The River and the Moon

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There is no camera gear in the world that was up to the task of capturing the moon shimmering on the western water this morning, as we cruise eastward under cover of night toward Portland, OR. A little after 4:30 there was a knock at my door: dad, in his underwear, beckoning me from our cabin to the stern deck, there to see the setting Moon framed between mountains. A bend in the river took it behind those self-same mountains, a few minutes later.  But it was enough — the Moon is capable of shattering our unhappiness, our fear, our terror, especially if we encounter it in the right state, half-asleep yet startled from our beds.  We wake thoroughly to encounter the world in silence.

It was the same at Multnomah Falls. Despite the crowds, the rain, the place was tremendously green and lush. Despite the fact that we spent an hour round-trip on a bus that smelled of diesel to get there, and had maybe 30 minutes at the Falls, there was a serenity there, a joy. A bus load of kids from some school trudged up past us on their way to the upper bridge, looking lonely and wet in plastic ponchos. They came down the hill again cheerful, connected, peaceful. They were collecting high-fives from complete strangers on the way down. I myself got twenty-seven high-fives; it felt like a reunion with humanity.

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Water and the Moon both reconnect us to ourselves and to each other. They remind us of our humanity, our connection to each other.  And it’s often enough to wash away loneliness and fear. The Moon has a tendency to remind us that everything will be all right, eventually. Give it time. Give it another go-round. This too shall pass.

Tai chi Y3D73: rediscovery

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Outdoor tai chi. Outdoors is so much better than indoors, most of the time. The only indoors that ever really feels better than outdoors is my own personal studio. But today was under my favorite maple tree in the whole wide world. I’m always happy with the resulting quality of my work. And the weather is nice enough that I didn’t rush. The three tai chi/qi gong forms together, plus the druidic work, took an hour. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they each took 15 minutes. I don’t think that part is true. I just think that they each took about the right amount of time.

Today marks the completion of the first 20% of year three. There’s a little less than twenty days left until the end of the first quarter-year. I was talking to someone this past week who was startled that I could recount how much tai chi I had done with such accuracy — he doesn’t know how much of e rectifying of the count I have to do. I’ve been thinking about whether this is unusual behavior, this counting. But frankly, I don’t think I could have kept up the work this long if I didn’t have some sort of approximation of how long I’d been doing it. My mother keeps gold star stickers in her calendar, and gives herself a gold star for any day in which she exercises. I write a journal entry. Her method is a little more streamlined, but less public.

But there’s something to be said for keeping track, regardless. Magicians keep diaries. So do pioneers. So do explorers, like Lewis and Clark. So do ship captains. What is tracked, is measurable and understandable, to a degree. There’s a record.

What’s amazing to me about my own record of tai chi practice is how ordinary it is. It brings an order and a discipline to my day, but it’s pretty normal. I think it makes possible a wide host of magical things, and it gives courage and fortitude… But the flow of energy and power and chi that characterized my early days of practice is totally gone. it’s just me these days. It’s just what I do. The measurement, the record-keeping, helps ground the practice and helps it grow.

What are you tracking?

Teach Practical Geometry — Please

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Today, one of our math teachers had to leave early, so I found myself teaching a math class — for the second time in a day. Earlier in the day, a number of students were building Venn diagrams for science class. Since they were in a Design Lab study hall, I figured, why not show the practical geometry structure for creating such a diagram? They do have an underlying geometry, you know?

I’d been thinking about this page design issue since I came across a website called The Secret Law of Page Harmony, and began designing page layouts in accord with this system. From there, it was a brief insight this afternoon when I kept hearing the words, Venn diagrams, Venn diagrams muttered all through study hall.

So I showed this system for generating a beautiful — beautiful! — Venn diagram, based on the secret canon of the medieval scribes. How could one go wrong?

Teens.

Look, just because we tell them to build a Venn diagram doesn’t mean they’re going to understand the two thousand years of previous history behind two overlapping circles. Nor do they learn anything about page layout, or page design, or beauty. It’s just a “simple homework assignment”, right? No need to get fancy…

And yet, underlying that “simple” assignment are a whole sheaf of assumptions about beauty, and order, and natural pattern recognition. In other words, the stuff of page layout and graphic design. And underlying that, is all the beauty and order and glory of geometry, the recognition that there is a mindfulness in harmonious composition.

And that means teaching geometry as more than just another type of math, with a textbook as thick as a concrete block and a whole scale of proofs that have no relationship at all to the world of made things.

Yet there is an underlying order. And if the assignment had included the requirement for a “correct” Venn diagram, and there was a video somewhere showing how to put a Venn diagram “correctly” on a page such that it expressed the relationship of written work to the the diagram, and the diagram and textblock were proportional to the page… why, you might reinvent education.

But no… let’s just keep getting kids to draw sloppy, hand-drawn circles, and not help them understand that under the slightly-less sloppy circles of a good compass, there’s a mathematical idea of beauty, in which two distinct ideas share a seed of beauty between them.

Update: Incidentally, I’ve experimented a little with the secret page canons, and here’s a little TextExperiment — a 1949 rant from Jack Parsons, American rocketry scientist, from his less-orthodox work as the occasional leader of a magical order, laid out in the secret page layout that was the method of the medieval scribes.  I think Jack would have been pleased.

Via Flickr:
So, here with the completed Venn Diagram, is the full practical steps necessary to achieve this result.

1) Using a T-square or other long ruler, draw the diagonals from corner to corner of the page (or from margin to margin, if you want to leave a blank edge of the document).
2) The crossing point of the two lines is the centerpoint (O).
3) use the centerpoint O to construct the vertical division and horizontal division of the page.
4) Draw the two diagonals from the vertical half-line to the opposite corners.
5) use the crossing of the full-diagonals and half-diagonals to draw vertical divisions. Where these division lines cross the horizontal center-line, are the centerpoints of your two Venn diagram circles.

Help Us Be Awesome

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Polyphanes has a story in his blog today about a man writing to him to ask how to learn “astrology, kabbalah, tarot and magic all at once”. OK, that’s not exactly how the letter reads, so I shouldn’t put it in quotations, but it’s kind of the intimation, so I’ll let it stand.

Kabbalah, that which is received, is a Jewish mystical system for delving deeply into the structure of the Universe through the written word, and exploring deep connections between letter, word, and number. Astrology is a method for divining past and future events from the position of the stars. Tarot is a system for exploring the nature of our mindsets and future events through the sortilege of cards. and Magic, of course, is the art of altering consciousness in accordance with will.

Polyphanes’s answer to this guy who wants to learn All the Magic! Right Now! is brilliant, I think — “study philosophy, read religion, learn mythology… these are the language of the things you want to learn.”

And to that I would say, “take what you learn and make art from it.”

The image of the tenth mansion of the Moon — a lion’s face floating above the landscape — is associated with glory and achievement. It represents beneficence and magnanimity raining down upon the Land, and upon us. It is the energy of the Sun, mediated through the Moon, empowering us to great things, and energizing us for the Work ahead.

I carry a variant of this image in a pocket of my work bag. I have made it again, and again, and again in various ways, some days better, and some days worse. It’s a constant reminder that I’m not here to watch the Kardashians or MTV videos, or even my favorite, Doctor Who. I’m here to be an artist and a teacher and a creator and a coach and a great human being. I’m here to be Awesome, and to teach others to be Awesome.

Polyphanes, thanks for the reminder.

Via Flickr:
Made with Paper

The Kavad of a Sacred Geometer

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Suzanne Wind Gaskell has hit one out of the park on this exhibit at Wesleyan University. She’s built and illustrated the Kavad of a Sacred Geometer, a study of the geometry and training of a traditional, non-literate artisan in a mathematical tradition. I did not hear her talk, unfortunately, but this object is an occult and esoteric masterwork, as well as being a mathematical wonder.

A Kavad, for reference, is a storyteller’s box or shrine from India or Pakistan. It’s a small box, in this case somewhat smaller than a portable sewing machine case, that has a number of doors, drawers and compartments. In a traditional kavad, these panels are illustrated with scenes and characters from a storyteller’s repertoire. By degrees, the storyteller would open the box to an audience, and the audience members in appreciation would put money in the kavad’s bottom drawer. Once fully opened, the kavad could be a shrine of the Rig Veda or the Upanishads, a life of Muhammad or some Islamic saints.

Ms. Gaskell has taken this form — the kavad, for a non-literate storyteller to explain epic tales to a largely non-literate audience — and created a mathematical treatise. The kavad she’s designed and built is covered inside and out with mathematical proofs and complex geometric constructions; the money drawer is filled with almost-talismanic painted tiles showing traditional floor layouts and iterative techniques of geometrical layout. The inside panels explain points, lines, and circles, the vescia piscis and more. The innermost compartments show the relationship between a vibrating string and musical notation, and contain two dimensional and three dimensional explanations of the five platonic solids. Panels on the back and top demonstrate how the one side of a polygon iterates from a triangle to a square to a pentagon, all the way out to a decagon.

It’s singularly awesome. Awesome in the old sense of the word, “struck down or filled by a sense of awe”.

And of course, I want to build one. Because this is a storyteller’s tool par excellence, a simple cube that, when opened, reveals itself to be no less than a shrine of the building blocks of the universe. Figuring out what to put into a kavad, and figuring out how to build one, represents a deep mastery of many subtle and powerful matters.