A Slice of Sky

Sir William Herschel CD cover
Link to iTunes for a sample

As soon as I discovered William Herschel’s music and bio on KBAQ, I wanted to adopt the man as an honorary ancestor.

William Herschel (Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel) professional musician and composer, is better known for inventing a telescope, naming asteroids, and discovering hundreds of fascinations including Uranus and infrared sunlight. He’s an honorary ancestor because–as we speak–my composer son is teaching his astronomer brother to play the saxophone.

Besides Herschel’s brilliant combination of talents, these things also impress me:

  • He had a partner: his astronomer sister, Caroline, the comet-tracker.
  • He ground lenses, improved telescope design, and supplied other astronomers with their tools of the trade.
  • His pattern of observation seems backwards to modern me.
Wilhelm Herschel, German-British astronomer.
Image via Wikipedia

Nowadays, we use clock-driven telescopes to track objects across the sky. In Herschel’s day, the telescope remained stationary, as the observer measured whatever crossed that line of sight. Peggy Taylor and Sara Saey, contributors to the Herschel 400 List, describe this method: “Since Herschel had to stand on a ladder to do his observing, he would call out descriptions of whatever he saw of interest to his sister Caroline at the foot of the ladder. She would then record the information and time. By using this method he was able to observe objects in a thin east-west strip of sky. As the nights progressed, he would change the position of the telescope to an elevation higher or lower than the previous night. This enabled him to observe another strip of sky. They eventually were able to observe all the sky visible in Great Britain” (Astroleague.org).

When I think of observing the sky one slice at a time, I marvel that anyone could put that puzzle together. And then I realize it might be more accurate to note seemingly unrelated specks, with no personal guessing to detract from pure observation. Modern astronomy would be easier for a global-to-specific learner, but the older ways might work best for the detail-to-big-picture sort of mind.

Sometimes in writing, you track a known object across the sky of your understanding. Other times, you watch the sky one slice at a time. You patiently collect the data until you can explain the predictable, or point to the phenomenal. As in astronomy, it can take a lifetime to put the puzzle together. And there will still be more to say.

See also the BBC on Herschel.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2010

Why Post Daily?

If you journal only sporadically, or monthly, or weekly, you’re tempted to be significant or profound–or silent. I’d been at that for years when I heard a Sunday School teacher compare scripture study to manna, saying you need your daily bread every day, and it doesn’t keep. Great–I had that habit covered.

Then my inner teacher butted in: “Are you ready to journal every day?”

Uh-oh. It took me hours on Sundays to catch up every week. How could I do that daily? But I accepted the order–I mean, invitation.

Daily writing is easier. Memory is clearer, event list is shorter, being present (rather than caught in past or future) is more likely, pressure to pontificate is off. Later I worked through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way with her Morning Pages practice: three pages of stream of consciousness before you’re totally awake. It’s not writing; it’s brain drain. If you’re remembering laundry, that’s recorded for posterity. (Lucky them.) Once your drive to be poetic is thwarted, the real thing has a better chance of showing up.

Daily blogging is working! Instead of waiting to be inspired, I just do it. I go both deeper and broader–more personal and wider in topic range. And what do readers like best? Those beat-the-deadline-just-because entries. We can all identify.

Posting daily is a small way to put my own practice first, even when deeply immersed in the writing of others. It keeps my antennae tuned for ideas all day. And it exercises those courage muscles. Hey, I just showed you another rough draft. What other brave things shall I do today?


I enjoyed this Related Article: Tony Hoagland on his experience with Fiction Fridays: Rule #1. You must write. (WriteAnything.Wordpress.com)


“Good Job!”

In church last Sunday, my pianist son played a mellow duet improv with cellist friend Ken. It was gentle and healing, both worship and blessing. Usually, I listen as a mother, holding my breath, holding him up. (Alright, already. He’s legally an adult, and we both survived a couple of years of separation.) This time, for my sake more than his, I chose to receive it only. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

Afterward, the congregation was silent, as is our tradition, quietly absorbing the gift. And then our toddler friend Elliot called out from behind me, “Good job! Good job!” I’ve been smiling about Elliot all week: his joy, his approval, his generosity. Can we be like that again? Can we become as a little child?

“I Have a Dream” for Writers

PBS national parks Lincoln Memorial King 1963
March on Washington, August 1963: the view from over Lincoln's shoulder, from Ken Burns' National Parks at PBS.org

Today you’ll probably hear the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And it will probably begin, “I have a dream!” I recently shared his entire speech from the March on Washington, August 1963, with my writing students. Here’s what we observed:

  • Rhetorical triangle: Speaker, message, and audience couldn’t be more balanced and unified.
  • Persuasion: It wasn’t easy to claim basic American rights–to vote, to compete for jobs, to pursue education, to travel freely–without inciting violence and greater hatred.
  • Visual communication: Quoting Lincoln in the shadow the Great Emancipator’s gigantic statue, surrounded by a quarter-million respectfully dressed and civilly behaved people, didn’t hurt.
  • Technology: It was broadcast by CBS. It was recorded. It’s been experienced by millions who were then unborn.
  • Anaphora: “Now is the Time” or “Let Freedom Ring!” could have competed for title of this speech.
  • Allusions and Influences: The King James Version of the Bible and a number of hymns were quoted, and had influenced the cadence of his style.
  • The role of faith in history: Those quotations were not unfamiliar to the average American at the time.

But this isn’t a history class. It isn’t poli sci. It’s writing! And this is a class session dedicated to revising sentences.

  • Syntax: Notice the power of the simplest English sentences in his Biblical cadence.
  • Vocabulary: Claim the power of common, one-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words. Sprinkle Latin sparingly.

We have some fun rewriting one statement: “I have a dream.” How could Dr. King have messed that up?

  • High school: “I’ve been thinking a lot about how thing are going and therefore, I have, like, sort of come up with a few ideas for improving things.”
  • College: “I, as all human beings are prone to, have developed a formidable aspiration and expectation.”
  • Grad school: “Formidable aspiration and expectation that it is, the egregious circumstances that currently exist, and the interminable nature of them, require that alterations in personal, civic, and professional approaches to the injustices of society be undertaken.

I tease my clients with graduate degrees because they need the most editing of anyone this side of dyslexia or ESL. This is why I quit subscribing to a number of professional journals. I was trained on an academic journal–clearly, some journals know how to tell it straight–so I can’t bear to read bad writing about teaching writing. But I digress.

If you have never heard the entire sixteen-minute “I Have a Dream” speech, treat yourself today. May its principles and its beautiful language bless your life.

A Moment of Silence

American Flag at Half Staff
Image from Vivificat1.bloggspot.com


Give God some credit

When Scott Burkun (WordPress’s PostADay2011 coordinator) asked,  “Who deserves more credit?” I first thought of teachers–those who taught me, those who help me educate my sons, and those who try to create an intelligent and civilized populace for me to dwell in–but that’s my post for another day. First, what about the greatest teacher? When will God get a little respect?

"God's chair" copyright Serdar Yagci #iStockPhoto 000005292716
"God's Chair" copyright Serdar Yagci iStockPhoto #000005292716

God provides life.

We destroy it. We fritter it away. We whine that no life is long enough or easy enough. We explain away the miracle. We pretend we are not God’s children.

God invites us to phone home, direct, anytime, from anywhere.

We call when we’re in trouble.

God provides the plan for our present and eternal happiness.

We fail to seek it, or we wander away. We openly flout God’s principles of happiness and even ridicule others who live them.

God provides our freedom.

We blame God for what people do with their freedom. We beg God to stop them. God warns, people disobey, trouble follows, and God still gets blamed. We whine when our own choices have unwanted consequences.

God provides breath.

We smoke. So do our cars and factories.

God provides this stunningly beautiful planet, the only livable one within unfathomable lightyears of this one.

We desecrate it. We fight over it. We live most days where we can’t see the light of day. We explain away the miracle.

God provides our bodies.

We abuse, mutilate, and desecrate them. We worship bodies and their insatiable appetites. We say that we own our bodies and that they are no business of God’s. We fail to nurture our bodies. We fail to master our bodies and use our abilities for blessing God’s children.

God provides a beautiful variety of skin colors, features, and talents, so that each child is an original work of art.

We hate or fear those who are different. We get so busy with one little tribe we miss the binocular vision, the stereoscopic hearing, the enrichment available from trying on the perspectives of others.

God provides. Providence is one of God’s names.

We take credit for our own gifts, ingenuity, and hard work. We limit God by our lack of faith. We ignore divine guidance and take unnecessary detours. We wait around for spiritual welfare handouts instead of taking guided action.

God forgives.

We decline the offer.

God never sleeps.

We say God is dead.

By the way, this will be posted on a Sunday, which I celebrate as the sabbath: glorious sabbath, our weekly sabbatical, day of rest and divine restoration! I rely on it to renew me, and always have. My student days proved that I get more done in six days than in seven. And studies show that everyone needs a weekly day off, whether or not one is a worshiping soul. So I’m not really here, and I’m not going to blog on Sundays. If you’re looking for God, you might start with that one practice: honoring the sabbath. It’s one of the original non-negotiable 10 Commandments for a reason. If your faith celebrates your sabbath another day, I salute you; go ahead and skip my blog on your sabbath, and catch up on mine!

I’d love to hear what you think God deserves more credit for. I was only getting started.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2010

Photo © copyright Serdar Yagci, iStockPhoto #000005292716