Monday night was a lunar eclipse — the first at winter solstice since 1638. The earth went between the sun and the moon, turning it a blood red.
Something to see, and as soon as darkness fell — about 4 p.m., on this day before the shortest day of the year — our household was peering out the windows, trying to catch sight of the moon, scanning the sky as we tramped outside with the dog.
But it was overcast, and snowing, and though the sky was unusually bright — an eerie whitish illuminated nighttime — no moon.
The family gathered around that traditional holiday classic, “The Matrix,” a movie that postulates all of reality is a dream, then fritters that premise on slow motion gunfights. I gamely watched a bit, but found it just too frantic and dumb, and announced I was going to bed.
About an hour later, my wife came into the bedroom.
“I hate to wake you up,” she said. “But the moon … you have to come and see the moon.”
I am a fan of celestial events — not just comets and eclipses, but the stars in general, the fact they twinkle above us. I will routinely — and I shouldn’t admit this, but here goes — drop my pretense of cold reason and utter the little wish-upon-a-star ditty (“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may and wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight”) if nobody is around, usually when I’m putting the car away while the rest of the family scampers into the house.
Though I don’t expect the wish to then come true, due to my having invoked the special wish-granting power of first-seen stars. It’s just a ritual.
So my wife alerted me to the moon, and I tossed back the covers and followed her through the darkened house, to the kitchen door, where we leaned in close and there, through the trees, a bright red light. It wasn’t the complete round disc of the moon, but broken apart by the branches of trees.
“Wow,” I said, and we admired the ruby red moon. We had never seen anything like it. Had the boys seen it? Yes, they had. The sky was otherwise cloudy and opaque, but this red moon cut through.
My wife said it was amazing we could see the moon, because it was so overcast. It had to be the moon, she said; the water tower in our backyard isn’t that high.
“Yes it is,” I said, suddenly perceiving the tower, outlining it with my hand. Directly under the red moon, as if holding it up. And at that moment the light from the moon’s red disc broken by trees became the red safety lights atop the water tower, mistaken for the moon.
We had a good laugh over that — turns out the eclipse wouldn’t be happening for another three hours.
Yet for a moment, we thought we saw it, and why not? Yearning toward wonder is a defining human trait. It might not even be limited to people — our dog runs eagerly up to each windblown leaf and gives it an exploratory sniff, just in case it turns out to be a leaf-shaped Milk-Bone sent by a dog-loving providence.
But people are especially good at it. A thousand generations of living in caves and huts has primed us to automatically embrace all the glory we can suppose. In our eyes, every orange sunset becomes a big Technicolor howdy from God Almighty, every strange blur in the sky becomes the mothership from the Crab Nebula on its inspection tour of our corner of the galaxy.
The scientist’s question is: “is it true?” Is what we think we are seeing actually there? Yet it’s also okay to suspend doubt, for a little while, on special occasions. Save the question for another day. Or as I like to say to my older son, during our endless debates over faith: “’Carmen’ isn’t real either, but we can still enjoy it.” The undeniable physical truth is that Tuesday was the shortest day of the year, and while each day now is a little longer, an incremental step toward spring — I’m already getting seed catalogues — there are many cold, dark days between now and when those seedlings go into the garden. The festive-lighted last days of December, the inevitable let-down of New Year’s, with its chilling glimpse of time’s scythe that will mow us all down, eventually, then the long frozen trudge through January, through February, and deceptive March.
Thank goodness — or, if you prefer, thank God — we are a people prone toward seeing wonders, whether they are there or not, of turning warning lights atop water tanks into blood red moons. It rescues us from lives that would otherwise be stark and cold and devoid of glory. I hope you manage to mistake the mundane for the marvelous often this week, hope you squint your eyes and see a closer, friendlier, smarter family than the one you’ve actually got, and that the more-diligent-than-gifted singing group becomes a choir of angels. I’m taking a few days off, but will be back on Monday, and will look forward to seeing you then.
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