Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars

As I shuffled half-awake through our carport and down the white concrete driveway toward the curb, I craned my neck and gazed into the predawn, winter sky to check in with my favorite constellation, Orion. I first became acquainted with Orion at Trenton Planetarium. My father occasionally took my brothers and me when we were smaller to the museum, and as a special treat, sometimes we got to attend the planetarium show.

The show took us into the evening sky with various segues of classical music and narration describing the constellations that appeared during different phases of the night. Different narrators followed the same script each time, and I anticipated Orion as the black sky began to pink just a bit. Superimposed on the angular and illuminated network was a muscular hunter attacking with his bronze club.  He was depicted as more modern than ancient and reminded me of my fuzzy bearded GI Joe doll poised for combat. Over again, we heard the story of his adventures and ascension to the firmament at the hand of Diana. 

As a twelve-year-old paper boy, I delivered the first news that nearly seventy families received in my neighborhood each day. At five o’clock on the morning of December 8, 1980, the weather was a bit warmer than usual at about 41 degrees Fahrenheit. I didn’t even bother to put on my jacket to go outside. Reaching the bottom of my driveway, I looked down from my view of Orion and leaned over to pick up the bundle of newspapers. The headline on the top copy read “John Lennon Shot Dead.”

I remember loping back to the house a bit panicked with my newspapers, calling to my Dad, who was pouring coffee from a percolator and humming. I hollered as if one of my friends had been injured playing street hockey out front or maybe fell of his bicycle, and we needed an adult to come out and see what happened, “Dad, I can’t believe it! John Lennon was shot last night!”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Matthew,” Dad poured me some coffee, “What a shame.” We both sat down at the kitchen table to read the story in troubled silence. 

Of course, I wasn’t but a couple of years old when the Beetles disbanded, but my sister had several of their albums that we played on the stereo in the living room. Like many adolescents, even to this day, I was deeply interested in the group and knew all their songs by heart. I even bought a copy of Double Fantasy, released just a few weeks before David Chapman fired five shots at Lennon on the street in Manhattan.

John Lennon was so real to me. I felt like I had met him. I’d read enough about him to learn the meanings behind so many of his songs as they were weaved with recent history. The Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film had come out just a couple of years earlier in 1978, re-energizing Beetles’ music along with the intrigue of my friends and me. We were John Lennon fans, and all of us saw the movie and pretended to be characters in it.

After my dad helped me fold my papers, I peddled out on my bicycle, making diagonal cutbacks from house to house, delivering sad news with a discus throw toward each porch under streetlights and Orion’s fading action pose. His singular bright stars, including red Betelgeuse perhaps long exploded 642 light years ago, pressed together in my vision blurred with occasional tears. In my imagination, John Lennon climbed the sky on musical notes to join him.  

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Pi is a Piece of Your Imagination

Let them eat Pi! I think.

Students and teachers across the nation and perhaps around the world will be celebrating Pi day tomorrow, March 14th. Maybe you’ll bake or buy a pie or just have a slice. I like to make an apple pie now and again but only when I think there will be enough people coming over for dinner – Thanksgiving perhaps – to finish the pie. Leftover pie is a real problem for me because I will eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and as a snack until it is gone.

My wife’s Granddaddy Pete used to say that cutting a pie into more than four pieces is wasteful! I agree, and I love that a pie, no matter what kind it is, apple, blueberry, chocolate, coconut cream, or even pot pie, it is always a circle!

Circles are beautiful and mysterious. I think about how often spheres occur in nature, but I believe that the source of the majority of circles, the two-dimensional brother to the sphere, is the human hand. Whether with a compass, a string, or a rope, it is so easy to make a perfect circle. One feature of a circle, the ratio of its diameter to its circumference (Pi) can be calculated to within a whisper but can never be known.

It is estimated that perhaps 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians began the quest to find pi, and through all the ages of human history, including our present information age, we have added to the numbers on the right of pi’s decimal, but the rest is up to our imagination.

Pi represents the balance between information and imagination. Like mathematics, a circle is a human construct to capture the imagination and harness it for a wheel’s perpetual properties or the fair and foul fathoms of a baseball field. Try as we may, nonetheless, we will never know pi.

So, tomorrow, celebrate the unknown and unknowable with a piece of delicious pie! In this day and age – the information age no less – we think we can know everything. Celebrate that we cannot and that there is beauty and imagination in trying. Droves of students will recite pi. Greater numbers still will stand by with smiles in awe of the effort. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Open Your Heart to Epiphany

This past Sunday at my church, Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Charlottesville Virginia, our minister, Reverend Scott Davis talked about the Epiphany in a way I had never heard it described before. Scott delivers wonderful and enlightening messages to help us reflect on how we live our lives as part of our community. In every “sermon” he delivers, there is a powerful takeaway rooted in story.

Historically, Epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas and commemorates the visit of the three wise men to the newborn Jesus. We often use the word “epiphany” interchangeably with “surprise” or “discovery.” Scott turned this idea around by telling the story of the origin of 3-Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura - Oops! I dropped the lemon tart recipe. In the video in the link I provided, Bottura explains that there is poetry all around us, and we should always be ready to see things that others don’t imagine. Thanks to this paradigm, he created a new lemon tart recipe from a disastrous mistake on the part of his student. He turned a failure into an opportunity to innovate and to teach compassion and forgiveness.

According to Reverend Davis, an epiphany is not an extrinsic surprise. If we are open to creativity, we sense the world around us in a different way and see opportunities to lift others with positive changes. These chances to help others see beauty in our everyday world are all around us. We just have to open our hearts.

Scott’s story reminded me of a pleasant surprise I had on the Sunday after thanksgiving. I was washing my truck out in the driveway. It was a little after 5:00 in the evening; the orange sun was low, and it was getting a little chilly, so I was rushing to finish when something caught my eye.

A few years ago I spread river rock in some of the beds around our house. There is a patch of it between the garage and the driveway. I was reeling out an electrical cord to run the shop vac, and I saw what I thought was a little white rock smiling up at me from among the others in the patch. I did a double-take. Sometimes shadows can make a pattern, but sure enough there was indeed a pebble grinning up at me from the rocky bed as if someone had drawn a face on it with a sharpie. I felt a little silly when I realized I was smiling back at the rock.

I looked around for more, pacing slowly around the house, and there were half-a-dozen of them in various places. As I picked up one near the deck, I could see Lainey, my twelve-year-old, in the window. Her beaming face told me all I needed to know. I waved to her; she waved back.

Before finishing up with the truck, I pulled one of our red plastic lawn chairs out in the driveway and – still grinning – sat and watched as the last bit of sun set behind the leafless trees. I could hear a train rumbling off in the distance. I admit, my eyes welled a little as I thought about Lainey, and how joyful she is. I take things too seriously, so seriously that I can fail to see the poetry, the epiphanies around me.

Lainey was reminding me to be on the lookout, to be creative, to open my heart.