On summer nights I like to go outside, if only for a couple of minutes, and watch the moon.
I think of it as watching not looking. The word “look” feels static. “Watch” applies to things in motion and the moon always seems to be slyly shifting shape, forever teasing: You may see me but you will never know me.
The unknown is the moon’s greatest charm.
The moon has been in the news a lot lately as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day humans set foot on lunar soil. That anniversary is my excuse for writing about it today. But the moon-watchers among us — we’re a big club — don’t need an official occasion to think about the moon. We’re drawn to it the way bees are drawn to flowers and alligators are drawn to swamps. It’s just something we have to do.
When I’m watching the moon, memories often pop into my brain, some in the form of songs.
There’s Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow” and the greatest song ever written, “Moon River,” which isn’t really about the moon but benefits from the power of the word.
There’s the first moon song I ever learned, the one my mother sang to her kids as we sat on the porch steps on sticky nights in Savannah, Ga., when my father, a traveling insurance salesman, was away.
I see the moon and the moon sees me
And the moon sees the one that I want to see
God bless the moon and God bless me
And God bless the one that I love.
All these years later, when I’m watching the moon, I often think, too, of a 10-year-old boy I once wrote about who was shot on a summer night sitting on his front porch in Chicago. When I asked what he remembered about the moment he named one thing: He was staring at the moon.
Ever since, I’ve seen the moon through his young eyes.
My mother carried the moonwatching urge until her dying day. I can still see her shuffling into the back yard with her cane, looking up at the sky and calling, “Oh, honey, come look at the moon.”
Ever since, I’ve seen the moon through her old eyes.
Moonwatching is a pleasure people need to share. The other night a friend texted me: Have you seen the moon? You have to go outside and look.
The moon is one of our universal wonders. Its hypnotic quality transcends age, place, class, race, the agitations of politics. In our divided world, it’s something that binds us. Your moon is my moon. My moon is yours.
It’s also one way we measure the passing of the days and months, a more benevolent time marker than the clock. The clock says, “Hurry up.” The moon says, “Calm down. This thing called time has been going on longer than you can imagine and it will be going on long after you’re gone.”
And the moon has the distinction, in the words of something I recently read, of being “the only place beyond Earth where humans have set foot.”
I was alive on the day that first happened — July 20, 1969 — and I would love to say the spectacle transformed me. Many people have an uplifting story of that day. My story goes like this:
I was at my friend Marge’s house. It was summer, a Phoenix summer with its soul-sucking heat. Marge had just gotten her driver’s license so we stuck our heads into the den where her father was watching TV.
Could we borrow his car? We wanted to go to the mall.
Her father pointed toward the TV. Look, he said, a spaceship just landed on the moon. An astronaut was going to walk on it.
We glanced at the TV briefly.
Interesting, Mr. Henry. But can we borrow your car?
For some of us during the teenage years, the wonders of the moon are secondary to the wonders of the mall.
But I think that the older you get the more you reclaim your childlike wonder at the moon and all the mysteries of the natural world. You grasp in more detail all the time how little you know about, well, anything.
The moon reminds us how mysterious life is, how infinite the exploration will always be, how many discoveries remain no matter how many we make.
That’s why it’s good on summer nights, or any night, to go outside. Look up. Enjoy the mystery we share.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.