The phases of the moon are seven—not counting the “new moon,” which, for the most part, we don’t see—and all are gifts of sunlight. The moon has no light of its own and, in fact, isn’t especially efficient at reflecting the energy sent its way. Made entirely of gray rock and ash, the moon reflects only about 7 percent of the sunlight it receives—about as much as a sidewalk.
Yet, despite this lack of reflection, the moon’s phases are distinct. They begin after an unlit new moon and progress, over a cycle lasting 29.5 days, through waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous, full, waning gibbous, third quarter and waning crescent. For most of my life, I didn’t know the phases of the moon, not even when exactly it was full. Only recently have I learned that “gibbous” is Latin for “hump” or understood the difference between waxing and waning. But all my life, the moon has pulled me. When it pours into my bedroom, I sit up and notice. I stand by the window with pen in hand. I find myself walking outside to watch and not wanting to leave, not wanting sleep, not knowing why.
Astronomers think the moon was formed early in the solar system’s history when an object the size of Mars grazed the still molten Earth, dislodging material that soon condensed into its present form orbiting the new planet. Its present form has a diameter of some 2,160 miles, about one-fourth of Earth’s, equivalent roughly to the distance between Los Angeles and New York. If you were standing on the moon, Earth would appear as the moon does from here, complete with phases, but four times as large.
Speaking of standing on the moon: In the history of the human race, only 12 humans have—all Americans, all men. The most famous is the first, Neil Armstrong, who, though he had plenty of time to prepare what he would say, still managed to say something that doesn’t quite make sense: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He seems to have forgotten an “a” before “man.” The second astronaut to step on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, promptly had his urine pouch break and empty into his boots.
But before that, Buzz Aldrin took communion. After the Eagle had landed, Aldrin said to a worldwide radio audience, “I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” In the radio silence that followed, Aldrin took a small communion kit he had received from his pastor and performed communion. He had kept his intentions quiet, not even telling his wife, and didn’t admit publicly to his act until years later.
Aldrin and Armstrong were in the module for six hours before they opened the hatch. I guess they were doing tests or preparing to—oh, I don’t know—walk on the moon. But six hours? I imagine them eating fried chicken, watching television, playing cards. Were they ignoring the fact that they had landed on the moon? I bet they couldn’t wait. If you had landed on the moon, wouldn’t you be out the door as soon as you could? Wouldn’t you be like a little kid in Minnesota when snow first falls and it seems Christmas break can’t be more than a week or two away?
The moon helps keep me that kid. Seeing a big moon rise, low and gold, over a desert or pines gives me the same thrill as seeing a wild animal emerge from the woods. I want to point and shout or, at least, let my mouth open in awe. As if there was any doubt, you might say. But knowledge needn’t ruin wonder.
Imagine knowing nothing about the moon other than what you can see with your naked eye. That’s the way it was for most of human history (and still is, for lots of folks around the globe). We knew a lot more about the moon after the winter of1609 or 1610, when Galileo turned his telescope toward the moon. He saw dark seas and bright lands, continents, mountain peaks and valleys. By today’s standards, the view through Galileo’s telescope would be a fuzzy disappointment, but his descriptions inspired the 17th-century astronomer Giovanni Battista to go on a naming spree. To the “seas” (which are actually plains and thought to be lava flows), he gave names such as Crises, Serenity, Rains, Nectar and Cold. A southern bay in the Sea of Tranquility is where Armstrong shared his eloquence and Aldrin took his damp steps in 1969. To the mountains, Battista bestowed names to match their Earthly cousins—the Alps, for example—though the moon’s ranges are much smaller.
Galileo watched the moon and wrote that Earth “must not be excluded from the dancing whirl of stars.” He realized that just as the moon circles our planet, so our planet circles the sun. This was blasphemy to a worldview that saw Earth as the center of the universe. Perhaps it was also a worldview that did not value watching the moon.
Henry David Thoreau valued watching the moon. On May 16, 1851, he wrote:
If there is a more splendid moonlight than usual, only the belated traveler observes it. When I am outside, on the outskirts of town, enjoying the still majesty of the moon, I am wont to think that all men are aware of this miracle, that they too are silently worshiping this manifestation of divinity elsewhere. But when I go into the house I am undeceived; they are absorbed in checkers or chess or a novel, though they may have been advertised of the brightness through the shutters. In moonlight night what intervals are created!
“Interval”: the extent of difference between two qualities. The difference between people who delight in the moon and those who don’t.
It feels like a solitary pastime, this watching. In daylight, people talk of jobs or cars or lovers about whom they should have known better, but not the beauty of the moon. We shutter our windows and sleep through the night as the moon roams the sky. How often do we drive to the edge of town to watch the moon rise? A bright orb climbs above mountains, glowing yellow, bronze, rust, gray, gold—and the city yawns, asking, “What else ya got?”
Sometimes I look up and laugh, knowing the moon has seen it all before. From me, from plenty of others. The moon unites us. All over the world, people look at the moon; some of them are watching right now, wishing for love or remembering loss. Right now, people are watching—unless it’s a new moon, and then they are waiting. People who watch the moon know that they are not alone, that someone somewhere around the world or across the country or across the lake is watching, too. For all of human history, people have looked up and sighed, or laughed, or felt tears roll. A plaque on the moon left by the Apollo 11 astronauts bears Richard Nixon’s signature. Kind of a welcome mat, kind of a stamp of ownership, kind of a carving of initials into rocks or trees. Explorers and lovers have done this for as long as there have been rocks and trees, for as long as there has been a moon—which is all of human history. Other than that plaque and some boot prints and tire tracks, we’ve not cluttered the moon with ourselves. No billboards or signs, no bright lights. No gashes or open-pit mines. The tracks and prints will stay for thousands of years, but you can’t see them from Earth. What we see is what everyone before us saw. Everywhere on Earth I go, I wonder what the land was like before our tracks and prints, our signs and lights. But, aside from sometimes having to wade through light pollution, I see the moon as it has always been. I can go back in time to how it used to be. A starting point, a reference, a touchstone. The moon wears no tattoos or piercings, hasn’t lost a girlfriend or suffered anxiety. Its ears don’t ring; it doesn’t wonder about meeting someone to love; it doesn’t read the sports page. No developer can buy it and trash it and dump it for someone else to clean. And it isn’t about to leave. Or, if it is, it jots a note saying that it won’t be gone long, that it will be back in a while. In 29.5 days. The note says, ‘This is what I have always done, long before you were here. This is what I will always do, long after you’re gone.” You read the note, look at the sky, and mostly, you feel alive, one of us, human, connected to the experience of living on Earth, which connects you to all of those other creatures living here, too. Or maybe you don’t. You don’t even read the note. Thoreau knew this, that many people don’t know the moon works in phases, whether it is coming or going or where it has been. They think the moon has nothing to do with their lives. And maybe it doesn’t. The moon doesn’t care one way or another. The moon isn’t a “he”—a pronoun that feels all wrong, like putting ice cream in your hair or eating tree bark—though some have seen a man in it. And to say “she” or talk of “her” isn’t fair, either, though plenty of us do. The moon is the moon and doesn’t mind. He, she, it answers to any call. Sometimes bright and beautiful, sometimes hidden by clouds, the moon is a lot like we are: following a path followed before, going in circles, changing over time. And it has a dark side, a side we never see, a side no one talks about, as though it’s not there. And the moon spends a lot of time alone, somewhere off by itself, when, even if you wanted to see it, nothing you could do would help. Seeing the moon, I feel as though the nights I have lived, live on each night or that there is only one night which I revisit each time I step outside. And in a way, there is only one night: space, that darkness into which we regularly rotate, each time calling it new. Seeing the moon, I feel connected. I think of it over the places I love, like Europe, where night is nearly gone, and like the homes of friends, knowing that if I can see the moon, and they can see the moon. … And this, too: The moon is more about not knowing than knowing and about longing for things no telescope will ever help us see.
“Month” comes from “moon,” and the first calendars gave each 29 days. Those calendars eventually gave way to more accurate sun-based ones—the seasons refused to follow lunar cycles—but the name stuck.
January through December are here to stay, but traditional Native American months were much more imaginatively known by their full moons’ names. Here is a year in full moons made of the most evocative of names: Hoop and Stick Game Moon (Cheyenne), Month of the Bony Moon (Cherokee), Moon When Eyes Are Sore from the Bright Snow (Dakota Sioux), Little Frogs Croak Moon (Oto) and Moon of the Shedding Ponies (Lakota). When Custer was killed in June of 1876, it happened during the Moon of Making Fat (Lakota). Then came the Moon When Everything Is Born (Tlingit), Moon When the Cherries Turn Black (Lakota), Leaf Yellow Moon (Taos), Moon When Water Begins to Freeze the Edge of the Stream (Cheyenne), Moon When Horns Are Broken Off (Dakota) and, finally, Moon of Popping Trees (Lakota).
I know best the moon from August on a lake in Ojibwa country, from paddling a canoe on flat, black water. The “hoo-hoo, hoo-hooooo” of a barred owl from my right; a response from the shore behind. Then one loon lets out a long wail, and another calls, and for several minutes, loons from around the lake join in. When they stop, I am left drifting. A big Blueberry Moon (Ojibwa) climbing above the water creates a melted path back toward the house. No sounds arise from the lake except the occasional fish jump-splash. Under this moon of yellow-brown light, a moon that takes me back in time, I think of how long the Ojibwa were here, and the Sioux before them. I think of how long loons have been calling and moons drifting over this water, and in the pines around the lake rise the ghosts of those who have gone before.
Tonight, I see the same moon I saw last summer—or when I was in college or was a baby boy. I see the same moon my father saw when he was my age and my mother saw the night before she met him. The same moon Thoreau saw, and Galileo, and Custer before he got his butt kicked, and Crazy Horse in the nights after he kicked that arrogant cavalry butt.
The Chinese poet Po Chu-I wrote of the moon:
If I return to my old homeland one day, it will welcome me like family And here, it’s a friend for strolling beneath pines or sitting together on canyon ridgetops.
A thousand cliffs, ten thousand canyons— it’s with me everywhere, abiding always.
He wrote those lines back at the turn of the century, from the eighth to the ninth.
In the nights before I left to backpack through Europe with a friend the year after high school, there was a great full moon—the biggest, September’s, the Moon When the Elk Bellow (Ponca)—and I would walk across our dark neighborhood street with my old yellow lab, Shiner, to sit in the neighbor’s grass and watch that moon rise behind our house. Shiner was 13, her steps slowed by decaying joints, but she followed me with her lab smile and sat with my arm around her. I wonder now if she could sense I was leaving. She was the quintessential childhood dog—there in the backyard to greet me when I returned from second grade through 12th. We were, of course, best friends, and the morning I left for Europe, I said goodbye. I see the moon and think of it coming through the mudroom window in the nights after I left and did not come back, Shiner lying on the floor in that light.
The moon. The natural light in the natural night’s darkness.
One night that year in Europe, my friend and I were camped on Crete. When the moon rose over the Mediterranean, we hiked up a hillside and sat watching the ocean. No one else existed in the world then, just my friend and me, both of us 18. With midnight moonlight on the silver ocean below and our whole lives before us, we sat wondering what would happen and whom we might someday meet.
I met Wendy the following year, and a couple of years later when I was 22 and she 21, we went to Europe to travel together before I went on to Africa alone. We had coasted for a couple of years, and not until we spent a frustrating July day nearly in tears, hunting a hotel room in Paris and trying to imagine what we would do trapped with each other for a month, did we really fall in love. I honestly don’t remember talking and deciding to stick to our plan of traveling together, but I do remember spending every hour after that together.
I remember biking through fields of red poppies in northern France, falling asleep holding hands, making love—it was a long time ago, but I remember an increasing intensity as our parting date neared, a desperation, as though we wanted to merge together. When I imagine trying to become pregnant, wanting to create something that will last, something to hold, something to symbolize a connection, I think of this time. And I remember the goodbye in a Swiss station, tears flooding my cheeks as the train curved from view, that sense of something torn away too soon.
When I returned from Africa, Wendy and I dated for several more years, and it was good, maybe as good—as comfortable—as I should hope for. But our relationship was never again as it was that summer, and no relationship has been quite that way for me with anyone since.
I am feeling older now than I ever have, and sometimes I question whether what I experienced years ago will happen again for me—or maybe something even better, something that lasts, something that comes back again and again, letting me stand in its glow, watching in wonder. I would like to be amazed by finding someone who makes me laugh, who surprises me, who shares affection with ease and keeps me in her thoughts. I would like to feel as I often do watching the moon: grateful and a little mystified by the gifts of life. Have I spent my life asking for too much? Have I not recognized the chances I have been given? We all must wonder this at times, maybe from the day we begin feeling desire, but with age, longing takes on weight, and despair begins to shift in the shadows.
I cannot see whether I will find what I want. And is there anything I can do to bring this love to me? Is there something I am supposed to be learning? Am I simply supposed to be patient?
The fear that such love may not happen sometimes stops me in my tracks, makes me bow my head. I have to believe it will come again.
Solitude. Sleep. The pause between breaths. The night before your birth. The moment before you arrive.