Contemplate/Imitate

Tuesday, after my school’s Outing Day, I took a nap and then walked up the hill to the observatory to see the Transit of Venus. It won’t happen again in my lifetime, unless I discover the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Taoist Elixir) and become immortal. Neither seems likely, but more astonishing things have happened. Like the transit of Venus, for example.

Consider: at a distance averaging 93 million miles, three objects happen to be in such alignment that the middle one — Venus, in this case — overlaps one of the other two. It’s like that perfect game of “Pickle” when you can’t see who you’re throwing the ball to, because of the person in the way. Alas, it was cloudy here in Middletown: nothing to be seen at the top of the hill. The astronomers and astronomy buffs were all in an interior classroom, watching a video feed from the Keck Observatory on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

[The video was spectacular, but it was still “just looking at a tv screen”. What you contemplate, you imitate. I haven’t had a TV in my house for almost 20 years; every so often, I’m tempted (Revolution looks to be initially good, but then sucky… the folks in TV land won’t want us on the couch to really image a world without electricity for long, and window-dressing famous places-as-ruins is going to be a complex story for the American psyche, especially as it’s already happening to some places in this country). Watching a screen indoors is not the same thing as temporarily seeing the light from the occluded Sun in person, outside.]

And yes, there were cookies, and good feeling. I ran into one of my neighbors, and his dad.

I was invited to this festival of astronomical good feeling by the mother of one of my students, who suggested that I meet them there “after the sports banquet” at school. So I went up at about 5:50 pm to wait for them, and hang out, and because it’s crunch time at school I waited until 6:45, which was still more time than I could really afford… and they hadn’t shown up yet. The sports banquet at school — on a night when a twice-in-eight-years-then-not-again-for-a-century astronomical event was occurring — had “run a little long” by almost an hour and a half. And they had missed their chance.

This morning, my friend Chris posts this (occasionally misspelled and otherwise ungrammatical) rant from John Taylor Gatto. Gatto was once the teacher of the year in New York State (kind of a big deal), and used his platform as said teacher of the year to launch a devastating criticism of public schooling. In this rant, though, he reminds us how many engineers and scientists were self-trained before 1961 and Sputnik, and how we’ve invested school with much more weightiness and power than it deserves. He reminds us how few people are well-educated, no matter how much good schooling they get, and how much more rigorous a self-educated person can be.

This morning, I did the form, followed by five golden coins, followed by the eight pieces of silk. I didn’t learn this in a formal school; I learned it by taking taiji lessons from my teacher, Laddie, for a few weeks (I learned the discipline to keep going from magic, but that’s another story for another day). I’m not learning to build a Kavad from a teacher; I’m learning it through experimentation. I’m not learning to be a designer by training in a school; I’m learning by making, doing, and failing at doing.

None of these are accidents.

Magicians sometimes say that we imitate what we contemplate — what we think about, we become. Right now there are traditional medieval medical preparations brewing in my kitchen cabinets, and a paper model of a kavad on the kitchen table. There’s two paintings on my work table in the office where I do taiji., and an illuminated manuscript project on the shelf nearby. I have a wood burner, a razor saw, a utility knife, and a soldering iron close at hand, all of which have seen use recently. I’m working on book-binding, meditation, and practical geometry, and I’m trying to build a palace of memory in my own head.

When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone as a teacher? When was the last time you wrote a poem or built a new kind of lesson plan? When did you last invent yourself anew?

What is the difference between playing at being a wizard, and actually being one?

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