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Good deeds from a moon lit sky

It was a beautiful summer evening with a smell of jasmine in the air. Fireflies lit up the darkness, but it was the moon that was putting on a show. The moon was full in all of its glory resting just above the calm waters below it. It’s light reflecting off the water brought a shine to everything that was mesmerising.

My three year old nephew nestled beside me in my chair and asked, “uncle why does the moon shine?”, and the room seemed to go quiet as if to await my response. I explained that the moon shines because its surface reflects light from the sun. I explained that despite the fact that the moon sometimes seems to shine very brightly, it reflects only between 3 and 12 percent of the sunlight that hits it. My nephew looked up at the moon, and my explanation seemed to confuse him. He said, “how can the sun make the moon shine if there is no sun? I don’t see the sun”.

I attempted to explain that if you don’t see the sun, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. That the perceived brightness of the moon from Earth depends on where the moon is in its orbit around our planet. The moon travels once around the Earth every 29.5 days, I said, and during its journey, it's lit from varying angles by the sun.

At this point my sister intervened and said, “maybe you can provide an easier explanation to a three year old, no?”

So, I tried a different tactic using the salt and pepper shakers on the table as props. I said, “you see the moon moves around the Earth, and simultaneously the Earth orbit’s the sun, and this is what accounts for the moon's different phases, full moon, quarter moon, etc.”

My nephew responded by asking me what role the Swiss cheese on the moon plays in all this. Confused, I asked my nephew if someone had told him that the moon is made of cheese, and he said, “yes”, and pointed to his mother.

Dumbfounded, I looked at his mother and said, “Swiss cheese, really?“. She quickly rebuked me and said her explanation was better than mine, and after all, she reminded me again, we’re only talking to a three year old. But, she had already given her child some other interesting narratives: Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, etc. Television had also given the poor boy Barney, the purple talking Dinosaur, the Teletubbies, and for me the moon made of Swiss cheese was a step too far.

In the middle of all this, she asked her son if he wanted some Swiss cheese that came straight from the moon, and he said, “yes”. She offered me some stellar Swiss cheese as well. As she put the Swiss cheese on the table, she repeated the assertion again that this edible delight comes directly from the moon. Her son then asked her, “how does the Swiss cheese come from the moon mommy?” She said confidently, “the space shuttle, duh”.

I thought to myself if we are going down this route, why don’t we just tell the boy that the cheese from the moon comes from inter-stellar cows who bring it to Earth on spaceships twice a week. And, these inter-stellar cows are really friendly, and they leave Swiss cheese in the refrigerators of all good boys and girls when they’re sleeping. With this kind of prep, I thought, what would become of this boy when he went to school?

Disturbed by the nonsensical Swiss cheese explanation, I thought to myself that I had to correct this ridiculousness. But, I tried everything to explain the proper science of why the moon shines to a three year old and I couldn’t get him to refute his mother’s Swiss cheese hypothesis. Finally, in frustration I told my nephew, “forget what the moon is made of, there is a much bigger purpose for the sun and the moon”.

I told him that the sun gives us light to do amazing things before darkness, and if we accomplish something really remarkable, you get a full moon that lights up the sky. If you accomplish something somewhat remarkable, you get a half moon. And, something less remarkable than that, you get a crescent moon. Accomplish nothing in a day, and you get darkness.

My nephew then looked at me and said, “so did I do something really good today? There’s a full moon.” His mother quickly responded and said “you ate all your vegetables and finished all your peas”. My nephew looked at his stomach and then to the moon in awe. He then said, “I really would like the moon to shine like this every day”.

To which I reiterated, “but, when you do things in repetition over time they may not be that remarkable. So you can eat your vegetables regularly, but eventually only get a half moon, a quarter moon, no moon at all, or maybe just a faint star. It just means you have to work harder on something else”. He then asked me, “like what”? I responded and said, “like being nice to your brother, helping your mother or father, or sharing a toy with a friend. So every time you do something good, there will be a moon. The bigger the good deed, the bigger the moon. Do something really amazing, you won’t just get a full moon, but moonshine that will be so bright it will light up the sky. The sky will be lit up just for you. So do something good when the sun is out, and see the results at night to see how much it mattered.”

After that I heard my nephew saying to his mother that he never knew something made of Swiss cheese was that important. And, then he said, “uncle, then why does the moon smile when it’s full and bright? Is it smiling at me?” I nodded yes, and told him that it would always be smiling at him when he did something really good.

I remembered this story from many years ago yesterday as I sat alone admiring a moon lit sky. I looked up at the full moon and the clearly evident smile that came from above. I couldn’t help wondering what remarkable thing my nephew had done today, and I proceeded to my refrigerator to muster up a snack. What seemed most appropriate was a nice piece of Swiss cheese in honor of my nephew’s good deed, and to celebrate all the hard work the inter-stellar cows from the moon do to put this delicacy in our refrigerators when we’re sleeping. And, by the way, if you’re looking for my sister’s explanation for lightning, it’s elephants in the sky taking pictures. With big cameras, of course.

Over time, I have actually come to like my sister’s explanation for lightening better than the science that explains it. Children ask lots of questions to try and make sense of the world. Adults often offer them answers without proof. For any of the truly difficult questions children ask, I have come to learn there is no single answer, nor a single truth. As we grow, we will all walk our own path and find our own truth. Maybe the moon is made of Swiss cheese after all.

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