21 December 2010
Lunar Eclipse 2010
In case you missed it, there was a remarkable occurrence in wee hours this morning. A total lunar eclipse. "The first total lunar eclipse to occur on the day of the Northern Winter Solstice (Southern Summer Solstice) since 1638." What does it mean for the Moon to be overshadowed by the Earth just as the Sun also faces its shortest day? I don't know. But more than just astronomers got excited about it; the astrologers, solstice worshipers, apocalypse predictors, and all sorts of folk looking for omens seemed to get worked up as well.
Me? I slept through it all last night. Most of America did, I suspect.
I know, and you probably do too, all the explanations about the dust in the atmosphere giving the moon that rust red tinge just as the full (umbra) shadow of the Earth is cast on its surface. All the ancient stories of animals swallowing the moon, of the gods turning away from mankind, all that is just window dressing in folktales to amuse children in these enlightened times.
The thing about large astronomical events in this age of technology is that we are jaded. We have seen distant galaxies up close in our telescopes and on our televisions. We can look at pictures that tell us so much more than we can get with our naked eyes. It is so easy to catch not only the instant replay at a reasonable hour but also the condensed and interpreted synopsis of the event that most of us don't bother reading the full story in any case.
I have seen a total lunar eclipse before, more than once over the years. But I still remember the first one. It was several decades ago when I was home from college for summer break, or was it winter then too? I don't know, too long ago to really remember. My parents were living in rural Wisconsin so it had to be after 1970 (because that is the year when I left for college the first time). I remember my cousin watching with me. My parents, aunts and uncles, in the house playing cards--paying no attention beyond an occasional: "that's nice, dear."
I clearly remember standing in that yard, watching the shadow crawl so slowly across the surface of a nearly full moon. As if the moon were a woman drawing a blood-red veil over pale skin and turning her back on us. We stood in the yard for a long time. And at the point of total darkness, when the moon was just a dim spot of blood in a black sky, I remember feeling chilled. Caught in a silence that felt like it might go on forever. I remember my mother telling us to come inside, it was too late to be out in the dark. I remember being unable to look away until I saw that first hint of returning light at the penumbral edge. Until I knew the moon was coming back from whatever dark place she went.
So why didn't I go watch last night?
Maybe I am jaded by the scientific explanations now, too. Or maybe, just maybe, as I get older--well into my fifties and facing yet another birthday in a week--maybe those demons chasing down the moon are coming just a little to close for comfort these days. Too close for me to want to look at them closely anymore. Demons of days lost, the loss of years, and with them the loss of chances, of people, of friends, of family, of those who once would have watched with me. The shortening of days and the turning of winter seasons are all too poignant to watch as my losses mount up. We do not face the dark with ease as we grow old.