In her monthly column, The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment is published in advance of the full moon.
The Large Figure Paintings, No. 5, Group 3, Hilma af Klint, 1907. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In a driveway in San Jose, California, faded winter sun shone off the waxy tongues of the biggest jade plant I’d ever seen. The person I was with, whose mother’s heart had stopped four days before, unloaded things from a rental car. His stepfather, who I’d been warned was “a strange man,” pulled in behind us, back from collecting his wife’s ashes. He walked over with a cardboard box, anonymous and regular as any box you’d see on a doorstep, and stood by his stepson, holding this box. The man hefted the box in his hands and said, in a tone I cannot describe as anything other than merry, “You wouldn’t believe how much your mom weighs stripped of water and bodily liquid.” Something exited the person I was with, as though his bones had changed density, and he leaned back into the trunk of the car. The stepfather started to speak again—“Or fluid is the word, isn’t it, bodily fluid, blood and …”—and I moved toward him, opened the door to the kitchen, and held it for him. “Here,” I said, and he walked through it and the door swung closed and through the plexiglass I watched him place the box on the kitchen table, next to a bowl of persimmons and a bouquet of white carnations neighbors had sent in sympathy.
The next day, a boat took us out to sea from the San Francisco Bay. The captain cut the engine, the boat rocked in the waves, and the stepfather dropped the ashes, held in a dissolvable vessel designed for such ceremonies, into the Pacific Ocean. Shaped like a small flying saucer, with a sunset scene painted on top, the vessel bobbed. The woman’s grandchildren threw clippings from her beautifully tended garden. Sprigs of sage, roses, and six lemons from her lemon tree. “It’s sinking,” someone said of the vessel. “It’s designed to,” said someone else. Soon it was swallowed, absorbed into the deepest deep. And sooner than anyone expected, the motor churned, the boat lurched back into motion. Our small group stood at the bow and watched the garden matter recede, tumbling in the wake. The lemons, buoyant, bobbed and dipped on the dark surface of the sea.
The root of a tooth cracked and had to be extracted. On a sunny midwinter morning, a strong doctor used her strength to remove the tooth farthest back in my lower left jaw. It was unpleasant. Injected and well numbed, the left half of my face was a cementy nonpart of me. I couldn’t feel it but I knew it was there. The doctor put a piece of rubber between my teeth, the texture of a hockey puck, and began to do her work. Her assistant stood behind the chair, held my forehead, and offered encouragement. “Keep breathing.” “You’re doing great.” I could feel the flex of the doctor’s flank against my shoulder. Before closing my eyes, I watched a vein swell at her temple. Nothing hurt, but I did not like the sounds, nor the visible strain required of the doctor. At some point, my mind told me: Your jaw is going to break. “You’re almost there,” said the lady behind me with her palm on my forehead. “Okay, slow your breath.” My jaw is going to break. “Deep breaths now.” My mouth was full of fingers and wrenches and post-hole diggers and crowbars. Naturally, I could not speak my concern out loud. “You need to breathe slower.” My jaw. “Okay now, easy, easy, we’re almost there.” “It doesn’t want to come,” the doctor said, quietly, sounding baffled and vexed. The lady put her other hand on my shoulder. Shallow, frantic breaths. “Deep, slow breaths now, you’ve got to slow your breaths.” And then I heard myself cry out, a high-pitched yelp, involuntary. And in that moment, the doctor said, “It’s out, it’s out, we got it, it’s out.” I dissolved into the chair. The room spun. “Do you want to see?” she asked. Dizzy, sweating, high off the chemicals my body had delivered to my bloodstream, I nodded, and she held out a wad of gauze on her open palm, my tooth as big as an acorn, long tendrils of bloody root. I might’ve been hallucinating.
Ten days later I returned, with more of my wits about me, to have the healing process assessed. “You mentioned bone matter,” I said. A piece of bone matter had been crammed into the socket where my tooth had been, into which a small titanium rod would be inserted, onto which a new fake tooth would be attached. “Bone matter?” I said. “Yes,” the doctor said. “Cadaver bone,” she said. Ghost bone in my face. “In time,” she explained, “your own bone will absorb the cadaver bone, and in time, it will become entirely your bone.” I expressed my amazement. “The body is in a constant state of destruction and creation,” the doctor said. “The body will always try to move toward equilibrium.” Ghost bone in my skull becomes my own bone. Absorbed and altered, destroyed and created, equilibrated, chew and swallow.
The biggest argument I’ve ever witnessed was about whether men had landed on the moon. Some years ago, at dinner—paella and wine—a chemist with a Ph.D. from Stanford suggested that the moon landing had been a hoax. This did not go over well with his father-in-law at the head of the table. At first I didn’t understand what I was hearing—I didn’t know then how many people believe the moon landing to be a fiction. Soon the men were roaring, the chemist’s brother-in-law got involved: “Of all the boneheaded bullshit to come pouring out of your face …” “Well, how do you explain …” Threats were flung, neck veins swelling, a hand slammed on the table, a knife clattered to the floor. We joked about it recently, the brother-in-law and I, recalling the scene, eating pasta with clams and garlic, and he asked me, “You’ve read the Apollo 11 eulogy speech, right?” I hadn’t. “Read it,” he said.
On a windy night not long ago, I did. William Safire wrote the speech in 1969, for Richard Nixon to deliver in the event that the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the moon and left there to die. The speech, never spoken, was slotted into archives and forgotten. Thirty years later, the brown-edged, typewritten memo was unearthed. Safire explained to NBC that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, marooned on the moon, would have had two options: starve to death or kill themselves. The speech would have been delivered not after they’d died but as soon as it was determined that there was no way to get them back. The speech is 233 words long. It troubled me.
It begins: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” Fate has ordained. (Not: We got the math wrong.)
The Fates are three sisters: one who spins the thread of mortal destiny; one who dispenses it; one who snips the thread and kills us dead. Blaming fate—already I was rubbed wrong. But more unsettling by far was the thought I’ve still not shaken, of two people up there dying. “The moon is your moon & my moon & it is here, full in the night sky,” the poet Laressa Dickey writes. “Here I am. Stones nearby.” It is your moon and my moon, full tonight, look, and here we are, all of us, we’re all down here, the stones nearby. To see the moon and know two men were up there stranded on its surface? It would be a changed moon, a ghost moon.
I was so troubled reading the speech, I went outside for a night walk. Wind and clouds. No moon.
I imagined the men, hungry, gaunt, shadows deepening in the craters of their eyes, getting thinner, getting weaker, and one night lying down together, maybe holding hands in their big gloves, their lives leaving them. And I imagined the abrasive moondust chewing through their big moon suits, then the flesh of them, so they were bones on the surface of the moon, and I imagined the moon swallowing the bones into itself, as the desert sand absorbs a snakeskin. Their helmets left as headstones. Their bones absorbed into the bone of the moon, until they were made moon themselves.
What’s the moon made of? In the West we say green cheese, but according to ancient Hindu texts, it’s a vessel that holds soma, a nectar that grants immortality. Maybe that is what the men would have been absorbed into, a great bath of vision-giving elixir. Anthropologists, biologists, and medical historians have tried to figure out what plant soma is made of. Ephedra, ginseng, lotus, cannabis, sugarcane, the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. Theories abound. Do we need to know? In the Apollo 11 speech, Safire writes of “mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.” What did we find? What did we lose? The untranslatable, the mystery, the shadowed space of not knowing.
“We drank soma, we became immortal, we came to the light, we found gods,” the Rig-Veda says.
We found gods. We’d been searching for them everywhere.
“In ancient days,” Safire writes, “men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.” As I walked that night, I kept hoping the clouds would part, that the moon would reveal itself. The men would have become the moon, I thought as I walked. And maybe this is immortality. To become the moon! Except that here, on earth, we’re absorbed in various ways, too: by fire into ash, into the soil, into the sea. Are we thus offered immortality? It’s always seemed the opposite to me. Our bones are absorbed into the mouth of the earth, making us earth. Here I am, stones nearby.
Following the short speech, Safire writes, “after the President’s statement, at the point when NASA ends communications with the men”—adios boys, you’re on your own out there, godspeed; snip, thread cut, and not by sister Fate—“a clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to ‘the deepest of the deep.’”
Off they would’ve gone. And off we’ll go. Off we’re going, on the search, our noble goal, looking until we cannot look, vessels on the surface, tugged toward what shines and spins until we are pulled out, unrooted, taken up into it, finally and forever, unstill as light.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice. Her previous columns for the Daily are Winter Solstice, Sky Gazing, Summer Solstice, Senses of Dawn, and Novemberance.
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