Monthly Archives: August 2020

Lunar cycles

People know little about the moon. Popular astronomy and planetarium websites report that to many in their audiences, it comes as a huge surprise even to learn that the moon is visible in daylight. How can we reach adulthood so unobservant of our surroundings that never once did we look up to notice the moon out during the day?

Hollywood audiences apparently take no issue, either, with outdoor establishing shots that tell us a scene takes place at night—and in which, by some unwritten rule, the moon always appears full. I love how the smugglers in “Poldark,” who you’d think might have wanted to move their goods under cover of darkness, always work under a full moon. Then a show’s plot will advance by a week or two, until another scene takes place at night—can you guess whether the moon has changed its phase?

In earlier times, paying attention to the moon held higher stakes than it does today. It could be useful, or even affect survival, to know and predict the lunar cycle. Archaeologists have studied coastlines in Africa with intertidal zones where early humans dependent on molluscs for their food supply had to have a “sophisticated knowledge of the relationship between lunar-driven tides and intertidal foraging.”

Those “early modern humans could recognize the relationship between lunar cycles, tidal systems and [availability of molluscs] and thus design symbolic calendar systems that allowed them to time their visits to the coast so as to make productive use of the coastal zone.”  Attunement to the lunar cycles mattered a lot, as foragers could risk drowning in the rising waters if they ignored or miscalculated the lunar—and therefore tidal—cycle.

Often throughout history, too, armies seeking to conduct post-sundown warfare have selected a date when the moon was full to enhance visibility for their nocturnal foray, or a new moon to ambush the enemy under maximum darkness.

Scientific studies still support the validity of relationships between animal behavior and the moon. But does the lunar cycle directly affect human behavior?  Anecdotal evidence abounds, especially in places like police stations, crisis hotlines, birthing centers, and emergency rooms.

But hard evidence for the connection tends to crumble in the face of large-scale statistical analysis. Formal studies, many summarized in a Current Biology review article “Human Responses to the Geophysical Daily, Annual and Lunar Cycles,” examine claims of a monthly spike in so-called lunacy, rates of criminal behavior and traffic accidents; these claims, along with supposed correlations between lunar phase and stock-market performance, have all been soundly debunked.

Study after study has failed to support a causal connection between lunar phases and human physiology. Scientists explain that, to begin with, the gravitational force that generates the tides depend on the alignment among earth, moon, and sun, rather than specifically the moon’s phase in relation to earth, “so a full moon does not mean a specific gravitational effect on earth.” Secondly, the idea that our bodies are mostly made up of water and therefore we might host internal “tides” is contradicted by the fact that the moon’s pull is actually a very weak effect, not strong enough to stir most bodies of water (lakes, even the smaller oceans), much less to govern ebbs and flows inside a human body.

Even the most obvious monthly human rhythm—our menstrual cycle—shows no clear evidence of direct influence by the position of the moon. Yet based on the coincidental similarity in the average length of these cycles, cultures around the world link femaleness with the moon in their mythologies, legends, and spiritual practices.

Some evidence does suggest that people’s sleep can be disrupted when the night sky displays more light (such as the three or four nights closest to the full moon). As certain psychological conditions are exacerbated by sleep deprivation, this effect may partly account for anecdotes about the resulting incidents. Such an effect, hugely reduced by the advent of bright artificial lighting after sundown, may have been great enough in past times and still in remote places to keep lunar-phase myths alive.

We choose which cycles to focus on, to note in our diaries, and to invest with significance. Knowing that seasonal changes and circadian (daily) rhythms deeply affect our bodies—sleep patterns, appetites, activity levels—it makes sense, as a practice of self-awareness, to keep daily cycles in mind, a connection that the original meaning of the words “diary” and “journal” already invites.

Some calendar points constructed by culture, too, like weekdays versus the weekend, record-keeping and financial deadlines pegged to the turn of the month, or recurring tasks on a work calendar, tend to fold themselves in to the account of a journal, corresponding to rhythms that matter in our lives.  Diaries kept by observant Christians often punctuate their week with Sunday (First Day or Sabbath); in diaries I’ve studied, especially if the writer is a churchgoer, Sunday’s entries may provide a pause to express religious sentiments or reflections.

The question of the lunar month holds a place of quixotic tension in this calendar. Like many journal-keepers, I’ve often followed an impulse to track lunar phases and even let my awareness of the moon’s current phase (last quarter, new moon) prompt the shape or direction of a journal entry. For no rational or scientific reason, I enjoy starting a new volume on the day of a full moon or a new moon.

Paying attention to the moon, even if it doesn’t directly control our physiology, may still have value. Observing your surroundings, such as to notice the moon visible in the sky at morning or midday, and to know where we stand in the lunar cycle, connects you with something beyond yourself.

Humans who menstruate, if attuned to the unfolding sensations in our bodies, can learn to take better care of ourselves by recognizing and working with the inherent “monthliness” of hormonal/menstrual cycles rather than denying or resisting them. Discovering a pattern that may be highly individual, we learn how different points around this cycle are associated, for us, with changing emotional states and physical sensations in semi-predictable ways.

Like the similarly odd fact that our sun and moon appear to share an almost identical diameter as viewed from Earth, the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that any link between lunar phase and human physiology is nothing but coincidence. And links with other perceived connections, such as higher incidences of “lunacy” or crime, simply don’t hold up under statistical examination.

So, let’s accept that the moon exerts no effect on us, and only stirs large bodies of water like the oceans. Maybe as journal-keepers we simply observe those forces the moon exerts on Earth—the ebb and flow of tides, the fluctuation of crescent and gibbous moons, of lighter and darker night skies—as stations that usefully mark our own path through the seasons and the dozen or so full moons that make a year.

 

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Proximity or posterity?

To figure out a diary’s intended audience, start by examining the amount of background information a writer includes. If the diary, especially in its first few entries, appears to introduce itself to a stranger by explaining basic facts that everyone around the writer probably already knows, that creates a different effect from a diary that jumps right in with comments on people, places, and situations assuming a reader who already has familiarity with them.

The history of diaries includes plentiful examples of both. Samuel Pepys begins his diary by summarizing the previous year. He lists the members of his household and shares with the reader the address of his home, the primary assets he owns, the name of his employer, the “condition of the State” and some notes on his own recent health. Other diaries omit such introductions and take the reader in hand with a familiarity that suggests prior acquaintance and no need to explain the life’s context.

People who come along and read the diary can be divided into two groups: those who know the writer personally and those who lack direct acquaintance with the writer. (This useful division between an initial group of intended or unexpected readers and a secondary audience that inherits the diary later was developed by Kaitlyn Goss-Peirce in her 2019 research on Iowa diaries.)

For the first group, whom we’ll call “proximate” readers—including the diarist’s spouse or intimate partner, friends and family, neighbors, acquaintances, co-workers, teachers and others—the diary will never represent the whole person. This book, however revelatory, remains a single item among many sources of knowledge, including their own personal interactions. The diarist may describe events that the two of them attended together, conversations they had—the diary may even comment on their relationship. Proximate readers could have memories of the same events—perspectives that may not match what’s recorded in the diary.

And somewhere in this group of proximate readers—whether or not they ever actually read the diary—may be found individuals who have in real life the close, trusting connection that a diary narrative tends to establish with an implied (or imaginary) reader. For proximate readers, we see that the very existence of the diary begs a question: “If your relationship with me is truly close and trusting, why would you need to keep a diary? Why not simply share your ideas directly with us, your friends and family?”

The existence of a diary may uneasily suggest that the writer has certain thoughts and feelings they aren’t comfortable revealing to friends and relatives. Just knowing that a member of the household keeps a diary can feel odd, even a little threatening.

Some journal-keepers write with proximate readers in mind, thinking of them as the intended audience. These journals may even take the form of a letter addressed to a spouse or family member. A long tradition of the journal-letter—sometimes with entries initially drafted in a bound book, then copied and mailed to the recipient—blurs the line between letter and diary. Or a pair of writers may agree to share and exchange their diaries for each other to read.

In other situations, it’s easy to understand why proximate readers may have their access restricted. Depending on what’s selected to include, the writer may realize that to come across this diary may lead to strife and hurt for proximate readers who don’t understand or agree with what they find on its pages. A proximate reader could challenge the writer’s account, feel shocked to find their own secrets revealed in the diary, or believe that their behavior or words were misrepresented. To avoid such potential confrontation and conflict, the diary may be hidden, locked, or otherwise made off-limits to them.

But even when kept secret, the diary is composed in acute awareness that one of these potential proximate readers, especially living within the household, might come across the diary and read it. (Of course, this particular threat can shrink nearly to zero in the age of the password-protected electronic diary). For proximate readers to find and read the diary could undermine the intimacy, confidence, and trust that the two individuals enjoy in real life.

Such considerations affect the diary by leading to entries that are encoded, elliptically written, self-censored, or phrased in a careful way that partially conceals their meaning. Potential proximate readers, then, have a shaping influence on the diary’s composition even while a writer exerts effort to avoid having them read the diary—and even if, in fact, they never do end up reading it.

All other readers might be called “posterity” readers. They’ve never met the diarist in person, though they may feel that they come to know this person intimately just from having read the diary. Their relationship, their entire acquaintance, is conducted by means of the diary. Posterity readers may fish for supplemental context in other personal documents and historical records, but for them, the totality of the person they know is the voice speaking to them through the diary. They have no comparisons to exercise between a flesh-and-blood human being and the diary’s persona or narrator.

The diary may be encountered by a posterity reader long after the diarist’s death, or as a published book. Either way, when a posterity reader opens the diary, they have no choice but to step in and occupy the space opened for them through the diary’s construction of an implied reader.

If a diarist uses the strategy of addressing a confidant—real or imagined—the posterity reader absorbs the diary material by “standing in” for that addressee. As Goss-Peirce puts it, these later readers have no choice but to take on the role, to “format themselves to the space” created for the diary’s intended audience (11). From the first page, the posterity reader experiences the closeness and trust set up by the diarist—arguably in a more immersive way than a proximate reader, who will inevitably be distracted by their own real-life relationship with the writer of the diary and can’t help but project onto its pages extraneous details, conflicting views of the same events and conversations, and their personal opinions and attitude toward the diarist.

Note that I’m writing about the diary as a literary form—as a genre. Otherwise I’d admit what seems obvious: that the proximate reader doubtless knows the diarist much better than the posterity reader. After all, they’ve met the person in real life, and spent time together. No matter how much a posterity reader tries to fill in with external information, parts of the diary will never make sense to them. As Goss-Peirce writes, “because no amount of research can fully substitute the contemporary knowledge drawn from experience, [posterity readers] must settle some of the gaps as a loss” (12).

But for this very reason, it might be easier for a posterity reader to make the full leap into a special, intimate connection with the diarist. The posterity reader has no personal ties to complicate the reading experience. While a proximate reader may worry about coming across an entry that could disturb, anger, or hurt them, a reader who never even met the diarist can reach out unhesitatingly to trust this connection. This later reader may even feel flattered or privileged to gain access to another person’s most private thoughts, reflections, and feelings—those that the diarist couldn’t or wouldn’t express to their own family and friends at the time—but that they willingly expressed to the diary.

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