Friday, August 29, 2014

LIFE AS A PALINDROME* – Why We Need Nature Both Coming and Going

My recent work as a hospice volunteer has me thinking more and more about life, and how wonderful it is, regardless of how quickly or slowly it may wind down, that the hospice movement focuses not on the process of dying, but on the process of living until one dies.

The difference may seem subtle, but for hospice patients it is not. One of the reasons I’ve always feared the idea of aging is that, nearly every time I’ve visited
a nursing home, no matter how nice the accoutrements, the residents seem so isolated, so stuck inside those cheesy-art-strewn walls with companions not of their choosing, so unplugged from Nature.

Have you heard this comedy shtick—attributed to several sources—about why life really should be lived backwards?
“I think the most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A death! What’s that, a bonus?
I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work for forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement!
You go to college, you do drugs, alcohol, you party, you have sex, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating…and you finish off as a gleam in somebody’s eye.” **
Isn’t that a wonderful notion? Why can’t life be more like that?

Of course, I can’t help but bring to this reflection my Nature-loving, quasi-pantheist point of view—that we come from Nature and, whether we’re smart enough to stay engaged with her throughout our lives or not, we inevitably go back to Nature.

  We’ve always been here and we always will be.

It's not exactly the scenario laid out in the comedy bit; there, even though that ideal life is reversed, it still has a beginning and an end. The advantage of my truth is that, far beyond our blink-of-an-eye, flesh-and-blood presence here on this blue-
green pinprick of light in the deep black fabric of the cosmos, we’ve always been here and we always will be.

As I suggest in my previous post here, The Stuff of Stars – What Every Human Wants—this amounts to nothing less than immortality. Not the fuzzy going-home-to-God-in-heaven version I was brought up with, but one that’s equally positive and, for me at least, considerably easier to believe.

These days, as the Children and Nature movement and its “Nature Deficit Disorder” diagnosis of screen-bound kids gain traction around the world, it’s easy to believe that Nature is most essential to human beings when they’re young. After all, they say it’s then—mostly before the age of five—that the essential building blocks of a healthy, happy life are laid down. And Nature is, indeed, a master mason.

In the U.S and many other cultures of the “developed” world, we then grow up, we tie ourselves to our work and our homes, and many of us forget what it was like to be one with Nature.

But if we could accept, for a minute, that the end of life is—or should be—the mirror image of its beginning, wouldn’t it make sense that Nature play as big a role in our health and happiness when we’re very old as when we were very young?

Take me outdoors...where Nature can replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

My hospice training urged us volunteers to bring with us to patient visits a “tool kit” of things to read, pictures to look at, music to listen to, perhaps a few games to play. And, depending on my patients’ particular likes, I will have those things.

But the most important device I will bring is the turning of a door knob. For it is only outdoors where all of one’s senses are brought to life at the same time, where a person whose horizon draws near is reassured, not just of being thoroughly in each moment, but of an essential sense of belonging—today, tomorrow, forever.

PHOTO: K. Nelson

I hope with all my heart that this will be the case for me, that when I’m too feeble to easily get out and use my precious abilities to walk and climb and paddle, someone will be kind enough to lend me those capacities. Take me outdoors, with the animals and plants and moving air, where Nature can replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

The end of my life may not be, as the quote imagines, the gleam in my parents’ eyes, but I’m convinced I’ll see a much deeper intent, that of a benevolent universe, welcoming home, after his briefest of visits to this earthly life, one of its own.

* The word “palindrome” comes from the Greek
palin dromo, which means “running back again.”

** This bit has been attributed to George Carlin, Woody Allen, and even Andy Rooney, but there’s a pretty convincing case for its actually having been written (and performed on the
Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the early ’80s) by lesser-known comedian Sean Morey. 

At any rate, I found this a particularly nice version of the life-backwards story, as it is audio-only—allowing one to conjure one’s own imagery. LIVING LIFE BACKWARDS

Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE STUFF OF STARS – What Every Human Wants

The other day one of my Facebook friends shared a video that’s got me thinking like very few social media posts do. It is astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s response to this question from a TIME Magazine reader: What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?*

In brief, what astounds Tyson most about the universe is that every single atom of everything that comprises life on earth—or anywhere else for that matter—originated in certain high-mass stars that exploded some fourteen billion years ago and blasted gas clouds through the galaxy. Every ingredient necessary for life was in those gas clouds, which eventually condensed, collapsed and formed the next generation of planets.

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

At our very core, isn’t this what every human being wants most? To know where we came from; that we’re part of something bigger and more enduring than ourselves or our self-devised institutions; that, in fact, we’re connected—to each other, to all life, to the earth, to all of creation?

             At our very core, isn’t this what  
             every human being wants most?

I suggest that this is why we experience such profound joy, such awe, beholding the Grand Canyon, the birth of our child, or perhaps the rescue of a person or animal from grave harm. This is why I felt my spirit deepen and soar at the same time when a 50-foot Pacific gray whale cow, just twenty feet away from my dinghy, swam under her calf, lifted it gently and pushed it to my outstretched hand.

These wondrous moments are, necessarily, rare. But there are countless smaller, everyday wonders that surround us every day. We knew how to see them and let ourselves be affected by them when we were children, but too many of us have lost that ability. Too much other stuff competing for our attention—distractions, pressures, expectations.

It’s sad enough to see how many of us have lost that innate, childlike sense of wonder, that feeling of belonging, in its deepest, truest sense—to Nature, to each other, to life. But what’s sadder still is seeing how seldom we seem to realize it, or, if we do, how little that bothers us.

Still, the loss must hit home at some level, judging from how desperately we struggle to compensate.

      I’m afraid...we’ve come to actually think 
      that virtual reality is the best we can do.

I’m not about to say that this age of instant gratification, of crowd-sourced truths, of virtual connections, is entirely without redeeming value; that would make me a hypocrite. But the degree and the sheer amount of time consumed by these illusions of “reality” and “connectedness” is nothing short of astounding.

According to Nielsen's annual Social Media Report, in just one month, Americans spend 121 billion minutes on social media sites. That’s more than 230,000 person-years we spend “staring into the glaring screen of so-called sharing”—and remember, that’s just in the United States, and in just one month!

I’m a great believer in the notion that if something looks bizarre or over the top, it’s quite likely more than a fluke; there’s often a good reason for it. In this case, I’m afraid that reason may be that somehow we’ve come to actually think that virtual reality is the best we can do.

It isn’t.

This brings me back to Tyson’s inspiring words. When we hunger for something to inspire us, for a sense of belonging, for a purpose, there will never be a shortage of answers flying up at us from the ten-diagonal-inch screen sitting in our lap.

If all you want is an answer, that’s fine. But for those of us seeking THE answer, that can only be found by turning that thing off and looking up at the stars.
* MOST ASTOUNDING FACT - Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

THE WAY OF DECAY – The Eternal Cycle of Death and New Life

My favorite season is barely half done, and already the signs are there. A few impetuous leaves turn red and yellow. Potted plants grow weary, strangled by their own root-bound legs. Sumac's velvety cobs blush, eager for their time, their raison d'ĂȘtre. Summer, devoured slowly by moss and mold, nourishes a new kind of spring.
               Lives end; life endures.

As if to show its still-lustrous, vibrant kin the glory of the eternal cycle, a shed rhubarb leaf uses every device of color, texture, line and form to say There is beauty and fulfillment where I am going too.

Lives end; life endures.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


My son, Jeff, is 42. He lives about 1,200 miles away, and I haven’t seen him but
for our two or three brief visits a year since his mother and I divorced when he
was four.

Despite my considerable failings as a father, Jeff has grown up to be a smart, creative, principled, loving man. He’s had his share of disappointments and heartaches, but he’s carved out a life that works for him. And, while I may not agree with all the decisions he’s made, I respect them…and him.

          Suddenly, this big, six-foot-two, 42-
          year-old man shrank before my eyes.

When we’re together, as we were for a few days this past week, it’s hard to remember that Jeff is my son. Sure, we share memories from his childhood; I teach him whatever I know that he's still interested in learning; I ask about his life, and offer advice and support when he needs it.

But usually it seems we treat each other more as peers than as father and son. Lots of good-natured give and take—joking, challenging, comparing tastes, the occasional boast.

This visit has been an especially rewarding one. For a quiet man who generally keeps to himself, he seemed to truly appreciate me and all his aunts, uncles and cousins gathered to celebrate Independence Day as a family. And I enjoyed him…
a lot.

Yesterday, I drove Jeff to the airport. We hugged, exchanged I love yous and said good-bye. Then he turned and walked toward the terminal doors. Suddenly, this big, six-foot-two, 42-year-old man shrank before my eyes. All I could see was him as a three-year-old.

My throat tightened and the emotion welled up. At that moment, I saw in him all the beauty, innocence and vulnerability I find in my three-year-old grandson, but which I thought I’d long since lost with Jeff. To be honest, I’m not sure I ever felt quite that same chemistry of tenderness and awe, even when he was that little kid, when he—and I for that matter—needed it most.

      Isn’t that something we all dream of: 
      turning back the clock in every way 
      but for our knowledge?

We parents always seem to learn these lessons too late. During our kids’ tender youth, we’re so overwhelmed with the enormity of our responsibility and so underwhelmed with our own competence and emotional stability that we’re barely holding it together, much less exuding pure patience and love.

Sadly, none of us ever gets a do-over on those parts of parenting we botched as twenty-somethings. Or do we?

I realize Jeff will never again be three. But he will be forty-three, and, give or take a few decades, isn't that as good an age as any to start seeing anew that pure, precious, child-like heart and soul I know still reside at his core? And perhaps be more like the father I wish I’d been so long ago?

This is something I guess all parents—and eventually our progeny—learn: that at some deep, internal level we continue to see them as little children, no matter what their age.

After all, my son is still my son, and I am still his father. God willing, I have some time to know and appreciate him as if I were new to the game—but with the added perspective, patience and wisdom only 40 years can bring. (Isn’t that what we all dream of: being able to turn back the clock in every way but for our knowledge?)

        Try, if you can, picturing them as 
        small, sweet and innocent once again.

My little epiphany has been a blessing, even though it comes late, during the slow, certain ebb of my life. My guess is that many fathers who divorced when their kids were very young never get that chance; some may not recognize it when they do.

Has your relationship with a grown child—or anyone for that matter—grown old? Do you find yourself keeping just a little distance between you, or perhaps taking him or her for granted, because you're both adults? Try, if you can, picturing them as small, sweet and innocent once again. Because deep inside, under all those layers life's woes have heaped on them, they still are...we all still are.

It's not like your time together is suddenly going to transform to true magic. But the way you feel about them just might. If they notice something's different, let's just let the reason be our little secret.

Monday, July 7, 2014


Bless a stranger with your thoughts and deeds.

You know how it feels. Someone you don't know from Adam smiles and offers a kind word; perhaps sees your need, and helps.

Be that kind stranger today; wish a passerby well. Know they might walk in darkness today, but for the light of your being, shared.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


 Aquilegia x hybrida – hybrid columbine  PHOTO: © Copyright 2014 Jeffrey Willius

Like tiny, luminous squids, columbine buds jet through swirling seas of deep green. Catching sight of me, the shy ones demur, blushing pink on palest pistachio green.

An impetuous few turn to face me, then pop open—hoping, I presume, that I am a large, poorly-dressed bee.

I am not, but am drawn nonetheless, to those stunning, bleached-tip amethyst stars; those nestling fans of milk white, cupped to capture dewdrops; those fountains of delicious, lemon-yellow stamens.

Is it possible to be seduced like this, only to be blown away?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

DOWN ON DIRTY KNEES – How a Generation’s Yearning Saves the World

During my children’s generation, kids have grown apart from Nature at an alarming rate. Now, as my grandchildren grow up, the cultural forces driving that alienation have only intensified. It’s only due to parents and grandparents with extraordinarily wise values and priorities—and, I’m sure, a few lucky rolls of the dice—that my grandkids are at least as close to Nature as I was as a child.

But fewer and fewer youngsters are so lucky.

There are lots of us out here working to stem the tide of this children-nature alienation—what best-selling author Richard Louv has so aptly dubbed “Nature deficit disorder.” Many wield voices more articulate and influential than mine.

Louv, in particular, and the international organization he co-founded, The Children and Nature Network, has been most eloquent in dispelling the often-unwarranted fears that cause childcare-givers to rein in their charges’ curiosity and sense of adventure. More importantly, rather than sound yet another gloom-and-doom alarm about the future, Louv and C&NN paint a clear, compelling, positive picture of a world in which Nature is once again an integral part of our everyday lives, whether we live in the woods, on a farm or in the inner-city.

More than words and images alone, the movement has given rise to a groundswell of scientific research documenting both the extent of Nature deficit disorder and its effects on kids’ physical and mental health, happiness, depth of character, ability to learn and many other qualities.

    This hunger of the soul is every bit as real...
    as our hunger for food or our thirst for water.

Louv’s and C&NN’s vision—of Nature beautifully and practically reintegrated into education, health care, architecture and city planning, religion, technology and a dozen other aspects of life—is catching on. How do I know this? First of all, the numbers show it.

C&NN has grown from a handful of campaigns in 2006 to 115 campaigns in North America alone. In the past two years, some 3,000 new Nature- and place-based opportunities for kids to connect with the out-of-doors—things like kids’ community gardens, nature clubs for families, natural play areas, neighborhood parks, school gardens, and trails—have sprouted in areas served by C&NN grassroots initiatives. The number of children engaged in these programs has more than tripled in just two years, to approximately 3,000,000 children annually.

And, with C&NN far from the only organization working to reclaim Nature for coming generations of kids, the movement continues to grow exponentially.

I also know the Children and Nature movement is for real for one less empirical, yet more personally compelling reason.

Every generation has its own aspirations, its own signature yearnings. For my grandparents, it was to find their place and make their mark in the new world; for my parents, to weather the Great Depression and World War II, return to peace and see that their children had the educational and career opportunities that may have eluded them; for me and my wife, to embrace sweeping social changes, raise thoughtful kids and then remain relevant in an ever-faster-moving, technology-driven culture.

    Perhaps the epiphany will come when folks 
    realize how vital to life that sense of belonging 
    is…and how quickly we are losing it.

And here’s where there seems to be a departure. It looks like our children’s generation, while certainly practical and ambitious, may prove to be the first in a very long time to not find themselves better off financially than their parents. While this is troubling, it is far less so than the fact that these young adults and their children may also be less well-off physically, cognitively, socially, emotionally and, I dare say, spiritually, than their parents—in ways research is showing are closely linked with their increasing alienation from Nature.

For this generation the yearning is one they may not yet even realize. Indeed, they feel something; perhaps it’s started with a bit of disappointment that all the miracles of efficiency, speed and connection which technology has availed them somehow haven’t delivered the genuine prosperity they expected. It may be realizing that all this virtual experience parceled out to us by corporations teaches them impatience and engages only one or two of their senses—and those with sadly little nuance or challenge. Or maybe it’s the promise of “connectness” which the Internet and social media have failed to provide in any but the most superficial of ways.

Whether we realize it now or not, these shortcomings are starving us parents and grandparents, as well as our youngsters. These two or three current generations are witness to the first-ever mass disconnect of kids from the out-of-doors, their God-given natural state, at a rate unprecedented since the age of homo erectus some 1.8 million years ago. For all that time, we’ve enjoyed—and usually taken for granted—a deep sense of belonging to special places, ecosystems and climates. Perhaps the epiphany will come when folks realize how vital to life that sense of belonging is…and how quickly we are losing it.

So what? What if we are becoming independent of, and indifferent to, Nature? Is that so bad? The answer lies not just in the kind of research championed by C&NN, but also deep in our hearts and souls.

Everyone yearns for something. Some experience it deeply and allow themselves to be moved by it; others may spurn it as impractical, not to be trusted. I suggest that this hunger of the soul is every bit as real, and serves every bit as vital a role in our survival, as both individuals and as a species, as our hunger for food or our thirst for water.

Like a child’s deep emotional ache for a departed parent, it is not casually soothed or wished away.

When we lack those physical requisites of life, our bodies—in fact, our hard-wired instincts—tell us we should act. If we don’t or can’t, the body amps up the message from Should act to Must act! If we still don’t get the message, the body takes matters into its own hands and begins shutting down non-essential systems.

The same process has been playing out with our craving for Nature, a need that starts, like corporal hungers, deep inside. For those more accustomed to listening deeply, it’s heard as a clarion call, that Must act! admonition, a charge that’s validated every day by conditions and events we can see and hear and feel.

So the reason our longing for Nature is so much more profound is that, unlike some ideal we can only imagine, it is something my generation once knew intimately, but have since lost. Like a child’s deep emotional ache for a departed parent, it is not casually soothed or wished away. We ignore it at our peril.

     We may well be the last to remember what it 
      was like to have Nature be our companion, 
      our teacher our counselor…our world.

Why is it so critical for you and me and others in our generations to recognize that deep yearning we’re all feeling at some level, and to act on it? Because if we don’t, we may well be the last generation to remember what it was like to have Nature be our companion, our teacher, our counselor…our world. The last to whom one’s natural state was playing outdoors, in the warmth of sunlight; in fresh, moist, moving air; in rain and snow and the other miraculous manifestations of water; in the knowing, healing chemistry of rich soil; in the company of other growing, breathing organisms which still know primordial truths.

We’re the ones who have to tell those stories and describe what it was like to spend most of our free time, every day, outdoors in that richly instructive, nurturing, healthy, carefree—not to mention breathtakingly beautiful—realm.

Those sublime places and properties made us smarter, healthier, more thoughtful, more self-aware, more socially adept and a host of other qualities we absorbed naturally and automatically, and that today’s kids enjoy only with considerable extra effort by us, their parents, grandparents and others entrusted with their welfare.

Join me in inspiring more such families, institutions and communities to make that effort. Here's how you can do it:
  • Share this and other endorsements of the Children and Nature movement with your family and friends.
  • Commit to regular connections with Nature for yourself and your family.
  • Start a neighborhood Nature club.
  • Propose integrating Nature into not just your family, but your workplace, your church and other community institutions.
  • Support the Children and Nature Network, where there are links to information and resources to help you, or other children-and-nature organizations.
  • And imagine what a world once again whole with its very heart and soul would look like.