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The Stages of the Moon

I spent time in the passenger seat of the car last night contemplating the waxing crescent moon.  The stages of the moon are something I contemplate more than I should, but it’s a good exercise in awareness of the world around you, and a connection to people around the world now and people for as long as there’s been people.  Everyone who can or could look up at the sky and recognize the moon for what it is has experienced the same pattern recognition.  You may not know the names, but you know the shapes and thus the stages of the moon.

A new moon is a blank slate.  The moon is completely obscured, though you might make it out in the sky.  Most people don’t think about a new moon because they aren’t seeing it in the sky.  But the moon doesn’t go on vacation to Mars for a stage, it’s still there with the shades pulled down.

The next stage is the waxing crescent, when you get that fingernail sliver of moon shining.  But how do you know a waxing from a waning?  By which side the sliver is on.  That shade pulls from right to left, so when you see part of the moon illuminated on the right side that’s a waxing moon, and when it’s illuminated on the left side that’s a waning moon.  When I was younger I had it backwards because I thought of the shade pulling left to right, the way we read English.  Nope, it’s right to left, like reading Hebrew or Arabic.

“Slipping softly through the sky
Little horned, happy moon,
Can you hear me up so high?
Will you come down soon?” – Amy Lowell, The Crescent Moon

After the waxing crescent the shade pulls further to the left illuminating more of the moon.  When it looks like an American football or bigger it’s called a gibbous moon.  And again, when the moon is illuminated on the right side it’s a waxing moon, so now we have the waxing gibbous moon.  Welcome to the party!  The waxing gibbous and it’s cousin the waning gibbous are the wallflowers of the sky party.  Everyone carries on about the full moon because it’s so full of itself, and the crescent moon twins are a bit flirty, liking the attention that comes with being so seductive.  Not so the gibbous cousins.  They don’t dance as well, step on a few toes along the way and that makes them a bit shy. But let’s have some love for these gibbous!  What would our sky be without them?

We’ve finally arrived at the full moon, and it’s so full of itself that it starts having nicknames.  You can’t just call it the full moon, this character wants you to call it the Harvest Moon or the Milk Moon or the Beaver Moon.  Okay, we’ll humor you full moon, on your next debut we’ll call you the Cold Moon.  You good with that? Full Moon Fever is a real thing, everyone goes a bit crazy when this character comes around. Tides get bigger and minds get zanier; thanks full moon.

Now the shade starts closing, again right to left, so where we had illumination before we start seeing shade.  Does the full moon notice the Earth casting shade at it?  Does it care?  At first it’s a small sliver of shade and you barely notice the change, but give it a day or two and and our wall flower has stolen the show from old Beaver Moon and we have that familiar football shape illuminated on the left side of the moon; yup, our old friend waning gibbous has come to town, doing it’s clydesdale dance across the sky.  I can relate to you waning gibbous, it’s not easy having two left feet, but keep dancing anyway, just mind the toes.

Finally we reach the last call of the stages of the moon and the light is just a sliver on the left side of the moon.  It’s that flirty younger twin the waning crescent, here to dazzle you with her dance moves and seductive lighting.  The crescent twins are fuel for the poets and dreamers.  Who doesn’t love to see that sliver of moon rising out of the east, dressed in a bit of pink and yellow before slipping into something white?  The waning crescent offers a lovely frame for the celestial dance beyond, a star in its own right even if only a moon.  Don’t tell her that, this is her time!

But waning infers things are wrapping up soon, and so it is with the moon. But one last hurrah for our friend.  The next stage is the old moon, where just a tiny sliver of light appears on left edge of the moon.  We’re all moving towards that stage, and it’s one more reminder to make the most of the day at hand.  Dance with the sky, make the most of your arc across the heavens, and try not to step on any toes out there.


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