I woke with nightmares in the wee hours after freaking out last night, worrying that I have made a terrible mistake going back to school, that somehow brains forget how to learn, how to study. Maybe they do. Maybe mine would. I dreamt that demons were trying to trap my daughter every time I left her alone. They tried to get to her in the bathroom even. My vivid imagination isn’t a blessing in these moments. I calmed down only to have a nonsensical dream about coding, where I had to actually rig codes like ropes. It was a relief to hear my alarm going off at 6:00AM, and I sprang into motion, determined not to be late on my first day. I pulled into a parking space not far from my building, and I promptly forgot my map of campus. Then, I forgot to put my parking pass on the mirror. My confidence that I was prepared was shaken, and I felt my face fight me as I attempted to smile. I settled for my lips pressed into a determined line, squared my shoulders, and stalked to hide my trembling. I was set at ease by a kind, old professor who stood in the hall, directing all of us to our classrooms. I remembered Hagrid in the first Harry Potter book, “This way firs’ years!” And I found my class, sitting at what turned out to be the only computer without a mouse. I scooted over to fix my mistake. And four others plopped into the chair next to me as they filed in, and I warned them about the mouse. One guy eventually stubbornly stayed, telling me he wouldn’t need it after he arrived twenty minutes late. Are you crazy? It’s a computer lab. You’re gonna need a mouse. But I’m not his mama. I discovered, to my surprise, that I’m not the only woman. I’m not even the oldest woman. And we older women are killing it. We are the only people in the class who seem to have attempted installing programs or reading chapters. Maybe I’m not going to flunk out. Then, I showed the girl next to me how to save to her C drive. (Yes, she was in a programming class and couldn’t find her C drive.) I wrote programs in Python and left knowing that I can do this.
Still, I was relieved to be riding into a less mentally taxing sunset of sorts—the total solar eclipse. I rode to McMinnville, TN, to be in the path of totality. I avoided major cities and interstates, imagining the gridlock that could ensue. I was surprised as the eclipse began that I saw churches with signs that said “No Loitering” with people next to them, like they were going to hand out citations. I bypassed the downtown festival. Ick. It was a parking nightmare, so I attempted to pull into a nearby church. The lot was blocked by a couple of vehicles, presumably church members who wanted no one to use the lot. For real, guys? I’d be capitalizing on the opportunity if I were them. I’m thinking some Jesus is the light of the world pamphlets. But, no. They don’t want people in their empty parking lots. Is it any wonder these places are empty on Sundays?
But it was all serendipitous. Ramsey Park was wide open. Most people were downtown, and there were shade trees and just enough people to be interesting. I glimpsed the moon sliding over the sun, and the sky grew dimmer. The world began to look filtered, like we were all wearing sunshades. It’s amazing how much light can be produced by even a tiny sliver of sun. It still seemed like twilight when only the barest crescent was left. The roosters nearby grew confused, thinking the gray of dawn was approaching, and this was their moment. Cock-a-doodle-doo! Times about fifty. Finally, when the sun was completely hidden by the moon, the roosters gave up, and the cicadas began their cadence. I wasn’t prepared for how breathtaking the moments would be. Night in mid-day as the temperatures dropped, the stars were visible, and the sun’s halo danced around the edges of the moon. I felt small, humbled in the dim light. And I knew that the moment had been worth all of my Googling and insisting that I drive into the totality path and buy glasses. Even at 98% occlusion, this night glory wouldn’t be visible. I was in a staring contest with the sky, waiting for the starburst of sunrays that would announce the world is back to normal. I loved the afterglow of the eclipse, the quiet moment when I was still in awe of what I’d seen, before the world became less filtered once more.
Coincidentally, I’d noticed that Cumberland Caverns wasn’t terribly far away on the drive in. In fact, it was only 13 minutes away. How could I not go spend time underground when it was right there? So, off I went. The main problem was the lack of a nearby espresso source. But cave tours are on a schedule, so I sighed and promised myself Starbucks later.
The cave was unlike other show caves I’d been to. I have seen heavily modified caves before, but the beaten tourist path wasn’t exactly brimming with beauty. However, I can confidently say that it was the best smelling cave I have ever been in. The paths are lined with cedar mulch so that people don’t slip in the mud and slick stones. That might have been my favorite part. I don’t usually like the algae growth in the light’s glow in show caves, and I was horrified at the Bluegrass Underground pit/ concert hall. The giant gaudy chandelier hanging from the ceiling felt like desecration. The TVs, lights, bleachers, speakers were all too visible and as marring to me as graffiti or broken formations. The guide laughed the modifications off, but I couldn’t unsee the monstrous, unnatural change. Somewhere over the years, I have become so conscious of what I touch in caves, how I preserve paths as I survey, where I visit, that conservation is a thread of my caver identity. And I couldn’t make the dissonance before me settle into any kind of beauty, art, or progress in my mind.
The best part of the tour was a giant flowstone formation with a viewing area bedecked with benches. I thought that someone finally got it right as they resembled church pews, and I thought the wonders were worthy of admiration. The giant wall of flowstone stacks fused together did evoke awe. I made a conscious effort to embrace the best of the cave and keep my know-it-all side tamped down. (I have been known to take over cave tours.)
As I reflect on the mixture that made the day so wonderful, I think the key to it all was balance. A confidence building morning with a healthy dose of awe, a cosmic reminder that I’m not that great. I also liked the symmetry of hours tracking an eclipse followed by darkness underground. And I did finally get that coffee. 😉