“All grown-ups were once children — although few of them remember it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This past week was the birthday of French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He was born in Lyon, France in 1900. Saint-Exupéry was a renowned pilot, but is best known now for his classic “children’s” novella, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) published in 1943.

Though it is usually labeled as children’s literature, many adults cherish this little book too. I had not read the book until I was an adult. My wife as a teacher of French used the book in her classes.

I took out her copy of the book and paged through it with my cup of matcha tea this morning.

The Little Prince is about a little boy, a prince, who lives on a planet so small he can watch the sun set 44 times a day. He falls to Earth and befriends a stranded pilot.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry grew up being fascinated by airplanes. He was conscripted at 21 into the French air force and qualified as military pilot a year later.

By 1926, he’d helped establish airmail routes over Northwest Africa, the South Atlantic, and South America, which made him a pioneer in postal aviation.

In 1935, while trying to win a competition by breaking the speed record in an air race from Paris to Saigon, he and his mechanic crashed in the Sahara desert.

They wandered for four days with little food or water. A Bedouin found them and administered a native remedy to rehydrate them. Saint-Exupéry used some of this experience when writing The Little Prince.

The Little Prince is considered a classic of literature. It is about loneliness, friendship, and philosophy.

In 1944, Saint-Exupéry flew a reconnaissance mission over France and never returned. It was assumed his plane had crashed in the Alps, but more than 60 years later, the wreckage was recovered from the Mediterranean seabed, not far from Provence.

When he was asked how he would like to die, Saint-Exupéry chose water. He said: “You don’t feel yourself dying. You simply feel as if you’re falling asleep and beginning to dream.”

The Little Prince was published after his death and has been translated into over 250 languages and dialects, including Braille, and sells 2 million copies annually.

The artwork in the book is Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors.  He wrote two other books about flying, the non-fiction Wind, Sand and Stars and a novel, Night Flight.

There is a live-action film and an animated film version of the story. There is a museum for the Little Prince in Japan.

But the book is the thing.  As the sun was setting today – it only happens once a day on our home planet, which makes it more precious – I looked back into the book again and had another cup of tea.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

www.thelittleprince.com

Musé du petit prince, Hakone, Japan (Wikimedia)

 

 

wheel

The recent summer solstice reminds me that many of our current rituals and holidays have some basis in the calendars of the ancient Celts and other cultures. The turning of the “Wheel of the Year” was a concept used in varying ways by several cultures.

Historians don’t all agree about whether the ancient Celts observed the solstices and equinoxes. They may have divided the year into four major sections: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. Today those days are referred to as Quarter Days.

Some historians believe the ancient Celts observed eight divisions of the year – the four major sections, which are the equinoxes and solstices each beginning with a quarter day, and then a further halving into four cross-quarter days.

It is important to remember that the seasons as we know them today are not ancient division, though they are certainly based on some of the same celestial observations. The solstices and equinoxes nicely divided an agrarian lifestyle year.

The adoption of the 12-month Roman calendar for civil and then religious purposes began to align closely with the liturgical year of the Christian church.

The eight divisions are: Midwinter (Yule), Imbolc, Vernal Equinox (Ostara), Beltane, Midsummer (Litha), Lammas/Lughnasadh, Autumnal equinox (Mabon) and Samhain.

The Cross-Quarter Days marked the midpoint between a solstice and equinox, and for the ancient Celts, these marked the beginning of each season. As far as “seasons,” there were only two divisions: winter marked with Samhain which was the start of the dark half of the year, and summer/Beltane to begin the light half of the year.

The Wheel of the Year is the annual cycle of seasonal festivals, still observed by many modern Pagans. It consists of either four or eight festivals depending on whether they observe the solstices and equinoxes, or include the four midpoint cross quarter days.

A sun cross is a design found in the symbolism of prehistoric cultures, particularly during the Neolithic to Bronze Age periods of European prehistory. Its importance in prehistoric religion has made its interpretation as a solar symbol.

Popular legend in Ireland says that the Celtic Christian cross was introduced by Saint Patrick or possibly Saint Declan, though there are no examples from this early period. The legend is that St. Patrick combined the symbol of Christianity with the sun cross to bring the pagan followers a connection to the Christian cross. The cross also divided the solar year into quarters.

I noted that yesterday was the day in 1613 that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burned to the ground. It wasn’t arson. The thatched roof caught on fire after a theatrical cannon misfired during a production of Henry VIII. No one died, but the home of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was gone.

That’s history, but what felt more contemporary to me in that story is that after it was rebuilt in 1614, it was closed down in 1642. The Puritans closed all the theaters in London that year. I thought about that and the recent controversy over a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park. Caesar was portrayed as a Donald Trump character and, of course he is assassinated by his own senators.

Thankfully, though there were protests, no one burned down the theater. But the media was afire with the topic. Some people pointed out that this updating of Caesar in portrayal without changing the play’s text is not new. Orson Welles did a famous production with Caesar as Hitler. A few years ago a production had a clearly Barack Obama lead and last year a Hillary Clinton female Caesar walked the stage in a white pantsuit and was assassinated. Those two productions didn’t get much media attention.

The Puritans were a Protestant religious faction and another kind of reformed, plain church, strict religious view. At the end of the Elizabethan era, this conservatism went beyond religion to many social activities within England. The Puritans hated theater.

That they were able to close all the theaters should be more shocking to us than it probably seems to most people today. Imagine if the government, pressured by a religion, was able to shut down the theaters for plays (and films?) today. Is it possible?

There is too much anger and ugliness in American politics today, but we still say we value freedom of speech and expression.

Sometimes it feels like our globe is on fire with wars, terrorism and tragedies manmade.

The Globe Theater was pulled down two years after it was closed. It was rebuilt much like its earlier incarnation (with concessions for current safety) more than 350 years later. It operates today and we are still seeing updated productions of Shakespeare’s plays that resonate with issues of the day. That is how it should be.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844) The Assassination of Julius Caesar

When I taught in a secondary school, I always had a rotating series of quotations on my classroom walls. Many were quite serious: “Some of us think that holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” – Herman Hesse
Some were humorous: “Every place is within walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright
Some quotes were somewhere in between: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
I even quoted myself: “Bladder control is a sign of maturity” and “When the mothership lands, know who your true friends are.”

Students would sometimes ask about a quote, and I would use them in lessons. On some rare and happy occasions, a student would connect a quote to something we were doing in class.

One quote that students usually thought was “stupid” was:

“Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

It is a quote from Blaise Pascal who can be described as both a mathematician and a mystic. He was born in Clermont, France in 1623. I told students that Blaise was homeschooled because his father, a mathematician, believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. My students found this to be sound thinking.

They were in lesser agreement on that approach when they learned that his home life was less fun and games and more geometric problems which he was told to work out using lengths of sticks in his backyard.

The method seemed to work. At 12, he showed his father that he had discovered that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father invited him to join in his discussions with other mathematicians. He published an article on the geometric properties of cones at 16, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

TaylorBut what about Cleopatra’s nose? I always assumed that Cleopatra was a great beauty, but there are very few images or descriptions of her.

In my mind, she looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra (1963). That nose looks, like the rest of Liz, quite beautiful.

But it seems that power rather than beauty was the real appeal of Cleopatra.

coin

“The Lover’s Coin” a bronze showing Cleopatra (left) and Marc Antony.

She is described as being quite thin and quite small (about four feet tall). Julius Caesar was accused of pedophilia when she at around age 18 visited him in Rome. She was also depicted as having quite a big nose. But Cleo was  proud of her large nose because it demonstrated her pure Macedonia blood (she was not Egyptian) as a descendant of Alexander the Great.

Pascal had a good-sized nose himself, so maybe he identified with Cleo. But what did that odd quote mean?

I college, I was assigned to read some of Pascal’s writings in a philosophy course. The idea that stuck with me was that if you change one thing, you change everything. If you decide to go to a different college, or marry a different person, everything after changes. But even if you change something that seems less significant – whether to skip work today, the route you take driving, your nose or Cleopatra’s nose – other things will change. Every choice changes the consequences.

That kind of thinking moves easily into discussions of fate, destiny, free will and religion. Pascal’s family was not religious and he was not raised with religious teachings. By chance (if you believe in that concept), he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal.

The newly converted Pascal had no problem with these new beliefs and science. He continued working on scientific experiments. He showed that a vacuum could exist in nature. He invented the mathematics of probability.

He had his religious beliefs, but he wasn’t a blindly devoted believer.

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when
they do it from religious conviction.”

But then, in 1654, he experienced a “night of fire.” He had a divine vision. It changed his life and he decided to forget the world and everything except for God.

He left Paris the following year and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus.

He started to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity. He never completed the book. The notes he had made were posthumously published as Pensées (Thoughts).

What I recall most clearly from that book is his “wager.”

“God is or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Let us weigh the gain and the lose in wagering that God is. Let us estimate the two changes. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, lose nothing. Wager then without any hesitation that He is”

If God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him. But if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him.It is logical to believe.

In his writing, the “heart” is what experiences God, and not reason. The famous quote of his on that:

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…
We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

These are far larger questions than my quotations on the wall ever answered. Then again, they were meant to provoke questions more than provide answers. Pascal said that “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

Midsummer's Eve

Midsummer’s Eve Bonfire on Skagen’s Beach by P.S. Krøyer

Is it midsummer already? Why, it seems like we just started summer this past week.  Yes, we did just pass the summer solstice. But Midsummer, also known as St John’s Day and Litha, is a day or the period of time centered upon the summer solstice. In most Northern European celebrations, the event takes place on a day between June 19 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures.

Today is St. John’s Day, so we can celebrate Midsummer today too. The Christian Church designated June 24 as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St John the Baptist, and the observance of St John’s Day begins the evening before, known as St John’s Eve.

European midsummer celebrations are pre-Christian in origin. In the Southern Hemisphere (mostly in Brazil, Argentina and Australia), this imported European celebration would be more appropriately called “Midwinter.”

Midsummer is also sometimes referred to by some Neopagans as Litha, the fire festival.  Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southward again. Some believed that witches were also on their way to meetings with other powerful beings.

 

My sons gave me a Fitbit for Christmas in 2015 and I have tried to hit the recommended 10,000 steps a day. That’s the number that has always been recommended. I don’t hit that number most days. I seem to average out at about 6000. That’s better than nothing but not enough. But now it seems even 10,000 steps isn’t “enough.”

The best thing about having one of these fitness trackers is that it makes you mindful of your inactivity. On lousy winter days when I stayed in the house and worked on the computer, I would log less than 2000 steps.

Now, on the Fitbit blog they discuss a recent study  that found that employees who sit the most tend to have higher BMIs, bigger waistlines, and higher cholesterol than those who moved more. That is not a shocking result. I could have told you that and you wouldn’t have to give me a grant. The researchers also found that those who were hitting about 15,000 steps (roughly seven miles) a day had normal BMIs and waistlines and no heightened risk of heart disease.

But 15,000 steps – 7 miles?

I wouldn’t label myself as “sedentary” but I certainly spend too much time in front of screens – computers and TV.  I don’t need a fancy tracker to tell me that.

The suggestion is to increase your steps by 1,000 then 2,000 a day for a week or two and continue until you get to 15,000.

Part of the problem for me is boredom. I have never been able to do the gym thing. Exercise on machines totally bores me. And when it comes to  steps… I love walking, but I like walking in the woods or at least in a park. I do that whenever I can, but I also have been walking around the workplace and around my neighborhood.

The suggested ways to increase your steps are always things like squeezing in a couple of 10 to 15-minute walks and walking everywhere within a one-mile radius instead of using the car. Of course, the walk to the coffee shop probably isn’t “cardio” unless you are really walking fast.

10, 000 steps still has multiple health benefits, especially if you make the 10K at a fast pace. You need to determine the number that’s right for you.

 

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