Where We Go From Here: The Moon Does Not Fight
Tonight, the moon comes the closest to the earth that it’s been in almost 70 years. Like a silver ghost rising up in a cloudless night sky, the “supermoon” is so bright and so big that I can easily see a mouth open in the O of surprise—or of sorrow. Or maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see. My daughter Lily skips ahead of me, her black boots crushing damp maple and bur oak leaves underfoot, joyous to be on moonlit sidewalks, sprung from her usual bedtime routine to witness dusk with open eyes. I push a jog-stroller that she’s outgrown because I don’t want our walk to end when she tires, before I have a chance to intimately know, again, the Omaha neighborhood where I’ve lived for the past eight years and which has suddenly become a strange land.
A Gingko Tree has burst into moony yellow leaves in a front yard just down the street from our home. Arms spread wide as if to embrace it, Lily says, “I want to draw this tree.” The woman who lives here, older and with skin like a crumpled brown paper sack, asks us to look after her cat when she travels. Her home is dark inside, but a porchlight gleams onto a backyard cluttered with plastic toys for grandchildren and wrought iron furniture not yet packed away for the Midwestern winter. These things are symbols of her life, of who she is and what’s important to her, clues to her story—a story that, from time to time, intersects with my own. My eyes dart to the blue sign in her front yard, planted a few feet away from where Lily stands under the branches of the Ginkgo tree. TRUMP PENCE in white capital letters, and smaller, underneath: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. Four nights ago, I watched my TV as maps of gray states turned red and the results of the 2016 Presidential election became what Politico called “the biggest upset in US history.” The sign is lit with moonbeams.
Throughout the election process, political impartiality had been my philosophy in the college writing classes that I taught, so I opened up the classroom for dialogue and demanded rational thinking when it was lacking. When the class of millennials swung heatedly in favor of Sanders, and later, Clinton, I even played Devil’s Advocate (has there ever been a truer name?). Detachment was easy to practice in the classroom because I trusted the late-night comedians who skewered the absurdity of a Trump presidency, the many Republicans who denounced him, the newspaper and magazine endorsements—more had declared “Not Donald Trump” than had endorsed him—and the national polls. We Americans were full of character flaws and had our blind spots, but surely we had progressed past the point of electing a man who used racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and homophobic language and who had empowered others to do the same, right?
The Tuesday night it became clear that I had seen only what I wanted to, that I hadn’t paid attention to the entire story, I went to bed unbelieving, trusting that something would happen while I slept that would fix the miscalculation by morning. That’s what it had to be: a math error, not a representation of American values. I slept fitfully and dreamt of Hillary on a parade float that was draped in red velvet, Hillary wearing a blue suit and waving to a crowd of tens of thousands. The race was impossibly tied: 269 Electoral votes each. She was saying “We will win!” in the stout voice that critics had complained was “shrill,” “harsh,” “nagging,” and “abrasive”— complaints repeatedly written on student evaluations about me and my female colleagues, but never on the evaluations of the men who taught alongside us. While our students admired and expected ambitious male professors, they often viewed ambition in their female professors with contempt. A Clinton win would challenge the gender hierarchy that so wholly affected American politics and culture. I was counting on it. I had prayed for it. Fireworks in my neighborhood woke me up sometime around 2 a.m. And I knew. I sat up in bed, wide awake and in darkness.
When the earth, sun, and moon line up, the supermoon will become the closest full moon in the 21st century. “I’m going to drive an hour or two out to the country and blast sad music in my car,” a former graduate student of mine texts. Far away from the center of the city and the urban buildings and lights, she’ll be able to focus on the moon, with only the occasional farmhouse or outbuilding on the horizon. A sexual abuse survivor, she’s felt the trauma of her abuse awakened by the misogyny that filled our TVs and social media sites during the election “I need a way to find meaning in all of this,” she says.
Moon-gazing strikes me as the natural choice for meaning-making, as the moon is the only celestial body that humankind has stepped foot on. The moon’s consistent presence in our lives offers tangible proof of an existence and purpose larger than the human condition, or in the very least, it offers proof of an existence longer-lasting than our longest life spans. Centuries before we first dreamt of traveling there, ancient cultures looked to the moon for literal and figurative symbols of what our lives meant, and the moon became a prominent figure in our ancestors’ storytelling. It’s a human impulse to search and find meaning in randomness, unsystematic figures, shapes, and lines; and so we see a face in the moon where instead there are areas of shadows and light created by highlands, dead volcanoes, and lava seas. The act of making meaning out of random stimuli is called pareidolia, but it could also be called essay-writing, fashioning a narrative arc out of the random happenings of our lives. Am I projecting my own story on the moon if I write that she, too, is in mourning? Am I projecting my own fear if I see the moon as a “she”?
Thousands of years before I sat in Catholic churches as a young girl, bathed in the multicolored light from the stained glass windows that depicted Mary holding her baby in her arms, both mother and child awash in moonlight, the ancient Egyptians recognized the moon’s cycles as symbols of rejuvenation and rebirth. We continue to associate the phases of a women’s life, and her fertility, with the phases of the moon, but not all moon stories are so positively linked to womankind. The Romans told a story of Luna, goddess of the moon, depicted in Roman art as an unearthly figure riding a silver chariot across the black sky. Lunacy and lunatic are attributed to Luna as are stories of the moon causing strange behavior, temporary transmogrification, and insanity. Shakespeare wrote in Othello: “She comes more near the earth than she was wont. And makes men mad.” Science has disproved theories of the moon’s influence on human behavior, yet if the moon’s gravitational pull affects the ocean’s tides, then might not it also affect the human body, which is primarily made of water? Or so the theory goes. Perhaps the moon can teach us how to balance both the light and darkness inside each of us. Perhaps we will accept that our moon folklore is as complex as our beliefs about women. Besides, the whole world has gone crazy and maybe also fanged. How else to explain what’s happening? My eyes drift upward toward Luna: plump and blooming, like madness itself—or like hope. It’s a blurred line, this place where one ends and the other begins.
The morning after the election, after my husband had left for work, I didn’t know how to answer Lily’s questions: “Hillary Clinton didn’t win? Why? You said Donald Trump was a bully. Why, Mommy?” He was so much worse than a bully, but I didn’t want to frighten her. Our desire to protect her youthful trust in the human race kept us from telling her the whole story (as if any of us knew). Because a “mean man” had won the election, she cried a little but had recovered by the time she and I were dressed, fed, and walking hand in hand to her kindergarten class on what was an unseasonably warm fall morning. The warmth was there, I observed it, but I couldn’t feel it in my bones. I zipped up my jacket.
At the end of our street three white men stood in front of a skid loader and a pile of torn up concrete, dirt, and rubble. “He stopped that crazy bitch,” said a man with a thin brown ponytail. All three men laughed. The thickset one with the goatee said: “We’ll get a hot First Lady in the White House.” I looked at Lily to see if she had heard, but she wasn’t paying attention to them. Regardless, hateful words find their ways to children’s ears. When they saw us walking they split up and returned to various positions around the hole. “Good morning, ma’am,” ponytail said, smiling, squatting to grab a circular saw from the sidewalk. The sight of the hole in the ground and the saw in his hand, with their words echoing in my ears, dug deep into me. My silence shamed me.
Men like these were everywhere. They were familiar; they were family. I lived in a blue dot in a red state, and I was raised in a working-class family of tough-talking men who every so often said crude things about women yet also cared about the women in their lives in ways that were both overt and subtle. I had married a man who worked in construction and was the only liberal on the crew that he managed. These men, frequently laid off from the blue-collar jobs that they had spent all of their working life training for and then doing, felt devalued by other Americans. The American Dream had traveled down new roads, abandoning them at the very spot where they stood in their steel-toed work boots, steeped in their traditions that pre-dated multiculturalism. Religions other than Christianity made them anxious. Powerful women made them insecure. They didn’t recognize their own privilege. It was complicated. That’s what I said to my friends who called these incidents blatant, if possibly subconscious, exhibitions of deep-rooted misogyny. Now I struggled to hold my head high. The men’s neon yellow shirts were unnaturally lucent and hurt my eyes, so I looked at Lily instead and squeezed her hand. Children aren’t born despising people who are different from them. They’re told the wrong stories. I looked at my little girl and said: “You are strong and brave and smart.”
“I know,” she said cheerfully, swinging her purple lunchbox with her free hand. It was all I could do to keep my composure. Tenderness for my daughter flooded my body. She would one day learn more of the story: Americans had elected a man for President who called women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” “bimbos,” and “disgusting animals,” whose supporters threatened bodily harm to a female journalist who questioned him about these words, who bragged about sexually assaulting women, and who suggested to a crowd of supporters that “Second Amendment people” could do something if Hillary won. And his audience chanted “Kill her!” in reply.
Night falls in our neighborhood with its nighttime sounds: crackling leaves, the haunted sounds of wind chimes, a car door slamming, children’s voices, the muffled sound of traffic—the noises of a mostly safe (if somewhat bland) middle-class neighborhood. Lily decides that she’s had enough walking and arranges herself in the stroller, returning the twigs, pine cones, and acorns that she’s stored in her pockets to the earth. She sings a made-up song about a “big, big supermoon” and outlines an orb with her hands. Children are fascinated by the moon, equating it as they do with everything that is right and good in the world. When Lily was younger she’d reach out toward the moon with stubby arms and say, “I want to touch it.” Back then she believed in the superhero-like power of her parents, and she asked us to hoist her onto our shoulders so that she could reach the moon, which must have looked to her like the incarnation of Harmony itself. Who wouldn’t want to feel Harmony with their fingertips? I’ve heard the essayist John T. Price liken this childhood desire to touch the moon with humankind’s first expression of spirituality. He writes that his mother once told him that babies “live on the moon, waiting to be called down to earth.” More so than adults, children are akin to celestial beings. Their souls must be nurtured.
Farther down the street, two mini-moons move quickly toward Lily and me. “Be careful,” I say foolishly, as if Lily might jump out of the stroller and dart into the street, disappearing into their cold core. Passing us by, two headlights, just a car. My neighborhood is the same, yet everything is different. I’m awakening to the dangers I did not see before, and my eyes, like Lily’s, are open. I stop in front of a modest split-level home painted white with black trim. The living room windows of strangers have always been alluring to me, though the desire to look is the strongest when I’m feeling troubled. I imagine the stories of the women inside the dimly lit living rooms and bedrooms—career women by day, mothers by night, like me, but always I imagine them as happier versions of myself, having easier relationships to domesticity and womanhood than I do. I think about children being read to. Being fed warm bread. Being hugged and carried half-asleep to bedrooms with heavy blankets and nightlights to fend off the boogeyman. What will fend off the boogeyman now? Do I feel differently about the women in my neighborhood who voted for Trump? Yes, I do. Internalized misogyny runs through female bodies, too, like an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, contagious and flesh-eating. After the election, memes of Kellyanne Conway popped up in pro-Clinton social media groups with more women than men responding, gleefully and cruelly ridiculing her face, not her politics or her words. Worse things were said about Clinton’s “looks” in pro-Trump groups. When will all women rightfully and proudly claim their gender? Will I be alive to see it? Lily mistakes my pause in front of the house for confusion, my uncertainty of which way to go in the dark. “Follow the moon and you won’t get lost,” she sings, and in it I hear a metaphor about finding my way in the gray night, and about perseverance and endurance in what I fear could become endless gray nights to come.
Several of my students cried in the classes that I taught during the days following the election. One of my strongest writers sank down in her chair, tilting her head so that long bangs fell over half of her face, and described what she had seen in her newsfeed. “Why do so many people hate me? They don’t know anything about me except that I’m gay.” An Asian American woman talked about seeing the “N-word” on her twitter feed. “People think racism isn’t happening on academic campuses or in big cities, but the guy who wrote the tweet is a junior in college!” A third invited her classmates to join her downtown for a Not My President protest, stirred by the protests happening in over a dozen cities: New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, New Orleans, Miami, and elsewhere. We talked about the complexity of the peaceful protests that turned to riots amidst the Love Trumps Hate signs. We would have to work daily to rid ourselves of the hatred we’d all absorbed into our bloodstreams. “Stay safe,” we said to each other after class and in the hallways. “Stay safe,” we wrote to each other on social media. “Stay safe,” we said to each other as we walked to our cars at night.
During the weeks to come, hate would come much too close for all of us: a swastika and anti-Semitic text carved into the wall in a men’s restroom in the building where I taught, right down the hall from the Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies. I would remember, then, that a student had written the lyrics of a Creedence Clearwater Revival song in his writing prompt: “I see a bad moon a-rising/I see trouble on the way/ I see earthquakes and lightnin’/ I see bad times today.”
Astronomers say that the supermoon won’t travel this close to the earth again until 2034, and I’ve wondered how the world’s story will read then. Will more women than men hold seats in Congress? Will we close the wage gap, irrespective of gender identity and race? Will we achieve gender parity in education? Health care? What about the occurrences of sexual violence? Will there be less of them? Will we have finally elected the first female president because she will be, as Hillary Clinton was, the candidate best qualified for the job? Or will it take as long to elect the first female president as it took activists to win women’s right to vote? Will it take another supermoon, another century? And in my most pessimistic moments, I ask: Will any of it matter, or will a demagogue have gotten us all nuked before then? No matter how much chaos we’ve created down here on the ground, the earth still spins. The moon orbits. Chaos Theory teaches us that it can take years—lifetimes—to see the effects of our actions. Long-range predictions of our life stories are impossible, though some things, like the moon’s orbit, are predictable. I take comfort in that.
Invisibly, the moon pushes and pulls back against the gravitational forces of the Earth, causing higher tides and altering the Earth’s crust. In Everyday Tao: Living with Balance and Harmony, Ming-Dao Deng writes of the moon’s invisible struggle with the earth, “The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished.” The moon does not fight—it’s a beautiful vision of peace, a metaphor for a storybook tomorrow, when every one of us can claim our full humanity. But until then? Gentle influence has never been enough in politics. People are at war with their rhetoric. We must fight. We must tell our stories. In these ways, we refuse meaninglessness. Teachers, writers, students, mothers, daughters—we must not be silent. A wise friend of mine says: women’s resilience is the one certainty amidst this time of insanity versus hope.
Snug in the jog-stroller, Lily says: “Show me the Big Dipper, Mommy.” I stop walking and look. Up in the air, hundreds of stars are emerging out of the night sky like so many bioluminescent jellyfish in the ocean, swaying this way and that way, caught in the tide, the moon’s gravitational pull. Still, this evening I’m unable to make meaning from the random clusters of light. “I can’t find it,” I say. I stargaze but the constellation alludes me. “But the moon is right here,” I say, “and it’s glowing.” Through the naked branches of a tree, we stare at the moon, damp leaves underneath and all around us, dampness on our breath and in our coats, the two of us illuminated in moonshine. When the whole world has split itself wide open, the moon is sometimes the only thing left for us to recognize.
Jody Keisner is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her creative nonfiction and scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, The Threepenny Review, Brevity, Hunger Mountain, Brain, Child: the magazine for thinking mothers, So To Speak: A feminist journal of language and art, New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Women’s Studies, and elsewhere. She is at work on a memoir-in-essays that explores that physical and psychological landscapes of fear as they relate to women. This is her second contribution to VIDA Review.