It’s been almost a 3 weeks since the solar eclipse that occurred on August 21th, and I’m still thinking about it. Here’s why:
The last time I gave the sun that much attention I was lying on an altar on the top of a pyramid with my arms splayed out above my head and pools of sweat collecting beneath my back. Somewhere in the distance, there were people chanting in a foreign language while up close throngs of onlookers pressed in around me. A hundred eyes gazed at me with expressions ranging from pity to disgust as a laid breathless on the hot stone. One man, in particular, glared at me with a look so damning it made my stomach turn. I was nauseous and dizzy. Somewhere along the way, I’d been separated from my brother. Overwhelmed, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. The world went red behind my eye lids. I exhaled, and then opened my eyes again – and suddenly there he was, a boy, my age if not younger, standing at over me with an obsidian dagger with a blade the color of hot tar.
Now, YOU take a deep breath.
What I have just described to you a very real two-minute snapshot from my visit to Teotihuacan, an ancient Aztec city Mexico, where I once suffered a bout of heat exhaustion after climbing to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in 100+ degree heat. The man who glared at me presumably did so because I was, in fact, lying rather irreverently on one of the artifacts that all of these tourists had traveled to see: an ancient stone altar where real people had once been sacrificed to the Aztec god of the sun. I, of course, had no idea that it was anything other than a conveniently placed seating area for those who dared to climb the pyramids to the zenith of a 213 foot pyramid beneath the blazing desert sun. When someone finally broke it to me that I was lying on someone else’s death bed I jumped up so abruptly I nearly knocked over a kid with his souvenir dagger.
The chanting, in case you were wondering, was coming from a group of mostly middle aged white men, clad in white linen, doing something resembling yoga near the edge of the pyramid’s the upper level opposite the staircase. To this day I don’t know who they were or what they were doing there. The mystery!
After flinging myself off the alter my brain rushed through an array of different emotions, trying to identify what the appropriate response would be in the current circumstances. I cycled through embarrassment, confusion, disgust, relief, and indignation in under a second but was ultimately stuck with the lingering impression that I had been tricked, manipulated, BETRAYED by the sun that I had trusted. That clever villain had cooked me medium rare and then offered me a bed on his dinner plate. I felt so mad I could have cursed the sky. Mind you, I was nearing heat stroke and fully acknowledge that these thoughts were not entirely rational. The sun had not made an attempt on my life, nor has it made demanded any human life in the past. I believe that.
The Aztecs, on the other hand, had their own beliefs on this matter – hence the altar. They believed in a solar deity called Huitzilopotchli. According to legend Huitzilopotchli was locked in an ongoing battle against the darkness and required constant nourishment – in the form of human flesh – in order to ensure his victory over the infinite night. If he failed, there would be no more light – no sun or moon or stars – and the earth, and thus mankind would all die. So the Aztecs monitored the sky ceaselessly for signs of Huitzilopochtli’s distress. When the days grew short or the moon vanished from the night sky the Aztec’s would dutifully drag some poor soul to the top of the pyramid, never to be seen again.
Any dimming of the sky was viewed as a bad omen, but the celestial event that the Aztecs feared most was a solar eclipse because it was said to signal the apocalypse and the final victory of the infinite night.
I couldn’t help but think of all this as I knelt in the grass outside my office in Oklahoma, surrounded by dozens of spectators who had paused their work days so they could come witness this last months solar eclipse. People who worked in plaza brought lawn chairs and picnic blankets, some groups even threw organized watch parties. The mood was…festive. Why wouldn’t it be? This is 2017! Here, an eclipse may be an occasion for a blog post. In thirteenth-century Mexico, it would have been a bloodbath.
I for one, am content with these lower stakes, especially when considering that Aztecs believed that Huitzilopotchli preferred “the fair skinned type”. I would have led a very short life, I’m sure.
After all the hype that the recent eclipse got here in the US, many of the spectators in my part of the country felt it was a bit anticlimactic. In fact, if no one had alerted me I probably would not have noticed anything out of the norm. The sky did not get dark. The air was not chilled. There was no sweeping orchestral movement to set the mood. There were just a bunch of people standing in the grass with paper plates and iPhones hoisted awkwardly above their heads. People waited around awhile and the with the tick of a clock it was…well, over.
Later that afternoon, all the fuss about anti-climax brought another pyramid to mind: Freytag’s Pyramid. Freytag’s pyramid is a diagram that was created in 1863 by a man named Gustav Freytag to depict the dramatic structure of plot-based storytelling.
According to Freytag, every dramatic story has to follow a certain structure: exposition (setting/scene/context), conflict (some sort of inciting an incident, usually problematic in nature that sets the plot into motion), rising action, complication, climax (the most intense moment), reversal, falling action, resolution (main problems are resolved) denouement (the ending – remaining secrets are told and themes are often emphasized).
The people in my plaza were disappointed because despite all the media attention their experience of the solar eclipse never made it out of exposition. It was simply something that happened within their environment. For most people, the event did not create any conflict. It did not built in intensity (It didn’t even get dark!). It did not change the course of their lives (although perhaps, it did change their Monday… in some small, inconsequential sort of way). In short, it did not qualify as a “dramatic” story – even with its cosmic scope and sordid history, the plot sort of flatlines.
Now, I am the type of person who gives an abnormally large amount of attention to the dramatic structure of my day to day life. It’s part of my identity as a storyteller. So I have spent a lot of time in the last few weeks thinking about stories in my life that I have flat-lined: the big ideas of shrinking importance, the threats that have emerged and vanished without my intervention, relationships that might have but never actually did develop, and all sorts of other experiences that simply fell short of my expectations. All those anticlimactic moments, some of which came as a relief and others as a disappointment, have given me the stability and respite I’ve needed to navigate other adventures. Remember in those anticlimactic moments that even in this day and age pyramids can be hazardous to your health, metaphorically and otherwise.
The way I saw it, falling was inevitable. After all, if it were easy to stay on horseback, why all the fuss about getting back in the saddle? Yes, I was sure of it; I was going to fall…but from the shortest horse possible if I could help it. That’s how I ended up with Rocket, a horse so squat most people called him a pony. To be clear, there’s no shame in being a pony. God made equines in all shapes and sizes, same as us, and I’ve never known one horse to be prejudiced against another. Nonetheless, most of the people I knew pronounced pony with extra “P” and pinch of condescension.
In those days I, like Rocket, was a bit a misfit. I was, for one, the only kid in my 4-H group that did not have a horse, which seemed especially absurd since I’d joined an exclusively equestrian club. By way of full confession, I had never even ridden a horse before – at least not in the way the counts, where you get to hold the reins yourself.
On my first day at Riding High, the group leader asked me to introduce myself ….and share a little about my horse or pony too. I explained, somewhat sheepishly, that I had asked for a horse, but my parents had gotten me goats instead. Yes, goats. With extra “G”.
Outside of club meetings, I volunteered to muck out stalls and bathe other people’s horses whenever I could in hopes that one day some sympathetic owner would just give me one. I’m sure you’re as surprised as I am that this never happened. But hey, it was worth a shot. What did was happen was that I met Christine – the daughter of one of my mother’s long lost friends.
One day, Christine and her mom ran into me and my mom at Agway, buying feed for our respective animals. Christine, it turned out had not one but two horses – two horses! – and even though we had just met she invited me to come ride with her.
Like I said, Christine had two horses: a big one and small one, and she gave me my choice between them.
First of all, you should know The Big One was not a lazy way of saying the bigger one. He was the size of moose. “This is Buddy.” said Christine, gesturing upward.
“Or Bullwinkle.” I said, not that she had asked for suggestions.
“…and this is Rocket.” she continued.
Rocky and Bullwinkle, I thought to myself. What a perfect pair. Their real names, however, were both more telling and less cheesy than my off the cuff nicknames. If I were wiser, I might have taken them into consideration before I made my selection, but I was, as previously stated, only concerned with their height. The irony!
“I’ll ride Rocket.”
Buddy, I later learned, was a retired racehorse, who had had his fill of running and was perfectly content to take his retirement slow. He was well trained and calm tempered. You got the impression that he had nothing left to prove. Rocket, on the other hand, was young and wily, with everything to prove. The two animals got along just fine, but Rocket would often act up when new people were around. He would run faster, jump higher, even eat more food as if to say “anything Bud can do I can do also. Anything Bud can do, I can do too.”
I would complain that Christine didn’t warn me of these behaviors, but who could blame her after I implied that her horse looked like a moose.
Things got off to a pretty good start. We rode along the fence inside paddock since the center area was set up as a show jumping course. This is a cinch I thought as I sped up to a slow trot. I thought I was doing well, but I wasn’t getting any accolades from my newest friend. “Come on, you can go faster than that.”
I was certain that I could, but not so certain I wanted to. “Just couple more rounds,” I said. “I’m working up to it.
“Ah huh.” She clearly thought I was stalling. “Wait up a sec.”
I pulled up on the reins and waited for what she had to say next, thinking she had spotted something in my form or posture that needed correcting. Maybe I was holding the reins wrong, or my feet were too far into the stirrups, or the saddle was loose. When she and her horse were parallel to me and mine she stopped. We made eye-contact. Then, without a word, Christine leaned down from her high horse and smacked my short horse on the haunches.
Just like that, we were off!
I realized that we had veered into the jumping course at the precisely the same moment I realized I was still on the horse. This was also the moment that I decided that falling, inevitable as it may be, was no longer an acceptable outcome.
Rocket was running full tilt toward the largest fence in the course and, not trying to sound judgemental here, but I didn’t believe he could make it. Neither did I believe that he would stop.
I was right on one of these two counts. He did not stop. And so it was that on my very first ride, I managed to stay in the saddle after clearing a three-foot jump – a fact that might have gone to my head if Rocket, upon landing, had not banked so hard to the left that the thought was thrown out of my ear. I too was thrown – clean out of my seat, in fact, but not all the way to the ground.
I was hanging so far off the side of the horse I could see his underbelly, but my feet were still in the stirrups and my hands were gripping two fistfuls of mane. All in all, I had a pretty good hold. I wasn’t slipping, but I couldn’t pull myself up either. Meanwhile, Rocket was taking a victory lap. Surely this is uncomfortable for him, I thought. He’ll stop. Any moment now he’ll stop. I just have to hold on until he stops.
And holding on seemed pretty smart at first -as did riding the short horse, you’ll remember. Unfortunately, after a quick assessment of our trajectory, I concluded that plan had a fatal flaw.
Rocket was running toward the barn. If he ran in a straight line, he would be able to run right along the west wall, but I, who stuck out a ways in an unfavorable direction would collide with the southwest corner of the building.
Now, jumping from a running horse, like jumping from a moving car, is something you only do under a particular set of circumstances. Either you’re a Hollywood stunt double who expects to be rewarded with a living or an ordinary person hoping to high heaven you’ll be rewarded with your life. So with high hopes, I jumped… horizontally.
I pushed off hard so that I would not end up underfoot but in doing so unwittingly flung myself onto a spare cinder block that had been left on the ground.
“Oh God, are you okay? Are you okay? ARE YOU O.K.?!”
Christine was frantic, as would be expected. I was lying on my back, propped up slightly on the one side by the cinderblock jammed into my shoulder. I opened mouth to speak, but the wind had been knocked out of me. “Oh God! Are you dying?” she continued. “I’m…I’m…I’m going to get you some water.” I tried to interrupt her to tell her: that I was okay; that I wasn’t I wasn’t dying; that I just wanted some help standing up; …that I didn’t need any water. But it was too late. I was silent and she was gone.
Rocket, on the other hand, had circled back around and was now staring down at me with a face that looked more perplexed than apologetic. When my voice did return to me, the first word to spill out was a simple, accusatory, “You.”The sentence I was trying for was actually a bit longer, but I’d choked after the first word. What I meant to say was “You nearly killed me.” It was not my intention to place to blame squarely in his saddle – it wasn’t entirely his fault – but something in the tilt of his head compelled me to try to… explain. Explain what, you ask? Explain we he should look more apologetic, I suppose.
When Christine returned from the house with a plastic cup full of tap water, I attempted the sentence again, this time with more success. To this day, I’ve never seen a person look so relieved to be scolded.
She helped me to my feet and then led me back toward the house, where she helped me patch up my shoulder. She gave me a new shirt since the one I arrived in had been torn and bloodied. She even offered me ice cream and a stack of CDs and I ride home.
To Christine’s surprise, I declined the ride home and asked for another horseback ride instead. “I’d like to take Rocket for another couple rounds around the paddock if that’s okay.”
Christine’s eyes were locked on my shoulder. as if it had said something funny. “You can come back another day.” she told it.
“I’d just like to end on a better note.” I pleaded. “You know… get right back in the saddle.”
She reluctantly agreed. After we’d each eaten a bowl of ice cream we returned to the paddock and climbed back into our saddles, where we stayed until sun down.
In the end, I was happy. Happy to know the meaning of that old idiom first hand. And you, I believe, will be happy to know that that second ride ended just as it was meant to, with a dismount so graceful and controlled it might have been performed by an Olympic gymnast. You could barely even hear me wince.