Wednesday, May 18, 2022

TWO STEPS TO GRATITUDE

This pandemic, this past two-plus years of unimaginable, worldwide catastrophe, have brought gratitude into sharp focus for me.

There are two steps to experiencing true gratitude. The first is appreciating the blessing. The second is understanding—totally accepting—the impermanence of it. It’s one thing to feel blessed while you’re enjoying the gift, especially if you fully expect it to continue. It’s another thing to still feel the gratitude after the blessing ends—which they're bound to do…except one.

Maori fishhook / gratitude symbol
IMAGE: Vassil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


I feel grateful today for my life. Not only for the gift it is right now, but for there being no known end to it. But what if I learned tomorrow that I have incurable cancer and that my life will be ending quite soon? Would I still feel grateful for the very, very fine life I’ve already lived?

As a hospice volunteer for the past eight years, I’ve been afforded quite an intimate view into the process of dying. Far more important, though, has been the view these beautiful people have gifted me of the process of living. Not one has said—or acted like—they’ve felt cheated by the prospect of death.

So, as my days wane I thank God for my life—both the promise of its continuing (the blessing that always ends) and the gift of its having been (the blessing that never does).

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

A FAN OF PHANTOSMIA – The Smell of My Own Nose

“Smell” is an interesting word, isn’t it? It’s one of very few in the English language that’s not only both a noun and a verb, but is also both an action verb—John smells the rose—and a stative verb—The rose smells (sweet to John).

I’m pretty sure every living organism on Planet Earth has some sense of smell. Animals use theirs to find food, sense danger and engage mates. Plants use their version of smell to react with pollinators, size up pests and detect disease in nearby plants.

For us humans, smell may not be quite as vital as that to our day-by-day survival, but if you’ve got a natural gas leak in your house, it just might save your life. And let’s not forget the sense’s aesthetic merit. Flowers, the sea, fresh-brewed coffee and babies’ heads come to mind.

LEATHER IN MY GRENACHE

They say one’s sense of smell fades as one ages. I’m sure that’s true with mine. That’s probably why I’m using more and more seasoning in my food these days. And, though it may be simply a measure of my love, why I can no longer smell my dog’s farts.

But I’ve discovered another aspect to my olfactory perception, one that seems to increase with age. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it phantom smell. That is to say, I’m smelling things that aren’t really there.

I first noticed it a couple of years ago while I was meditating. I sat down in my favorite chair, leaned back and, because it was daylight, pulled the hood of my sweatshirt down over my eyes to tone down the brightness.

As I followed my breathing into my inner space, I caught these fleeting whiffs of the most intriguing smells. Ebbing and flowing, they often varied with each inhalation. I found them engaging in the most pleasant, evocative way. But evocative of what, I’m not at all sure.

Even trying to describe them makes me think of a genteel oenophile deciphering notes of chocolate or leather in some nice, old Grenache.

It’s funny, I only get these smells when I meditate—with that sweatshirt pulled down over my eyes, collecting and holding, I suppose, whatever combination of real and imaginary smells come to haunt me.

            They’re more subtle, like the aroma
            of my skin after I sit in the sun.


NOT MY MUSTACHE
So, what are these smells that come and go, that might morph one into the next with each inhalation? It might be easier to describe what they aren’t. They aren’t floral, nor sweet. They aren’t aromas I’d associate with food.

They’re less common, more subtle, like the aroma of my skin after I sit in the sun; like the not-quite-herbal, not-quite-spice smell of a hot, summer meadow; like the damp, fertile fragrance of deep forest; or the warm, toasty smell of our miniature schnauzer’s feet.

I’m pretty sure there’s nothing around me that actually smells like that. No dog in my lap; no food left on the side table; nothing spilled on the cushions. My mustache has been known to catch and hold the smell of the bacon I had for breakfast, but it isn’t that either.

I realized that I don’t smell anything until I pull that hood down over my eyes and nose. Maybe that’s where the smells were coming from. But no, I washed the sweatshirt and next time the smells were still there. 

      Oh my God, why are these smells after me?

FANTASTIC PHANTOSMIA
Since the smells aren’t coming from anything around me, I’ve concluded that they must reside in me. Maybe they’re like dreams: you know they’re not real; you may not know what they mean; but you do know they’re based on something you’ve experienced.

There’s a name for this kind of phantom smell: phantosmia. Medical websites say it can have a number of causes: sinusitis, stroke, tumors, schizophrenia, …Oh my God, why are these smells after me?

Most often, phantosmia produces not-so-pleasant smells, like badly burned toast, chemical or metallic odors, rotting flesh…yikes! How fortunate that mine are so congenial. In fact, I actually look forward to that element of my daily meditation, where the smells help me break through my shell of mundane concerns and into a state of dreamy inner-consciousness.

The sense of smell is another of those miracles we become so accustomed to that we may barely notice it. Whether it’s a pleasant waft or a foul reek, whether the source is real or imagined, smell is, indeed, worthy of wonder.

So, have you ever been visited by phantosmia? Does it beguile you or beset you? Won’t you please leave a comment? We’d all love to hear how you smell.
đŸ˜‰

Thursday, April 14, 2022

HEAR, HEAR! – Music As If For the First Time

Those of you familiar with my As If For the First Time (AIFFT) series will recognize the premise: pick some common observation or activity—one so ubiquitous as to easily escape one’s full appreciation—and describe it as if I’d never seen or done it before.

I’ve written at least fifty of them, and the other day, while listening to our local public radio classical music station, I realized music just begs for a place at the
AIFFT table. Why had it taken me so long?

                                                    ~        ~        ~    

         It can curl one into the fetal position
         or lift one to prayer.


BABIES DIGGING MOZART

Usually these treatises practically write themselves. But the more I think about music, the more it’s proving one of the hardest themes I’ve tackled.

It’s just that music is so intangible. Unlike any of my previous AIFFT reflections, experiencing it involves no physical action. You can’t see it, pick it up, turn it over, smell it or taste it. You can only listen…and relate.

Much of our response to music is emotional. Like poetry for the ears, it can render one sad, happy, pensive, agitated…or sleepy. It can curl one into the fetal position or lift one to prayer. It can move one to dance. 

IMAGE: New York Times

It coaxes out the sweetest and sorest of memories. It can draw shut dark curtains of fear or doubt, or open them to the golden-hour light of promise.

And yet, how do I describe music as if I’d never heard it before? Doesn’t its appreciation require some cultural or personal reference point? Or could some aspects of it actually be innate to us? In other words, might even infants love a Mozart concerto the first time they lay ears on it? (Brain sciences researchers say they do, and that music plays an essential role in speech development.)

NATURE’S MUSIC
I’m reminded of a film I once watched portraying some early 20th century explorer who’s managed to penetrate a remote jungle—in Borneo I think it was—and discovers a tribe whose culture remained untouched by modern civilization. The visitor unpacks a Victrola, winds it up and plays Caruso. The natives are spellbound.

Why? Is it because the music their visitors love has touched their souls too? Or is it simply the novelty of their magically producing such sounds—any sounds—from that odd spinning disk?

It’s not that they’ve never heard—or played—music before. Of course they have their own rudimentary music. But where does the inspiration for that creation come from? And why hasn’t it produced works of comparable sophistication to those of Mozart or Steely Dan or Nas?

Nature’s sounds are influential—as they have been for composers in other cultures. From the rumble of thunder to the shrill airs of birds; from the sighs of wind through trees to the rhythm of cricket chirps or water dripping.

This might explain basic melody and rhythm, but what do those wide-eyed Borneans know of harmony? Of tonal color? Of counterpoint? Even though Nature has never shown them such niceties, might they not have simply invented them through experimentation?
     Is rhythm something we’re born with, part
     of our DNA, or is it taught us by no less
     a maestro than our own mother’s heartbeat?


I GOT RHYTHM
The one aspect of music that just might be inherent to us human beings, even before it’s ensconced in culture, is rhythm. So is the urge to tap our fingers and move our feet a need we’re born with, part of our DNA? Or is it taught us by no less a maestra than our own mother’s heartbeat? (Brain development research has shown that it is.)

And our appreciation for harmony, is that an innate quality of sound, an invention of our hearing, or a component of our souls?

          Do infants love Mozart the first time
          they lay ears on it?


NO ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE
We listen to and appreciate different types of music for different reasons. While some folks love what we might call traditional harmonies and rhythms, others prefer their music dissonant, their tempo harsh, even angry. And still others…well, our tastes are all over the map.

One example: Years ago, I met and became friends with the fantastic Mexican magical-realist painter Fernando Garrido. I was absolutely sure Fernando would love a new album I’d discovered, a CD by Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen, whose sublime style “melds brooding Nordic lyricism and modern jazz.” *

So, next time I visited him at his home in Querétaro, I brought the CD and gave it to him.

Now I find Gustavsen thoughtful, soothing, at times etherial—creating the perfect “head space” for my own creative writing and crafting. What better music, I reasoned, to stir the creative juices of a famous, prolific, Caravaggio-inspired Mexican painter? Right?


Wrong. After months of my trying tactfully to pry an honest opinion of the CD from my tactful friend, he finally came clean. He said, “It’s so slow; it has no life.” So much for becoming soul mates with Fernando Garrido—at least music-wise.

So I guess music’s effect on us, like that of art, or design, or any other type of expression, is colored not just by taste, but by culture and by our own experience. I know I’ve heard music most people would find nice, but not especially moving, which, because it recalled for me a particular moment of love or loss, caused my heart to swell or brought me to tears.

         It's like trying to assess emotion as if
         we'd never been able to feel.


A LOSS FOR WORDS
So, experiencing music as if for the first time. Is that even possible?  

For something so ingrained in the development of our brains, so influenced by our natural surroundings, so colored by both experience and culture, I’m inclined to say it is not. It’s like trying to assess emotion as if we’d never been able to feel. Or discussing language without words.

IMAGE: www.KarlAndreasGrosspixelpoems.de

At least for me there are far fewer answers than more questions. If you have some answers based on your own experiences with music, we’d all love to hear them!

“If I can learn to understand this language without words, I can learn to understand the world.”
~ PAULO COELHO

“Remember, all music was once new.”
~ SLOGAN OF THE AMERICAN  COMPOSERS’ FORUM
* Apple Music ( https://music.apple.com/us/artist/tord-gustavsen/18309440 )

Saturday, January 1, 2022

HOPE IN A SNOWFLAKE

What is hope? Is it anticipation? Expectation? And where’s it located? Is it all about something happening way off in the future? Must it always be about the future?

Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle likes to say, because the past has already happened, and the future hasn’t yet, that neither exists. That the only time that’s real is now.

So, what does hope look like, not when it’s about some distant outcome, but closer to now?

Well, of course there’s the kind with a capital H, that big, existential kind that’s just out there somewhere. But the small-h, everyday kind—is grounded in the here and now, resting not as much in fate as in our own hands, heart and spirit.

It’s really a choice we make, like love or happiness. But more like surrender, cut of the same cloth as faith.

If big-H Hope is the distant glow at the end of the tunnel, small-h hope is lighting candles in the darkness.


In these discouraging times, we need all the hope we can get—both kinds. Big-H Hope to put out there in the Universe as our sacred intention for ourselves and the world.

And small-h hope, which is often just putting one foot in front of the other. It’s there in the smallest details, minutia that might slip right past us if we’re less than fully present to call it what it is.

What is hope?
It’s a rustling in the brush along the bank of Peasley’s Slough
A glint of light through the forest ahead promising the end of the portage
Kneeling down to check the thickness of the ice
Swiping on a little blue kicker over your glide coat
Casting into that deep eddy just downstream from a rock point
Sticking out your tongue for a snowflake

It’s walking out with your choir onto the stage
Composing that exotic, dream itinerary
Readying your craft space with papers, scissors and glue
Checking how many students have shown up in your Zoom waiting room
Wrapping your finished lampshade arc around the rings
And it’s watching the garage door open and wanting so much for your partner’s car to be there.

There is hope in all these things, all of them signs of wonders about to happen.

So, as we face a new year, still groping our way through this tunnel of fear and uncertainty, may we take comfort in the glow we see at the end, and light those little candles. 

May we seek and find hope everywhere. Yes, up in the sky, in the big picture of what might lie ahead for us. But let us also find it in the moment, in the common, the constant. In each small wonder, each fleeting thought, each precious moment of 2022.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

IN GOD’S EYES – An Accounting of Loving and Being Loved

I’ve just had an epiphany. Actually sort of a compound epiphany.

The soil in which these realizations took root was tilled several years ago by a friend's telling me of the vision Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton experienced on a busy street corner in downtown Louisville in 1958. 

While standing there, Merton suddenly saw all the strangers around him in a perfectly clear, unfiltered light, not with assumptions or judgement, but simply as innocent children of God.

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.”

How would it feel if Sylvia were dying in my arms?

HEART TO HEART
So, the other day I’m lounging in my Lazy Boy with our adorable mini-schnauzer, Sylvia, cradled face up in the crook of my arm. I had little to do but contemplate her being…and mine. I thought about how much I love this precious little creature, how deeply that love possesses my heart and soul, how utterly complete and without condition it is.

It may sound a bit gloomy, but it’s hard for me to process such profound gratitude without considering the prospect of loss. How would it feel, I pondered, if Sylvia, instead of basking in a nice tummy rub, were dying in my arms? 

I had this perfectly clear image of her eyes, fixed on mine, that opalescent chestnut brown a marbling of fear, pleading, trust. I could see right into her heart, and I think she could see into mine. Everything in and between us was love.

Tears welled up; my throat tightened.

In that very last exchange, what could Sylvia see in my eyes? Would it be anything close to the outpouring of unconditional love I was feeling?

     It’s a perspective that could change my life…

THE MORE YOU GIVE…
It was at this moment of swirling love and grief that I realized—and here comes the first epiphany—even at my ripe old age, I don’t think I ever have, and quite likely never will, experience that kind of pure, uncomplicated, unconditional love.

Recognizing that void in my life made me very sad indeed…but just for a few seconds.

Until, that is, I realized—and here comes the second epiphany, which refutes the first—that the perfect love Sylvia and I shone on each other in that heartbreaking vision is exactly how the God I believe in sees me. And you. 

IMAGE: Sotheby's

It’s just how Thomas Merton found himself seeing everyone on that busy street corner back in 1958. And it’s a perspective that could change my life…if I let it.

Now I know I have been, and still am, loved perfectly. Not just by my dog, but by God. 

Of course, that begs the question: are we human beings capable of such absolute love? Other than catching a fleeting glimpse of the concept as Merton did, is it even possible for us to love without expectation or prejudice? Do we love ourselves enough to love others that way? 

I believe very few of us do, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Even if I should never receive such love from another person, at least I can try giving more of it. After all, isn't love the only thing in life where the more of it you give away the more you have?

And, since I’d like to have lots and lots of love, I guess I’d better get busy. Giving that kind of love, God's kind of love—not just to Sylvia, but to my amazing wife, Sally, my kids and grandkids, and a few special friends. And, just maybe, to strangers.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

THE (MISS) JOY OF HALLOWEEN

When I was a kid, Halloween meant what I suppose it did to most kids. Dressing up as something clever and fun, carving jack-o-lanterns, working the neighborhood for treats... Okay, and maybe pulling off a couple of pranks. 

I collected the usual assortment of goodies. My favorites were the much-coveted full-size Snickers bars or Almond Joys a couple of families handed out. I think I also got an ice cream bar once. The treats I always tried to trade away: licorice, Raisinets, taffy, and the iconic-for-all-the-wrong-reasons candy corn.

But of all the houses I solicited, however rewarding candy-wise, one stood out. Miss Joy’s house. Lillian Joy was an engaging senior citizen with a twinkle in her eye. I knew her because she was active in my family’s church. She was one of those very few really old people I didn’t find kind of icky. 

        Just the stuff of wonder a kid remembers
        65 years later.


It wasn’t that her decorations were all that spooky, and I don’t think she handed out anything that memorable. What Miss Joy did hand out was an experience.

Each Halloween, with the help of a couple of friends, she invited each group of kids, a few at a time, into her grand old Victorian home—to the dining room I think it was—where the magic began.

To earn one’s treat, each child had to sit down at the table and execute a couple of challenging little hand/mind games. The one I remember best is struggling to draw a circle on a sheet of paper while looking only at a mirror reflection of the effort. (It’s really hard!)

It didn’t really matter if you were successful, just that you gave it a go. Then Miss Joy would invite you over to the sideboard, where there sat a fancy silver double chafing dish. 

 
She’d show you the pans were empty, then put the cover back and perform an elaborate little incantation. When she opened it again, there was your treat, a couple pieces of candy.

Seriously, the thing was just empty 30 seconds ago! Just the stuff of wonder a kid remembers 65 years later.

What magical Halloween experiences do you remember fondly?

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

"TRANSLUMINOUS" – The Magical Nexus of Reflective and Projective Light

COLOR A LA MODE  
All the colors we perceive are about light. Where it originates, its hue, how bright it is, whether it’s absorbed, filtered, reflected or refracted.

Compounding those variables, there are two distinct color-blending modes: subtractive and additive.

With subtractive color the “canvas” starts out white, which, contrary to most people’s belief, comprises all colors. Adding filters to that white—like printer’s inks or natural pigments—removes some of the color spectrum. The remaining colors are what we perceive. Filtering out all the colors makes black.


Additive color works the other way around. The “canvas” is black, essentially colorless. Adding colors of light creates the hues we see. (Theoretically, flooding the surface with all colors of light will turn it white.) This is how we perceive color on our TV and computer screens, and in other displays where light is projected, like stage lighting.   

LOOKING SHARP
Another factor: I learned early in my career as a graphic designer (in those days, that job focused primarily on printed materials) the distinction between reflective color and transparent color.

Think of the difference between an image seen as a photo print on paper, and the same image in slide form observed through a lighted slide viewer. The transparency image is generally both brighter and sharper. So, before digital photography caught on, that was the original artwork of choice to be scanned for fine printing.

Finally, for reflective art, there’s the element of surface. Does the color we see have a flat, or matte, finish, or is it glossy? This can also affect how we perceive color.

In conventional printing, finish, along with the absorbency of the paper, determines the sharpness and “depth” of a reproduced image. This is why printing of photography and fine art is nearly always done on glossy and/or enamel-coated stock.

      The light not only shines through them;
      it seems to originate in them.


SKIN-DEEP
So what does all this have to do with Nature? I started thinking about it when I noticed how the orange fibrous begonia flowers on our deck seem to glow with a special quality that our other flowers lack.



A few feet away from the begonias, petals of our purple petunias are definitely translucent. Light bounces off of them. A little light shines through them. But they’re not luminous.

These begonia petals look both translucent and luminous. The light not only reflects from them and shines through them, it seems to originate in them.

No wonder fibrous begonias are also called wax begonias. It suggests that rare color quality I describe as “transluminous,” the result of a “perfect storm” of color-enhancing elements.

    Isn’t something like this same luminousness
    also why young, healthy human skin glows
    the way it does?


First of all, they seem to employ both additive and subtractive color at the same time. Sunlight reflects off each petal’s surface, and it also penetrates it from behind to give it that luminous quality our other flowers lack.

In addition, begonia petals have a unique, velvety surface, one whose capacity to diffuse reflected light somehow intensifies it—in much the same way that printing on enamel-coated paper intensifies ink colors. 

These waxy-bright, luminous colors don’t just startle the eye, they somehow manage to overwhelm the sensor in my point-and-shoot camera. Their brilliance tends to “blow out” much of the image’s contrast, destroying subtle details of light and shadow. The eye can’t make out where one petal ends and the one behind it starts.

Isn’t this the same kind of luminousness that makes young, healthy human skin glow the way it does, and why all but the very greatest painters struggle to capture it? (And perhaps why wax sculptures of people are so eerily realistic compared with those of bronze or marble?)

DO YOU KNOW THE GLOW?
What other small wonders of Nature embody these tricks of color and light? Examples of simple translucence are pretty easy to find: autumn leaves, clouds, fish fins, butterfly wings, feathers, mica, fingernails…


Far fewer natural things glow like these begonia petals: both translucent and luminous. Transluminous. That magical quality of not just reflecting light, but seeming to generate their own. Morning glory flowers look like that to me. So do some sugar maple trees in the fall, looking sunlit even on cloudy days.

Also some jellyfish, especially those that phosphoresce. (Okay, maybe that’s not fair, since they actually do have their own light source.). Another is glacial ice, with its arresting sky blue glow.

And eyes. Don’t some people’s just seem illuminated from within?

Can you think of others? We’d love to hear about them in “Comments.”