At first, it was stars. Life in a frequently cloudy city makes it such that you don’t often see stars in the sky, and even on clear nights, certainly not many. But there was a time last fall when my son Julien saw galaxies everywhere. Stars were every twinkling light in shops or on TV shows. They were in every picture book, although not really; often, he mistook images of snowflakes and snowfall for them, or insisted the sun was a star. Which, of course, he was right about -- but when I’d explain that this particular star has a name and a different role for us than other stars, he was having none of it.
In fact, even now, he’s somewhat indifferent to the sun. But he knows about the stars. He’s learned about snow, even though he hasn’t seen much of it in real life. And the moon, well….
A few months after he picked up a star-shaped Christmas decoration and started singing the word “ackle, ackle” (which I realized was “Twinkle, twinkle”), he finally seemed to have stars straight. Over the past few weeks, he’s even started saying the word, instead of “ackle ackle.” But by then, another celestial body had replaced them in his heart.
One evening a few days before his second birthday, we were walking to the grocery store when he suddenly looked up and said “Moon! Moon!” It was one of those times when you can see the moon despite there still being daylight. Julien was delighted by the surprise.
By the time we left the grocery store, it was dark outside, and the moon now glowed brightly in the starless-seeming sky. As we made our way home, Julien would ask me to stop his carriage now and then so that I could turn him towards the moon and he could stare up excitedly.
Living on a high floor (for a traditional Parisian apartment) means we could still see the moon in the sky when we came home. For Julien, it was like a guest looking into our living room window. Every evening ever since – and most days, as well – he’ll stop sometimes and gaze into the sky and insistently say “Moon,” as if demanding its presence, or swearing he’d seen it there so many times before.
Like many toddlers in our era of constant-picture taking, Julien doesn’t always love posing for a photo. But when I offered to take a picture of him with the moon, he eagerly stepped in front of my iPad. In the photo, he’s broadly grinning, the moon outside the window just a small point of light.
His passion for the moon doesn’t stop at the moon itself. Any round object, once compared to a ball or a wheel, is now often compared to it. Sometimes, maybe because he really misses the moon, he’ll even say it if I hand him a square-shaped cracker. I’ve started to call the little round sugar cookies he likes “moon cookies”, so that he knows what kind I mean. Now and then, I can convince him to forgo something sugary and snack on a rice cake instead, by telling him it looks like the moon. Without my lunar-obsessed son, I might never have thought of that. Now, when I buy a pack of what used to look like a rather dull thing to munch on, I feel like I’m just a little closer to outer space.
Usually when Julien is interested in something, I go all out and find songs to sing about it, books to read, pictures or videos to look at. But with the moon, it’s been a bit hard. I have to confess, for some reason, I haven’t done the simplest thing, which would be an online search like “children’s books about the moon”. I feel like it’s a lost cause, because most books that involve the moon seem either too scientific for my imaginative, easily distracted two year old, or too abstract. Or often, they aren’t really even about the moon at all. Think about it; even when the moon has a titular role, as in the classic Goodnight Moon, it’s not necessarily explained or personified. In that particular book, it’s just another object that’s there to say goodnight to.
Songs are a bit tough, too. I love “Jupiter” by Jewel, but that’s abstract (and pretty sensual, which makes it weird as a song choice for my son). “Blue Moon” is great, but of course again not really about the moon itself. For now, I’m going with “That’s Amore”, even though it doesn’t fit the bill either, and furthermore doesn’t capture any of the moon’s cool mysteriousness. But it does get Julien’s attention.
I’m also having trouble with poems I could recite. The more abstract or elaborately phrased ones wouldn’t catch Julien’s interest. In the simple-poems-for-children category, what comes to mind immediately for me is one I recited in a drama school that ends: “I think I’d rather be the sun, that shines so bold and bright/Than be the moon, which only glows with someone else’s light.” An amazing message I do want to teach Julien, but let’s face it: It doesn’t really do justice to the moon. Julien is captivated by the moon not because he thinks it’s a model for how people should act, but because it’s there, glowing, appealingly and differently shaped each night. It’s something he can’t figure out, a part of his daily life that none of us can quite explain to him in a way he can grasp.
Which is all the more impressive when I think that this morning when we were looking at a picture of stars, he said “hot”. How did he guess?
Julien’s lunar fascination especially moves me because of my own childhood relationship with the moon. Some of my earliest memories are driving in my parents’ car at night, drowsy and gazing at the moon outside with worry. Why was it following us, I would wonder – and asked once. I think the question was followed by tears.
I’m not sure what, if anything, my early reaction to the moon means about the child I was, or the person I am. I’ve always been anxious, and I sometimes think that maybe that summed it up: My reaction to the unknown, even a beautiful, silent, constant like the moon, was concern, not curiosity, not acceptance or joy.
If this is true, hopefully it’s a sign that one of my biggest wishes as a parent has been granted: I didn’t pass on my ever-worried nature to my son. I want to think that the way he embraces the moon shows he’s at peace in the world – but also curious and ready, one day, to go forth and explore what moves him.
A few weeks ago, I decided to show him a video I’d put on for him when he was a lot younger, and that he hadn’t seemed to care for then: the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight”, which is a gorgeous, clever homage to Méliès’ famous film, Un voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). This time, I was right -- Julien loved it. As we watched the couple take a breath and leap from their airship to the moon below, I said, “Look: One, two, three, and JUMP! to the moon!”
A screenshot from the Smashing Pumpkins video “Tonight, Tonight”, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
The idea delighted him. On the way to daycare that afternoon, he kept chattering about it, “And…JUMP! Moon!” And when I picked him up later, after hours of play and singing and new discoveries, he got back in his carriage and said “And…JUMP! Moon!”
Since then, the idea often comes back to him. A few days ago, I bought him a little toy bus he’d fallen in love with at a store (He also loves earthly things, especially any kind of vehicle). As I put on his diaper after his bath that afternoon, he picked up the bus from where he’d put it on his belly. “And…JUMP! Moon!”
I found myself grinning just as he had in his photo with the moon. I loved that what I’d shown him had made him so happy. I loved he’d created such a story. And I wished I could live in his world, and that he could keep it in his heart forever — a place where you can go so far with just a jump.