Venus: Once in a Lifetime

Taken through a good friend’s telescope. Nathan Morgan, you have my gratitude for this opportunity.

See that little black spot? That’s Venus. The planet Venus, passing between Earth and our sun, an event which the Solar System’s dance will never again perform until 2117. I was shocked at the clarity my smartphone captured through the telescope lens, but there you have it. I count myself blessed to have seen this.

It gets you thinking about the universe, doesn’t it? Especially about how large it is. Douglas Adams described the magnitude of the cosmos thusly: “…you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Good for a laugh, but it doesn’t prepare you for a realization that this little black dot is an Earth-sized planet. A planet with its own topography, buried under a crushing atmosphere and choking hot clouds of sulfuric acid, a violent and Hellish realm as expansive as our home. All contained within that tiny dot. And just imagine the scope of the star behind it, a ball of fusion-charged hydrogen which is so vast, it won’t exhaust its fuel for another five billion years. And that is just one single star in one galaxy, one galaxy out of hundreds of billions. Human imagination cannot even begin to spread that far. As we expand out into the universe, we will certainly never run out of places to visit and settle.

I’m sounding rather full of myself by now, I know. Trying to encapsulate the hugeness of our known universe in a couple of hundred words. It’s absurd. But still, it appears humans cannot stop themselves from trying. “There are more things in heaven and on Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” Shakespeare writes…and yet we push on, seeking to feed our fevered imaginings by looking to the stars and beyond. We think and question, enact and take risk. We are not only pushed by instinct, but pulled by hints of transcendence.

Indeed, God paints on a canvas incomprehensible to the human mind, His treasures inexhaustible.

I don’t know what’s more incredible: the universe’s unfathomable size and scope, or the fact that a little black dot in a telescope lens can remind us of it.

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Pikes Peak Writers Conference: Coming Up Fast

Well, as I have stated before, the Pikes Peak Writers Conference is coming up fast. Slightly under two weeks until we are there. Right now, it costs about $450, but I’m passing along the word that it’s one of the top ten writers conferences in the country, and is the friendliest overall. Seriously, a Marriott with a great view of Pikes Peak, you’re surrounded by professionals – writers and agents and editors with years of experience – and quality dining and service from the hotel. What’s not to love about that idea?

There’s still time to register. If you are a writer who wants to expand their career, make connections in the business, and meet with hundreds of other writers, this is the place to be.

With people like Robert Crais, Jeffrey Deaver, Donald Maass, Susan Wiggs, Kevin J. Anderson, Bree Ervin, Ronald Cree, Angel Smits, etc., there will be hundreds of fellow writers, either going for the first time to give their professional careers a shot of adrenaline, or returning veterans who have stayed with the conference since it was formed twenty years ago. And you will be hard-pressed to find a more pleasant city to hold an event like this.

Hope to see you there!

Books and Storytelling

Just about everyone loves a good book. Writers love them, of course, or else they wouldn’t be dedicating so much time, blood, and sweat to creating them. Readers love them because of the chance to find escape, or romance, or comfort, or bravery, or beauty. Whether you love stacks of dusty tomes or the efficiency of a Kindle, royal biographies or serial mysteries, books that are like hundred meter dashes or like long winding trails through a primeval forest, books and the stories they tell are so beloved because there are so many ways they can appeal to us.

We all recognize the import of a great story, even if we can’t quite understand why something so intangible could be so vital. Even if we don’t read them or understand them, stories as varied as Beowulf or The Grapes of Wrath, from The War of the Worlds to Pride and Prejudice, carry something that we sense humans want to create, and need to create.

The stories that will last are labors of love, combined with excellent craft and the sharpest of wit. A storyteller raises his tale like a child, ages it like wine, and sculpts it like art. He will work at that story, his heart straining with its emotions and his mind tinkering with its components, until it becomes a living thing that will shine and sing. Stories can be cranked out quickly, their pages splattered with ideas and interesting angles, but thankfully there are still many authors who will take the time to give their work a soul.

And the strangest quality of a soul is its immortality. Orson Scott Card has said that the greatest books stand the test of time. I am quite certain that every author should strive to place such books into their readers’ hands, books that will not only be enjoyed but cherished. The world still needs imagination and passion in its stories. That need has never lessened with time, even though it can be ignored or pushed to the sidelines once in a while.

To every writer and reader who reads this: I pray for the very best for you tonight. May your stories be timeless, may your minds and hearts always be ready to create, and may you never lose touch with the power of books and storytelling.

A Letter of Thanks to Fred Rogers

Yes, I am writing a letter of thanks to the late host of a children’s television show. I don’t know how normal or otherwise it is to consider someone like Fred Rogers a hero. But he is one of mine. I had written letters to him in my childhood, and received personal replies that were always encouraging and gracious. I know some of you had the same experience with him.

The reason for this post is because I have learned a lot more about Mister Rogers in recent weeks. I am reading one of his biographies, and now see how stunted my knowledge of him was.

Fred was not only an inspiration to millions of children; he treated them like individuals, and affirmed that all of their emotions were valid, even in a time and culture where most of us are expected to “suck it up and deal with it.” He was a picture of real integrity. Though he was human and flawed, he was upfront if you asked him about his mistakes. By his actions alone, he discredited the cynic who maintains that “everyone has something ugly to hide,” who shouts from the rooftops that “everyone is out for themselves.” He may have been one in a million, but he still sets an example that the rest of us can follow, if we have the grace and humility to do so. Rogers found a real passion for counseling children and helping them realize that they had value, and did not need to see life as frustrating or miserable. He knew that there was no place for cynicism, for shrugging your shoulders and “accepting” that life is generally horrible. He peered deeper than that, and saw unfathomable beauty and room for growth in the simplest of things.

I will always be grateful for Fred Rogers, since he was (and still is) such a blessing to me. I may have been a tempestuous little monster as a boy, but even I could be calmed and take the time to listen to his relaxing voice as he taught us about everything from dinosaurs to electric cars, and from the legitimacy of angry feelings to the beauty of a joyful friendship. He knew that kids needed to be creative, to express their thoughts and deal with their emotions, and he always had constructive methods and words to impart to us. Whether he seems “manly” in a superficial sense is beside the point. Under the songs and puppets, behind the sneakers and cardigan sweaters, was a real man. I know this, because he left the world better than he found it. I pray that when it is my time to go, I can follow his example in my own way.

Fred, if you ever read this letter, I know it will find you doing well, for you have gone off to a much better place. I spent most of my early years in your Neighborhood, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. You showed me the value of manners and mutual respect, your integrity still inspires me, and you taught me that it is okay to pretend. I can never thank you enough.

Your friend,

John