He looks frequently to the periphery of the room- in the upper corners where the ceiling and walls form a vertex. I wonder what he sees there. Long pauses between thoughts are when his eyes most frequently dart upward, as if he’s waiting for the next words to be given to him. I see children look in this way sometimes. They stare at the corners in markets or at empty park benches. It makes you wonder who might be there to return their look.

This elderly gentleman has an abundance of energy, smiles frequently, and is unafraid to offer his opinions. He sits with us in a sixth grade classroom abandoned to the leisure of summer and lectures on teaching astronomy. He’s taught for decades and his enthusiasm for astronomy is contagious.

Here is what children (and you) should know about the heavens.* The point directly above your head is known as the zenith and if you draw a line from the zenith through the top of your head- down to the center of the Earth- you’ll find the nadir point. If you think of the horizon as a flat plane extending from your feet then you can draw a sphere above your head with the top-most point of the dome being the zenith. This is your own unique dome of heaven. Since two people can’t occupy the same space at the same time** each person has their own entirely unique celestial dome with an individualized perception of the stars overhead. When you reflect on this you realize what a wondrous observation it happens to be. Your perception of the stars mirrors the unique nature of your individuality. You see the heavens like no other at each moment of your life.

This idea immediately reminds me of a time when the stars aligned for me. I was in the library of my junior college doing some research for an analysis of Whitman when I became fed up with the dry blocks of endless academic text and decided to spend ten minutes looking at some art books. I randomly grabbed a hefty tome about a German artist named Anselm Kiefer and the imagery left me dumbstruck. Charred landscapes, decayed photographs of staged maritime battles, massive expressionist prints-- it was the least safe art I’d ever seen. This one book on Kiefer compelled me to enroll in a drawing class. This one drawing class led me to abandon english studies all together.

Kiefer remains a great inspiration and there is one watercolor in particular that I think about often. It’s a subtle one and I would urge you to find a good reproduction. It translates into English as something like “Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven” and it is literally an illustration of a solitary figure in a vast field under his own dome of sky. The ambiguity arises with the figure itself. Dressed in what appears to be a dull military green he raises his right hand in Nazi salute. I won’t presume to know Kiefer’s intentions, but I can state this: good and evil may strive for dominance on the earthly horizon, but the stars consistently remind us about the origins of voices in corners.

*These aren’t the only things that middle school students should know about the heavens it is apparently just a fine way to begin the exploration.

**Put aside theoretical physics for the time being.

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