Moon and the Man

By Randon Billings Noble

Everyone asked Neil Armstrong what it was like to walk on the moon. But how did the moon feel?

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Four-and-a-half billion years ago the moon formed, the result of a tragic union between the Earth and an unknown, careening planet. Slowly, lento, largo, the Earth pulled itself together and the wreckage of this collision resolved itself into an orbiting moon.

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Billions of years later, after the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes, the bilateria and the fish, the insects and seeds and reptiles and mammals, after the birds and the flowers, Homo sapiens evolved. In 35,000 BC, in what is now Swaziland, one of them carved 29 notches into a piece of bone to make the earliest known lunar calendar. Even then we were tracking the moon, measuring it, fixing it. In 1609 an Englishman looked at the moon through a telescope and cut through nearly 239,000 miles of mystery. Maps were made; then globes. In 1839, photographs were taken. We knew what the moon looked like, we had charted all we could see, but what was there?

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In the English language the moon was masculine until the 16th century. Then we remembered Selene, Luna, and Diana and the moon became the passive, feminine reflection of the sun’s light, the capacious surface for all our projections, the accommodating repository for our myths and inventions.

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In 1959 the first man-made object, Luna 2, crash landed on moon. Did the moon feel a difference? Without an atmosphere to protect it, the moon has been bombarded with comets, asteroids, and meteoroids for its entire existence. Without wind or rain to erase and efface, each crater, pit, and pock remains. But perhaps now the moon felt a difference, being hit by something metal and not rock, something systematic, focused, and intentional, something that was not random, but a harbinger.

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For millennia the moon’s far side was invisible, unknowable, subject only to our speculations: aliens lived there, or ghosts; it was a version of heaven, hell, or purgatory. In 1959 Luna 3 returned the first hazy images of the no-longer-dark side: a rough and barren landscape of crater and shadow.

Then came the Apollo missions, named for the moon’s opposite, the god of the sun; the god of music, art, and poetry; the god of knowledge. Apollo’s mission was to know the moon, to apprehend it, to master it. A few years before Apollo 11 landed, C.S. Lewis wrote that the moon belonged to all humanity: “he who first reaches it steals something from us all.”

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When Armstrong’s boot hit the surface of the moon in 1969 he stepped into the Mare Tranquilitatis, disturbing its equanimity. For the first time in all its long history a living being walked on the moon. Was there a quiver of longing? A shudder of revulsion? Or just the grey puffs of indifferent dust?

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Legend has it that on the moon can be found everything that was wasted on earth: misspent time, squandered wealth, broken vows, unanswered prayers, fruitless tears, unfulfilled desires. What did Neil Armstrong find there? From his life? From mine?

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Armstrong died when the moon was in its first quarter, on 25 Aug 2012. His ashes – grey as moondust – were buried not in the earth but the sea. His family asked that when you “see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.” A wink is given to indicate that something is a joke or a secret; it can also be a signal of affection or greeting. Does the moon share this jokey affection? Is it smiling – or merely beaming reflected light? Does it feel a sense of loss or is it relieved that that the first man to walk on its surface, to mark it, to leave his tokens and footprints and memory behind, will never return?

The wordless moon has no way of knowing the word “wink” comes from the word “wince.”

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In September, I drink tea and eat moon cakes, thinking about what I want during the Earth’s next orbit around the sun. How do I want to spend my time, what vows will I keep, what desires will I try to fill? What are my fixed relationships and how will I navigate them? What will evolve and what will be ongoing?

But my last prayer is for the moon itself – for it to have what it wants or to be at peace with what it has – silence and sterility while locked into orbit with this blue teeming earth.

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Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Millions; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity: Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com. 

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