So tomorrow will be Moon Day, the anniversary of the moment Neil Armstrong put a human bootprint in the lunar dust.
I remember the night. A half-dozen of us were standing in the old Tennessean newsroom on the third floor of the building at 1100 Broad (yes, the one they’re tearing down as you read this). Our eyes were trained on a small TV screen behind the city editor’s desk.
We would read later how a half-billion pairs of eyes around the world – maybe as many as 600,000,000 of our fellow Earthlings – had been watching along with us in that same ethereal moment.
The Moon landing of July 20, 1969, became many things to me.
It was a moment in my youth (I was barely 21, still in college). It was an instant of silence and awe in a normally noisy room, and the grainy images on the small screen halted all the routine chatter and clatter of typewriters and newswire machines.
All that seemed to stop. And for an instant so did the echoes of the street, the noise of the world, of the social eruptions over war and race and demagogues. Those external realities did not stop, to be sure, but for the world over there was an interval that brought thoughts of excellence and achievement, of science and of spirit, of perseverance and pride, and of hope and our common future.
The Moon landing made real all those preceding years of imagining and hard work in the space program – the important work of dreamers and doers. Of how JFK, back in 1961, had put a target on the Moon and the nation on the path to this audacious moment. And of how Congress had shared the same dream – and how the dream came true.
So today, thinking back through the layered lens of fifty years, my memory of the Moon landing reminds me how important it is to persist in a goal bigger than oneself. That tradition is also the country we come from.
In the summer of 1969, there was plenty of trouble around: President Kennedy had been murdered six years before the landing. The awful assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were only one year past. War in Vietnam still ranged on, rending the nation, dividing generations, pitting hard-hats against hippies, and dividing all the rest of us with them. (“America, Love it or Leave It” was a thing then, too.) The Vietnam War would not end for six more years. Watergate was still five years away. The political “Southern Strategy” of racial division had already worked for Nixon in 1968 and was well on the way to giving Tennessee and the South the deep red cast we now know so well.
Yet, underneath all that, there was still the hope and promise of a still-youthful nation. And that scratchy broadcast from the Moon reminded humankind that hopes and dreams can also triumph. And how, when viewed from the lunar surface, our Earth is a small blue ball – one medium-sized planet – on which billions of striving souls had better get along.
This week, reading the pathetic political news out of Washington and North Carolina – the news of hate and racism revealed, of chronic division and political fear – I am reminded that the country I came from was a place of hope and striving, not hate.
Now, nostalgia isn’t enough. I don’t want to go back to 1969. Likewise, people you may disagree with should not be told to “go back home” because, in truth, they are home. What’s called for now is much harder work than insults and epithets and snappy news-bites: Our national task now is to double-down and refresh our democracy.
What will sustain us yet is our memory of the pioneering country that you and I came from, with its essential dreamers and scientists and creators – and leaders who connected us to the future with hope and not anxious fear.
We must hang on to our optimism now. Our role models now should be Washington (the man, not the woebegone government in DC), and Adams and Jefferson, Hamilton and Paine, and all the suffragists and Dr. King, and that flickering image of Armstrong on the Moon.
Each of their families came from somewhere else. So did mine. So did your own.
Reviving our spirit through this angry age is the hard but hopeful work that we Americans are all called to do now – to help not hurt each other, to perfect not punish our nation, and to save not sour our country from fear.