constellations #74: phases and cycles
A period of nineteen years, or 235 lunar months, is called a metonic cycle. This means the new and full moons (and all the other phases of the moon) return to the same calendar dates. So, for example, the first new moon of this year fell on January 2. If you count back 19 years, to 2003, you’d find that there was a new moon in the sky on that same date.
A lot of ancient calendars were based on metonic cycles; it was the basis for the Greek calendar, for example, until the Julian calendar was introduced around 46 BC. And it’s still in use today, as part of the calculation of the Jewish lunisolar calendar. It's also used to calculate the date of Easter.
I first heard about metonic cycles this summer from my friend’s mom. I told her that Matt and I had gotten engaged but were not earnestly planning a wedding; we hadn’t picked a date yet, and anyways, we’d probably keep celebrating our dating anniversary — November 16 — instead. When she asked us how many years we’d be celebrating this year and we said nineteen, she gasped. We might as well elope on our anniversary this year, she suggested: our metonic anniversary, a very fortuitous cycle.
The metonic cycle is named for the Greek astronomer Meton, from the fifth century BC, by the way.
In some ways, metonic cycles are like the spiral I wrote about in September — returning to a place where some things are the same (the date; the phase of the moon) and others have changed (the year; the phase of life, maybe?).
Last week, on November 16, I looked up the moon phase for our metonic anniversary from the passenger seat, Matt behind the wheel, on the highway headed south out of Brooklyn: a last quarter moon. The same phase under which I was born, I realized. That felt fated — how could it not? — and delightful.
(Matt, meanwhile, was born under a waxing gibbous, growing brighter every day — a description of his general orientation that’s so perfect, so fitting it nearly irks.)
To be fair, the metonic cycle isn’t precisely, exactly the same as 19 years of the Gregorian calendar. So, ok, Nov. 16, 2003 might actually have been closer to a waning gibbous than a last quarter moon. Still, I’ll take it.
Last week I was in Baltimore, a place I spent a lot of time when I was nineteen years old, one metonic cycle from my birth. Matt and I were in town to visit friends, one of whom I’ve known — as fate would have it — for about nineteen years. My nineteen-year-old self would have recognized current me right away: wearing dark jeans and a giant hoodie, drinking an iced coffee, holding Matt’s hand as we walked across the colorful bridge into Station North, or up and down The Avenue in Hampden, or to and from the apartments he once rented in Bolton Hill.
But of course, I was someone else entirely, too. That version of me, half a metonic cycle ago, wouldn’t recognize the way I wear my hair, couldn’t decode the silly inside jokes we batted around all weekend, didn’t know how it would feel to go to grad school, or get a job as an editor, or bake sourdough bread from scratch, or play in a band, or eat salty licorice alone in Stockholm; she didn’t know how it would feel to suffer certain heartbreaks, or lose certain people; she wouldn’t even know she wanted to know how most of those things would feel. What is left for her in this metonic cycle, I wonder — a sometimes thrilling and slightly terrifying question.
Picture yourself one full metonic cycle ago: Do you recognize yourself? And would that person recognize you? And then, picture yourself one metonic cycle from now: Where do you live? What is the shape of your days? Who’s around you? How do you feel? And then, picture the moon: same as it was then, same then as it is now. It’s nice that things can change; it’s nice that things can stay the same.
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: so much Low and remembrances of Mimi; some good recent emo: I'm Scared That's All There Is by Ben Quad and Never Before Seen, Never Again Found by Arm’s Length; “Eau D’ Bedroom Dancing” by Le Tigre; Letters To My Robot Son by the mysterious producer Corntuth; new Pile; “Annunciation” by Marie Howe; “Alive at the End of the World” by Saeed Jones; issue eight of The Drift; a lot of roasted chickpeas; a vegan lox bagel sandwich from Red Emma’s; the Wikipedia list of individual birds; the TrueAnon series “The Game,” which I found fascinating but incredibly sad and disturbing; a subtly fantastic compliment from a Gen Z-er (“Black sneakers? Very European”); a really nice bike ride over the Williamsburg Bridge; one chaotic, absurd, and wonderful night of bowling
Thanks for reading. Tonight’s moon is a new moon: as good a time as any for introspection and new beginnings. I hope it treats you well. (And, if you’re celebrating, happy Thanksgiving!) Until next 24th.
We did not elope lol
Should I start a section of this newsletter that’s just all the Wikipedias I read during the month? This month I also consulted the entries of: the new movie Barbarian (too scary); The Purge (scary, but also dumb); The Purge: Anarchy (less scary and slightly dumber); Avatar (never seen); Apple’s “Think Different” campaign; “Diamonds” by Rihanna (Matt heard it in a rideshare and thought maybe Sia wrote it — he was right); salting (of the “confidence trick” variety, not to be confused with the Keeper EP of the same name); the diatonic scale; the Marilyn Monroe mural in DC