I chose an undergraduate college based on two critical pieces of information. They had a writing program which awarded the largest undergraduate literary prize in the world to one graduating senior each year, and the actor Paul Newman’s winsome son was a sophomore there.
I know, I know.
And so you won’t keep wondering:
No and no.
But this was where I first participated in a creative writing workshop—a transformative experience confirmed when Professor Day dubbed me “most improved.” I was writing in all genres then, including poetry, and I still have my first unrhymed poem, which I wrote on a maple leaf sitting on a log beside the Chester River. Perpetual romanticism. I still have the leaf! This is not a good thing as you’ll see.
So, one workshop evening, a classmate, Tom, read aloud the most beautiful poem I’d ever heard. My parents had divorced when I was 10, I’d seen little of my father since, and my lonely heart resonated with the grief in Tom’s verse. His parents were clearly divorced too! He knew the lonely echo of an empty house. I weighed in with heartfelt passion when the poem was discussed—which the group did amongst themselves while Tom listened in silence. This is standard writing workshop protocol. After all, you can’t follow published work around explaining it.
After class, Tom and I trudged back across campus, the crunch of fall leaves underfoot, occasionally bumping shoulders. I continued to express my profound empathy and respect for his poem until he finally whispered into the autumn dark, “It was about a dead bird.”
Later, when Tom submitted a pretty angsty verse about the moon landing ending with the line, “Mr. Armstrong, will you tell your children, you’ve stepped on an old man’s face?” I kept my ambivalent interpretation to myself. But it comes to me now.
The Artemis generation is in the process of sending astronauts back to the moon by 2025. And as thrilled as I am at all astronomical achievements, I wish we could push on out into space without stopping by the neighbor’s place.
Our moon seems particularly precious in her singularity. Mercury and Venus have no moon at all. And the outer planets have so many–Saturn 82, Jupiter 79—that none are as special as the single jewel in our sky. The diamond in the ring of our orbit. The reason for our seasons, the reason for our tides.
She is the only other surface in the solar system upon which man has stepped. And since there is no wind, no moving air to carry even sound, those footprints will remain undisturbed in the Sea of Tranquility for millions of years. If, when someday the moon is flung from earth’s orbit, she is captured by another planet with intelligent life, will they explore her as we have? Find those mysterious tracks? Maybe they will figure out what they are and spin myths and legends about the beings who made them.
But they will also find the debris we have left behind in six moon landings—3 electric rovers, lunar orbiters, geologic tools, a lunar laser reflector, hundreds of bags of human waste, cameras, 17 flags, notes, golf balls, scientific hardware, a white feather and yes, an olive branch.
NASA also plans to build on her surface, as will other countries in time. Will we see that construction from earth? We don’t own the moon. Will an advertising company put a sign up there?
I want to be most improved! But I’m not improved. I’m still the romanticizing 18-year-old writing poems on maple leaves. I want the moon to remain the shining keeper of earth’s secrets. She has seen the splitting of the continents, multiple ice ages, mass extinctions, miraculous recoveries. She has seen us walk out of Africa to people her parent planet.
She is the solitary witness to the worst and the best of us—the lengths we will go to both to harm and to save each other.
There is so much ambient light in my neighborhood it takes a moonless night to see the stars when I walk my rambunctious terrier after dark. I look for The Seven Sisters, Sirius, and Orion as they move overhead. The dog strains at her leash to stalk a cat hiding under a car. At least I think it’s a cat. Could be a young fox. Or a squirrel. I’ll make no assumptions. I remember the certainty with which I knew Tom’s sorrow was for the demise of his parents’ marriage. Now all I know about how anyone feels is that I should ask.
A neighbor stops to point out the rare alignment tonight of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in the southeastern sky. This parade of planets will not occur again until 2040. We marvel together at the beauty of the heavens, but who knows if we are looking at the same distant specks of light?
We can only offer landmarks. “Just above that pine. There! Look just above that rise.”
I do what we all do when we want to understand. We try to see what the other sees, find lights in the darkness through each other’s eyes.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.