At Sea, On a Wolf Moon Night, fabric art, by Marilyn Johnston

Howling at the Moon

Yes, we do it, my neighbors and I-–residents of a senior retirement community, average age about 80. About fourteen of us who are in good enough shape to make it outdoors in the cold and dark once a month, raise our eyes toward the full moon and howl.


It began with Sally, our astronomy devotee, who follows the news of the skies the way some of us follow Rachel Maddow. In January she sent us all an email: “It’s the first new moon of the new year,” she wrote, “and I think we should all gather outside and howl at it.” 

On the designated night, we peered out the windows of our individual “townhouses”–the community euphemism for the one- and two-bedroom attached houses that encircle a central garden–waiting for the first brave soul to appear. Sally came out first, and then Lynn. Sharon came in her scooter, Gail and Eileen with their walkers, Phil walking slowly holding tight to Carolyn. One by one the rest of us, bundled up against the cold, completed the circle. The moon was hidden behind a bank of clouds, but Sally knew where it was supposed to be, so we all clustered together and, facing in that direction, we growled and grunted, tentative at first, but in no time chorusing enthusiastically in squawks, howls, screeches, and yells, interspersed with a good deal of giggling. 

When we’d tired of howling we hung around in spite of the bitter cold, happy to be together in this time of COVID-19 when such gatherings could no longer take place indoors, and rarely happened outdoors (where they were permitted) because of the winter weather. We wondered what would have happened if residents on the adjoining lanes had been able to hear us. Fortunately we’re at the end of the road with no nearby neighbors. And we knew no one could have seen us through the thickly wooded areas between our lane and the others. But we had a good laugh contemplating the consequences of some worrywart happening upon our gathering and reporting to the office that the residents of Peachtree Lane were outdoors in the dark, huddled together and creating a wildly discordant hullaballoo. 

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It felt so good that everyone agreed it should be a monthly occurrence. Sally set the date for our second howl, and this time the moon cooperated, emerging from behind its luminous cloud cover just as we were gathering. No hesitation now: squeal, shriek, yell, growl, bawl, and, if you need to, curse; it’s all okay. You’re in good company. We shivered–it was again cold–but we still managed to have a lovely post-howl chat.

It is a fact that getting old is a full-time occupation, and not one that anyone in their right mind would happily choose. Your assumptions about who you are and how your life is meant to be lived are challenged daily. You must get reacquainted with your body, constantly negotiate new terms with it as it rebels against your wishes to do more than it’s able to accommodate. That part of you that has been defined and expressed by the physical objects you’re attached to feels disoriented and diminished as you downsize from the big house you’ve lived in for years to the much smaller townhouse at the retirement community. Even if at one time you traveled to places all over the world with barely a second thought, now a two-hour trip in a car–or worse, an airplane–looms large and daunting. And most painfully, your social sphere shrinks as your network of friends and family members suffers relentless attrition through death, dementia, and general incapacitation. You have a lot to howl about. 

But there is an upside to this. In our old age, my neighbors and I care not what the world thinks of us. While our age imposes many limits on our lives, our status as “senior citizens” bestows upon us tacit permission to push the limits of respectability, to lose some inhibitions, to become geezers or curmudgeons, cantankerous old biddies, or just plain eccentric. Who gives a damn? We are beyond embarrassment, beyond mortification. We’ve turned respectability and decorum over to the next generations. We are of course concerned that we are not leaving them with a perfect world–far from it–and we hope that we have given them at least some of the tools to solve the problems we could not. But the burden of doing so is theirs; we are free of carrying that weight on our frail shoulders. 

We can howl, screech, curse, yell; the moon is ours for at least one night of each month. It feels terrific to let go, and if it should ever happen that a passing nosy fussbudget neighbor does call the main office to report that some of the residents seem to be behaving strangely–well, so be it. Maybe we’ll even get our photo in the local newspaper with a headline: Senior Citizens in Retirement Community Perform Strange Ritual. The readers can raise their eyebrows and smile with patronizing indulgence, but we’re old enough to know what we want. We want to howl at the moon–in grief, joy, anger, relief, sorrow, and/or amusement.  And howl we will. 


Author's Comment

In a retirement community, there is a fair amount of turnaround in residents as old neighbors die or move to assisted living or nursing home facilities. But in spite of this we keep on howling, wasting no time in introducing our new neighbors into the ritual. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to share our tradition with the readers of Persimmon Tree


After Stephanie Schamess retired from teaching child development at Hampshire College, she returned to an earlier love of writing. Her work has appeared in Gallery of Readers Anthology, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Tiferet Journal, Hampshire Life, and the Jewish Historical Society of Hartford publication Remembering the Old Neighborhood

Marilyn Johnston is an Oregon writer and filmmaker and is currently working on her first graphic novel. She teaches in the Artists in the Schools Program and has a Doctor of Education degree from Oregon State University.

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