Thursday, December 30, 2010

RECLAIMING WONDER - A New Years Resolution

I believe I'm surrounded by wonders great and small, all the time, wherever I am.

I understand that many of those miracles lie hidden to first glances.

I will open my spirit to wonder. My eyes, my ears, my heart will follow.

I will make time for awareness, curiosity and wonder.

I will turn off the television, put down the book and start looking, learning and living first-hand.

I will decide for myself what entertains me and, more importantly, what nourishes my soul.

I will notice and celebrate the power of presence.   

I will carefully examine the myth of certainty, and value learning more than knowing.

I will be more aware of the miracle of grace that resides around and within every person.

I will shine the light of my own spirit, and will give other people the chance to shine too.

I will try to experience everything as if it were for the first time.

I will approach each day with faith in Nature's instruction, and with gratitude for being Her lifelong pupil.

I will be patient, not just with Nature, but with myself, celebrating small steps in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

THE TRUTH OF SNOW

I've just enjoyed my second metro-crippling blizzard of this young winter of 2010-11. This one, billed as the blizzard of the decade, has just left cocksure Boston speechless.

It's been an opportunity for me to try on, once more, the baggy coat of acceptance, a garment whose fit depends on not its own but the wearer's measure.

I'd spent Christmas with my daughter and her family at the home of her in-laws in Maine. My flight home from Boston was scheduled to leave Monday afternoon. When I heard the storm was plowing its way up the coast, I decided to drive down Sunday and beat the monster.

I chose not to fear nor curse the uncertainty, but to look deeply into it, marveling at the darkness of so much white.

The strategy didn't work. By the time I hit Portland, I was right in the face of the blizzard. Crawling down I-95, I felt as much as steered my way through the whiteout, nudged by gusting crosswinds. The ghostly tail lights of the semi in front of me became my guide and my meditation. I chose not to fear nor curse the uncertainty, but to look deeply into it, marveling at the darkness of so much white.


Monday morning, safe at my daughter's home in Boston, my reverie lapsed into frustration when Delta told me they wouldn't rebook that afternoon's canceled flights until Thursday or Friday, even though I knew thousands of people would be taking off from Logan Tuesday. The bile of indignation welled in my throat when the agent implied that, by not being willing to consider an alternate airport for departure—like Philadelphia—I was being inflexible. I was getting angry and I didn't like it.

I swallowed hard, trying to unclench my right to be in control. I told the woman I realized this wasn't her fault and hung up. I considered whether this was any more a personal affront than the blizzard itself had been. I realized the situation simply was what it was, that, in fact, it was no more or less than exactly what it was meant to be. I made up my mind I would enjoy it.

I realized the situation was no more or less than exactly what it was meant to be.

With this conversion from combatant to observer, I found my fate curiously changed. My very next try—this time unencumbered by expectation—rewarded me with a new flight where none had been available just minutes before, a flight not on Thursday or Friday, but Wednesday.

What I could easily have seen as an ordeal, I've embraced as a bonus, an unexpected two-day extension of my Christmas vacation. I've marveled at the beauty of all this snow. Though my daughter's still in Maine, I've enjoyed spending time in her lovely home. I've bonded with Cleo, her cat. I've read, watched a good movie and slept late. I've walked her daily route into town and enjoyed a leisurely latte at her favorite coffee shop, sitting next to the display of her handcrafts on the wall. And I've discovered that an extended texting conversation with her, despite— or perhaps because of—the sparing choices of words and abbreviations, can be warm and witty.

And I've written this. This too is a wonderful gift, a gift that derives from nothing more than the way things fall and swirl, like so many exquisite snowflakes, in this matrix where intention, acceptance and possibility intersect.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

SEASON'S GREETINGS!

I may be without a computer for a few days, so I want to wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—34 countries so far—the very best of this season. For us Christians, that means MERRY CHRISTMAS! (para mis hispanohablantes amigos, ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!) For all of us here in the northern hemisphere, it's (a couple of days ago) HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE! 

Whatever your celebration, may these days be kind to you, your families and your loved ones!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

SHOW & TELL – The Lost Art of Conversation

Remember Show & Tell from grade school? What a great way to give a kid the chance to be an expert at something. Apparently some people enjoyed it so much that it forever shaped their notion of social intercourse.

With all the get-togethers of the holiday season, you won't have to look far to find them. They're the ones still showing and telling, to the exclusion of looking and listening. It's easy to spot their "conversations;" just look for the asymmetrical body language: the talker fully engaged, perhaps leaning slightly into the effort; the "listener" turned slightly away, avoiding eye contact, inching ever-so-slightly backward. Notice the furtive glances, the barely believable excuses to get away.

Want to say something? Fine, as long as it's about me!

My wife and I refer to this as the "And You?" caper. Its perpetrators, many of whom, for their education and upbringing, should know better, seem to assume they're so interesting that no one else could possibly have anything to say. If not for curiosity, at least out of common courtesy, is it so hard to summon those two simple, gracious words of transition: "And you?"

Apparently it is, since, as we've found, this condition is extremely widespread. As long as you keep showing an interest in them, they'll keep showing and telling. And, though a few might occasionally let you interject an experience or opinion of your own, most are deft at swinging the focus right back around to where they
want it.

     I like to see if it might dawn on them that 
     I know all about them and they don't even 
     know where I'm from.

I feel sorry for the show-and-tellers of this world. The whole time they're wracking their brains for more of themselves to bestow on me, they're unable to take anything in. They miss what's going on around them. They miss the possibility that they might learn something from me, that we might share an interest or even become friends.

Some might say these folks are just being honest, that they're indeed simply not interested in me or anything I do. They don't have to be. But come on, don't take me prisoner! Maybe I'm not that interested in them either, but at least I'm giving them the chance to engage me. If they can't reciprocate, I wish they'd come up with their own lame excuse not to talk, instead of forcing me to do so.

      Oh, I'm sorry; I've been going on and on.

I'll admit it's condescending, but I've devised a couple of defenses against the more aggressive show-and-tellers. The first—surely the more compassionate—is to turn from enabler to observer. If they insist on showing and telling, by God I insist on looking and listening. I keep responding curtly, but I study their face, looking for those little cracks that reveal their insecurity.

I note the way they take a quick breath at the end of a sentence so I won't have time to interrupt their train of self-promoting thought. Then, after they've gotten used to the rhythm of my asking and their telling, I'll just stop priming the pump.

I just stand there in silence, sometimes for ten or fifteen seconds. I like to see if it might dawn on them that I know all about them and they don't even know where I'm from. It rarely does.

My other tactic is far more direct—perhaps more honest. I resort to it only when all else fails and I have nothing to lose. I feel bad afterward, but the satisfaction far outweighs the guilt. I wait for the slightest sign of interest in me. Nothing. I execute the pregnant pause technique; still they're unfazed. I try every dialect of body language.

If they're still pontificating I simply break in and say, "You don't have the slightest interest in me, do you?" Usually—and I take this as the ultimate confirmation of my assessment— the person walks away indignantly. After all, the only other option for a polite, caring person would be to ask me what I mean. And that, apparently, is not allowed in Show & Tell.

Oh, gosh, look at me; here I've been going on and on. What do you think?

"But enough about me. Let’s talk about you; what do you think about me?"FROM THE 1988 FILM, BEACHES – ADAPTED FROM THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY IRIS RAINER DART 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #6
Just when you think you've seen something interesting, 
keep watching for another 30 seconds.

Photo by Artequa – http://www.flickr.com/photos/puntodevista/with/118666362/

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

ARE WE HAPPY YET? – Knowing How Much Is Enough

As the holidays approach, with their propensity for expectations and excess, do you sometimes yearn for a simpler life, one in which small miracles get noticed? One where your schedule leaves room for spontaneity? A life of humility and gratitude? This popular little parable about knowing happiness when you see it bears repeating:


An investment banker stood at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow-fin tuna. The banker complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The fisherman replied, “Only a little while.”

The banker asked him why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish.

The fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The banker then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, and stroll into the village each evening, where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”

The investor scoffed, “I'm an Ivy League MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and, with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, and eventually you'd have a whole fleet of fishing boats.”

    Do you sometimes yearn for a simpler life, 
    one in which small miracles get noticed?

The investor continued, “And instead of selling your catch to a middleman you'd then sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You'd control the product, processing and distribution! You'd be able to leave this simple village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York City, where you'd run your expanding enterprise.”
 

The fisherman asked, “But how long will this all take?” to which the banker replied, “Perhaps 15 to 20 years.”

“But what then?” asked the fisherman.

The banker laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you'd announce an IPO, sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You'd make millions!”

“Millions. Okay, then what?” wondered the fisherman.

To which the investment banker replied, “Then you could afford to retire in style. You could move to a small coastal fishing village where you'd sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you'd sip wine and play guitar with your amigos.”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

BLACK & WHITE – And Other Shades of Gray


One of my first college studio art assignments was to create an 8-inch by 8-inch paper collage, each of whose 64 one-by-one squares was black. The squares could actually be taken from any sheet source—paper, fabric, plastic or any other material—as long as each one was pure black.

I used all of these materials, including many samples taken from magazine photos of black objects: a car, a dress, a night sky, a piano.

With my grid lightly penciled in and my little squares neatly stacked, I started gluing them all down to the cardboard base.

     If you see anything as black or white—
     as purely one way or the other—you're not 
     looking carefully or thoughtfully enough.

What took shape was not a solid sheet of "black." Far from it. It was an elegant mosaic of deep, rich colors, each brought out only by its contrast with its neighbors. What might have seemed common black in its original, unchallenged environment now shone with distinct color: eggplant, mahogany, claret, midnight blue; deep woods green, ebony.

And it wasn't just the hues; a range of textures came into play too. Even the blackest value rendered on newsprint now looked dull and flat next to a sample printed on glossy magazine stock. A square of black muslin paled next to, of all things, a swatch of black plastic garbage bag.

The second part of the "Black & White" assignment was to do exactly the same thing with "whites." Suffice it to say the results were every bit as surprising and beautiful as those with the "blacks."


       I'd already learned that truth comes only 
       in shades of gray; now I was thinking, if 
       only it were that simple.

This project left an indelible impression on me. It reinforced my nascent understanding that, at least in terms of color, everything is relative. It illustrated what we'd been learning about color theory, specifically that perfect white comprises all colors, while perfect black is the absence of color. And that any but the truest black owes its hue to some color it's not absorbing, while shades of white fail to reflect all colors.

On a more philosophical level, the exercise reminded me that there are no absolutes. I'd already learned that truth comes only in shades of gray; now I was thinking if only it were that simple.

In life, as in art, things you might think plain at first prove to be rich with nuanced beauty and meaning. If you see anything as black or white—as purely one way or the other—you're not looking carefully or thoughtfully enough. For the fact is, in triumph or defeat, in health or disease, in agony or ecstasy, there always exist undertones of the opposite.

Isn't this what makes life so interesting? Do you find, as I do, something reassuring and hopeful about it? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

(For a fascinating look at subtle distinctions of color, check out this fantastic color visualization tool)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #89
In the Thick of Thin Air

Stand five or six feet away from a sink heaped in fresh soap suds; blow toward the bubbles; watch and listen.

"The air surrounding Earth weighs more than 5,600 trillion (5,600,000,000,000,000) tons!"
   BigSiteofAmazingFacts.com

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

BUBBLES

When I was a kid, I loved to play with the Prell shampoo. The clear, emerald-green stuff came in a transparent tube. I adored the depth of that color. More than that, I loved the pocket of air. When I turned the tube upside down it would start rising slowly through the honey-thick goo, taking on the typical globular shape of a bubble—but with one difference: because the medium was so thick, its trailing edge was drawn out into a point, like a water drop just before it breaks free, only inverted. How amazing, I thought, that Prell could make not just the wispy, ephemeral bubbles we expect from soap, but these thick, plodding, ponderable
ones too.

I also remember staring into my dad's beer glass, transfixed by those little strings of bubbles that appeared out of nowhere and danced around through the amber. I'm still fascinated.

www.derekgulden.com - Used with permission

Is there any one of Nature's little wonders more sublime than a bubble? Think of the soapy kind kids blow with those little plastic wands. Like sheer 3-D kaleidoscopes, their colors shimmer and flow. And have you ever made a really big bubble hoop out of rope or a coat hanger? Once you figure out how to get the right amount and rate of air to balloon the soapy film without breaking it, you can produce bubbles so big they undulate as they drift away, writhing to find their roundness.

...you can produce bubbles so big they undulate as they drift away, writhing to find their roundness. 

Not all bubbles are so whimsical; just ask divers. If they ascend too fast, the nitrogen dissolved in their blood can bubble up just like the carbon dioxide in a quickly uncapped bottle of soda.

I'm visited by an uncomfortable little bubble every once in a while. I don't know where it comes from, but it feels like a tiny holdout from a burp, a bubble that finds its way into some little nook in my chest, where it presses on something that doesn't appreciate it. It used to scare me—I thought I was having a heart attack—but now I just wait until it eventually finds its way out the way it was headed in the first place.



Think of all the bubbles we just take for granted. Bread—yes, how do you think it gets that texture? Foam rubber. A wine glass. Rice Crispies. There are even bubbles so small we can't see them. Paints and plastics, as well as lots of other materials, contain millions of microscopic glass bubbles added to extend volume, reduce weight, add strength, resist abrasion and improve flow quality. Bubbles are used in inkjet printing, mining, environmental engineering, medicine, oil production, food science and any number of other industries.

Hombre Viendo al Cielo - Fernando Garrido 2005

My friend, the fine contemporary Mexican painter, Fernando Garrido, uses bubbles as a sort of signature element in his eccentric, magical-realist portrayals of warriors, sages, alchemists, oracles and mystics. The bubbles emerge, in astounding, dripping detail, from the characters’ mouths, through vents in their outlandish headdresses, and sometimes, like those little beer bubbles, from no apparent source. Catching reflections of neon lights or an always-unseen sun, they float through Garrido's scenes, reminding us of the tenuous balance between life's shimmering fullness and its utter impermanence.

How and where do you see bubbles?

"A soap bubble is the most beautiful, most exquisite thing in nature. 
I wonder how much it would cost to buy a soap bubble, if there were only one in the world?"
MARK TWAIN

Thursday, November 25, 2010

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #19
Find Your Moon Shadow















Sun shadows fall heavy on the earth—stark, stretched, hard-edged forms 
so common we barely notice their attachment any more. 

Moon, though, lays down her work gently, subtle shades of black on black. 
She knows her time, working best when facing both earth and sun.
 

Monday, November 22, 2010

UNDER MY OWN SKIN – Story of My Life

There are the two faint blue-black spots—one on the inside of my right forearm; the other, on my right palm just below the junction with my index finger. They reveal the exuberance of youth as much as its vulnerability. An idle child's game of flip-the-pencil and slam-it-between-the-hands. The hope, the dare, was that the pencil's rotation would cooperate. A kind of Russian roulette for the gun-less—and witless. And why two marks? Fool me once…you know how it goes.

   My full weight dropped onto the tail end of his skate blade, 
   driving the cold metal through my breezers and about an inch 
   deep into the soft flesh.

My scars speak of more consequential exploits. My left buttock bears the emblem of my initiation to ice hockey. I'd clumsily executed my first body check. I felt so powerful, so superior, standing over my victim as he lay face down on the ice. As I turned to find my next conquest, my own skates brought me back down to earth—or, I should say, ice.

My full weight dropped onto the tail end of his skate blade, driving the cold metal through my breezers and about an inch deep into the soft flesh. That scar recorded, for all time, the exact shape of a cross-section of that kid's skate blade and the round tube it was welded to.

Other scars bear witness to even more painful lessons learned. The one in the soft arch of my right foot recalls my running, carefree and barefoot, through long grass and landing squarely on one of those solid cast iron rakes, its rusty three-inch tines penetrating to the bone. Tetanus shots are no fun either.


The one starting on my lower lip and running down my chin is a celebration of my surviving a serious car crash—a full frontal, 50-mile-an-hour collision with a tree during my college days. My parents had always warned me against hitchhiking.

Nowadays the stories my skin tells are kinder and gentler. Over the years, my veins have seemed to rise out of the protective furrows they once occupied in my flesh. Sitting now on top, they swell up like so many mole tunnels, as if the blood will meet less resistance there. Through the ever-thinner, more translucent veil that covers them, they look so vulnerable, getting bigger and bluer by the day.

PharaohHound via WikiMedia Commons
Time's been pretty good to my face. Sure, parts of it have yielded to the insistent pull of gravity, but, thank goodness, not so much to that of stress. I notice it mostly in that second pair of eyelids that have formed just above my original ones, threatening to envelop them, and a few pleats of extra skin running down my neck.

I'm glad I don't have too many other wrinkles. (My dad used to say about someone with lots of wrinkles, "He has a face like a map.") Maybe I should travel more.

What kind of stories do your skin tell?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

NO ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE – Eating Like You Mean It

Have you ever watched people eat? It’s really fascinating. Next time you’re in a restaurant, find someone at a nearby table you can observe without being too obvious. Count the number of times he or she chews a bite of food before swallowing it. You may be surprised.

You’ll find a few over-achievers like me who chew, try to talk a little without opening their mouths too far, chew some more, maybe take a sip of wine, chew yet again and then swallow. What, maybe 15 or 20 chews? But I think you’ll see many more who look for all the world like eating is absolutely the last thing they want to be doing.

I’ve observed many, many people—both men and women—who chew every mouthful only once or twice before swallowing it. And we’re not just talking soup here. Even inch-thick chunks of steak end up being swallowed nearly whole. One chew, swallow; say a few words; another forkful, chew, chew, swallow. Hell, why not just take your nourishment in a pill?

       Eating without chewing is like standing 
       on the rim of the Grand Canyon with your 
       eyes closed.

Eating without chewing is like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon with your eyes closed. Enjoying an unhurried meal appeals to every one of our senses. I’m certainly no connoisseur, so it doesn’t take fancy cooking to please me. But I know good food when I taste it and appreciate the dining experience on many levels. Whether it’s a burger and shake or sake-poached prawns with rutabaga confit, I enjoy every nuance of presentation, taste and texture. Not to mention the good conversation a leisurely meal so often nourishes.



THE GREAT GRILLED CHEESE AND HOT DOG SCAM
When I was growing up, I don’t remember ever being given the choice of whether or not to eat my vegetables. My brother and I ate what was served. Simple, balanced meals and a sense of food adventure were part of our family culture.

I have to marvel at the little co-dependencies I see played out in so many American families today. Parents start their enabling by asking their kids what they want to eat. Are you kidding me? The kids—having picked up the no-vegetables! mantra from friends and/or media—inevitably make poor choices. Worse yet, some parents don’t even ask; they just assume their kids won’t eat anything that’s good for them, and then fulfill their own prophecy. This little scam is further reinforced by the kids’ friends and their parents, and restaurants, which apparently figure the only thing a kid’s ever going to want is a grilled cheese sandwich or hot dog. And we wring our hands at the epidemic of childhood obesity!

So, next time a server brings your meal and says "Enjoy!" take him at his word!

Friday, November 12, 2010

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #50
Ghostly Geese

These late fall nights, keep your ears open for what may sound like a crowd of people chattering in the distance. If you look up, you might see the hundred-strong "V" of migrating geese, two thousand feet up, dimly lit against the blackness by ambient earthlight.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

IS IT JUST ME? – My Boquete Epiphany

I'm in the sweet little mountain town of Boquete, Panama for two weeks, part of my quest to experience more of life and chase my elusive dream of Spanish fluency, whatever that is. Trips like this are always eye-openers for me. I get to see how the vast majority of earthlings live, and, recently, how the roiling confluence of that lifestyle with the relentless current of the new "world culture," so long on aspiration but so short on patience, is affecting their simpler, purer—some would say more sustainable—traditions.

But this trip is already proving to be more than merely instructional. Just this morning I had an epiphany.

Habla Ya, the fine Spanish school I'm attending, arranged for me to stay with a local family. Señor Guillermo Bell Miranda is a coffee farmer, working the land atop the steep cerro just behind his home. He and his extended family couldn't be nicer or more generous with their home, their time and their help with my Spanish. Nonetheless, I had just two requirements for my lodging: a bed at least six feet long, and WiFi (so I can keep up with my commitment to regular posting here and on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento. (http://elviajerocontento.blogspot.com) With classes taking up most of the day, and the prospect of a few excursions into the gorgeous area surrounding Boquete in the mornings, I was counting on being able to connect with the Internet every evening, in the privacy of my room.

I saw a crystal clear image of Guillermo's and his family's faces when they learned that I'd found their home unacceptable. 

The bed is long enough. But the Internet connection, a sluggish, intermittent, dial-up service, requires  17-year-old Antonio's shoving a well-used CD onto my laptop and installing a huge program.

My reaction to all of this—well within reason, I thought—was to let Lorena, la directora of the school, know that we'd have to find some other arrangement that would accommodate my needs. After all, who's the customer here? Wouldn't anyone in his right mind hold a supplier more or less to the terms of a contract? I assured Lorena that the last thing in the world I want to do is to offend the Bell Miranda family, but work is work.

Just then, another staff member in the office, overhearing our conversation, came over to explain, in what I took as a paternalistic tone, that I couldn't blame the Bell Mirandas nor any average Panamanian family for not knowing all the ins and outs of Internet connections.

My Spanish always collapses to the level of rank beginner when shaken by any degree of emotion. Explaining that to the young man, I let him know, in English and in no uncertain terms, that I wasn't blaming the family at all. And I didn't need to be told that the school's inability to meet my very few requirements was my fault. At this, Lorena jumped in to suggest that they might, indeed, be able to locate another family with WiFi. I reiterated my concern with hurting the feelings of Guillermo and his family with my decision, but she assured me they could explain the situation to the family with minimal offense. So I agreed to that solution and thanked her.

I wondered why I cling so to the illusion that I can control my life.

I retired to the student lounge (where WiFi is available), and started writing about my first couple of days here. I couldn't think straight. Too many feelings plucking at the edges of my concentration. I tried to imagine two weeks at my adoptive family's home with nothing "productive" to do in the evening, especially considering that they all retire by 9:00 or 9:30.

I recalled, from all my experiences in Mexico, how enigmatic Latin American values can seem to a Norteamericano, but how, at some level I've only occasionally been able to embrace, they made sense. Then I saw a crystal clear image of Guillermo's and his family's faces when they learned that I'd found their home unacceptable.

That's what did it. In that split second of clarity, everything resorted itself in my mind. I released my hold on my frustration, disappointment and self-righteousness, and let acceptance and flexibility gently nudge them aside. And, after all that consternation, the answer seemed so beautifully simple. I wondered why I cling so to the illusion that I can control my life.

So now I'll spend my evenings patiently and happily with this kind, generous family. I'll write what I can without access to information and photos. I'll read my book—very slowly, so it'll last the two weeks. Then I'll use my free mornings to get online at school. Self: see how easy that is?

The cosmos wasted no time in rewarding me for my little awakening. For the rest of the morning, as it turns out, in the busy student lounge, I had the chance to meet many of the staff and my fellow students I'd never have met otherwise. And tonight, arriving home after classes, everything seemed different with Guillermo and the family. Was it just me, or can they see the change in my attitude?

Funny, you can read about how to behave gracefully in other cultures. You can learn some of the language and customs. You can try doing in Rome as the Romans do. I know these things, and have wrestled with culture shock before. But, at least for me, it's taken that little extra jolt, that little injection of emotion followed by reflection, for me to actually get it. Now if I can only remember it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

LANGUAGE QUIRKS – When a Few Words Are a Scream

For one who appreciates nuance, language is a storehouse of little quirks and wonders unto itself. Here are just a few that, since I first noticed them, have continued to fascinate—and occasionally irk—me.

Sometime in the last couple of decades—I'm not sure exactly when, but it seemed to have happened in a matter of just a year or two—the customary greeting one received from a counter person (at a bank or a fast food restaurant, for example) morphed from "Hi, may/can I help you?" or the somewhat more curt "Who's next?" to a lazy hybrid of the two: "Can I help who's next?"

It's not so much that the expression changed that fascinates me, but how it changed. Now I'm no etymologist, but I'm guessing it went viral within a few days of its use by a character on a sitcom. It caught on, and its curious appeal has continued to spread—even to people who should know better.

Here's another quirk that, once you first notice it, you'll seldom make it through a day without hearing. I suspect this one owes its existence to more than just the rapid spread of popular culture; it's just too subtle. It must be something about how our minds work. Consider these two sentences:

       "The problem is that she never got the information in the first place."

       "The problem is is that she never got the information in the first place."

What's the difference? You will almost never hear the first sentence. For some odd reason most people—and I mean almost everyone—will say "is" twice in any sentence of that construction. See if you can train your ear to catch it.

     "Everyone was grabbing for the 
       best deals. It was a real land mine!"

Then there are those hilarious, unintended manglings of common expressions. For years I've been fascinated with malapropisms, the inadvertent, usually humorous, substitution of words which sound like other words—like "He loves to dance the flamingo." (for flamenco).  I've taken a slightly different tack, fixating on how often speakers manage to blend two or more common descriptive phrases. I call them Mixed Monikers. Here are just a few of the many I've heard and jotted down over the years:

In trying to describe how little he trusted something one of his co-workers had said, I think this guy came up with an effective marriage of "flew in the face of reality" and "face the facts":

      "When I heard that, it just flew in the facts of what everyone else knows."

A radio talk show caller, trying to express the urgency of the need to pass a piece of legislation, unwittingly combined "like nobody's business" with "like there's no tomorrow" to produce:

      "They ought to be working like nobody's tomorrow!"

Supermodel and Bravo's Project Runway host, Heidi Klum, describing an occasion in which she was at a frantic loss for words, may have unwittingly merged "gasping for air" with "grasping at straws" when she said:

      "...I was gasping for the right word."

NPR reporter Jack Speer, in describing an especially critical ruling of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court (in the Delphi case), entertained me with this spontaneous intersection between "landmark" and "watershed":

      "It was a watermark decision."

And finally, one of my very favorites:

My mother-in-law, excited to tell us about the deals she'd found at one of those bargain basement sales in which shoppers push and shove their way to bins of discounted items, apparently grafted "Land Rush" to "Gold Mine":

      "Everyone was grabbing for the best deals. It was a real land mine!"

Thursday, November 4, 2010

THE HARDER YOU TRY – Some Things You Can't Make Happen

Life's design is often so much more elegant than our own.

I’ve lived long enough to have had a few misty, fleeting glimpses of ideas that felt like they had something to do with the true meaning of life. While most have proven pretty elusive, one I’m quite sure of is that, no matter how hard you may try, you can’t always make things happen. Some things happen only when you learn how to let them happen.

This concept was captured well in an Esquire magazine illustration I saw and clipped many years ago. It was in two frames. In the first, a man’s head is tightly wrapped in chains. The coarse links seem to bite into his forehead. Gritting his teeth, sweat pouring down his puffy, red face, he strains to break free of his torment.

In the second image, the man’s expression has unclenched. He’s relaxed, serene. The veins in his neck no longer stick out. He’s completely surrendered himself to his situation. And the chain is disintegrating, flying off in jagged pieces.

           Some things happen only when 
           you learn how to let them happen.

The idea was also articulated well in the best-selling The Inner Game of Tennis and its sequels about other sports by Tim Gallwey in the 1970s and 80s. Gallwey said that athletes are born with the capacity for the perfect natural swing, delivery, or whatever the key movement of his or her sport. All you have to do is watch someone who's really good at it, and your brain will capture and subconsciously program those mechanics into its interface with your body.

According to this model, the aspiring athlete's traditional mantras of "Okay, now, keep your eye on the ball; step into your swing; keep the racket head up; and a dozen others can only corrupt that program, that perfect channeling of perfect motion. Trying: no; making: no; letting: yes.

The murky depths of memory

This is certainly the case with memory. How often have you delved, in vain, the murky depths of your brain for some factoid only to have it pop to the surface just after you've given up looking for it? It happens to me all the time, suggesting that the unconscious mind is better able to navigate memory's nooks and crannies than the conscious one.

            Not only is such control overrated; 
            it is an utter illusion.

With each day of this grand adventure of being, I'm learning that this "inner game" of consciousness  serves me pretty well in most aspects of my life—who I am, what I do and how I interact with myself, other people and Nature. Every time I catch myself expecting to be in control, some muse deep within counsels me that not only is such control overrated; it is an utter illusion.

Can you think of times when the harder you’ve tried to make something happen, the less likely it would?

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be."
   LAO TZU

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

(Once a week or so, I post one of the little devices I use to turn down the noise of my busy life and get in touch with what's real and timeless.)

 TIP #69
Study a Map

Did you know there's a part of Virginia that's further west than Detroit? That Hawaii's not the U.S.'s westernmost state? That, almost exactly opposite each other on the globe, lie St. Paul, Minnesota and the French island of St. Paul? That France is shaped like a star? These are just a few of the fascinating little geography quirks you can discover—not to mention reminding yourself where Burkina Faso is.

"Without geography you're nowhere."
   JIMMY BUFFETT

Sunday, October 31, 2010

TEARS FOR FEARS – One Kid's Favorite Halloween

BOO-O-O-O-O!
It says a lot about our way of life, don't you think, that we have to manufacture our own fear. Most of us, our lives free of any real threat, are fortunate to be able celebrate and have fun with fear each October. In that guise, fear lets us revisit childhood, when wonder would turn to horror and then to delight.

My wife's an elementary school teacher. Halloween is her favorite holiday. While her kids were growing up, she delighted in welcoming all the little mermaids, vampires, princesses and Jedi knights at the door of her spookily decorated suburban home. She'd remove the screen/ storm window panel of the outer door so she could pass the goodies right through to the eager little hands, bags and plastic pumpkins.

    The poor little guy lurched backward 
    as if someone had just yanked on a tether 
    tied around his shoulders.
 
I'm not sure Sally realized it, but taking out that panel from the door also served to frame her striking persona each time she swung open the inner door. You see, Sally was also a drama teacher, well versed in makeup. And she made herself into the most convincing witch you've ever seen. She built up her nose and chin into menacing juts, complete with grisly, hairy moles. She gave her skin that greenish, waxy cast, and wore a flowing, solid black gown and fantastic pointed hat. And then there was the voice.

One of her favorite stories from all those Halloweens is that of a little boy who could barely reach the doorbell. He was dressed as a snowman, realistically padded from head to toe. His parents waited for him at the foot of the driveway as he waddled up the seven concrete steps to the door.

Sally was concerned the moment he caught sight of her. The poor little guy lurched backward as if someone had just yanked on a tether tied around his shoulders. Sally quit her screechy witch voice to reassure him, but the damage was already done. "It's okay", she said, holding out the huge bowl of candy to him. He stepped back still further, now just a step away from the stairs behind him.

Sally realized it was no longer about fun, but saving the kid from real harm. So she did what anyone would do; she dropped the bowl and lunged forward, right through that large frame in the door, hands flailing, grasping for some of that white fleece and padding.

Frosty bounced three times before rolling to a stop at the feet of his parents, who'd sprinted up from the street.

He was fine, and he got his treat. But I guarantee you, that young man—by now a thirty-something—still talks about that Halloween.

May you have such a memorable Halloween!

Friday, October 29, 2010

THE SENSE OF SCENTS – Following Your Nose

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousand of miles and all the years you have lived.”
HELEN KELLER

Why are smells so evocative?
Why is it that certain smells abduct us, transport us across years and miles, and drop us
into our mother’s kitchen or a north woods campsite, our grade school classroom or a back street in Rome? What is that power of smell that can animate even the most lethargic of memories?

One reason for smell’s evocative power is that olfaction (smell) is processed in the same part of the brain that handles memory and emotion. So, with those associations close at hand, smells can etch themselves into our memories in ways other sensory input might not.

We recall smells far more accurately and much longer than we recall visual stimuli. Come to think of it, even touch, the one sense you’d think might best capture and recall emotion, falls far short. While it’s certainly a powerful communicator at many levels, touch is a more immediate sensation, not known to plant the kind of mnemonic triggers that smell does.

One of my earliest, fondest memories is of the way my dad’s hands and face smelled just after he’d shaved. I realize now that the fragrance of his shaving soap was just one of those triggers, an association which, to this day, recalls the admiration, wonder and love I had—and still have—for my dad.

What smells have that kind of evocative power for you?

As you open your eyes to new discoveries,
remember to open your nose too!
 


For as long as I can remember, I've tried to give smell equal standing with my vision, hearing and touch, as a tool for discovery and wonder. When I pick up an odor I don't recognize, I try to find out what's causing it, where it's coming from. I explore and savor the beauty of smell, whether it's the surprising scent of the invasive buckthorn's nearly invisible flower, the rich, complex aroma of decaying leaves or the clean, sweet smell of fresh snow.

And I respect smell, as I do my other senses, for, once in a great while, kindling wonder, breaching that fine membrane that separates the sensory from the spiritual.

Yes, they do smell different. Would sleeping dogs lie?
There's a whole world of fascinating smells out there, awaiting our discovery. Some of them might  surprise you: lady bugs (especially when they're threatened);  sleeping dogs (yes, dogs smell different when  they’ve been sleeping); any number of unlikely plants; and even people.

Have you ever held a baby (one that doesn’t need changing) who doesn’t smell good? With adults, there seems to be a bit more variety. I’ve found we smell different not just because of varying personal hygiene habits or perhaps brands of fabric softener, but also by nationality—I assume due to our varying diets.

And we now know that, without our even realizing it, we humans—just like our fellow creatures—give off pheromones, subtle smells which can serve as powerful attractants to those with sympathetic receptors. (So that's why I'm feeling this strange attraction to you as you read this!)

As you open your eyes to new discoveries, remember to open your nose too!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

CYBER-WONDER – Digging for Virtual Treasure

Have you ever dug in the ground for anything? Maybe you were just a kid playing pirate, reclaiming your buried treasure. You might have delved for shards of history where pioneers once settled. Or perhaps you were following the urgent cues of a metal detector. Well, if so, you know the wonder of discovery.

Since I posted my first reflection on One Man's Wonder just over three weeks ago, that's what it's felt like for me as I've watched the world—yes, the world—begin to take notice. Both the writing (which, by design, is about curiosity and discovery) and the process of posting and promoting the blog, have felt very much like digging for something valuable—not knowing at all what I might find—and then coming upon one little surprise after another.

Of course we're nowhere near the kind of numbers the top bloggers get, but in just these few weeks:
  • We're closing in on our first 1,000 page views
  • We've gotten a number of contributions from visitors, both comments and a nice guest author post
  • We've reached readers from 15 countries on four continents
That last one just floors me. It's like I'm digging my little hole, with my own little hands, and suddenly realize I'm breaking through to King Tut's tomb!

Getting people to visit OMW is one thing; getting them to subscribe and to participate is another. I'll do my very best to make sure the content warrants that kind of following. Thank you for your interest and support!

Monday, October 25, 2010

AURA FIXATION – Unwrapping Presence

 
When you're in a crowd, do you ever find yourself fixating on just one of the many strangers you see? This happens to me all the time. I'm at a party, in a restaurant or watching a sporting event. There may be hundreds of people all around me, but one of them, of all those anonymous beings, will just absolutely fascinate me.

      Does who we are determine what we choose
      to see, or does how we see actually change
      what is?

Just this morning I was having breakfast with a friend, and pointed out a waitress who intrigued me. He didn't see it, and asked me if it was some kind of sexual chemistry I was picking up on. No, it's not that, I explained. But I do think it's about beauty, albeit seldom the kind you'd see on the surface.

Normally, you probably wouldn't look twice at most of these people. It's more like fleeting glimpses of something extraordinary I see shining through those otherwise ordinary façades. Most often, it's just a way of smiling, moving or interacting with other people. Sometimes I picture it as a sort of inner light that radiates from them.
  • There was a kid on my stepson's little league baseball team. He wasn't especially big nor good looking. But the way he moved to pick up a ground ball and throw it to first base was so natural, so pure, that I couldn't stop watching him. He had, at the age of ten, a degree of that intensity and self-assurence  you see in some professional athletes—the Michael Jordans, the Derrick Jeters, the Roger Federers. I hoped he'd grow up using that charisma for good.
           She had the refinement of old money, 
           but without the damage.
  • A 17- or 18-year-old girl who was sitting in front of me at a children's piano recital had an unusual radiance. I picked up on it even though I never saw more than the back of her head and an occasional profile. What was it, the way she encouraged her little brother—one of the performers? Or was it was how she looked at, and listened to, her parents, seated on either side of her. It struck me that she had the refinement of old money, but without the damage it so often inflicts. From those few impressions, I felt I could see the kind of life she would lead. And, while a bit disconcerting, I found that inkling, more than anything, reassuring.
  • I was on one of those "chicken buses" in rural Guerrero, Mexico. A heavy-set, plain-faced, 30-something woman got on at Los Achotes and sat across from me. Something about her just caught my eye. Maybe it was just the careful manner of her dress. But the more I looked—trying not to be too creepy—the more I could tell that her surface beauty went deep. I could see it in her posture and in her eyes. I'm sure this woman had experienced her share of the unrelenting challenges facing most poor Mexican women. It wasn't just that she wore that abrasion well; somehow she'd managed to gild it—she shone that brightly.
Impressions like these visit me almost every day. A skeptic might say they derive, not from the people I'm looking at, but from some need I have to see them that way. But does it make any difference?

Does who we are determine what we choose to see, or does how we see actually change what is? Or could both be true? What do you think? I'd love to hear your comments!

Friday, October 22, 2010

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

(NEW! -- Once a week or so, I'll post one of the little devices I use to turn down the noise of my busy life and get in touch with what's real and timeless.)

 TIP #12
Once in a while, look up.

You'd think this would be a no-brainer, wouldn't you? But, if you're at all like me, it's like breathing. You take it for granted; you forget that, occasionally, it needs your attention. Haven't you ever concentrated so much on something—you know, that body-and-soul concentration where you shut out everything around you?—that you realized you'd been forgetting to breathe?

Well, it's the same thing with looking up. We get so focused on what's right in front of our noses, or what's going on inside our heads, we forget that, of the 360-degree reach of our vision, about half of it—with all its wonders of wisp and wing, billow and beam—lies above eye level.

"A find is a terrible thing to waste."
   WITH APOLOGIES TO UNITED NEGRO COLLEGE FUND

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

DEEP CONVERSATIONS – The Wonders of Fishing

I’ll never forget the first time I went fishing. It was at Peter Pan, a little summer camp my parents sent me to when I was about seven or eight. I caught a sunfish from the dock. Its bright, exotic colors and patterns captivated me. It was cool and slimy. It smelled funny but good—sort of earthy and spicy. It wanted very much to get away and used its spiky dorsal fin to make its point. I got it, and it hurt. There was a little drop of blood.

For the impression it made on me, that little bluegill might as well have been a space alien. Ever since that day, I’ve found fishing to be about the most fascinating, beautiful, peaceful thing I do. If ever there were an activity that’s all about discovery, patience and appreciating details, this is it. But perhaps more than any of these qualities, I think it's the mystical dimensions of fishing that hooked me.

If there’s something down there in that cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends you a message through the line. 

You throw a morsel of food deep into a hidden, alien world, connected by a thin filament held between your fingers. Then you wait. If there’s something down there in that cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends you a message through the line. Is it a kind of fish you’ve caught a hundred times before or one you’ve never seen? Is it big or small? Is it even a fish at all, or maybe an eel or turtle?

The clues might come in the form of cautious nibblings or a reckless attack. The creature might pull on the line or it might carry the bait toward you, slacking the line. Some fish gingerly gum the bait to see if there’s anything that doesn’t taste or feel right. Some grasp the bait between their lips, run a few feet and drop it—I guess just to see what happens. Others greedily gobble up the bait and run as fast as they can with it, perhaps chased by rivals.

THINKING LIKE A FISH

Besides the cryptic quality of that connection to another world, fishing is full of opportunities to observe and explore. One of the first rules of the sport, for example, is that, if you want to catch fish, you have to think like a fish.

Look at the water. At first, maybe it just looks like water. But, on closer inspection, you’ll notice the way a current eddies after it flows past a point, or wells up over a submerged log. You can check out a lake map or just use your anchor to find out where there’s underwater structure—drop-offs, rock piles, sand bars, etc.—where fish like to rest or lie in wait for prey.

Sometimes you’ll see minnows jumping, scattering frantically as they flee a hunting game fish. If you wonder what bait to use, look for what’s already there. (Fly-fishermen are the masters of this art, tying their artificial flies to replicate the insects they’ve seen the fish eating.) For fish that don’t feed so visibly, some fishermen will dissect one they’ve landed to see what’s in its stomach.

More rabid fisherman than I invest in all sorts of high-tech gear to help them find the fish: global positioning systems, sonar, even underwater cameras. (Now there’s a trick that takes the last shred of guesswork out of the sport!) Call me a purist, but I still love the mystery of not knowing exactly where the fish are.

Monday, October 18, 2010

SEEING GENEROUSLY

At first glance, vision may seem like a simple one-way transaction. We open our eyes. An image goes in and gets processed by the mind. If it's something important, it may move us to feel or do something, or it gets stored somewhere for future reference.

In fact, it's easy to think of all our senses like that—merely taking in sensations. But it doesn't have to be that way. Consider touch. I mean we generally see, hear, taste or smell anonymously—without any involvement of the thing we're sensing. But when we touch something, it always, automatically, touches us back. Until recently, I thought touch was the only one of our conventional senses that could
do that.

As soon as you begin to let go of objectives and schedules, turn 
off the cell phone and truly notice, something begins to change. 

Wouldn't it be wonderful if seeing were more like touch? It's hard to imagine, because we've gotten complacent in our seeing. We expect to find our images delivered effortlessly to us on screens, often while sitting alone or at least in our own little worlds. With virtually no contact with the actual things depicted on the screen, it's kind of a sad exercise in anonymity.

This consumption mentality of seeing affects even the way we perceive real stuff. For example, we seem to prefer looking at things we already know. Like so many TV re-runs, their familiarity soothes us, keeps us company, actually turns off our minds. Nothing's really new. We give nothing, we invest nothing and, one could argue, we get nothing.

So what is seeing generously? What does it look like?

Is our seeing all it can be?

It may happen unconsciously. Let's say you're looking at something—an animal, a sunset, another person. If, at that moment, your mind has its foot on your spirit, you won't be especially moved. But as soon as you begin to let go of objectives and schedules, turn of the cell phone and truly notice, something begins to change.

When we see things in this way, we grow, our consciousness grows and the world becomes a more mindful, loving place.

At first, it may be just small increments of investment, feelings like appreciation or satisfaction. That's okay; it's a start. But then, if you can allow yourself to be curious, the way you were naturally when you were a child, the transaction starts to truly transform. Now your seeing's become a gift, not just to yourself, but to the person or thing you're curious about. When we see things in this way—not just with our eyes, or even our mind, but with our heart and our spirit—we grow, our consciousness grows and the world becomes a more mindful, loving place.

Have you ever noticed the way a person lights up when the conversation turns from the typical self-promoting, cocktail party chatter to genuine interest in something that really matters to that person? You know, when "Me, me, me…well, enough about me. What do you think about me?" turns to "What about you?"  When we see someone that way—or when we wonder at one of Nature's miracles—that's a blessing we give to that person, that creature or that thing.

That is how seeing generously looks and sounds.

Do you see generously? I'd love to hear about your ideas and experiences!

Friday, October 15, 2010

HOW YOU CUT IT – The Baffling Apple Stem Mystery

There remain very few things I haven't either figured out or decided I don't need to figure out. This doesn't mean I'm not still curious, though. In fact, it's precisely because I'm so curious that I manage to figure out how things work. But here's one that continues to baffle me, one I seem unable to let go of or put into the "Take it on faith" compartment of my brain.

At least once a week I bring an apple to my office as my mid-afternoon snack. This time of year, with the profusion of fresh Honeycrisps™ and Sweet Tangos™, it's more like three or four times a week. Often, when it's a really big apple, I'll cut it in half and make it last two days.

The only knife I have in my office drawer is a "disposable" plastic one I've had for years—you know, the kind people bring on picnics. It's black, a little sturdier than those gossamer white ones you get at fast food joints. Were it not for the serrations, it wouldn't even penetrate the skin of any respectable apple.

Can you help me get to the core of this mystery?

So when I cut my apples in half, I resort to a sort of stabbing motion more than sawing. It's all I can do to get the blade through the firm fruit without breaking it and having the jagged end plunge into the exposed veins and tendons on my wrist. For some reason I've always started by turning the apple over, cutting from the bottom, with the stem side down. As I push down, the clumsy knife bends, binds and wobbles; I try to keep the cut more or less in the middle. But, really, I don't try all that hard.

Now, since I started noticing what happens—some four or five years ago—I'll bet I've cut at least 100 apples this way. And—I kid you not—somewhere around ninety of them, after that last satisfying crunch of separation, have fallen apart with not just their flesh, but their stems precisely split in half.

Is this as amazing as I think it is? Isn't it kind of like doing needlepoint with a nail, or, I suppose more aptly, William Tell's having to split the apple on his son's head using a child's dime-store bow and arrow set?

Seriously, if anyone out there knows why this happens, I'd be grateful for an explanation. And—even better—if you've experienced something like this, I'd love to hear about it. If there are enough to make a follow-up post, I'll share them with the blogosphere.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

REAL BOOKS IN THE AGE OF VIRTUAL PLEASURE

Today I welcome, as a guest author, Carole Kitchel Bellew, Managing Director of Bunker Hill Publishing, whose catalog of thoughtful, well-made books resides in Piermont, New Hampshire, and at BunkerHillPress.com. She wrote this appreciation for that web site.

In my opinion, a, e-book on an e-reader is like eating canned vegetables: lacking in nutrients. Well, maybe not exactly, but all of these e-reader/e-book gizmos excite me just as much as tinned legumes do, and I have avoided consuming them most of my life. I’ve always wondered: do movies and television replace live theater? Does having a good workout on your Nintendo Wii™ replace playing a game of outdoor tennis? Does tuning into an iPod replace a live concert? Will new technologies overwrite those on which they are based? I don’t think so, and I truly believe they never will.

Books, especially the kind we produce here at Bunker Hill Publishing, will always have an appreciative audience; the enjoyment of them goes way beyond the tracking of one’s eyes back and forth across the image of a page on a screen. Holding a book brings a rush to the senses, from the weight of it in your hands to feel of the spine to the hot-off-the-press smell of a fresh hardcover. I cannot imagine settling down in my well-used reading spot and touch-screening to the first page of my favorite novel.

Holding a book brings a rush to the senses, from the weight of it in your hands to feel of the spine to the hot-off-the-press smell of a fresh hardcover.

If anything, though, I think the quality of physical books is actually going to get better as e-books advance. The increased revenue e-books are already bringing to publishers will give them the ability to produce higher-end books that arguably require printing: Photo collections, illustrated volumes, and children’s literature. I think most of our readers are looking for more than just “something to read.” They want the pleasure of owning a beautiful book, to be able to go back to it time and time again and to feel that it is something to be valued and collected.

For the sake of convenience and probably instant gratification, we have evolved. We have put food in cans, we have put performances in cans, and now we are putting books in cans. But that doesn’t mean the end of making things from scratch, of home-cooked meals, live music, and paper-and-binding publications. In some years we may be reading the collected emails of Jonathan Franzen instead of the letters of Virginia Woolf, but no amount of pixilated Helvetica Regular can replace the fine, emotive marks of a fountain pen. In short, we can still enjoy taking the time and effort to experience the “real” —for lack of a better word— thing, and some of us will never stop.

CAROLE KITCHEL BELLEW
This piece was first posted at BunkerHillPress.com, and is used with the author's permission.

Monday, October 11, 2010

SOUND ACROSS WATER – Listening to the Past

I have this romantic notion in my head about the way sound carries over an expanse of water. The image that keeps coming to mind is that of a central Minnesota lake around the end of the 19th century. It could be any lake—perhaps one that's buoyant in your memory.

 

In my reverie I see families who've come by horse and wagon to spend the long summer afternoon swimming, boating and reveling in the crystal clear waters. Laughter shimmers across the water in small, agreeable waves, eventually washing up on every shore.

As evening draws in around the lake, lovers row aimlessly, never beyond sight of the dock—but lost anyway. By nightfall, most have gone home, but a few campfires wink from surrounding woods. You can practically hear a whisper across the lake.

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

Is it the purity, the utter care-free simplicity of a more innocent time (or at least a time I have the luxury of being able to render with poetic license)? I guess that goes without saying for us slow-it-down, soak-it-in romantics. But there's more to it than that, something about how the mood gets carried in those sounds.

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

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

For me, sound is spatial. I think of the way the great, spreading American elm tree defines the space under and around its huge, fountain-shaped canopy. Like the shade of such a tree, sound involves everything it can reach. If you're a city dweller, it might be the muddled shouts and laughter stirring the thick summer evening air from the baseball diamond a block or two away.

If your neighborhood's a little rougher, it might be less pleasant things. Whatever the source, these sounds—if we let them—draw us in. Whether we like what we hear or not, they connect us, define us, define our community.

LONGING TO BELONG
Imagining once more that idyllic summer evening at the lake, that sense of community is somehow intensified. With no competing noise, the clarity and reach of that laughter, those campfire conversations and lovers' whispers, seems funneled to our ears. They wrap around us. And the symbolism of their having to reach across such a chilling, empty space makes the connection feel all the more intimate.

Maybe that's part of it for me—a longing for community. Don't you feel, sometimes, that we're losing that sense of sharing a beloved place or space, of belonging to one another? That everyone's just in it for themselves?

Perhaps, but—to borrow a visual metaphor—why curse the darkness when we could light a candle? Listening for the vital signs of community doesn't mean we have to live other people's lives nor fix all the world's problems. All we have to do is pay attention, listen with our hopes and our hearts, and care what we hear.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A "CURIOUS" DILEMMA

I've lived most of my life in a curious dilemma. On one hand, I believe in taking life as it comes, accepting people and things at face value, avoiding assumptions and judgment, sparing my experiences the burden of expectation. This has never been easy for me, but, like any valuable lesson, I figure it's worth the effort. In fact, I'm convinced it's one of the prerequisites of happiness.

On the other hand, I am, if nothing else, a curious, analytical person. I notice the subtlest of details—things I pick up on with my conventional senses as well as some I intuit. And when I notice, I automatically want to know more. What's making that sound? Where's this creature going? Why did she say it that way? Even though such delving questions might seem at odds with face-value acceptance, I've learned to give them a nurturing place in my soul, because my quest to answer them nearly always leads to fascination and wonder. These, too, are essential to my happiness.

It is not by my request, but by her invitation that I enter and explore her mystery and miracle.

So how does one reconcile these apparently disparate urges? Can one really appreciate first impressions, yet still crave deeper knowledge? I guess I've always felt the two lived in tandem, merely tolerating each other in a sort of separate-but-equal co-existence. In the past eight or nine years, though, as I've written more and more about such things, I've begun to see them as not so separate after all, but more like two sides of the same coin.

Serenity is the climate it takes for curiosity to flourish. I've gotten really good at turning off the dissonance of a busy day, dismissing others' demands and my own, and opening my heart, my spirit, to the gift of wonder. It's then that an incredible transaction occurs. True to the first of my urges, I invest my attention, surrendering myself to simply what is. Then the curiosity part comes in: What more might there be? That part I see not originating in me, but driven by Nature. It is not by my request, but by her invitation that I enter and explore her mystery and miracle.

So there's no dilemma after all. After decades of self-questioning (and a few counseling sessions here and there), the contentious marriage of a serene soul with an intensely curious spirit seems, at last, to have reconciled. The serenity is my contribution; the curiosity and wonder are Nature's. Nowadays, when I put myself in the right place—both in physical location and in my mind—Nature invariably shows me the way to the right place in my (and her) spirit.