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.