Thursday, April 17, 2014

LYING WITH ANIMALS – A Dream to Remember

How often do you dream? If it’s frequently, you’re lucky. Me, I very seldom dream—or should I say, remember my dreams. So when I do remember one it’s likely to be a beaut…like the one I had last week:

I was taking a nap in the living room. As I awoke, I noticed Charlie, an old friend who’d been visiting me from Boston, standing next to me. He was about to leave and head back home. Without as much as sitting up, I gave him a sort of awkward handshake, and he walked toward the door with his small carry-on bag.

A few steps behind Charlie tottered a very young horse, a winsome, long-legged, still-slightly-gangly  chestnut foal. Charlie opened the door, turned and beckoned his young friend to leave with him. Instead the animal stopped beside my day bed, glanced down at me, and lay down…right on top of me.

Not the slightest bit alarmed, I put my arms around the beautiful animal, marveling at its smell. It wasn’t that I’d expected it to smell bad, but I thought it would at least smell like a horse. It didn’t; it smelled even better, a sweet, warm-nutty scent something like the way your skin smells after you lie in sun for while.

You’d think having a horse of any size lying on top of you would, if not crush
you, at least squeeze the wind out of you. But this foal was nearly weightless.
I felt nothing but its smooth, still-soft coat, its warmth, the slow ebb and flow
of its breath.

It nuzzled with me.

       The big cat licked my face and then 
       nestled its head in the crook of my neck.

Charlie had left without a word, and I lay there overcome with wonder at this sweet animal’s affection for me; with what seemed like the opening of a clear channel of silent communication between us. It was as if our spirits flowed together into one. I closed my eyes and, basking in this magical moment, drifted off to sleep.

Later, when I opened my eyes, the foal had somehow morphed into a stunningly beautiful cat. Again, it was not the kind of cat you'd expect to be sleeping with—it was a cougar. It was looking right into my eyes, deeply, as if this was as extraordinary an experience for it as for me.

I studied every hair on the cougar’s face, the meld from fawn to white around its eyes and mouth, the little black spot at the root of each whisker. I could feel that
the animal shared my admiration and wonder.

The big cat licked my face and then nestled its head in the crook of my neck.
I did not lick it back.

When I awoke from my dream, I lay in bed for the longest time basking in the rapture of that transcendent experience. I felt a guest in a paradise of possibility, though, try as I might, I could not go back again and conjure up my enchanting new friends.

      Whatever life may throw at us, the only thing 
      we have to fear is failing to understand its
      place in that sacred reality.

I've shared my dream with my wife and several friends. Inevitably, we traded hypotheses about its meaning. I guessed it might have been inspired by my recent visit with my grandchildren, and our snuggling at bedtime.

My wife thinks that’s too literal, and that the animals and their calming, positive energy were more likely a manifestation of my father, come back to reassure me during a time of extraordinary stress and anxiety in my life.

One friend has an even more literal take on it than I do: that my close encounter with such improbable creatures was merely a playing out of the mystical connection I already feel with all living things. It arises from my deep conviction that every single organism, every rock, every cloud, every drop of water, even the vast emptiness of deep space, is part of a single, universal whole.

And that, when we come face to face with whatever life may throw at us, the only thing we have to fear is failing to understand its place in that sacred reality.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

THE COLORS WE BRING – Adrift In a Sea of Gray

This has been a winter to remember, at least here in the U.S. Throughout much of the country, low temperatures and extraordinary snowfall amounts ranked it among the worst in decades. Here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, we’ve endured 53 days with temperatures dipping below zero Fahrenheit.

The most extraordinary thing about our winter has been not the amount of snowfall, but its frequency. Every few days, it seems, we’ve received at least a dusting of fresh snow. And, with so few days above freezing, there’s been a minimum of the sloppy gray mush we usually have to wade through as spring approaches.

All this snow is a mixed blessing; it’s brought out the sheer beauty that’s possible in winter. Sparkly-white-cloaked trees and landscapes, lakes and rivers you can walk and ski on, and the perverse joy of comrades together facing the arctic blast armed with shovels, skis and sleds.

Nonetheless, having just returned to all this after a month in a place that’s never seen a single flake of snow—has me thinking about winter and how we manage to survive it with so little color.

Esthetically, it might seem that winters here in Minnesota are to those in warmer places as oatmeal is to a rich, spicy paella. For someone like me who draws nourishment from color, that can prove a pretty bland diet. It seems that, when all our buildings were designed, there must have been a shortage of materials—even paint—in any colors but shades of white, brown and gray.

People tend to stick to the same palette. Why, when our clothing could so easily splash a bit of vibrant color on our being, do so many of us choose black and gray? Okay, you’ll see some navy blue now and then, but...really, navy blue?

Compound this dreary palette with our low winter sun’s feeble output and daylight that’s snuffed by 4:30, and you have a recipe for what we call “cabin fever.” But, as Garrison Keeler captures so well in his reports from Lake Wobegon, we stoically accept what is and make the best of it.

To be fair, when you really put your mind to it, there is, indeed, color to be found in a Minnesota winter. If you’re aware, you catch it in threads of vivid nylon sewn down a ski slope. It rises in the roaring flamboyance of a hot air balloon.

Indoors, it might wrap you in a bright, cozy throw or beguile you with the sizzling yellow and orange dance of a fire. It’s in a ruddy cheek, a warm smile and the resilient spirits of the folks you get to know so well when you’re housebound together for a while.

       It’s the pigment we bring to the mix that 
       ultimately determines the color we see.

And, for those of us unsatisfied with man-made color, even Nature teases us with her reluctant hues. Unlike those of summer that nearly accost you, these shades tend to lay low, obscure to all but the most determined eye. Yet, once found, they delight all the more for their scarcity.

They’re the raw umber and burnt sienna cloaks the oak trees refused to give up last autumn; the golden, burgundy, crimson, even chartreuse stems of dogwood and other shrubs; the gilded glow of sun setting over virgin snow; the quick red checkmark of a cardinal alighting for just an instant.

The color of winter is, at its best, a collaboration. Nature does her part, albeit begrudgingly. The rest is up to us. After all, it’s the pigment we bring to the mix—in our openness, our creativity, our zest for life, our rejection of cynicism—that ultimately determines the color we see.

Yes, you may have to look a little harder, perhaps open your heart and soul a bit further, but, as with anything in short supply, you learn to appreciate winter’s little wonders all the more for their incongruity. The alternative? Well, believe me, it can be an awfully long time between October and March.

And now March is almost gone, and still no break in this extraordinary winter’s cold, pale grip. Not even the brave pastels of crocus or the bold blue of Siberian squill have dared stick their tender heads out. Oh, for those first thaws when they will break through and show the way for all the other blooms, that profusion of spring and summer color to come.

My senses, my soul, can scarcely wait!

Friday, March 21, 2014

SACRED COWS, SACRED WOWS – Finding Your Soul Space

        “The unspoken poverty in our culture is a poverty of spirit, a real hunger 
        for what the West has forgotten: that not just individual life but all of 
        creation is sacred. This connection to a sacred Earth always made us feel 
        and know we are part of the great mystery of creation, of its rivers and 
        winds, its birdsong and seeds. How could it be otherwise? And how can 
        we now regain this simple but forgotten element, this ingredient as essen-
        tial as salt?” ~ LLEWELLYN VAUGHAN-LEE, Sufi teacher and author

                                             //          //          //

Recently, Sally and I went to the Sacred exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which explores the people, places, ideas and values we human animals choose to bestow with special power or divine status. And I’ve been thinking about sacredness ever since.

Sacred sites, sacred rites; sacred vows, sacred cows. What do you hold sacred? How do we decide what’s sacred to us? And what does “sacred” even mean?

Do you sense, as I do, the deep yearning many people are feeling for something more profound in their lives than the common pursuits of success, recreation, social connections and even some aspects of family life? Despite the considerable appeal of the status quo, most people are hungry for meaning. Some of us are starving.

But we’ve lost touch with so many of the quiet, natural places and unhurried moments we once enjoyed in which real meaning so often dwells—those moments of discovery, of curiosity and wonder, in which our true capacities for contemplation, reverence and gratitude feel safe to come out from hiding.

         The door to the sacred is not one leading 
         out of us; it’s one leading into us.

I find such places—I call them my divinity vicinity—nearly everywhere, but especially in Nature. You don’t have to become a reclusive Buddhist monk or go on an exotic vacation to do that. For those precious times and places exist as much in one's spirit as in real time and space.

In other words, the way to connect with what’s sacred is not through a door leading out of us, the one we take when we're seeking something; it’s the door leading into us, the one we take when we're learning. And it’s our consciousness, our openness of spirit, that opens this door and makes a place for things transcendental. 

Problem is, the more complex and “wired” the world becomes, the greater a challenge it becomes keeping that door open. Just as there remain fewer and fewer tangible Edens on the planet, so are we losing those spiritual Edens. Marketers and ideologues fight over every imaginable surface, every second of silence, every blink of our awareness, like hyenas on a fresh kill.

Have you noticed how easily we fool ourselves into thinking we're always so busy? At least for me, if I take an honest look, it’s often things of very little consequence—futzing with unnecessary perfection, taking care of all the stuff I accumulate, watching TV...

Sometimes I wonder if I'm simply trying to fill all those empty times and spaces with something—anything—before someone else does. The shame is that it's exactly those empty, silent spots where anything worthy of becoming sacred to us most often settles and takes root.

So, how do we keep those fertile spaces open for such inspiration? Whether it's a quiet place in the forest, true intimacy in one's marriage, or a new Porsche, even if we already know what’s sacred to us, where is there any time, any room, any quiet corner of consciousness left to tend to it and be fully present with it?

Very simply, we must choose to make that "soul space." We've got to clear at least some of the trivial, albeit more certain, things out of the way. And then we have to maintain and defend that space.

        When it comes to the sacred, faith is 
        the essential bridge between symbol 
        and substance, intention and conviction.

The notion of the sacred can be intimidating, at least in the abstract. We tend to think of it as pretentious, too perfect perhaps, for a mere human to comprehend. But isn’t sacredness, after all, a completely, uniquely human concept, one which, like the proverbial sound of a tree falling in the forest, would not exist without some form of consciousness to experience it? Nothing pretentious about finding and using a capacity that already exists in each and every one of us, right?

So what about all those odd things people seem to worship—celebrities, places, institutions and objects which may seem silly or even downright bizarre to someone else? Still, no matter how busy or broke we may be, we still manage to honor such things with our time and resources.

Can anything tangible really be sacred, or do such things just represent the sacred? Aren’t they all, in the end, just symbols, devices to help us visualize the invisible, perhaps distill incomprehensible ideas and powers down to a manageable scale?

Whether the symbol's profound or profane, the more difference there is between its crudeness and the depth of meaning it represents, the more investment our belief demands of us. That investment is nothing more or less than faith, the essential bridge between symbol and substance, intention and conviction.

This all reminds me of something I used to tell my graphic design clients when I developed a logo  for their organization. I counseled them that our goal was to create a mark that would be engaging, unique and memorable. Beyond that it could not, by itself, be expected to convey every nuance of their organization’s purpose, values, mission or reputation.

       It matters less the icons we choose than 
       the fact that we worship anything at all.

It would be, I explained, an empty vessel, one whose ultimate meaning and value would come from what the organization chose to fill it with: constant, consistent associations with the quality and value of its products and services; the way it dealt with its customers, employees and vendors; the manner in which it gave back to its community.

In other words, the power of the logo lies less in itself—its appearance, its symbolism, its promotion—than in something it taps into in the life experience of the beholder.

Isn't this the way our perception of the sacred works? Why two people can witness the very same object or event and experience two completely different realities? Why one of them might find it spiritually stirring while the other barely notices?

Whatever symbols we might devise to represent the sacred—and some of them, I must say, escape me—it matters less the icons we choose than the fact that we worship anything at all. Still, even if some symbols are inane, I wish more folks could at least find the humility to have them represent ideals bigger than our own self-absorbed, cosmically inconsequential interests.

It helps to acknowledge that, even beyond the company of our fellow human beings, none of us is alone. It becomes clearer by the day that every one and every thing in creation is part of one interconnected reality. Everything we do, for good or for ill, affects that entire reality. I know that’s a hard concept for many to get their minds around. But that belief alone is something I hold sacred. For me at least, it is a good place to start.

So let us choose wisely what we worship and adore. It may be a precious few things…or it may be... everything.

                                             //          //          //

Of course, this is all just my take on things; nothing sacred about that, I guess. 
I just hope I haven't offended too many more than one would expect when the 
topic is as personal and deeply felt as spirituality. In any case, I'd like to hear 
what you think.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

THE EDGE OF WETNESS – A Snowbird's Ode to Heat

My wife and I spend a month or so every winter in a warm place. A very warm place. In fact, the forecast for every single day of the past few weeks here in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico has required just five words: high: 90; low: 72; sunny.

The very first thing we do when we get here—and it starts with that first hot breath that envelops us as we step out of the airplane—is sweat. And then we keep going, shall we say, with the flow, every day we're here, from the moment we emerge from our villa's air-conditioned bedroom into our open-to-the-elements living area in the morning till a few minutes after we go back in at bedtime.

For most of the day, every day, we walk—into el centro, to the supermarket, to the laundromat, perhaps to Las Gatas, the fabulous little beach around the other side of the bay.

          Sun and breeze wring the sweat out 
          of a body like water from a wet mop.

We love the walking. But the sun here at 18 degrees north latitude on the Pacific coast of Mexico is brutal. Add to that the humidity, lapped up from the sea by sun and breeze, and the very hilly terrain, and it'll wring the sweat out of a body like water from a wet mop.

It doesn't help that folks like us have just left a place where, if you're lucky, there's only about eight hours a day of wimpy sunlight and even Nature can muster no color. So we apply a layer of sun-blocking goo over every inch of our bodies. It feels like you're wearing one of those cheap transparent plastic rain ponchos, like not a breath of air can actually reach your skin.

Now we understand why so many native Zihuatanejenses manage to keep to the shade, carry umbrellas and still, many of them, practice the time-honored tradition of the siesta every day between two and five.

A siesta? But we're on vacation, too busy enjoying the absence of snow and ice and cracking skin to miss a moment. And so we walk…and we walk…and we sweat some more. In just the first block from our villa, up the long, steep hill toward town, it's already soaking through in dark blotches on our tee shirts.

  We know exactly where, and at what time of 
  day, every little patch of shade in town resides.

Walking in this heat becomes a kind of perverse meditation for us. We've memorized nearly every step of these two-or-so miles, how to pace ourselves and negotiate obstacles in the fewest number of them possible. Uneven cobbles, off-and-on-again curbs, exposed utility pits—all things OSHA would have a field day with back home. And we know exactly where, and at what time of day, every little patch of shade in town resides.

Our favorite of these little oases is right at the spot where the La Ropa neighborhood ends and La Madera begins. There, at the top of the steps leading down to Calle Adelita, between Kau Kan restaurant and a rustling stand of bamboo, the wall seems to catch every whiff of breeze off the bay and funnel it down to that hundred-square-foot remnant of Eden.

Not only is it shady and breezy there at Kau Kan; it's also the best place in town
for flow-through. Flow-through is that miracle of aerodynamics where a nice steady breeze catches your sleeve at just the right velocity and angle to puff it up, works its way across your back or chest prying the wet fabric away from your skin, and then flows back out the other sleeve.

It is heaven, our reward for all that sweating. Next to a cool shower, and perhaps a couple of ice cold Coronas, flow-through is the most refreshing break a wilted snowbird will ever get. You really should try it.

       One must find one's own ways to be cool.

As I've been jotting this all down, I'm thinking there might be more to flow-through than the mildly humorous image of a grown man standing by the busy Scenic La Ropa Road with a blissful expression on his face, his arms spread limply like a poor rendition of the Crucifixion. There's a kind of metaphor here, isn't there, a lesson in slowing down, opening up and letting go when one travels?

I'll let you draw your own parallels. Whether you do or not, suffice it to say one must find one's own ways to be cool.

Monday, February 17, 2014


The sun tips west, pouring that rare first-dawn light down the valley east of Cerro del VigĂ­a, splashing the early birds on Playa La Ropa, and into Zihuatanejo Bay.

Out over the Pacific, the cloudless sky sweeps southwest forever, its hem soiled in marine layer's dirty gray. Here and there a white speck marks a sport fisherman's fresh hopes in a sea of possibilities. I watch for spouts of migrating humpbacks.

The waters of the bay begin to stir, the first pangas full of restaurant workers motoring slowly from the fishing pier toward Playa Las Gatas. Dark reflections marble the still-placid surface…except there are no clouds. Just the first stirrings of breeze plucking up patches of small waves.

     Back home, we move fast, almost desperately 
     it seems, as if we were afraid something 
     might stick to us. 

Swarms of bait fish roil the waters too. I imagine their terror as muscular jureles or bonita corral them from below. Now and then, in sweeps of shimmering silver, they break the surface en masse.

As sun rises, the water's subtle shades of color suggest the ours-and-theirs duality of Zihua Bay. To the left, the nearly Caribbean green-blue of lighter sands and clearer water—an idealized place where tourists rule; to the right, grayer, murkier hues, the effluent of a working town.

This bay, this town, this atmosphere, it all has a liquid quality. The sea, the sun, time, the unhurried kindness of the people, the way life itself flows—everything moves slowly, forgivingly, immersing one in its magic.

Back home, we move fast, almost desperately it seems, as if we were afraid something might stick to us. Here in Zihuatanejo, it does.

Monday, February 3, 2014


Today was a good day.

I learned something. I needed a word in Spanish meaning way more than funny. My trusty old Latin American Spanish/English dictionary's definitions for uproarious, hilarious, a scream and half a dozen other terms for really funny fell short of the task. I googled it. Finally, my ten-minute search paid off; I found just the adjective I needed: arrasador. (Its primary meaning is destructive or devastating.)

            For those four glorious minutes, 
            my spirit took wing.

I gave something. Today I started studying for my first training session to become a hospice volunteer. It's the kind of service I've been thinking about ever since my parents died—spending time with folks who know their lives are drawing to a close. Some of them will have no one else.

I experienced wonder. In fact it happened twice before I'd finished breakfast. I was looking out my Minneapolis window at Nature all decked out in fresh white. I thought of how exotic the colors of a Caribbean reef or the deepest Amazon forest are to me, and imagined someone who'd never before seen snow finding this sight every bit as breathtaking. It struck me that, even for one who's seen snow all my life, this was indeed that kind of glorious moment. I had just been taking it for granted; not today.

I soared. While I was admiring the snowscape, as if to orchestrate my awe, they played Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man on the radio. I stopped chewing my cereal, put down my spoon and just listened. I let the sounds, the soaring and the sublime, transport me. For those four glorious minutes, my spirit took wing.

Yes, it was a good day. But such days are not uncommon for me; they seem to seek me out.

What makes a good day for you?