of spring, the vernal equinox. The two equinoxes of spring and fall are the two days of the year when the sun rises exactly in the east, and spreads its light evenly (equinox = equal) between the Northern & Southern Hemispheres. Musing with a group of friends the other day, I guessed that such an occurrence must be rare – that it might be hundreds of years before it might happen again. That evening, I figured I should research that claim, so I began reading about the upcoming equinox eclipse. Turns out I was both right and wrong.

It is true that for a new moon/solar eclipse to happen to occur on the same day as the vernal equinox is quite rare – the last time a full eclipse was on the same day as the spring equinox was 1662, I learned from this helpful piece at Universe Today, and the last partial eclipse on the spring equinox was 1681. Long before the United States was a country, before my ancestors crossed the Atlantic Ocean, in the same century as the English Civil War, the death of Shakespeare, the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Great Plague in London and Isaac Newton’s experiments with gravity – that was the last time a solar eclipse coincided with the spring equinox.

But it won’t be hundreds of years until the next one. Just as this year will have three Friday the 13ths (last month, this Friday and again in November) occurrences in the sky also work in patterns and cycles of ever expanding scales. And it so happens that the March Equinox + Eclipse of 2015 is the first in a series of four spring equinox solar eclipses that will repeat themselves this century, at 19 year intervals. 2015, 2034, 2053 and 2072 – each one of these years will see a solar eclipse – a process whereby our moon temporarily blocks the light of the mighty sun – coinciding with the first day of spring, the day when the sun evenly distributes its light across the planet’s hemispheres. This pattern will repeat itself again, but not until 2387, when there will be a series of five Vernal Equinox Solar Eclipses at 19 year intervals, lasting until 2463. Wow. Learning this fills me with awe.

In other words, we’re not just experiencing a one-off event on March 20th, we’re experiencing the start of a series which will shape the course of the 21st century, and won’t recur again until for 315 years. Through some grand geometric rhythm I can only begin to grasp, we are entering a new pattern of rotation (one that has happened before; one that will happen again) that will last the next 76 years, or about 3 generations, then disappear for three centuries. How often do we even consider things that far distant in the future? And yet what was happening at the time of the last spring equinox eclipse has profoundly shaped our reality today.

Navigating the stars, navigating vastly different scales

My father’s father, like most of his generation, served in WWII. He served in the Navy, in the Pacific. As the ship’s navigator, he learned how to navigate by the stars. When I was a little girl he taught me how to find them. Orion. Big Dipper. Little Dipper. North Star.

In our own lives, we’re called to make observations of the world around us, and navigate accordingly. Living in cities, in suburbs, in populated places, many of these observations are related to the world of human affairs – to our social constructions, to the built environment. Yet there is much wisdom to be gained by observing areas beyond the scope of human relations. Take the concept of our solar system, our galaxy, our neighborhood of galaxies. To contemplate even one of these for very long is to be astounded, awed. I’m not advocating for any one religious point of view, but it’s hard not to recognize how humans of all types have looked up to the heavens and found traces of the divine. In the metaphorical sense of the word, it’s hard to believe existence is anything short of a miracle.

It so happened that in the early morning this morning, I came across this video, and excellent example of illustration of scale:

For the most part, I think this is a great video. But if you watched to the end, I want to present a different framing of the final idea suggested by the animation. The last statement “you are not the center of the universe” is a bit of a paradoxical statement, in that it is both true and not true. We are nothing in the face of such vastness, and yet we are something, too, and it is something that matters. I can look at a star and a caterpillar with the same amount of wonder. While our egos can benefit from a reality check, it seems to me that rather than emphasizing our smallness, emphasizing our interrelatedness is a more effective way to heal some of the bruised egos that to me seem to drive so much irrational and harmful behavior by humans towards one another.

While no one person, place or thing is the “center of the universe”, on the other hand every person place and thing is in its own way the center of the universe, and within each of us is a universe unto itself. Long journeys of learning and meditation have taught me how much we are all microcosms of the larger planet, solar system, universe. This can be seen in philosophical concepts from multiple traditions, from the Quaker concept that “there is that of God in everyone”  to the Hermetic phrase “as above, so below”, and across so many other philosophical and spiritual traditions.

From the vast expanse of galaxies to the vast expanse of sub-atomic particles

All this contemplation leads me to another film, Charles & Ray (a woman!) Eames’s marvelous Powers of Ten. It is a film you should watch without introduction from me, but please believe me that it is worth all 9 minutes of your time.

Marvelous, isn’t it? From the farthest away galaxies to the smallest atomic pieces, the universe is pulsing with patterns and rhythms that we can only begin to grasp. I think there is real magic and power in using our attention to observe our world at different levels, whether through a telescope, microscope or through the patient, daily work of sitting in silent meditation. Whether you are observing faraway galaxies, minuscule particles or the pattern of your own breath as it moves in & out of the tip of your nose, there are discernible pattens, and yet underlying this is a transcendental oneness of all of creation. A solar eclipse on the first day of spring, which will return again in 19 years, and again twice more before a rest of three centuries. The steady dance of the stars in the night sky, the growth of a child, the budding of leaves in the spring and falling of autumn. How marvelous, how mystical, how magic to be a part of it all!

No. 22/31 in the Moon Cycle blog series.

Today’s moon status: Waning gibbous, 69.2% illuminated.

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