Small Step

The moon has never felt so close.

Irrational? Maybe. After all, this summer will be 55 years since Neil Armstrong took his first steps on our nearest neighbor. We’ve walked, driven, even played golf on the moon. And since then, we’ve remotely flown helicopters on Mars, peered into distant stars and black holes, and been serenaded by music played aboard a space station. After all that, shouldn’t returning to a bunch of rocks and craters feel old hat?

And yet, something about Thursday seemed special. No … WAS special.

For the first time since the ‘70s, an American spacecraft returned to the moon. No astronauts, not yet. Just a robot craft with a challenging landing, an uncertain signal and a few science instruments. Just that. And with it came the promise of a new start.

So much has changed, of course. New technology, new players. We’re not the only ones bringing spacecraft to the lunar surface anymore and everyone has had a lot of learning and re-learning to do. Especially since the folks who did it the first time are long since gone from the field (or from life) and their experience with it.

But we are learning. The drive is there again. And this time, instead of just a monument, it may become a stepping stone.

Oh, you could argue that Thursday remained an ordinary day for the overwhelming majority of us. We still had the same needs to fulfill and jobs to do, the same joys and stresses and looming headlines. My own attention to the Odysseus landing came as I was helping a family member recover from a stomach bug, about as un-science-fiction a task as you can imagine.

But in a real way, it put another crack in a wall that we build far too easily.

We tend to make our universe a very small place. I don’t mean the stars and planets, but the mental worlds we build around ourselves. It’s easy to tightly focus on our own routines and concerns, partly in self-defense against a media landscape that keeps threatening to overwhelm us with the troubles of 8 billion people.

But while some distance may be necessary for survival, it also becomes isolating. Over time, it can become a tunnel vision that limits horizons, diminishes joy and turns all but a select few into strangers. In tending our own garden, we look less and less over the garden wall.

No judgment. I do it, too. And that’s why I value the moments of wonder that turn my eyes upward again.

Suddenly, the universe is both big and close. Space suddenly isn’t something way out there, but close at hand, not apart from us but a part of us.

And once we lower our barriers, there’s a lot we can bring inside.

No one reaches space on their own. It requires a lot of teamwork and connection. That same sort of connection can strengthen us here on Earth, reaching to neighbors near and far, being and doing so much more than we could ever manage alone.

Sure, there are practical benefits from space exploration and plenty of people will write about them. But for me, at its heart, it goes back to those first words of Neil. When any of us makes just one small step outwards, it can become a giant leap for all of us.

May that hope always shine as brightly as our old friend does right now. May it always inspire us to look upward and outward and inward to find a larger world … and a closer one as well.

In a world where so much can weigh so heavily, it’s not a bad thing to let ourselves be moonstruck.

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.

In the Middle of the Night

The clouds had scattered for the moment. The night air was still. And high overhead, one half of the moon had gone into shadow.

CLICK.

I went inside and studied my picture of the so-late-it’s-early eclipse. Perfect. But something was … different. Somehow in the dark, my natural coordination (which makes Maxwell Smart look like an Olympic athlete) had bumped one of the camera settings while I was lining up the shot. The result looked less like a photograph and more like a painting, framed by trees that seemed to be the work of careful brush strokes.

I loved it. It was like tripping over a rock that turns out to be a diamond.

Late-night magic had struck again.

Like the Phantom of the Opera,  I long ago fell in love with the music of the night, that wonderful time when the demands of the world are few and the mind can go where it will. It can be a time to write and reflect. Or to chat with fellow owls. Or to power through my mountainous reading pile, including the final few (hundred) pages of The Wheel of Time.

It’s a time that’s set aside. That’s ready to be whatever you make it.

And if that sounds familiar, you’ve probably glanced at the calendar.

We’ve reached another Memorial Day. Another time that’s set aside from the usual demands of work and daily life to be more or less spent as we please. (Especially with the gradual easing of the pandemic in this country.)

For many, it’s a time to break out the grill, the steak and the sunscreen. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with a good cookout.

For many of us, it’s also a time to reflect. To think about who isn’t at the barbecue. Maybe even to raise a flag or leave some flowers.

That’s where this began. Not with the grill. Not even with a “thank you for your service” to living veterans (though you certainly don’t have to wait until November to do that). But with a moment to remember the price that others have paid.

Not just out of respect, though that’s important. But because it may also help us weigh the costs of what we do as a nation going forward.

No action happens in a vacuum. Everything we do touches someone or something beyond the immediate moment. And there’s always a price to be paid. Maybe it’s in literal dollars and cents. Maybe it’s an effect on the physical environment, Maybe it’s an impact on how others live their lives – or whether those lives continue at all.

When we remember that, we remember each other. And maybe, just maybe, we learn to consider and to care for each other on this journey together as well.

But it’s our choice.

It’s our choice whether to remember those who gave their lives for the nation … or to regard their sacrifices as ancient history  and war as someone else’s video game.

It’s our choice whether to build a nation that remembers and includes all of us … or to throw up walls and barriers, turn away from uncomfortable truths and perpetually see an “other” instead of a neighbor.

And yeah, it’s even our choice whether to season all this thought with the offerings of a backyard grill. (Weather permitting.)

It’s your time. Your choice. It’s whatever you choose to make it.

And if that choice keeps you up a little late, maybe I’ll see you around.

I might even have my camera figured out by then.

A Rose for Neil

A longtime friend found herself in a reflective mood this week.

“I keep finding myself wondering,” she wrote online, “what Neil Armstrong thought about when he looked up at the moon every night.”

It’s a question that holds its own magic, that maybe has no answer. Or too many. Old friends, staring at each other across the miles? A feeling of pride? Of humility? Of regret for what wasn’t done or gratitude for what was?

The possibilities left me intrigued. They even stayed in the back of my head during my bedtime reading with Missy, a chapter from “The Secret Garden.”

And like the ivy of the garden’s walls, thoughts began to grow.

If you’ve never read the children’s classic, you have something beautiful ahead of you. It deals with a selfish, imperious little girl, Mary, who is sent to live with relatives in England after her family dies, where she discovers a curious mystery – a walled garden, the door concealed, the key hidden, locked away by its owner for 10 years because of a tragedy that occurred inside.

Over time, Mary sets herself to finding it and then to reviving it. And in the course of doing so, she revives herself and others as well.

“However many years she lived,” the author mused, “Mary always felt that she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow.”

Perhaps, however many years you live, you never forget your first step on another world.

If it had stopped there, maybe the thought would have been enough by itself. After all, it’s something we can all share, even without help from the Kennedy Space Center. Whether that new world is another state, another country, the first morning of being a parent, the last day of being a student – the uncertainty, the excitement, the feeling of starting something new remains.

But the idea took deeper roots still.

At first, Mary wants her garden to stay her secret. Then she slowly widens the circle of those who can come – first to help, then to be helped. In the end, keeping the garden as “hers” becomes less important than sharing its beauty with others.

So few have been within that distant “garden” of rock and dust. Even though most of the world has seen it from afar, the moon remains our world’s secret garden, truly known by only a few – and for years, locked away as surely as any brass key could do.

What good would it do our souls to return? What good to our minds, our hopes, our imaginations, if the miles beyond the sky were to become highways again for us and not just our machines?

What perspective might be gained if more of us were to know the beauty – and to know that that beauty was within our reach, not just an accomplishment of another day and another time, never to be repeated?

I wonder. I really do.

And if I wonder, never having been there – how much more so, perhaps, for one who had seen?

Look at the moon and wink, his family asked. I will. And I’ll continue to keep my own hopes alive that someday we’ll do more than just wink.

You have my envy, Mr. Armstrong. You took the steps beyond the wall, and came to see the roses that lay within.

I only hope, someday, that the key will be found again. And that the wonders of the garden will be open to all who wish to come.