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.”

Friday, September 24, 2021

CROWNING GLORY – The Shimmering Magic of Cottonwood

I’m walking along the Mississippi River just below our house. Down here the reality of our bustling, heart-of-the-city location recedes from view. Hundred-foot wooded bluffs block city sounds and hide the beautiful homes that line East and West River Parkways above. So, except for the hulking Franklin Avenue Bridge and the occasional airplane flying over, this place looks and sounds very much like it must have 150 years ago.

Lost in the rhythm of my steps, I make a little game of trying to spot flying grasshoppers sunning on the hot path before they spring. Here and there an over-achieving sprig of sumac, turned red as a Chinese lantern, rends the green. 

In shady low spots clusters of massive trees stand sentinel. Between them woodbine, milkweed, Canadian moonseed and wild aster claim their spots where just the right sun exposure and soil conditions invite them.

(Today I’m also keeping an eye peeled for the wily coyote family I’ve caught glimpses of down here the past few weeks.)

  I find a patch of grass, lie down
  on my back and just let the serenity wash over me.


GENTLE GIANTS
At one point I look straight up and suddenly everything I’ve been seeing seems lifeless in comparison. For I’m walking under a vibrant canopy of cottonwood leaves, tens of thousands of them shimmering* in the fresh, early-autumn breeze.

When I squint, it looks like sun’s glint off a ripply lake. The deltoid leaves pivot freely, their pearlescent surfaces catching the sun, blinking on and off, against what seems the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.


And the sound. It’s a whisper…a rustling…no, more a sort of high-pitched gurgling, like water rushing over coarse gravel. It’s one of the most beautiful, soothing sounds in Nature.

Of course each tree species has its own unique sensory qualities. But today, my creaky neck torqued back about as far as it will go, I’m enchanted by these gentle-giant cottonwoods. I find a patch of grass,  lie down on my back and just let the serenity wash over me.

      Show me an oak or pine, walnut or ash that  
      effervesces so.


SAVING GRACE
Cottonwoods are the lumbering oafs of Minnesota’s extended tree family. With their towering stature, shallow root systems, relatively soft wood and a tendency to rot from within, they’re among the first trees to succumb to wind storms—or even mere gravity.

Their wood’s not especially valuable, their pollen is the springtime nemesis of those with allergies, their roots displace sidewalks and sewer pipe, and the sticky sap and cottony seed fluff they shed are the bane of homeowners and groundskeepers.

But cottonwoods are not all bad. They do make fantastic shade trees, providing sustenance and habitat for countless critters. They often huddle in clusters of three or more distinct trunks. (I discovered one a few years back with six massive trunks in a circle, all about a foot apart, leaving a soaring, silo-like space in the middle. I loved standing in there and just feeling the life and spirit of that tree surrounding me.)

And then there’s this singular magic cottonwoods perform on breezy, late-September afternoons. Show me an oak or pine, walnut or ash that effervesces so.
 
       The leaves are free not just to flap, but
       also to rotate in the slightest breeze.


A NEW TWIST
So why do cottonwood leaves do this? How can they twirl back and forth instead of just flapping like other leaves? It’s because, like their cousins, poplar and aspen, cottonwoods’ leaves have what are called “vertically flat petioles.”

Because their petioles, their stems, are supple and flat rather than cylindrical, the leaves are free not just to flap, but also to rotate 90 degrees or more in the slightest breeze. (Picture grasping a stick by both ends between your index fingers and thumbs, and twisting it. Then do the same with a blade of grass.)

Next time you’re in the presence of some big ol’ cottonwoods, see if you can get fully present with them. Experience not just their enormous size, their clustered trunks and deeply furrowed bark, but also their crowning glory, those magical twittering, twirling leaves.

* If you’re looking for a word to describe what cottonwood leaves do in the presence of sun and a little breeze, could there be a better descriptor than “shimmering”? The word’s like an optical version of an onomatopoeia; it sounds like the way what it describes looks.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

FLASH IN THE PAN – A Taste for Nature’s Ephemera

My one-hundred-pound Pacific sailfish is finally tiring. It leans away from the pull of my line, its whole being perpendicular to my will. At this point, it’s like trying to reel in a four-by-eight sheet of plywood sideways.

I lug it closer to the side of the panga and the gloved hand of my guide. He grabs the sandpapery bill, and for one magical moment an iridescent, yet improbably deep, indigo blue floods the creature’s unfurled sail. 


By the time the skipper hoists the fish up on the gunwale for a quick picture, the color is gone, as if drained back down into the fish’s body, leaving just flat, dead gray.* Just that fast and the magic has vanished. Even though we’ll release the beautiful creature, I’m sad.

BREACH OF CONTACT
That experience has me thinking about how many other of Nature’s wonders are fleeting. Either you see them at first blush…or you don’t. Or, in some cases you don’t even know where to look.

That’s what it was like when Sally and I sailed aboard the Searcher, a 20-passenger cruise boat that plies the waters around the Baja Peninsula for ten days of high-quality whale encounters. Many times during that cruise, we found ourselves in places where whales were surfacing or breaching all around us.

I’d glimpse motion in my peripheral vision, but by the time I could turn my eyes, the leaping leviathan was back in the water and all I’d see was the splash. Alas, the languid slo-mo we’re used to seeing on Nat Geo’s or Discovery’s glorious whale segments was not an option.

Trying to photograph a breach was even harder. I spent hours fixing my lens on a random patch of ocean, hoping that would be where the next whale would eventually explode out of the water.

       Your odds may be slim, but if you don’t try,
      the odds are zero.


WHACK-A-MOLE
So, is there anything one can do to improve the odds of actually witnessing more of Nature’s ephemeral wonders?

Like any long shot, your odds may be slim, but one thing’s for sure. If you don’t try, the odds are zero. So the first tip is simply to put yourself out there. Go places where amazing stuff is likely to happen.

I’m reading a book, Phenomenal, by Leigh Ann Henion, a travel writer who devoted several years of her life to pursuing some of the world’s most elusive natural phenomena: the aurora borealis in northern Sweden, volcanic eruptions in Hawai’i, the massing of monarch butterflies in Michoacan, Mexico, the annual wildebeest migration in Tanzania, and Catatumbo lightening, whose spectacular show explodes over Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo around 150 nights a year.


Though I find such a quest quite appealing, one needn’t venture to the ends of the earth to find precious, short-lived wonders.

A snowflake alighted on your bare hand, a streaking meteor, the wink of a firefly, a bolt of lightning, or the materialization of a cloud out of clear, blue sky.

Sometimes these wonders surprise you. Or maybe you’re looking for them, but they keep popping up, like a round of whack-a-mole, just out of sight. But you keep trying, and, even though your odds are no better the next time, chances over your lifetime do improve.

SPOTTED LEOPARD
The second tip I’d offer makes a subtle distinction. Lifetimes of education and culture have instilled in many of us a kind of tunnel vision. We’re used to looking for specific things in specific places.

But in the realm of wonder spotting, the trick is to broaden that view. While you might not, at first, be able to see the happening or the critter itself, the effect it has on its surroundings just might give it away.

For example, I’m canoeing in a murky, six-inch-deep backwater. I can’t see the hulking, five- to ten-pound carp darting here and there as my canoe disturbs their affairs. But if I open up my focus, what I can see are the fish’s wakes subtly mounding the water’s surface like so many torpedo trails.


Or, let’s say I’m trying to spot a leopard in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. If I’m looking just for a large, tawny, dappled cat, I’ll most likely look in vain. But when I take the specifics of color and pattern out of the equation and simply look for a break in the normal pattern of low tree branches, by God, there it is.

The other tip I offer for witnessing more of Nature’s flashes in the pan involves attitude. There’s a big difference between hoping for wonder and expecting it. I love former Nat. Geo. photographer Dewitt Jones’s turn of a phrase: “You gotta believe it to see it.”

 A little humility makes one so much more powerful.

THE EPIPHANY OF OUR AGE
I suppose all of this offers a valuable lesson on the impermanence of just about anything in life. Of life itself.

In fact, if we’re able to step back from our narrow presumptions, diffuse our focus and view things in the context of everything else, of eternal time and fathomless space, the importance of our own existence diminishes. Only then can we experience true wonder. Only then can we see that from the Universe’s perspective we ourselves are the ephemeral curiosities.

A little humility makes one so much more powerful.

And that, in this era pitting political leaders’ outsized egos and wimpy backbones against a global pandemic, troubling threats to democracy and impending climate catastrophe, just might prove the epiphany of our age.

* A sailfish’s color is caused not by contact with the air, but by a reaction to stress by the fish’s nervous system. The sail’s spectacular color returns soon after the fish is released.


Sunday, July 25, 2021

LAST LEGS – Giving My All to Walking Tall

On the self-consciousness scale of one to ten, I’m about a six. It’s far from an obsession, but it does enter my mind now and then: How do I look or sound—or smell, for that matter—to others?

But the list of things I’m self-conscious about has seldom included how I walk. Until about my fifties, that is. That’s when putting one foot nicely in front of the other started becoming something I could no longer take for granted.

MY ACHING BACK
I was a jock all the way through college and beyond. In high school, I’d played football for a leathery ex-Marine coach who labeled a sniveling coward anyone who shied from blocking or tackling head-first.


When I was a junior in college, I was in a bad car accident. Most of the damage involved having my face pushed in, but I always wondered if any musculoskeletal after-effects might show up.

Then there was about 20 years of ice hockey. Oh, and flipping 60- to 80-pound canoes up and down from my shoulders—something I’ve kept doing into my mid-seventies.

So, though I suspect none of these factors by itself resulted in significant impairment, together, I’m afraid they stirred up a perfect storm of damage to my poor spine.

TILT!
I’ll never forget the day, about six years ago, when my orthopedic surgeon at Mayo showed me that CT scan of my spine. It wasn’t just a bit worse for wear; it looked like the backbone of someone who’d just jumped off a cliff…and landed on his tail bone.

The surgery alleviated the worst of my referred-pain symptoms, but it could not fix what decades of degeneration had wrought. Alas, the 15-degree sideways S-curve in my spine remains.

Crumbling discs, narrowing nerve pathways, bone-on-bone abrasion. By rights, I should be a cripple…but I’m determined not to look like it. So, of course, I’ve  grown quite conscious of trying to stand straight, walk tall, and not limp.

By the time I knew what was happening I’d already lost the battle between dexterity and gravity.

RUDE AWAKENING
Now that I’m in my mid-seventies, my screwy spine is just part of my posture problem. There’s also the inevitable wear and tear of aging on one’s bones and muscles. Not to mention balance, that precious asset whose denigration is a dead giveaway for old folks and drunks.

(I sometimes wonder, if I ever got pulled over on suspicion of DWI, would I be able to walk the straight line—even if I hadn’t touched a drop? I doubt it.)

That reminds me, I’ve recently had a couple of sobering falls. One time I unknowingly stepped off a curb, and by the time I knew what was happening I’d already lost the battle between dexterity and gravity. 

 
FLATTENING THE CURVE
A few years ago, my wife Sally started pointing out that I slouch. Ever since, I’ve made an effort to suck in my gut, rock my hips forward and pull my shoulders back.

Doing so actually feels pretty good. At first, the resident pain in my lower back eases and I feel younger, stronger. I imagine that Sally’s not seeing me as a stooped old man. After a few minutes, though, it starts to feel like a lot of work. I let go of the effort…and of my short-lived fantasy.

     Every time I pretend the curve’s still there,
     it’s like trying to bend a two-by-four.


I’ve come to realize why standing straight is so hard for me: When most folks rock their hips forward to stand straighter, they’re actually flattening out the smalls of their backs—those inward curves most people have just above their butts.

But after my lumbar spinal fusion I no longer have a small of the back. That surgery, by fusing together the three vertebra central to the lumbar spine, flattened out the curve and rendered it more or less rigid. So every time I pretend the curve’s still there, it’s like trying to bend a two-by-four—one anchored, by the way, by four three-inch titanium screws.

LITTLE BIG MAN
Walking tall is about more than appearances or pride; it’s also a survival strategy.

Some years ago, my friend Silverio and I spent a very late night in a bar on Garibaldi Square, one of Mexico City’s seediest attractions, notorious not just for its glut of mariachi bands, but for its rogues gallery of thieves, beggars and drunks.

As we’re stumbling out of the place in the wee hours, a group of four or five wiry young men approach and start harassing us. All five-foot-eight of Silverio puffs out his chest, swaggers right up to the punks and gets in their faces.

They backed off, opting to look for someone less formidable.

Later, I asked Silverio about the incident. He explained that, growing up in that close-quarters city of 20-million, he’d learned the hard way that stature is about more than height; it’s also about attitude, the way you carry that height.

To this day, when I take our dog, Sylvia, out for her last walk before bed each night, believe it or not I find myself channeling Silverio, aware of exactly what the way I walk says about me and my vulnerability.

        Like my dancer alter ego, I’ll hobble
        as if no one’s watching.


HOBBLING WITH GRACE
Especially to us humans, a spine fit for walking also means freedom. It’s hard to imagine losing that elemental ability to go wherever we want, whenever we want, under our own power.

But lose it we will. Aging and physics assure it. In the meantime, I plan to fight the inevitable at every turn. Can’t walk so well? I suppose I’ll get a brace or use a walker. Still can’t walk? There’s always a wheelchair. (My mom got around pretty well in one till she was 100.)

And what about the self-consciousness? I guess I’m counting on its waning at the same rate as my abilities. Like my dancer alter ego, I’ll learn to hobble as if no one’s watching.

Something I now know that I didn’t when I started writing this post: Consciousness—of others, of Nature, of joy—is just too precious to waste any more of it on how I walk.

“Look outside and you will see yourself. Look inside and you will
find yourself.”
  ~ DREW GERALD