Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: “Life in Light Years – Chasing the Great American Eclipse” covers a fifty plus year evolution of your family life, while simultaneously reflecting on your experiences gazing upwards at the comets and constellations of our shared night sky. What inspired you to weave the narrative of your family into your stargazing experiences?

H.L.M. Lee: I began this piece to preserve the experience of a total solar eclipse for my kids, who probably will never see one again. I also wanted to capture our vacation to the wilds of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, maybe the last before the older one became a teenager and started to squirm away from us, as teenagers do. For them I wanted the writing to be visceral and memorable, to encapsulate the sense of a greater family adventure. Since my father was dying of cancer that summer, I also found myself caught between my children growing up and my parents growing old. 

Over the next little while, as I was processing my father’s passing, which was the first in my immediate family, I tried to convey a sense of time broader than the three minutes of totality. Unconsciously, then consciously, themes of mortality and the cycles of life crept into the writing, and these reflected ruminations about my parents’ lives, my own and those of my kids, all enmeshed in the astronomical cycles of sun, moon and stars—very much like the song “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. I sought to render something ineffable into something concrete, to meld the people and events of my life into a larger human story. 

RR: Like a classical epic hero, you begin your journey with a magical experience influenced by the stars, and throughout this piece, you reference deities such as Helios the sun god and classics like Dante’s Paradiso. In this way, “Life in Light Years” feels like a kind of autobiographical Odyssey. Did the classics inspire you in any way?

HLML: The names of most northern constellations come from Greek mythology. The planets are Roman gods. Many stars have names with Arabic origins and several of the moons of Uranus are characters from Shakespeare. So it’s almost impossible not to be inspired by the classics.

But by “classics”—and I use the term very loosely—I also include non-Western literature. To us Scorpius, the scorpion, has a very distinct tail and stinger; to Polynesians this same constellation is the hook of the demigod Maui, who pulled up New Zealand when his hook snagged the bottom of the sea.  

I think written works always build on what went before. With their deep psychology and expressive language, various classics lurked somewhere in the back of my mind as I attempted, in some small way, to craft something similarly resonant. Sometimes I quoted a passage because the words were so trenchant. Including these other voices, always so different from mine, was like adding the spice to a recipe, an ingredient with a distinct flavor that also elevates the whole.  

RR: Your narrative is rich in detail but never feels overburdened by technicalities. Given your background in engineering, did you struggle with the urge to present more tangible details? 

HLML: I’ve always followed parallel technical and literary tracks, so it was natural for me to balance the sensory and descriptive with the technical in my writing. As an undergraduate at UCLA, I was an engineering major as well as an English lit minor, and one year was asked to be poetry editor for the literary journal there. I declined because I felt I wasn’t a very good poet, and subsequently focused more on prose. Later, as a graduate student, I was the Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine at MIT (mostly because no one else wanted to do it). 

Despite the stereotype, there are practitioners in scientific and technical fields who also have a literary bent, indulging both their left and right brains. Many popularizers of science have advanced degrees and their numbers are surprisingly significant if you dig into it. On my bookshelf Carl Sagan, Janna Levin and Alan Lightman are some of the astronomers/astrophysicists/physicists with strong poetic sensibilities. In contrast, Diane Ackerman is a poet who writes about science! I admire them all, including the journalists and others who do their research and explain science with well-honed language that excites and lingers. 

RR: As an accomplished nonfiction writer who has been published in various magazines, as well as a regular contributor to’s Cognoscenti column, did writing this pose any unique challenges for you?  

HLML: Most writings about eclipses are nicely descriptive but to me miss a heightened—I would almost say spiritual—awareness of our place in the universe. This is the plane I wanted to reach. Carl Sagan wrote much in this vein. Also Annie Dillard, whose wonderful, idiosyncratic article “Total Eclipse,” about seeing the eclipse of February 26, 1979, is the first chapter of her book Teaching a Stone to Talk. They were my spurs, prodding me to achieve what they did but in my own way. 

One of my constant challenges is to write a personal account when in fact I’m reticent about revealing myself. I usually tell a personal story as an on-ramp to larger ideas, then I try to fade into the background of my work. At the same time, without a connection, writing may not be compelling to a reader—after all we’re human beings and like to read about ourselves, or vicariously through others. So I always have this tension between the extremes of mere prattle and being too “up in my head.” 

RR: As a stargazer, do you have any telescope recommendations or other advice for readers that are inspired by your work and wish to follow your lead in looking into the heavens? 

HLML: For someone with a beginning interest in the sky and stars, I actually don’t recommend a telescope. A telescope needs some effort and setup, and so requires a serious commitment before even looking through it. Much better would be a good pair of binoculars.  

Cheap binoculars, which might be suitable for sporting events in sunlight or bright stadium lights, have murky views that would be disappointing for star gazing—don’t use these. Instead, get a decent pair in the $75-$150 range. In specifications a lot of technical terms are confusing to a newcomer, so I’ll cut to the chase here. Look for key phrases like “BAK4 prisms” and “fully multi-coated optics” for the best light transmission. I also suggest binoculars described as “10×50”—meaning x10 magnification (a good amount but not too much) and 50 mm diameter lenses (larger lenses collect more light for brighter images).  

Good binoculars have a clarity that can be a real kick in the gut. Stars are brilliant diamonds—and you see more of them. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking at, the sprinkling of stars along the Milky Way is simply beautiful; the moon shows myriad craters and Jupiter is a visible, yellowish disk. A 10 year-old boy once looked through my binoculars and asked, amazed, if they were night-vision glasses. Because they are portable and versatile, even if you have cloudy skies you can use your binoculars for sporting events, concerts, and bird and nature watching, and open whole worlds besides the night sky. 


Read “Life In Light Years” by H.L.M. Lee in Issue 11.1.