Astrology and Celestial Poesis

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I listened today to an episode of Chris Brennan‘s The Astrology Podcast, in which he talks with astrologer Sam F. Reynolds about Sam’s appearance on a TV show called “Bill Nye Saves the World” from Netflix.

It was a pretty good episode. There was some strong, and useful and thought-provoking back-and-forth between host and guest, centering on the question of whether or not astrology is a science; whether or not there’s empirical evidence for it working (as a middle ground of rigor between anecdotal — “story-based evidence” on the more literary side; or scientific — “big-data-based evidence”); and whether or not any astrologer should get into debates with scientists (or science evangelists) on the subject of whether or not astrology has validity.

I’m really enjoying reading Chris Brennan’s book, Hellenistic Astrology, of course.  Chris’s points in the show were also well-taken: that it’s potentially problematic to ‘give ground and surrender’ right away (my summarization of his words, not a true quote) by agreeing that astrology is not a science.  If one finds oneself in debate with Bill Nye or any other scientist or science-apologist, maybe conceding that astrology isn’t a science right away isn’t wise.

But on the other hand, I found myself agreeing with a lot of what Sam Reynolds had to say.  One thing in particular resonated: the idea of astrology as a language, rather than a science.  Chris Brennan seemed to find this particularly objectionable, because he felt that this undermined the validity of astrology, especially in the eyes of scientists.  However, Sam argued that this helped astrology fit into the realms of literature and poetry more effectively. He called astrology celestial poetry — which I write.

And this brought to mind my regular fascination with the medieval seven: the Liberal Arts (plus philosophy), which I find myself returning to again and again:

  1. The Trivium, or three ways, of language:
    1. Rhetoric
    2. Grammar
    3. Logic
  2. The Quadrivium, or four ways, of mathematics:
    1. Geometry
    2. Arithmetic
    3. Music
    4. Astronomy

It occurred to me that Astrology is a bridge between 2.4 in the above list, and 1.1-3.  One takes the observable data about the sky — the geometry and arithmetic in motion — and use the various degree-coordinates as variables in an equation. These are the placements of planets, signs, and houses; and the resulting aspects between them.  The resulting numeric-coordinate variables are compared with a database of possible text-values, e.g., Mars means this, and Venus means that, and the relationship they both have with the Sun in Leo means this other thing.  The sky, in other words, yields first a set of abstracted number-values and variables… and then it yields a set of words.

Which brings us from the quadrivium, the four-way crossroads, to the trivium, the three-way crossroads.  It brings us from the realm of mathematics into the realm of story-telling, and unites the the two realms of language and mathematics.

When a poet tells a story about themselves, it’s autobiographical poetry.  When a rhetor, an epic reciter, tells the story of the Spear-Danes, they’re reciting history.  But when an astrologer reads the stars for a client, they’re creating a real-time story about time and space in which the client is the protagonist and principal character.  Each and every one of us is the hero of our own birth charts.  That’s who we are — the chief character in our own story.

And that’s why the idea of Celestial Poetry resonated so strongly with me. Because you can buy the celestial poetry I’ve already written:

But Sam Reynolds’ comments also provide me with a way of understanding what I think about astrology.  I don’t believe the stars rule our destiny, for example; Marsilio Ficino, the great Renaissance translator, mystic and magician thought that there were coincidences and correlations between human experience and the motions of the heavens because both were being moved and adjusted by the same invisible forces — and thus astrology is simply a matter noticing and reading the obvious but temporary signs left in place by the road-repair crews — you can see the traffic cones and the diamond-shaped orange signs, and you can see the lane changes plainly enough.  But it doesn’t mean you know who ordered them to put out the cones, or when the work is done.

But literature — poetry, storytelling, song, history — always carries with it some level of validity and meaning.  It’s a way of making sense of who we are as humans. It’s part of the reason I’ve written all those astrological poems, for example — because I’m interested in the idea of cycles of time and changes in the world as a result of changes of time.

So I feel as though I finally have a way to explain and explore astrology in other people’s charts beside my own that makes sense for me — I’m not trying to defraud people out of their money or their time; rather, they’re offering to let me tell them a story about themselves, and about the world they live in. They want to hear their own heroism, their own doubts and failures as a hero, and the moment when they stand and find the courage to do what must be done next.

This is, after all, the reason why so many people go to see astrologers — at moments of crisis or difficulty in their lives, they want to have a sense of how the next part of the story plays out.  They want some predictions that they made the right choices, that this part of the story resolves, and that life does in some fashion go on.  Maybe those are the answers they get; maybe they aren’t.  Either way, though, they’re looking for celestial poetry — for a way to connect the raw celestial mechanics of the heavens above, to their own story and their own meaning.

They are looking for the ways in which the apparently-uncaring Cosmos has written their story into the very movement of the stars.  And that feels like a worthy skill to develop — not just to be a writer of poetry, but a writer of poetry that joins the heights of the farthest heavens to the depths of a person’s soul. There’s no telling whether it will ever win prizes or collect fame or fortune — but maybe it will shine starlight and moonlight on a person’s heavy spirit, and give them a light in a dark and wild wood where the way is otherwise lost.

Design Thinking: How, not About

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I’ve just come upstairs from the basement workshop, where I’m assembling a pair of inkle looms as gifts for friends.  I first learned about the inkle loom  while trying to assemble a system for card/tablet-weaving, and now I think I want to build a better loom that looks like this, anyway.  Before that, I worked on another automata that’s built from the box frame I built to practice dovetails, which will be a present for my mother.  And on Friday I folded a trio of big origami boxes to wrap a present for a colleague, using giant paper and a pattern I learned during my summer experimentation.  And I’m getting back to these projects, of course, after weeks of experimenting with electricity and building motors for my Thursday teaching program.  I’ve not been able to go to the Monday night knitting circle in a few weeks, but I’m looking forward to getting back into the string-theory work I’ve been doing with knitting a Hermetic scarf (like a Doctor Who scarf, but in the colors of the seven classical planets rather than the Doctor’s colors), and a few other projects, like making lucet cord for decorative purposes, and for finishing out a pair of medieval-style poof pants I made for myself….

Which is to say:

When I was asked to start up a design thinking program six years ago, I thought it was all about theory.  It was all about having empathy for people, and solving problems.  But it’s occurred to me in the intervening six years, that while empathy is an important part of the thinking of Design Thinking, the real work of Design Thinking, the Design portion of the work, comes not from knowing about someone else’s problems, but knowing how to do things which might help those people arrive at a solution to those problems.

The famous Ted Koppel Nightline story about IDEO and “The Deep Dive” begins with visits to a grocery store and interviews with people in the grocery store, and a request to redesign a shopping cart in just five days.

But it’s worth noting that these folks are Designers.  They built the first Apple mouse, and a host of other products. They’re psychologists, biologists, technologists, and interviewers.  They defer judgement, and listen to the ideas of others, and build on the others’ work.  As one fellow says, “Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.”  And of course, “Fail often to succeed sooner.”  And all of the language that they use is great.

But think about the Talents and Skills which are on display here: using a angle grinder and a metal hacksaw.  Using a welding tool, building mock-ups of precisely-cut foam board and sculpt-able styrofoam, building crazy things out of whatever materials happen to be lying around the workshop.  Drawing. Writing (beautiful handwriting, too).  Laughter, easy-going cleverness in groups.

And I think that what I’m trying to say is that I see many schools succeeding at the Thinking part of Design Thinking.  But one of the places that I think my school succeeds where others fail is in the Design portion of Design Thinking.  A kid comes to my school, and he or she has the potential to learn knitting, sewing, embroidery, jewelry-design, costume design, thread-spinning, basic electronics, weaving, basic carpentry, graphic design, drawing, origami, and more.  He or she learns these skills because _I_ have learned them (sometimes painfully), and I’ve come to understand that the success of a Design Thinking program hinges not on the stuff you have in the Design Lab, nor in the books in the library shelves, nor in the projects  you create.  No, it lies in what your teachers know how to do — what skills do they know, and what can they impart to a group of children successfully in the time you give them.

Don’t get so caught up in the abstract thinking portion of Design Thinking, that you forget to teach the students how to Design (and Make) what they have thought into existence.

Tai Chi Y3D182: Full Spin


Today, Procyon crosses the midheaven at about 8:41am, Eastern time. You can check the USNO page for the time of Procyon’s transit in your neighborhood.

I did 50 push-ups this morning with a fair bit of difficulty. The fact that I don’t ramp up to a given level of performance and then stay there, day after day, is a source of some annoyance to me, but there you have it.  It takes time to develop these skills.  The qi gong and druidic forms went fine.  Our tai chi movement for today is called Full Spin. It follows Step to the Seven Stars and Ride the Tigerand after it is Windmill Kick, which I’ve addressed before but not in poetry.

Tuck the left ankle behind the right knee,
and draw the arms in almost to the chest.
This will assist the movement to be free;
to turn full-circle is sort of a test
you may not pass at first. Flex your right foot,
and stand on the ball and toes; Kick out left,
make tenuous the link between your root
and the earth, and turn as your limbs all lift
Half is not enough; keep going around,
’til your toes face again where you started.
Then stamp your right heel down, and go to ground,
and follow with the left. When you’re rooted
nothing at all can shift you from your stance
but you — yet you must move, to end the dance.

Tai chi Y3D121: pessimism

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I came home from my annual retreat to the mountain on Sunday. It took until today for me to feel as though my practice was back to something resembling normality. Today’s practice was great. And it touched the ecstatic places that I had touched on during my retreat to the mountain.

But in conversation with a friend last night, I realized (mostly because he told me so) that I’m understanding the world from a very pessimistic viewpoint right now. And that my tai chi is a kind of bulwark against all that: “at least there is this one thing I’m doing that I can control.”

But it’s very easy to slip from pessimism to sadness or depression. When one believe the world is slipping into chaos and madness, it’s very hard not to give into despair. My friend lifted me a little, but despite the exhilaration and joy of this last weekend, I’m still in a mindset where I think the world is spiraling the drain and it’s all downhill from here.

My birthday is Monday. That may have something to do with it. 🙂

In the midst of the sadness and worry — about foreign affairs, about manufactured celebrity, about crises foreign and domestic — there is the practice. I nodded at two others of my neighbors this morning during tai chi. No one is batting an eye or caring that I’m doing something weird. No one cares at all.

There’s a power and a joy and a hope in that, I think. The world will not likely change. There will always be crises foreign and domestic, broken attitudes and broken nations and broken systems. And sometime, eventually, my tai chi practice will fail. In the meantime, we practice as we intend to go on. We let others live as they wish, and hope that they let us live as we wish — and we practice what we mean to become.

Creating Slideshows for Latin

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Over the last two days of the first week of school, I’ve had slideshows (presentation software files, like Apple Keynote, or Google Docs presentations, or PowerPoint) ready to go for Latin class.

It’s a little weird. Slideshows for Latin??

But bear with me here a moment.  Both slideshows are in the school’s new Google Docs-based system. (I hear we’re calling it “Google Drive” now?) They’re a quick overview of the class notes… now if someone is absent those days, I can share the slideshow with their e-mail account, and they can review the class notes for the day.  Not the same as having me talk at them, or doing the exercises in class, but promising.  An improvement over the current system, which is catch-as-catch-can.

The second thing is that both slideshows are set up so that parts of each slideshow are interactive — “here, let’s translate this together.”  Or, “here, read this aloud.”  Or, “Here, read the English while I read the Latin.”  Or, “Here, write down the words in this list that you think are probably Latin, and cross out the ones that you think are probably not-Latin, in origin.”

The third thing that I like is that by the time I get the ten or twelve basic “Chapter Overviews” done, for the chapters we usually get through in a year, my students will have a set of complete review guides to the Latin language as presented in Ecce Romani IAany of which they’ll be able to review and consider at any time during the course of the year.  If a kid makes the same basic mistake over and over, I can direct him to the relevant review slideshow, and give him or her a suitable outline of things to think about.  And that’s awesome.

The fourth thing is that they’re done.

By the time I get to the fourth or fifth week of school, I’m going to be in a position to have students making rough drafts of these presentations as homework or as classwork. They’ll have seen enough of them at that point.  They’ll have access to the digital tools. They’ll be helping to build the curriculum for next year’s class with their work… and they’ll begin to have a sense of what’s good about a presentation, and what’s bad.  So will I.

I’m reminded of two things as I make these slideshows, though, two cautionary tales.

The first one is the awareness that “Magic Lantern Shows” with cardboard cutouts and cellophane prints of ancient locations in the late 1800s were a Plato’s Cave kind of experience, but they exposed people around the world to the exciting and amazing opportunities that travel opened up; and they gave people access to a new kind of knowledge that one couldn’t get from books.

The second, though, is a much more sobering story.  The infamous Sing-Sing Prison, on the shores of the Hudson River north of New York City in Ossining, NY, was built by prisoners marched forth from the city in winter, who arrived and camped on the present site of the prison.  And then, in the spring, they began cutting and quarrying the stone blocks necessary to build the prison in which they then imprisoned themselves.

And I think I have to be careful about this.  I want students empowered and wondering about the world, not imprisoned by the structures I impose on them.

Taiji Day 266: Loving the Work…

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Got up this morning to do the work, and discovered that while I love to do the work of tai chi, I’m sort of getting bored of writing about it.  I mean, Five Golden Coins is just this:

  1. Stretch up to the sky with first one hand then the other
  2. Push out to the sides with first one hand and then the other
  3. Push out to the front with first one hand then the other, while drawing the opposite hand back
  4. Touch your toes and then reach for the sky
  5. Bend at the knees and waist and swing your arms hard so your back is parallel with the floor and your fists are above your kidneys.

I mean, sure, they have fancy names:

  1. Join Heaven and Earth
  2. Plucking Apples
  3. Bend the Bow
  4. Attending to Earth
  5. Carry Milk to Heaven

But it’s really just a calisthenic routine, right?  Or is it something more? Does doing something Chinese and martial-arts-y every day make me something other than just an ordinary guy? How does the fact that I carry out this daily practice matter, in the grand schemata of things?

It probably doesn’t.

How does it matter for me.  Well, I find that I have an easier time thinking through problems on a day when I’ve done tai chi — but of course, that judgement is subjective, relative.  It’s been more than half a year since I had a day on which I’ve not done tai chi.  My judgement is relative, here.  I could be wrong.  Is it to get better at tai chi?  Yes.  If I shifted to doing tai chi three times a week, I’d get better less quickly than I do now… but on the other hand, I’ve already achieved a degree of basic competence.

There’s a sequence of maneuvers in tai chi called grasping the swallow’s tail. It’s this: rollback, press, push, Buddha’s cup, single whip.  And that sequence of maneuvers comes up a total of four times in the form, each time I do the form.  So I’ve done those five moves over a thousand times.  Ward Off Left and Ward Off Right each appear twice in the form: I do those fourteen times a week.  Each move in the two qi gong routines gets performed sixteen times; I’ve done each of them over 4000 times.

And yet one hits plateaus, like this one, where I feel like I just can’t write about it any more.

But that’s just it.  I feel like I can’t write about tai chi any more.  But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t.  While the Dweller on the Threshold continues to insist that it’s just not worth the effort any more, and that I should give up, my brain has successfully produced about five hundred words talking about this mental ‘block’.  The mental block, in other words, isn’t really there.  The barrier to growth and experience and personal development is in fact not so burdensome that I can’t get myself going.

Just because some portion of my brain has a voice that says, “stop writing about tai chi, you’re boring yourself,” doesn’t mean that I’m not capable of continuing to find points to write about.  Sometimes the limitations of the work continue to lead to deep insight.

Teaching Creativity By Model, Language and Value


Apparently someone at ISTE said (presumably in an authoritative way during some keynote or major workshop) that you can’t teach creativity.
I’m going to have to call bulls@%t on that one.

We teach kids to play basketball, don’t we?

I once watched a first-year coach of a basketball team shout at his team, “Defense! Get on Defense! And they did nothing. He hadn’t taught them what to do when he shouted “Defense!” They hovered around the ball, massed the one player with the power to make the shot, and left all of that player’s teammates wide open. The game was a rout, of course, because the coach said, “Offense!” a lot too. It was, pardon the pun, offensive.

Spagyric label: Lavender

And it reminded me a lot of my experiences coaching basketball. I was terrible, for largely the same reasons. I didn’t know the language of basketball, I didn’t have a model of how a beginning team could become victors, and I certainly didn’t value the game. (I still don’t, I’m sad to say. I wish I did, but I just can’t find it in my heart to devote time or energy to it.)

But then I saw that same coach a couple of years later. Someone had finally explained to the poor guy that kids can only do things that they’ve had explained to them, by someone who values the action, who understands the lingo, and has a model to explain what the overall plan is. They take that stupid whiteboard with the basketball grid already laid out on it, and they point to specific players, and point to WHERE they should be on the court at a given time, and then WALK THE PLAYER TO THE SPOT on the court and show them where to be, and then show them how to hold their arms. And this great coach even then walks up to each kid and walks them through what a player coming towards them is likely to do, and how to be ready for various actions.

That’s value, that’s a model, and that’s language.

And we can do the same thing with creativity.

I’m all in favor of acknowledging that there are limitations on what teachers can and cannot do in the typical school day. We want them to learn Magna Carta and 1215, Declaration of Independence and 1776, the Pythagorean Theorem and the quadratic equation, the Three Laws of Motion and the Punnett Square, and who Charles Dickens was and why what he wrote is worth reading even today, and how to speak a foreign language… and that’s a lot to squeeze into a school year — especially when you’re talking about passing a high-stakes examination on content at the end of the year, and that the teacher may not be hired or re-hired whose kids don’t make “increasing adequate yearly progress” over time.

I get that. Really I do.

Not to pick on Kel Hathaway (@kelgator over on Twitter, but in this case he’s just the messenger, and the guy he was listening to was apparently the real culprit), but you can teach kids creativity (UPDATE: and OK, my reaction is somewhat overblown, as Kel’s notes from the relevant session indicate). They may not LEARN creativity that way, but you can certainly teach it… but it requires first that you VALUE creativity, and that you have a LANGUAGE to describe the parts of creativity, and that you have a MODEL of how creativity works which you can SHOW and EXPLAIN to your students. Then they can walk themselves through your model/process, and use your language, and appreciate the value that you put on that language and that process. And they will have a way of talking about being creative with other people.

My school has this. I hate to brag, but I designed it. With a lot of help from a graphic designer of mine, but we have it and we use it. It’s one of those things I’m really proud of.

No, you can’t have ours. But you can have the process by which I got it. Just think about those three things: VALUE, LANGUAGE, and MODEL. Value is the most important of those. If you’re not willing to spend time on being creative — if it’s all just going to be drill, drill, drill — there’s no point to reading the rest of this article. Once you have that value in your classroom or your school, you can develop… you must develop… YOU HAVE TO HAVE a model and a language to describe what creativity is, how it works, what it does, and how it functions. To put it in @DaveGray terms, you need to identify the node, the parts, the comparisons, the relationships, the functions, the changes and the overall system of creativity. And then you can teach it, and kids can learn it too, if they’re willing to take the time to understand your language and your model.

Lens matrix

Stolen from @davegray — I don’t think he’ll mind.

“Well,” I hear you say, “It’s just creativity… isn’t it? It’s something a kid has or they don’t have, right?”

And I have to say, “No. It’s not. Creativity is the doggone patrimony and dowry of every single human being on earth, and for a teacher in ANY school in the world to say ‘you can’t really teach that’ is more than an annoyance… it is practically criminal.

But this is just me talking smack. So let me put it in other terms. Better yet, you put it in YOUR terms, and we’ll see what comes of it, shall we?


This involves you going and getting some tools: some paper, and some pencils, or pens, or whatever else you have in your cache of office supplies and art supplies and whatever else you call that collection of junk. DON’T do it digitally, unless you really, really, really understand digital tools better than pen and paper. My mom calls it her stash, and guards it jealously as if it were her dragon’s golden hoard.

OK. So, here’s what I’d like you to do. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and draw a diagram of how one acts when one is in a creative mindset. I’ve just done this exercise for myself, and you can view the results below, but you have to do your own FIRST. No peeking until after you’re done.


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