Friday, January 12, 2018

WHAT’S UP?...OR DOWN? – Breaking the Bounds of Vertical Perception

I was reminded today, in a news report about some newly discovered deep-sea organism, that the deepest part of Planet Earth's oceans is the Challenger Deep section of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific about halfway between New Guinea and Japan. There the depth has been measured at just over 36,000 feet.

That got me thinking of how inept we human beings are, accustomed as we are to experiencing and gauging horizontal distances, at fully comprehending vertical distance.

PHOTO: National Geographic

Sure, we all know about those monumental NASA expeditions into earth orbit, then to the moon, Mars, and now deep space. And we know that people keep venturing to ever-deeper parts of the ocean—think the resting place of the fabled Titanic, at 12,400 feet.

But can we really grasp how high is high and how deep is deep?

           We set her on auto pilot and sit back
           with a good novel.

You may know how I like to play with perspective in the way I look at Nature and life. Well, one way of appreciating vertical reach is to imagine the one instrument of speed and distance we are most accustomed to—the automobile—and turn the axis against which we measure its motion from horizontal to vertical.

So picture this imaginary vehicle that can act just like our own family car—we can get in, start it up, take off and easily accelerate to highway speed. Except this vehicle can only go up or down. Oh, and, magically, it can cut through salt water as effortlessly as our real, horizontal car can through air.

Got the idea? OK, now back to that deep trench in the western Pacific. We’re on a ship, floating right over it. Our amazing vertical water car is suspended over the side by a crane and we’re at the wheel. On command, the crane releases us and we floor it, straight down.

In ten or twelve seconds, we hit 60 miles an hour. At that speed, you’d think we'd want to keep an eye out for the bottom pretty soon; after all, the seafloor is right down there. Nope. We can just keep the pedal to the metal, at highway speed, relax and listen to two average-length songs* on Spotify—almost 7 minutes—before we near our destination.

Once we slow down and nudge the bottom, we turn right around and head back up. Only this time, we’ll traverse the distance from that deepest ocean floor right through the ocean's surface and all the way up to the elevation of earth’s highest point above sea level, the summit of Mount Everest (at 29,035 feet, over 1 1/4 miles closer to sea level than the Challenger Deep).

This time, we set her on auto pilot and sit back with a good novel. If it's a page-turner we can devour 20 or 25 pages before this mile-a-minute leg of our trip is done.

          This “super-sense” is among the few 
          tools we possess for appreciating our 
          place and scale in the world.


Nature holds so many wonders we can barely appreciate for their true scale—that is, until we shift our vantage point, our way of thinking. Part of the challenge is that the world is so immense, and we are so pitifully small. Another is that, by the time we get used to thinking a certain way about something for decades, we become inured to the degree and scale of its spectacle.

How sad and unnecessary that so many of us, subject to the constraints of schedules and responsibilities—and maybe a little wear and tear on our faculties—lose our child-like sense of wonder.

The good news is that it's easy to reclaim it. Get outdoors, preferably with kids, explore, play and take time to simply be fully present with Nature. This is the medium in which human senses were meant to function best. Not just the orthodox five senses, but many others whose existence is just beginning to be recognized.

One that’s especially pertinent to this post is proprioception, the sense of the relative position of one’s body parts and the effort being exerted in moving them. It’s this “super-sense,” together with the vestibular system of the inner ear, and, of course, our better-known senses, that helps us appreciate our place and scale in the world.

Failing to nurture and grow all those senses, including fully comprehending and being moved by vertical space, is to squander a precious gift. Especially if we give them up in a bad deal with the little digital devil residing in all those glowing screens in our lives.

* Song length / A Journal of Musical Things

Saturday, December 30, 2017


I believe I'm surrounded by wonders great and small, all the time, wherever 
I am.

I understand that many of those miracles lie hidden to first glances.

I will open my spirit to wonder. My eyes, my ears, my heart will follow.

I will make time for awareness, curiosity and wonder.

I will turn off the television, put down the book and start looking, learning and living first-hand.

I will decide for myself what entertains me and, more importantly, what nourishes my soul.

I will notice and celebrate the power of presence.   

I will carefully examine the myth of certainty, and value learning more than knowing.

I will be more aware of the miracle of grace that resides around and within 
every person.

I will shine the light of my own spirit, and will give other people the chance to shine too.

I will try to experience everything as if it were for the first time.

I will approach each day with faith in Nature's instruction, and with gratitude for being Her lifelong pupil.

I will be patient, not just with Nature, but with myself, celebrating small steps in the right direction.

I will seize every opportunity to help a screen-bound child reconnect with Nature. 


Framing example only; frame not included in offer.
Print it out, frame it, or make it the background of your computer desktop.
Give a framed copy to someone you know who's also yearning to reclaim wonder in his/her life.

Thanks for taking the Reclaiming Wonder Pledge! Have a wonder-full day!

Friday, December 22, 2017


I wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—75 countries so far—the very best of this season. For us Christians, that means MERRY CHRISTMAS! (para mis hispanohablantes amigos, ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!) For my Jewish friends, it's HAPPY HANUKKAH! For all of us here in the northern hemisphere, it's HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE! 

Whatever your celebration, may these days be kind to you, your families and your loved ones. May they bring you new awareness, wonder and gratitude!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Those of you who have my book, Under the Wild Ginger, may have read my how-to-be-in-the-moment tip number 48, Behold the Cream in Your Coffee.*  It celebrates the simplest of small delights, the way cream billows up from the bottom when poured into a clear glass mug of hot coffee.

Well, as of this morning, I’ve think I’ve reached a new zenith in my ascent of coffee’s small wonders: the layered latte. It’s reported in a Dec. 15, 2017 post on the blog Mental Floss.

While I’ve never even seen it on a coffee shop’s menu, the layered latte apparently is a real drink in which, instead of the steamed milk being poured into the hot espresso, the espresso is poured into a clear mug or glass of hot milk.

If poured at just the right rate and given a few minutes to sit undisturbed, the two substances should separate into these distinct layers, a neat banded gradient from mostly milk at the bottom to mostly coffee at the top.

Here’s how the New York Times has distilled the physics of the layered latte: “When the liquids try to mix, layered patterns form as gradients in temperature cause a portion of the liquid to heat up, become lighter and rise, while another, denser portion sinks. This gives rise to convection cells that trap mixtures of similar densities within layers.”

C’mon, there has got to be more to this than just that old high-school-physics precept “Heat rises; cold falls.” Here, because both liquids start out hot—and, according to the article, the layering sometimes lasts for hours—I have to believe the whole mugful starts and stays at pretty much the same temperature.

Then is it something about the relative densities of hot espresso and hot milk? And what explains why, instead of a uniform blending from light to dark, the concoction settles into these sharply defined layers.

So where do we find the answers? Any of my barista friends out there also happen to be physicists? Or perhaps chemists? Or maybe one of those big shots in the present administration in Washington could just make up something to explain this elegant little surprise of science. Nah...more likely, they’d just deny it; some jive about fake brews. (Sorry.)

* Is there anything so dark, yet so clear, as black coffee? And the smell...oh my, you start thinking of it in the middle of the night.
How could it get any better? Use a clear glass mug, add cream, and watch dusky thunderheads billow in a mahogany sky.
From UNDER THE WILD GINGER – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder – Jeffrey D. Willius  

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A HOLE IN TOMORROW – Seeing Right Through Mortality

You may have noticed the gradually increasing frequency of my posts touching on aging, death and dying. This is partly due to my perspective, which I can no longer pretend is anything but that of a senior citizen. It’s also inspired by my experiences as a hospice volunteer. (I spend a few hours every week with people whose days are numbered.)

Despite my long predisposition to the present moment, the older I get, the more often I seem to stray to thoughts of the ever-more-precious future. Like imagining how, when the time comes for me to face my own life’s end, I might do so with half as much grace as my patients do.

       In just the past couple of years, five of my 
       family members and friends have faced a 
       cancer diagnosis.

I know, I know…worrying about tomorrow is pointless. While it’s probably more useful than worrying about the past, either way there’s little any of us can do to affect the consequences of time.

But there’s tomorrow…and then there’s TOMORROW. For someone simply living out their last days or one facing a grave health crisis, the term could mean, literally, the next day; one might not dare look ahead much further.

But for those of us still fortunate enough to still gaze out on an indeterminate horizon, the view is quite different.

Yes, there’s still that sense—especially if gratitude is part of your daily spiritual practice—of each tomorrow being a precious gift, one you should appreciate as if it were your last. But even that self-imposed filter doesn’t keep those of us in reasonably good health from fully expecting another tomorrow after that…and another…and another...

How cruelly that expectation must change when one receives, say, a cancer diagnosis. These days, I find myself thinking about that all the time, because in just the past couple of years five of my family members and friends have faced that reality.
        It’s an opportunity to introduce ourselves 
        to our faith—or at least an aspect of that 
        faith we may never have been in the same 
        room with before.

Even as I’ve been writing this post, one of those loved ones dealing with cancer—a dear old friend—has experienced a dramatic change in his condition. Steve had been responding quite well to cutting-edge treatment which aimed to seek out and destroy cancer cells no matter where in his body they lurked.

But now, quite suddenly, the cancer has gained the upper hand throughout his body. There’s nothing left to do for him—at least in terms of cure-oriented medical treatment. He’s entered hospice, and doctors advise him and his family not to think in terms of months, but weeks…or maybe even days.

What a fickle friend hope can be. I can only imagine what he and his family must be going through, given that initial ebbing of the disease’s leaden horizon and then its abrupt rushing in and imminently crashing over them.


I guess this is one positive effect of death—a silver lining, if one thinks broadly enough—in the whole human scheme of things. It causes those left behind to confront the reality of our own mortality.

It’s also an opportunity to introduce ourselves to our faith—or at least an aspect of that faith we may never have been in the same room with before.

It’s that faith that renders the dreadful, absolute finality of death somewhat more forgiving. As if that barrier to yet another tomorrow becomes, rather than a dark, impenetrable, tombstone-granite wall, perhaps more like a fine-mesh screen which, while it certainly inhibits our free, physical movement from one dimension to the other, at least allows the free flow of air and sunshine and spirit between the two.

As death becomes an ever-more-frequent visitor to my aging circle of loved ones, I’m asking myself if my faith is up to the task. Can I, as with any other aspect of wonder, learn to be fully present with my mortality? Might I, if faced with a terminal diagnosis, be able somehow to see beyond—if not right through—death’s dark curtain?

Could you?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

WONDERS GREAT AND SMALL – A Thanksgiving Blessing

Here's a Thanksgiving blessing I'd like to share. I happen to pray to God, but if your reverence for the incredible is directed to a force of a different name, feel free to plug it in as you like.

 Oh God, you appear to all of us in different ways. Ways so vast and powerful that we cannot grasp them, so minute that we fail to notice them. Lord, hear our thoughts and prayers of thanksgiving and help each of us be more fully aware of your blessings large and small:

Thank you for the vast expanse, the limitless wonder, of your creation,
And for the cold, wet, honeycomb pattern of the skin on a dog’s nose.

Thank you for Nature’s great ebbs and flows—her awesome power;
her transcendent beauty; her inexorable rhythms,
And for our lover’s heartbeat.

Thank you for the fascinating family of man—in all its colors, shades and textures—and the values and aspirations we share.
Thank you too for our family—those sitting at this table and those present in our hearts.

Thank you for the good, the pure, the true that resides at the core
of every human being,
And the chance to share a smile and a kind word with a stranger.

Thank you for your infinite bounty—the abundance with which you
nourish us in body, mind and spirit.
And thank you for this glorious meal we’re about to share.

Thank you for your promise of eternity,
And for this moment—this one...precious...moment of life.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

AWARENESS TO THE POWER OF N – Finding Our Place In Infinity

Have you ever seen this amazing video by Danail Obreschkow that attempts to show, in just three minutes, the vastness of the known universe? It starts with a close-up of a woman’s face. The camera then begins to draw back. The woman, lying on grass, gradually becomes a small dot in a complex of buildings. The scene soars continuously into ever-broader panoramas: the whole city, then rivers and mountain ranges, sea coasts, the recognizable outlines of continents.

Out and out the eye travels. Soon the earth itself shrinks to a pin point; then it’s the solar system lost in the distance; then the Milky Way; then other galaxies. And, finally, at about ten billion light years away from the woman’s face, we’re looking at a fine mist each of whose nano-droplets is a galaxy.

This has all happened in 60 seconds. Then the process reverses; the camera starts back toward infinitesimal Earth. Falling, falling…until once again that apartment complex appears, that little speck on the lawn, and finally the woman’s face.

As if that weren’t enough with the perspective thing, the view now moves seam- lessly into the woman’s left eye and navigates a comparable journey into inner space—from cells, to molecules, to electrons…all the way to quarks.

     Why, one might wonder, do we keep wasting 
     the effort to measure something we all can be 
     quite sure is immeasurable?

How stunning, for a visual learner like me, to see this perspective illustrated so graphically. But a few numbers I've come across recently can also make the point.

Yes, our world—this earth—is us. But in terms of its place in the solar system, meh, we’re just another of eight apples in the sack. (Nine, if one accepts the presence of the as-yet-unseen “planet nine.”)

And the solar system? Our all-powerful sun is just one of at least 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and who knows how many of those twirl their own planets around them?

So you think we’re rhetorically zoomed out far enough to maybe begin grasping the vastness of the universe? Not quite. Take our little galaxy with its billions of stars…and multiply it by another 200 billion. That’s how many galaxies astronomers were thinking existed.

Hubble took this 100-hour exposure of a spot in space previously thought to be virtually empty.
PHOTO: Robert Williams and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STScI) and NASA

That was a decade ago, when the NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was providing its earthshakingly clear examination of the universe. Current research suggests even that number is at least ten times too small.* Does anyone at all believe that these wild stabs at enumeration won’t just keep growing?

It’s like economic hyperinflation; the currency of classification becomes so worthless that we keep having to issue new, ever-larger “denominations” of terminology. So now, acknowledging the futility of counting even galaxies, scientists are beginning to think in terms of a “multiverse,” comprising numerous universes.

Why, one might wonder, do we keep wasting the effort to measure something we can all be quite sure is immeasurable?

It’s beyond me.

         We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, 
         but perhaps more important… the universe is in us. 
         Many people feel small, because they’re small and the 
         universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came 
         from those stars. ~ DR. NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

* NASA galaxy count