Thursday, October 6, 2022

WHERE NOTHING IS EVERYTHING – The Sacredness of the Spaces Between

In Nature, as in life, we can see more if we notice not just things, but the spaces between things; not just sounds, but the silences they frame.
Far from empty, these inhalations in the song of creation are what make each note so clear, so sweet.

From Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, by Jeffrey Willius

I’ve been reading Eckhart Tolle’s inspiring 2005 book, A New Earth – Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. I’d been aware of the elfin spiritual guru’s Zen-like teachings for many years, and have watched several of his interviews about spiritual evolution and the path toward ego-less consciousness. (I also enjoy actor/comedian Jim Carrey’s unlikely musings about his own Tolle-inspired take on life.)

Revisiting Tolle has piqued my interest in better understanding and articulating my own spiritual beliefs, especially where they align with his on the concept of space.

I’ve written in these pages many times about the metaphysical significance of space. How to find it amongst the phalanx of responsibilities and stimuli that press in on us every day. How Nature can help provide that space.

         It’s all just story, whose true setting
         is invariably in the past or the future,
         neither of which even exists.


I love the way Tolle delineates the realms of ego and higher consciousness. Ego, he says, comprises all the thoughts, feelings and even experiences that seem to define our lives. Higher consciousness, our true essence, our Being is everything else. It’s like this invisible—yet somehow perfectly beautiful—vessel, which exists both everywhere and nowhere.

While the ego feeds on stuff—Tolle calls it “content”—that comes and goes through that space, it’s all just story, whose true setting is invariably in the past or the future, neither of which, he asserts, even exists.

Content—like emotion, accomplishment, personality or pain—though the ego wants desperately to glom onto it, inevitably comes and goes. Our self-actualization depends on our ability to let it do so while realizing that it has nothing to do with who we really are. 

         Though I often hear people describe their
         ultimate happy place in terms of fullness,
         I experience mine as a divine void.

I love this notion of space being the essence of awareness. It feels like the central truth in which I’ve always known my personal spirituality is grounded. It explains perfectly why, though I often hear people describe their spiritual happy place in terms of fullness, I experience mine as a divine void. It’s why, for example, I find the “moment of silence” sometimes offered in services of prayer and remembrance so powerful.

It explains all kinds of notions human beings find hard to comprehend, but which I know somewhere deep inside to be true. Like how one reality might reside just a membrane’s thickness away from its opposite. Like the seeming mirror images of the immense and infinitesimal. Or how there’s no such thing as a straight line—since they all eventually end up at the same place they started.

That timeless, placeless, formless expanse in which those truths reside sounds a lot like what many spiritual traditions would call God.

                                             ~            ~             ~    

                                SIDEBAR: There’s Nothing To You
In case you had any doubt about the relative importance of matter and space in the Universe, consider this: If one could remove all of the empty space contained in and around every atom in every person on planet Earth and compress us all together, the overall volume of our particles would amount to something roughly the size of a sugar cube! *  **

* “The Volume of Humanity – If All the Space In Our Atoms Is Removed” By Phil Plait, SYFY Wire, Oct. 29, 2018

** Of course, this compression can only happen theoretically. Since the position of atoms in most solids is determined by what’s called wave function, they are about as close together as the laws of physics allow.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

CAP’N CRUNCH – Master of Dwindling Days

I’ve never been that big a fan of fall. The lush, green mantle that summer tucked around us so tenderly in June is growing threadbare. Flowers are fading. The crisp crack of bat on baseball is giving way to the dull thump of foot on football.

Summer’s luscious, oxygen suffused air will turn first to the sugary sweet smell of decay, then get wrung out, dried and sterilized.

Worst of all, daylight, after nourishing eyes and souls well into the evening for the past few months, gets dialed down like lighting for a noir photo. Too soon it will be dark by 4:30.

And need I even mention the coming four-month deep freeze here in Minnesota?

     I set out each day looking for—and finding—
     the bright side of autumn.

It all feels like gradual starvation. Nonetheless, determined to choose a mindset of abundance over scarcity, I set out each day looking for—and finding—the bright side of autumn.

My daily walks are a kind of meditation on that ambition. I head outdoors with eyes and heart open to fall’s undeniable small wonders: berries, from black to white with all the colors in between; the busyness of critters squirreling away stores for winter; leaves, dying with panache, flaunt their finest colors.

One of my favorite harbingers of fall is the oaks’ dropping their acorns. More specifically, stepping on their brittle capules, many of them knocked loose by impact with the sidewalk.

As I walk I seek out the elegant little crowns, aiming to crush as many as I can. I'm sure I look deranged, lurching back and forth, seeing if I can’t hit one with each step. Chalking up a double is especially rewarding.

Squnching one with the toe or arch of your shoe might do the trick, but the sound and feel are most satisfying when you hit it right on the ball of your foot.

The lower the humidity, the crunchier the little cups get. If it rained last night, fuggedaboutit. The best is when they’ve baked in full sun for a few hours.

(My wife rolls her eyes when I do this; thinks I’m reverting to my silly, inner ten-year-old. Which, of course, I take as a compliment.)

      Look right past the withering of summer’s
      joys and find those of fall.

Don’t we all—especially after all the dispiriting events we’ve been through the past few years—need a little more reversion to childhood? Hell, we needed it even before COVID, George Floyd, the climate calamity and what’s-his-name, when far too many of us were already allowing workaday concerns and mindless diversions to steal our innate senses of wonder and play.

So c’mon folks, let’s reclaim that precious, lighthearted exuberance that is—or at least should be—every evolving soul’s birthright. Get out there, take a deep breath of this sweet, late-summer air. Look right past the withering of summer’s joys and find those of fall.

Look for those first crimson leaves of sumac and the fantastic shapes and patterns of fungi; smell the crisp autumn air; listen for the Vs of Canada geese heading south.

And by all means, indulge your still playful ten-year-old self with a mischievous, crunch-a-licious stroll through fallen acorns.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •


     There are three distinct classifications of crunchiness: Crispy is onomatopoeic; it whispers; sounds like its spoken-word self. Crispy is biting into a classic potato chip or a piece of puffed rice cereal (a Rice Crispy, if you will). 
has a bit more heft. The item’s usually a bit harder, more rigid. The sound’s deeper, gravellier, like chomping into a fresh carrot or a well-toasted almond.
     And then there’s Crackly. Crackly’s brittle, snappy; you really get the sense that something’s breaking. It’s what happens when you bite into stuff that’s hard and thin, like peanut brittle, ribbon candy or even some “kettle” style potato chips.
     Some things—like ice—can be either crunchy or crackly, depending on their hardness or thickness.

Saturday, August 13, 2022


An irrepressible flow, an unmoving impediment. If both were solid objects, there’d be a collision, likely some damage, and motion would cease.

But with water—or any substance that either is, or acts like, a liquid—the effect
of that collision is a thing of beauty, a sublime coalescence of concession and conquest.

Take a rock and a river. Collision’s no problem for either of them. The water simply separates effortlessly to flow around the barrier, then momentarily reverses course and regroups to carry on its gradual, inevitable surrender to gravity.

It’s an object lesson in fluid dynamics.

     Eddies are made by objects as small as the
     teaspoon you use to stir your morning coffee
     or as large as…well…Antarctica.

An essential characteristic of flow is that when the liquid changes direction it creates a void in the place where it would have gone if left alone. It’s something like a vacuum, which draws in the liquid next to it. This creates the swirl we call an eddy—or vortex, gyre, whirlpool, maelstrom…all the same thing, though some of these terms suggest varying scales.

If the water flows ‘round that rock on both sides, the void occurs right behind the rock, stirring a swirl on each side and an area between them where the water flows back against the current. If the rock is a peninsula, there’s also a backflow, but from just one swirl.

Liquid eddies are made by objects as small as the teaspoon you use to stir your morning coffee (made easier to see when you stir right after putting your cream in) or as large as…well…Antarctica.

I know a thing or two about water eddies because I’m a canoeist and a fisherman.
I see them coil from either side of my paddle as I dip and pull it back. On those rare occasions when the water’s like glass, I can turn and watch them spin down for a few seconds as they recede behind me.

Bigger eddies might offer a challenge to steering a canoe. As you enter one, you can feel it grab and rotate the craft. But an experienced canoeist anticipates such twists and turns.

An eddy doesn’t just roil the water on the surface; the effect often extends all the way to the bottom. Because this buffers the current, it’s the perfect spot for a predator fish to lie in wait, with minimal effort, for prey getting swept past.

And the circulation can be vertical as well as horizontal. This is why it’s so dangerous for a swimmer to get caught in the area just downstream of a dam or a submerged rock or log. The rolling undertow there can keep pulling you under with no escape.

            Get outdoors and let Nature be your
            slowing-down, calming "eddy."

So are there any life lessons to be taken from eddies, as there are from so many of Nature’s teaching ways? 

What would that big brook trout lurking behind the rock say? Perhaps “Why fight the current stalking prey when you can relax here and simply let the current bring dinner to you?”

Perhaps the message is that if you run up against an obstacle, it doesn’t mean your quest is over; with flexibility, you can simply “flow” around the barrier, and regroup in the calm before moving on.

Or maybe that life doesn’t have to be one continuous onslaught of expectations and demands. You can seek out those quiet “eddies” where you can relax and take sustenance.

Or that just about the best eddy you can find is immersion in Nature.

What other metaphorical lessons can you add? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

      “Water… for a dwelling it chooses the quiet meadow; 

        for a heart the circling eddy.”

             LAO TZU, Tao Te Ching

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

A GRACE IN THE CROWD – Revisiting My “Aura Fixation”

The grade school concert was more of an obligation than a choice. You know, our friends’ kid was singing.

It was a pretty typical display of talents for that age group. A few kids could sing; most couldn’t; a few didn’t. (But, of course, talent wasn’t the point.)

By the end of the second number, I’d spotted her. A girl in the third row. She was far from the best looking of the kids on stage. I don’t know if she was an especially good singer. But there was something about her.

I was enjoying whole show—the expressions on the singers’ faces, the nervous, distracted body language—but my eye kept going back to that girl in the third row.  
What was it about her, I asked myself. For one thing, she was about the only kid smiling. That told me she liked singing, maybe even enjoyed having an audience. (Or her mom was an ex-beauty pageant contestant who’d drilled the smile thing into her.)

There were subtler graces too: at one point, between numbers, she turned and said something to the nervous looking boy next to her. Maybe a word of encouragement.

I couldn’t single out the girl’s voice from the rest, but I knew that if singing turned out to be something she pursued—or whatever else, for that matter—she’d be successful at it.

      It was like watching the one student in a
      classroom who clearly gets the assignment.

Recently, Sally and I went to see Ain’t Too Proud, the fabulous musical about the life and times of the Temptations. The stage was full of performers—singers, dancers and actors—who were quite obviously the cream of the crop.

Even though the talent level was major league, there was still one performer who caught my fancy. He wasn’t the lead, just one of a number of characters who orbited the Temps’ inveterate leader.

Actor/singer Jalen Harris

But there were several things that kept my eyes coming back to him. First, his stunning eyes (I could see them pretty well since we were seated in the second row). Unlike the vast majority of African Americans, his are blue. And his connection with the audience, more than looking at some vague spot above our heads, was compelling. He actually made eye contact with folks, and, to the delight of the four young women sitting right in front of us, winked at them.

Mr. Blue Eyes also happened to be the best dancer—and the Temptations, like no other group ever, could dance. That, along with that electrifying, azure gaze, was so commanding that I almost wished I hadn’t noticed.


It was somewhere between T-ball and little league, just a kids’, parks-and-rec baseball game. This time Sally’s son, Matt, was the draw.

Of all those ten-year-old boys, half of them looked to be in over their heads with either the batting, the catching or the running…or all three. Nonetheless, I cheered Matt’s every move.

But once again there was this one boy on the other team I couldn’t help watching. More than just his obvious athletic skills—clearly a couple of levels more advanced than the others—it was his countenance, a grace in the way he carried himself, the way his eyes seemed to perceive the world around him. 

You could tell by watching the other boys’—even the coaches’—reactions to him that he was a natural leader. Like the one student in a classroom who clearly gets the assignment.


So, I’ve experienced this minor obsession with one person in a group countless times, in every imaginable setting, from busy street corners, to ballet performances, to riding a “chicken bus” in rural Guerrero, Mexico. One person I just can’t keep my eyes off of.

What does this say about me, I wonder. Does everyone suffer this affliction? Is it just a quirk of human nature or something particular to the way I observe the world? Does it border on the creepy?

Do graces in the crowd captivate you? We’d love to hear of your experience in “Comments.”

I’m sure I’ll keep spotting these beautiful people, the ones with the auras. I don’t think I can help it. But wouldn’t it be something if one of these days, while looking for some new face in the crowd, I should spot someone who can’t keep their eyes off of me? I won’t hold my breath…

Monday, July 11, 2022

A BREATH’S BLESSING – My Intimate Encounter With a Dying Baby Squirrel

A heartbreaking little drama played out this afternoon while I was walking along the beautiful, peaceful trail that flanks the Mississippi River just below our house.

Right in the middle of the asphalt path, right where people walk and ride bikes, lay a little pink lump not much bigger than my thumb. As I got closer I saw that it was a baby squirrel. It must have been just days old, since its eyes looked as if they’d not yet opened. 

I saw no sign of injury, but its bare skin looked to be a bit sunburned. My first thought was, the poor thing, it might well have succumbed to the heat of that searing pavement.

And then it moved. At first it was barely noticeable, but its precious little feet and tail were definitely moving. Oh, my God, I thought, it’s still alive!

     I prayed somehow my intervention, my touch,
     might be a vehicle for Creation’s mercy.

A shot of adrenaline coursed through me as my thoughts turned from finding a decent resting place for the kit, to actually saving its life. First, I had to get it out of the sun and see if it would take some water.

I listened for any sound of an agitated squirrel parent from the adjacent woods. (I didn’t want to be one of those well-meaning folks who might intervene when it’s not necessary.) Not a peep.

So I wrapped the little thing in a grape leaf and hurried down to the river’s edge. As I did so, I prayed somehow my intervention, my touch, might be a vehicle for Creation’s mercy. Please, please let it live!

Dipping a small stick in the river, I was able to transfer a few drops of water to the tiny animal’s partially open mouth. But there was no reaction.

In fact, now there was no more movement at all. The sweet little creature had died in my hand. I stroked its soft, wrinkled side, hoping it might respond.

I sat down on a log and wept, fully present with that precious departed soul. I was grateful to have made its acquaintance, and hoped I’d offered some small recognition of its life.

There was just one thing left to do. I made a sheltered little bower on the forest floor and lay the sweet baby to rest, its last fleeting breaths having blessed me in ways I’ll not soon forget.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022


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.


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.

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?

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.