'Hide and seek' – on a celestial scale

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A full, radiant moon beamed down on the dark silhouettes scattered around our small mountaintop. We were all looking toward the eastern sky over the Hudson River. Some of us had telescopes poised and ready. Children of various shapes and sizes were running back and forth in the bright celestial light, waiting for the "magic show" they had been promised that night.

Then, right on time, the eclipse began. At first there was just a hint of difference in the perfect roundness of the moon, as if a master artist was carefully erasing its outer edge with the finest tip of his brush. One tiny sliver after another was etched away, slowly, incessantly, until only half, a quarter, an eighth of the glowing orb was left.

By then, even the children were silenced in awe. Finally, the last vestige of brightness had disappeared, replaced by an eerie copper sheen.

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"The moon's all gone." A small voice rose from somewhere in the darkness.

We all stood watching the empty sky. Then, it was as if the artist had changed his mind; No, that's not what I want, you could imagine him proclaiming. Once again he seemed to lift his magic brush, and in precise reversal of what had taken place only 40 minutes or so before, whited-in one lunar sliver after another until the perfect silvery sphere was restored in its full nocturnal glory.

The children – all awash again in moonlight – cheered.

Several days later, I asked Jeff, a friend, if he had watched the eclipse.

"What's so great about it?" he asked. "It's just the earth's shadow blacking out the moon for awhile."

Jeff is a mechanical engineer, scrupulous with facts and figures. He knew astronomy in the best of hard-core scientific terms. For him, moons and planets were just doing what the textbooks said they should. No big deal.

What indeed is "so great" for those of us who are perpetually awed at an eclipse? I asked myself.

Over and over throughout the history of our world, people of diverse cultures and nationalities have witnessed the same celestial event that we had watched that night.

Sometimes in fear, sometimes in joyful wonder, humans have stood gazing at the heavens as Earth's shadow dimmed the lunar light. And so, many myths about the eclipse evolved. In Chinese legend, a cosmic dragon swallows the moon. Early Vikings believed it was devoured by wolves. According to some North American Inuit, both the moon and the sun (during their respective eclipses) periodically leave their heavenly homes to check on the well-being of Earth.

But the common factor in all these myths, no matter how the story goes, is what our eyes observe – that, for a chunk of time, "the moon is gone."

I remember sitting in a plane, on a cloudy night, waiting for our turn on the runway. I gazed out the tiny window at a dark, forbidding sky.

"There's no moon tonight," I thought, which added to my gloom.

Finally the plane took off, lifting through mist and fog. Then, suddenly, we pierced through the thickest clouds and found the "absent" moon – shining safe and sound in all its brilliance, just where it should be.

We were wrong, both that small child watching the eclipse, and I, looking through my airplane window at the murky sky. The moon is never "gone," no matter what its place in orbit, regardless of how thick the clouds that obscure its glow.

And so it is with many things in life that we cannot always see.

Thomas Hardy described an eclipse from his vantage point:

"Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea
Now steals along upon the Moon's meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity."
(From "At A Lunar Eclipse.")

Perhaps a part of that serenity comes from knowing that it is but an ephemeral shadow that temporarily veils the moon. Disappearance and return of light is evidence that all celestial bodies continue to revolve and rotate, as they were designed to do, in the perfect astronomical order of the universe.

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