Amnesty for the Eclipse

A Candle of hope and Human Rights

I started feeling sorry this past Sunday for the eclipse. Of course it had been clearly announced, but who knew what it would bring, how long it would intrude into our lives, how many of us would treat it well, pay it enough attention — all the attention it deserved — or how many of us would pretend it didn’t matter, schedule other activities — like indoor bowling — or have to work and only see it later on TV, or briefly out an office window somewhere?

I will confess that beforehand I had a bad attitude about the eclipse. I wasn’t looking forward to its arrival. It would disrupt my usual schedule, keep me from reading or blogging. I kept saying I was underwhelmed by its prospect, that I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for it, and that left to my own devices, I’d probably walk outside at the fullest moment of “totality” and go “Yep, that’s an eclipse all right.”

Fortunately, two atmospheric disturbances intervened.

First, my wife, the ultimate optimist. She’s the most innocent psychotherapist you’ll ever know, and for weeks now, she’s been as excited about the eclipse as a mortal can be.

“Just imagine being out there and seeing it,” she’d say.

“Just imagine how hot it’s going to be,” I countered.

Two weeks ago, the long-range forecast had our prime city of Greenville as being cloudy and possibly rainy on Eclipse Day. Clearly, I was not bothered, and there was that mean part of me that kept thinking, “Yeah, you’re all gonna get worked up for this event, and it’s gonna rain, and you’ll be so disappointed, and I’ll make fun of you in a blog.”

You may look now.

And then, the crowds. Some estimates I saw or heard had 6 million people descending on Upstate South Carolina, and all I could think of was that Atlanta has close to 2 million and thinking of that congestion, I couldn’t imagine how we’d manage such company. The roads, I heard, would be so jammed that you’d better make sure you had a full tank of gas and that you had several empty bottles in your vehicle with you just in case.

People got so anxious about traffic that I feared having to drive back from Bessemer this past Saturday, where I’d had a book-signing event. Would the traffic be so thick that my normally 5-hour drive would take ten, fifteen, even twenty hours? Would I even make it back on Saturday at all?

“Maybe you’d better drive back on Friday night,” my wife suggested.

“But the signing is Friday night,” I whined. “What on earth will I do?”

So I drove back on Saturday and it took 5 and a half hours, mainly because Atlanta is always Atlanta, and no matter what time of day you drive through, there are cars trying to find a new exit or passing when they shouldn’t, getting in the exact path between you and your chosen route.

I’m not there

That I made it back within my normal time frame both comforted me and told me that all my fears and panic might be for nought.

So I started relaxing, and as I normally do, began trusting my wife and trying to get close to her exuberance and joy.

The second atmospheric phenomenon that made me decide that I had to go with my wife to view the eclipse was the arrival of our old friend Guy Ottewell, who organized a group of Greenville friends to view the eclipse. Guy and his partner Tilly travelled back to us all the way from London where they have been living for the past few years.

We first met Guy when we moved to Greenville thirty years ago. We had no friends in town, and knowing we were invested in Human Rights’ causes, one of my wife’s clients suggested that we join the local Amnesty International chapter.

On that first Tuesday night of the month in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Greenville, we came face to face with Guy, a tall, skeletal British man who welcomed us in the name of Human Rights to Greenville’s very own Amnesty International chapter.

While there was a hard core of fifteen to twenty members, Guy was always the chapter’s sun. His reach into all matters pertaining to worldwide prisoners of conscience extended so far past the orbit of my own meager view, that I wondered what, after all, I did know. This was the late 80’s, a heady time for being in Amnesty as it had also started working against the death penalty, a human rights violation that split even some Amnesty members.

Amnesty has a rule that members cannot work for political prisoners in their own country, a safeguard that seems to matter more in some countries than in others. But in death penalty cases, we are allowed to write letters to and petition our own governments. The U.S. is one of the only industrialized countries that still sanctions the death penalty, and so when Amnesty took up the cause, many of us charged straight into it.

But I don’t mean to get so “political” here, even though Amnesty is not politically-affiliated with any certain party or slant. And that’s by charter.

What I do want to say is that we stayed in Amnesty for twelve years, and the normal lifespan of a human rights volunteer is two years. I know that we stayed in the organization mainly because of the friendships we made there with Owen, and Leo, and Maurice, Mickey and Marian, Dwight, John, Efia, Alvena, Walter, and Edwin.

And mainly Guy.

I can’t explain this but if you understand the concept of a Renaissance Man (or Woman), then you’d understand Guy. A world traveller, often on his bicycle. An astronomical genius: he published his Astronomical Calendar yearly, which he writes, edits, and illustrates. This work is encyclopedic and not strictly for the casual stargazer. Guy bought a house once and landscaped a garden maze. He knew about or was curious about literature, music, film, biology, and physics. He understands so much of the world, but like many of us, he has his darker moments.

Just look up

Before Guy, I had never had a true mentor, someone whose mind I wanted to mine, embrace, follow.

And he became the only other person I knew whose respect I craved. The only other person I wanted to value me at least as much as I valued him.

On this day, and that one thirty years ago, I can say with great confidence, you rescued us, Guy, and gave us hope and amnesty.

The other person, of course, is the one who pushed me into viewing a universal phenomenon that seemed to mean so little to me before, but that, after I viewed it with John, and Walter, and Maurice, my own student Erika (who met the coolest people ever), and especially Guy and Tilly, became a central wonder of my own life.

So at the bell tower on Furman University’s campus in the full totality of the two moments when everyone was staring up and being unbelievably quiet, my wife and I kissed, as lovers do. As we were supposed to in the midst of this rare and precious moment that we’ll likely never have again.

I write about music, culture, food, and my Alabama past in One Table One World, The Riff, InTune, FanFare, SongStories, Rock n”Heavy, Counter Arts, and Pop Off.