Wednesday, July 15, 2015

SOUND ACROSS WATER – In Touch with Eternity

             Lovers row aimlessly, never beyond 
            sight of the dock—but lost anyway.

I have this romantic notion in my head about the way sound carries over an expanse of water. The image that keeps coming to mind is that of a small east- central Minnesota lake around the end of the 19th century. It could be any lake or placid river, though—perhaps one you remember fondly.

I am at my dream lake. I see families who've come out here from Minneapolis or St. Paul by horse and wagon to spend the long summer afternoon swimming, boating and reveling in the crystal clear waters. Laughter shimmers across the water in gentle, agreeable waves, eventually washing up on every shore.

As evening draws in around the lake, lovers row aimlessly, never beyond sight of the dock—but lost anyway. By nightfall, most have gone home, but a few campfires wink from surrounding woods. The snap…snap of the burning wood sounds like it’s yards away, not half a mile. You can practically hear a whisper across the lake.

You’ve been here before, haven't you? In your childhood, or maybe just in your imagination? What is it about a scene like this that so captures our hearts?

Is it the purity, the utter care-free simplicity of a more innocent time? I guess that goes without saying for us slow-it-down, soak-it-in romantics. But there's more to it than that, something about how the mood gets carried in those sounds.

I know there are scientific reasons for how sound waves carry across water—something about the water surface and the cooler air just above it combining to contain and channel them. But that doesn't interest me as much as the symbolic meaning.

     These sounds—if we let them—draw us in.
     Whether we like what we hear or not, they
     connect us, define us, define our community.

For me, sound is spatial. I think of the way great, spreading American elm trees define the space under and around their huge, fountain-shaped canopy—and how they used to form cathedral-like arches over St. Paul’s residential streets. Like those magnificent arbors, sound encompasses everything it can reach.

If you're a city dweller, it might be the muddled shouts and laughter stirring the thick summer evening air from the baseball diamond a block or two away.  If your neighborhood's a little rougher, maybe it’s the sounds of more boisterous goings-on.

Whatever the source, these sounds—if we let them—draw us in. Whether we like what we hear or not, they connect us, define us, define our community.

Imagining once more that idyllic summer evening at the lake, that timeless sense of community is somehow intensified. With no competing noise, the clarity and reach of that laughter, those campfire conversations and lovers' whispers, seems funneled through our ears and right to our souls. It wraps around us. And the fact of its having to reach across such a chilling, empty space makes the connection feel all the more intimate.

I'm sure that's part of it for me—a longing for community. Don't you feel, sometimes, that we're losing that sense of sharing beloved places or spaces, of wanting to protect them, of knowing, deep inside, that we belong to them and to one another? Do you share my disappointment that, more and more these days, everyone seems concerned with nothing more than the time- and-space immediacy of their own consumption? 

Alas. But why curse the silence when we can make music? Listening for those vital signs and sounds of community doesn't mean we have to live other people's lives nor fix all the world's problems, because, while a quiet lake at night may serve as the instrument, the notes originate in the soul. All we have to do is pay attention, listen with our hopes and our hearts, and care what we hear.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Ride a wave.

PHOTO: Pixabay

How exquisite waves’ chimera motion; the pulse moves 
laterally; its blood does not.

Like emotion, it lifts and lets you fall, yet you are still afloat. 

It flows through you, but it is not you. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

ONE PERSON’S WEED – Making Room For Life

I recall the first time I owned the adage, “One person’s weed is another’s wild flower.”* I’d been agonizing over my poor little lawn’s being swallowed up in creeping Charlie.

On its surface, creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea, a member of the mint family) is a fine plant, with gorgeous little lavender-violet, orchid-like flowers, fuzzy, scalloped-edge leaves and, perhaps best of all, an aromatic, sweet-spice aroma when handled. But it seemed its true nature was to "creep" relentlessly in tough tendrils, rooting anew as it spread and consuming everything in its path.

PHOTO: Artem Topchiy / Wikimedia Commons

I liked my grass. Even though it turned brown every fall, at least it kept its carpet-like texture, something I was afraid Charlie would not do. More than just my yardmate's behavior, though, it was that he was, well, uninvited.

I tried pulling it—kind of satisfying, like peeling off dried rubber cement from your fingers, but an endless battle. I raked it—that was like trying to comb one's hair with a hair net on. Finally, I went the most drastic route and sprayed it with borax, which, the instructions warned, I’d better do right or the monster would become resistant.

I didn’t…and it did.

I was still scheming when I learned that, in England, this wolf in sheep’s clothing is cultivated and sold in hanging baskets. People actually pay for it! Well, I thought, maybe this merits reconsideration.

       The difference is more profound than 
       one of perceptions; it is one of the spirit.

There’s great meaning and power for us human beings in controlling our environments. We like to choose what shares our space—you know, a sort of Manifest Destiny thing.

But so many of life's challenges are like plants; if we cannot see a place for them in our lives, they are weeds. But if we can bring ourselves to fully embrace their right to co-exist with us in the vast oneness of life, they become wildflowers. Not just unobtrusive companions, but our beautiful friends.

The difference is more profound than one of perceptions; it is one of the spirit, one that sees, more clearly than eyes can, that weeds grow around us; wildflowers, well, we grow around them.

Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), declared an unwanted, invasive species in Minnesota.

* Though I believed I originated this little truism, it’s credited at some quotes websites to Susan Wittig Albert, in her book, An Unthymely Death and Other Garden Mysteries.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

THE HERE IN THE THERE – Choosing Where to Belong

(I wrote this post for the launch of my friend Meg Pier's wonderful new blog, What Is Belonging?, for 
folks who travel and explore, not so much to escape, as to find new ways of connecting—with other people, places and cultures. When it comes to the wonder in the wander, Meg really gets it!)

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”


Human beings’ yearning to belong is universal, timeless. Cave people huddled ‘round a fire felt it; the regulars at Cheers felt it; even hermits, I would suggest, feel it in their own way. It is experienced by not just thinking, sentient creatures, but, in more mystical ways perhaps, by plants, rocks, water, fact, by absolutely everything in the cosmos.

PHOTO: WikiMedia Commons / Happy Midnight

This is not to say that everyone and everything finds that place of belonging; all are constantly moved—often transformed—by forces and circumstances beyond their control. We human beings are unique in that we can sometimes influence those circumstances, a capacity a tree, a cloud or the moon does not possess. More importantly, we can choose where to belong.

       There is a kind of belonging that suggests 
       not so much the nucleus of one’s being as 
       a kind of centrifugal force around it.

For the human animal, there are two kinds of belonging. The oldest, most primal is the inner-circle version, in which we embrace the familiar: home and family, accustomed routines and traditions. Our attention, our energy, is directed toward a nucleus of people and place. It is a comfortable place, one we love, at least in part, for the fact that it asks very little of us.

There is another kind of belonging, though. One that suggests not so much the nucleus of one’s being as a kind of centrifugal force around it. Though usually tethered to a home base, this kind of belonging yearns to spin off, propelled to new places and experiences. It moves us to experience a more expansive sense of place, one that embraces and celebrates the unfamiliar.

You could call it simply tourism, I suppose, but that would miss the point. We’ve all met those “résumé” travelers who collect passport stamps like chests-full of medals to show off at cocktail parties. These folks—the kind who settle for the two-bit tour or, worse, lock themselves into gated, all-inclusive resorts; the kind who expect things in Timbuktu to be just like they are back in Terre Haute—must be quite lonely indeed. For here they are departing their tried-and-true, inner-circle sense of belonging, only to miss the most rewarding aspects of leaving it: opening one’s heart and mind to new ways of belonging.

                I want to feel I belong—as we 
                all indeed do—to everything.

No, I see my “centrifugal” sense of belonging as a compulsion to embrace—and become embraced—by as many places and cultures as possible. Not just in my own neighborhood; not just in some small town I can drive to in a few hours; not just in our adopted second home town in Mexico. I want to feel I belong—as we all indeed do after all—to everything.


Chase a sense of belonging by leaving behind all that's safe and familiar? Isn't that an oxymoron? I'll never forget the first time I understood why it made perfect sense. Sally and I were in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico. It was dusk. We'd decided to venture a few blocks past the nearly palpable boundary of the "tourist" area downtown.

As we walked along, dodging playing kids and sleeping street dogs, the sounds and smells of life in people's homes wafted out to us. I turned to Sally and said, "Wouldn't it be amazing if we could just walk into one of these homes and be part of their lives for an evening?"

I've had this feeling, this romantic notion of belonging to another family, another culture, many times since. And, perhaps in part because I'd planted the seeds of intention—and certainly empowered by my gaining near-fluency in Spanish—I’ve indeed been able to fulfill that desire on many occasions in my travels. Those people and places continue to feel like home to me, and will for as long as I live.

          It is about as far from belonging as a 
          picture of a tomato is from a tomato.

Travel, aside from being the lifeblood of a romantic, is a consummate teacher. More than just inviting us in to new places and cultures, it asks something of us—to risk, to stretch, to learn, to feel deeply. By not only seeing, but experiencing how other human beings far away live, we learn to appreciate—or perhaps change—the way we live. It can be at the same time empowering and humbling.

That investment of oneself in new experiences and perspectives is what I call seeing generously. It takes the ever-more-prevalent notion that experience is something we merely consume, something we can simply pay for with money, and turns it around. Seeing the world from this perspective, we gladly invest in travel experiences with our time, our curiosity, our caring. One can do it in any number of ways: volunteer with a local organization; take a personal interest in a child or a family; teach; paint, photograph or write about the people and customs; learn the language.

PHOTO: Pack For a Purpose /

I’m afraid we’ve become a culture where, too often, our social interaction amounts to sitting at home or with friends and, instead of sharing our thoughts and feelings with the folks who are right there in front of us, pretending to connect with other people and places spoon-fed to us, virtually, by some digital device. This asks virtually nothing of us. It is about as far from belonging as a picture of a tomato is from a tomato. 

Another troubling change I’m seeing is our growing expectation of nearly instantaneous, “on-demand” results, and the illusion that we can always be in control of those results. What seeing generously teaches is that, instead of expecting to change our surroundings to suit us, we’re willing to change ourselves to suit our surroundings.

The world could be a far more vital, healthy, peaceful place if only we realize the estrangement we’re allowing these trends to inflict on us. We need to reclaim what is real. And, no matter how much everything else might change, what is real will always mean belonging—whether gathered with loved ones ‘round the fire (a real fire, not one of those HD continuous video loops of one) or reaching out to embrace, first-hand, new people and places.

     We realize who we are, and that we all       
     belong to the same family, the same place.

The wonderful thing about these two inward- and outward-directed senses of belonging is that you don’t have to choose. Far from taking the place of home-centered belonging, the kind of belonging-by-exploring I love so much actually reinforces it. Even when I’m lucky enough to be accepted into another culture for a while, I know very well where my real home is, and the adventure, the perspective, only makes me appreciate it all the more.

And it’s not that I want to escape; it’s that, at home, I take belonging—and everything else—for granted. That, ironically, makes me feel empty. It reminds me how much I need that incredible sense of putting myself out there, learning, seeing things in new ways through the eyes of others who, at first, may seem so utterly different from me. For it is only by opening up and reaching out that we realize who we are, and that we all, indeed, belong to the same family, the same place.

So, as much as you enjoy hanging out at home with your family and friends, make a point to get out there now and then. See generously. Open your mind, heart and spirit to new people and places. Dare to venture beyond the barriers of your assumptions. Find out what it means to embrace the unfamiliar and make it your own. Discover the here in the there.

PHOTO: Pixabay

Thursday, June 4, 2015


Turn your breathing inside out.

With three quarters of a billion inhalations and exhalations 
in a lifetime*, it’s no wonder we take breathing for granted.

Then, meditating, you finally feel its truth: less in-and-out than 
‘round-and-‘round; no longer inside you, but you inside of it.

* According to an article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, a person at rest takes an average of 16 breaths per minute. This means we breathe about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year (unless we get a lot of exercise). The person who lives to 80 will take about 672,768,000 breaths in a lifetime.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

MY BRAIN ON DRUGS – A Little Fun With "Pharmanyms"

In a previous life I was a copywriter, brand creator and sloganeer. So this post derives as much from that persona as from that of the wondering wanderer I’ve assumed the past few years.

If you’re one of the few folks still watching original, seen-when-aired TV—as opposed to Tivoed programs or on-demand stuff where you can skip the ads—then you’ve seen these incessant commercials for drugs. You can’t watch for ten minutes without seeing one.

Advertisers of everything from hair growers to testosterone boosters to toenail fungus fighters try to convince you—despite the long, speed-read list of sometimes dire side effects—to demand their potion from your doctor. Hell, there are even drugs to improve the performance of the drugs they sold you before!

For starters, shouldn't the insidious tactic of getting you to ask for something your doc may not know much more about than what the culprits themselves have told him be illegal?

And, even if you’re not as cynical as I am, you’ve got to agree there’s something else that's just patently ludicrous about many of these ads: the names.

          I dare you to tell me which are real 
          brands and which are the impostors.

PHOTO: New York Zoological Society via Wikimedia Commons

Does anyone else think, as I do, that you could sit a chimp down in front of a two- or three-column list of random syllables, train it to pick one from each column, and come up with a better name than Xeljanz*? C’mon!

Now, lest you think I’m just ranting—perhaps resentful that some branding pros out there are making a small fortune dreaming up these absurd monikers—here’s a little test. Below is a list of 20 drug brands. (I’ve left out ones so pervasive, like Cialis or Prednisone, that they’ve muscled their way into the vernacular.) I've also spared those which at least try to suggest what they do—like Flonase.

Ten of the names are real, the result, one would assume, of exhaustive research, brainstorming and focus group testing.

The other ten are pure gibberish; I created them in about five minutes using the chimp method—combining randomly-chosen syllables from two or three columns. I challenge you to tell me which are real brands and which are the impostors.

  1. Abradex
  2. Latuda
  3. Cynerol
  4. Osphena
  5. Curina
  6. Stekara
  7. Midaflex
  8. Myrbetriq
  9. Xufera
10. Treximet
11. Infuragel
12. Kaletra
13. Doloram
14. Ertaczo
15. Arterian
16. Fosrenol
17. Jyntala
18. Dacogen
19. Somniz
20. Xarelto

Absolutely insane, right? But then what would you expect from folks who think you’re dumb enough to want something called Revatio?** How about Dumrite? Ufelferit?

 * Xeljanz is a JAK inhibitor, claimed to disrupt the nerve pathways that lead to the inflammation associated with RA.
 ** Revatio, from Pfizer, is the same drug as Viagra, but marketed to treat hypertension (high blood pressure).

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

JUST A STONE’S THROW – Where Kids, Nature and Physics Coalesce

When’s the last time you skipped a stone?

It’s such an iconic image of youth, such a quintessential point of connection between a kid—or an adult’s inner kid—and Nature. It doesn’t matter if you live near that sweet swimmin’-hole pond from a Norman Rockwell illustration or down the street from a drainage canal you wouldn’t set foot in.

Rich or poor, from the sticks or the city, anywhere from Abilene to Zanzibar, any able-bodied person can do it. If there was a pond in Eden, I suspect Adam and Eve did it. All it takes is a stretch of still water and a few reasonably flat stones.

Do you remember who taught you how to do skip stones? Selecting the perfect stone*; the proper grip and body position; a nice, low release point; the finger roll and follow-through. Perhaps, like me, you were in awe of your coach’s skill, her effortless tosses hopping four…five…ten times before sliding, then settling into the water.

The first few times you try it, you may as well be tossing a brick. Soon you get a skip or two, but then…kerplunk. Eventually you get it, and you remember for the rest of your days how very satisfying it was—your first multi-skipper.

     …and, finally, the two elements’ graceful 
     surrender to each other, the water reclaiming 
     the thing it’s spent a thousand years shaping.

There’s something so utterly serene about skipping stones. First, it puts you outdoors, next the water. Most people feel free, calm, happy when they’re near the water.

And the activity itself is so enchanting and sensual as to border on the transcendental: the interplay between solid and liquid, hard and soft, rounded and flat; the sense of flight as the stone’s weight is denied by water’s little slaps from below; the tiptoeing ripple footprints, often tracing a graceful arc; the dwindling rhythm of ever-shorter hops; and, finally, the two elements’ graceful surrender to each other—to gravity—the water reclaiming the thing it’s spent a thousand years shaping.

Have we lost touch with such primal Nature play, such a simple union with the elements? Have our notions of time and place and priorities been so transfigured by the omnipresent allure of instant-information and virtual-recreation technology that we’re forgetting how fundamentally healthy, educational, and peaceful—not to mention how fun—a direct interaction with Nature is, with no man-made device timing it, simplifying it, interpreting it for us?

Whether it’s skipping stones, digging a hole or building a fairy house of sticks and leaves, it’s the innate, elegant simplicity of pure Nature play that teaches human beings—of any age—not just priceless lessons in physics, coordination, spatial awareness, creativity and esthetics, but a deep sense of place.

               You’ve returned to the essential 
               elements of your birthright

For there, next to that pond, or river…or drainage canal, you interact with Nature in the same way the stone and the water do. You arrive light-spirited, spinning ‘round to take it all in. In your excitement, you run; then, perhaps something you see or hear slows you to a jog, then a stroll. At last you are still, and it all surrounds you, absorbs you...and you surrender to it, sinking into its soothing embrace.

The subtle footprints you left along the gravely shore soon vanish, but deep inside, the impressions last for a lifetime. For you’ve returned to the essential elements of your birthright—a small piece of the earth itself, and the clear, life-sustaining liquid that once quenched and warmed and supported you; that cleansed you, buoyed you; that together, in time, will once again absorb you.

                  ---------------------  More On Skipping  ---------------------
I have no claim to any special skipping techniques. But sometimes, after finding my rhythm and laying down a few ten-skippers, I raise the bar for myself and any competitors with some added challenges. I've been known to brag that I can skip any rock at least once, as long as it's small enough to throw. And I back up my claim… okay... maybe a third of the time.

What are some of the tricks and style elements you’ve brought to the sport of stone skipping? Do you have a favorite beach or shore for doing it? Favorite memories? We’d love it if you’d share them in a comment here.

And please, if you're ever stuck for something to do with kids / grandkids, head for the nearest rocky shore and pass on the art, the ancient tradition, of skipping stones. But for you, it may be lost.