Moon Over Thanksgiving

By the time this appears in print, Artemis will be flying by the moon.

I’m not sure I ever expected to write those words.

NASA has literally been away from the moon longer than I’ve been alive. Not that we’ve utterly forsaken space, of course. Satellites guide our communications and report our weather. Telescopes like the Webb increase our knowledge and our wonder. We’ve seen Earth orbit used for research, for music, even for tourism.

But we haven’t been back to our nearest neighbor since the early ‘70s. Truth is, until recently, we haven’t even had the tools to try.

Now, crewed by dummies (fill in your favorite celebrity joke here), the Artemis I Orion capsule is about to pull within 81 miles of the moon. In astronomical terms, that’s practically buzzing the tower.  It’s exciting stuff.

So naturally, it’s being overshadowed by more terrestrial headlines.

Mind you, I get it. I know we’re capable of paying attention to multiple things at once. And when Twitter is on fire, politics are in upheaval, rivers are drying up and the Broncos can’t seem to find the end zone with a map, I know that our mental space is a little crowded.

As a result, quiet wonder has a way of being pushed out of the spotlight by louder events. Which sounds familiar. Especially now.

After all, it’s pretty much how we treat Thanksgiving.

Aside from a pretty good parade and a pretty bad football game, we don’t give Thanksgiving a lot of splash. Honestly, that’s probably the way it should be. It’s a more introverted holiday, one about appreciating what we have and who we can share it with. For some, it’s even a time to remember those with less, reaching to them as part of the human family.

It’s a core that’s quiet. Reflective. Even humbling.

And therefore, it has absolutely no chance against occasions with brighter lights, louder music and more sheer STUFF.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that magical December time and tend to push out holiday columns by the bushel. But it’s a bulldozer, running over everything like reindeer flattening an Elmo & Patsy grandma. Christmas shouts. Thanksgiving whispers.

That doesn’t make it any less valuable. But it does mean we have to look a little harder to see beyond the stuffing. (Mmm, stuffing.) Especially in challenging times, when a holiday about gratitude may feel less than fitting.

Hold onto it. However you can.

With a quiet holiday, you get to be the one that finds the meaning. Your gratitude doesn’t have to be anyone else’s. It can be for much or for little, for what you’ve received or what you’ve escaped. It might even be for just making it one more hour of one more day. However you do it, you’re not doing it wrong. (And if someone says you are, one of the things you can be grateful for is that you’re not them.)

It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood production. In fact, given how Hollywood often treats Thanksgiving – turkey with a side dish of strife and conflict – it probably shouldn’t be. Just take the moment, however you need to, and find whatever light you can.

It may not sound like much. Just one small step.

But if you’re in the right space, one small step can be a heck of a leap.

And that’s no moonshine.

Shooting for the Moon

Fifty years ago today, the surface of the Moon was still quiet.

The Eagle had not yet landed. The world was not yet watching the arrival of three men in hope and wonder and anxiety. Mankind’s first words on an alien surface had not yet been spoken – and screwed up ever so slightly. (Sorry, Neil.)

So much had been planned. So much had been prepared. But nothing was certain. Astronauts had been lost before. It could happen again.

Anything could be in the future. Wonder. Disaster. Chaos.

Anything at all.

***

This column was born from a slight mental glitch.

I am a space geek going way back. And so, like all the other fans of the final frontier, I’ve been excited about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. By any standard, the date of July 20, 1969 deserves to stand out in human history.

Which is why I have no excuse for momentarily remembering it as June 20 when I started to plan my column.

All right, I’m laughing, too.  Brain cells do amazing things – such as the first President Bush declaring September 7 as the “day of infamy” or President Obama momentarily gifting the U.S. with 57 states – so at the very least, I’m in illustrious company.

But the more I thought about it, the more the idea intrigued me. And not just because I was up against a deadline again.

Consider, for a moment, the world of 1969.

A lot had been happening in this country. And unless you were a New York Mets fan, most of it didn’t feel like champagne and roses. John Lennon may have been singing “Give Peace a Chance,” but for the first half of the year, the headlines didn’t seem to hold much of it. War in Vietnam. Protests. Riots. Even a major oil spill and a spring training boycott.

Sure, preparation for the moon mission was there, too. But unless you were part of the not-so-small army laying the groundwork, it was probably one more item among many, and not an especially loud one. Not yet.

Not with about a month left to go.

Not with crisis so loud and the future not yet known.

***

We’re good at focusing on crisis. It’s one of the things that’s helped us survive as a species. But when we have the ability to be aware of crisis across the country – heck, around the world – it gets overwhelming. Too many alarms, all of them screaming “NOW!”

It’s easy to drown. Easier to surrender.

And easiest of all to forget that even at our worst, we’re still capable of our best.

It doesn’t just happen, any more than winning lottery tickets just happen to show up in our mail box. It takes work and hope and maybe even a little craziness. Just enough crazy to decide that what we do can matter, that a little light can be kindled in the smoke.

That we can do something that matters.

Apollo 11 was the culmination of seven years of effort (and built on what had come before). Right down to the end, nothing was certain. President Nixon had a speech in his pocket in case of fatal disaster. The Eagle overshot the intended landing site, forcing Armstrong to guide the craft to safety and touch down with 23 seconds of fuel left. So much could have happened.

But what did happen captured the eyes of the world.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”

What are we a month away from now, maybe?

What future could we be building among the chaos of today if we refuse to quit? To stop hoping?

I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to it.

Especially if it includes one more column finished on deadline for this space case.

Moonstruck

Every marriage fits in one of three stages, all defined by your friends. There’s “Awww.” Followed by “Hey, that’s great!” And finally, there’s “Wow.”

Heather and I are now firmly in the “Wow” category.

We reach 20 years on Wednesday. Yes, really. We still haven’t hit the guideline given to us by Grandma Elsie (“After you reach 30 years, the rest is easy”), but other than that, we’ve racked up our share of milestones. Four homes, three cities, two states. We’ve survived ice storms, heat waves, chronic illness, and the delight of moving a piano into a second-floor apartment. We’ve had the amazing joy of seeing our disabled ward Missy come into our lives – or us into hers – and the heart-rending pain of seeing our cousin Melanie leave us too soon.

I’ve shared a lot of that life in these columns. By now, I’ve probably poured out enough words to reach to the moon and back.

Fitting comparison, perhaps.

***

OK, I’m a space nerd. Heather, too. But I swear, we did not deliberately put our wedding day right after “Apollo Season.” Somehow, it still works.

For those who don’t have the dates permanently engraved on their brain, the moon mission known as Apollo 11 launched 49 years ago on July 16, reached the moon on July 20, and then splashed down back on Earth on July 24. It was and remains one of the most transcendently amazing things our species has ever done, an expedition that drew the awe and admiration of millions.

So much could have gone wrong. Some of it did. Total disaster was always a real possibility, as close at hand as the unforgiving vacuum of space. So close that President Nixon even had a speech ready in case the attempt proved fatal and those “who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”

But the triumph, the achievement, put everything else in its shadow. All the stress and the worry that had gone into making it happen are remembered mainly by the participants now, or perhaps by those who deliberately study them. For everyone else, it’s “The Eagle Has Landed.” A beautiful moment, never to be forgotten.

And not a bad model for a marriage.

OK, that sounds a little silly. But consider.

There was a huge amount of planning at the outset that still never felt like enough.

There were vows and promises that sounded grand, but would require massive amounts of work to achieve.

There were minor communications flubs that later became amusing (from Armstrong’s famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” to Mission Control’s “Roger, Twank … Tranquility”) and major crises that almost upset everything (such as a difficult landing that took far more fuel to achieve than expected).

There was the eager anticipation of first steps, first words.

And while countless people stood behind them, supported them, made it all possible – the ultimate success or failure would be on the shoulders of the people who made the journey.

A big responsibility in front of the entire Earth. Maybe even a bigger one when just trying to patch your own journey together, day by day by day.

And most of all – for all the ceremony and spectacle, it’s that day-to-day work that’s the most vital. A marriage is not a wedding, anymore than a single television broadcast is a mission. An indelible record, yes. A moment to be celebrated, absolutely.

But it’s the stuff that happens next that makes all the difference.

***

We’ve long since left the moon. Maybe one day we’ll return and relight the fire that once burned so brightly. I hope so, with all my heart.

But in the meantime, our own mission of the heart continues. And despite everything life tries to do to bring us back to Earth, Heather and I are still over the moon.

One small step for a couple. One giant leap for a lifetime.

Inner Space

I’ll admit it. Cleaning our closets can be a bit of an adventure. It’s like an archaeological dig with clothing mixed in, where anything can pop up and often does. Forgotten games. Battered sneakers. Barely-legible notebooks that detail either the next great bestseller or last year’s Oscar winners.

I haven’t found any cameras from the moon landing, though. There, as in so many other ways, Neil Armstrong was in a class by himself.

In case you missed it – maybe your chores took a while, too – it seems that Armstrong’s widow Carol found an old bag while doing some closet-cleaning of her own. Inside were about 20 small pieces of gear that had gone to the moon with Armstrong. A mirror. Some tethers. An emergency wrench. And, yes, the camera used to record the Eagle’s final approach to the landing site.

Hey, some people take pens home from the office, right?

Now I know that to some folks, this probably sounds like an episode of Hoarders: The Final Frontier. But I can sympathize. It’s hard not to hang on to the small and not-so-small things that mark a memory.

In one of my own closets is an oversized map, one that would probably dominate any wall I tried to put it up on. The map depicts the after-effects of the 2013 flood, laying out the needed repairs in point-by-point detail. I used it for a story long ago, then put it away, planning to frame it someday.

These days, it’s become a frame, holding the larger pictures of my mind.

Other moments lie similarly “archived” from a lifetime of journalism and theatre. An aluminum can from an Emporia, Kan. factory that was never built. A spice jar of dry soil from a Garden City, Kan. “dirt collector” I interviewed. A sheaf of parodies, written for theatre cast parties so we could all laugh at our trials and triumphs.

Sure, it’s easy to accumulate stuff. I do it without even trying. (Just ask Heather.) But these are the things that go beyond mere stuff, the pieces that become memory in a tangible form. Where simply holding them and looking at them can bring back a moment, an event, a face.

You’ve got one somewhere. We all do. Maybe more than one.

And each one is the doorway to a journey of our own. Inward, not outward. Through time, not space.

But in that moment of rediscovery after a long absence, it can feel like the Eagle landing all over again.

It gives me a little comfort to know that Armstrong was the same way. Even in this cynical day and age, there’s still the temptation to lionize our heroes, to paper over the cracks and sand off the rough edges. It’s an unfortunate distancing, since it robs us of a certain kinship, a knowledge that, under different circumstances, it might have been any of us up there.

Well, probably not me. Not without some major improvements to my sense of direction. (“Houston, the Eagle has landed … somewhere.”) But you get the idea.

He was human. He gathered a few mementos in a bag, passed it off to NASA as “odds and ends” –you know, just keeping the clutter down – and took it home as a keepsake.

Which he then threw in the back of a closet and left for his wife to find. That, too, is very human.

Because of that, we’ve gained something neat. A few small artifacts. A chuckle at people being people. Maybe even a sense of wonder at how an ordinary moment can become unforgettable with just one forgotten bag.

And of course, the best closet-preservation excuse ever.

“I swear, honey, the Smithsonian’s going to want that bag someday. Look, I’ll take care of it later, all right?”

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.