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.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

WHEN AUTUMN LEAVES...

When autumn leaves... You know the rest of the lyric, from that great old standard about the melancholy of this season. I feel it in my bones, as the sights, sounds and smells of another summer curl up to hibernate in the cozy corners of memory; as green, blue, violet and rose dial down to sleep mode; and as daylight—especially those glorious after-dinner hours—is borrowed for the enjoyment of those on the other side of Earth.

Yeah, I feel the melancholy, but I don't let it get me down. I figure I can either curse the darkness or turn on my light. For me, as those of you who know me can attest, that's a no-brainer.


What could be more emblematic of this season than falling leaves? What a perfect metaphor for the swirling, sinking emotions of autumn! Like summer's profusion of life, they shrivel and fall and die. Yet they do so with such exuberance, such flamboyance, that we can't help but be moved by their promise of renewal.

I often wonder what someone from a place where trees don't turn would think of seeing, for the first time, a stand of sugar maples in their full fall glory. Don't you think it would be every bit as exotic as when we northerners witness the lavish colors and forms of a Caribbean coral reef for the first time? (Probably even more so, since reefs are finding it harder and harder to renew themselves.)

We of the northern deciduous forests are used to thinking of autumn leaves as a sort of commodity—a mass of stuff more than a community of individuals. We o-ooh and ah-h-h at the broad brush of color they apply to the landscape. We rake them into piles, like so much soil or snow, to be disposed of, or, one would hope, composted. If we're smart, we play in them.

They shrivel and fall and die, yet with such exuberance, such flamboyance, that we can't help but be moved by their promise of renewal.

But take a moment to pick up a single, brightly colored leaf and look at it. Notice how different the two sides are. One, obviously its face, is smoother, brighter, often even glossy. The other side, like the ceiling in an old home's basement, is where the plumbing is. See how the veins stick up on this side, how muted the color is? Nature, with her usual economy of design, knows perfectly well that both beauty and function have their places.

Hold the leaf up to the sun. Notice how the color catches fire. Is it the same color you observed in just reflected light? (Some leaves might surprise you—like grape leaves just before they turn, which may be a dusty gray green on their back side, but engorge with a rich, deep maroon when back-lit.)

Once in a great while you'll find the skeleton of a leaf. You'd expect them to have crinkled and broken, lost their shapes and gotten ground up by machines or feet or microbes. But occasionally you can find one—as worthy a prize as a four-leaf clover or a sand dollar—that's lost all its skin, but none of its "bones." You appreciate, then, a leaf's amazing structure. Like ever-finer lace, its arteries, veins and capillaries reveal how they've given the whole organ not only its sustenance, but its structure.

There's so much to be discovered about autumn. So, if you feel your heart growing heavy at the prospects of another long, cold, dark winter, now you know what to do. Move to Mexico? No, just turn over a new leaf.

Monday, October 4, 2010

OF SCHISMS AND SCRIMS – Seeing Through Our Own Reality

Sometimes the membrane separating one reality from another is very thin. I used to discount all those “paranormal” events people claim to experience—feeling presences, hearing voices, sensing others' thoughts.

Those were other people's realities, if they were even real at all. That was until one perfect June day a few years ago.

I’d taken a break from a long bike ride, and when I woke up from a delicious, breezy cat nap in the dappled shade of a small tree, I felt my deceased dad’s spirit. His closeness moved me to tears. Of course, I couldn’t actually see him, but at that moment the sunlight, the leaves and the breeze all insisted he was there.

     As the light of our awareness and faith rises 
     behind the sheer material, we see a different 
     scene altogether.

Are such experiences just illusions of our own making? I don’t think so, but I do believe they require our openness, our readiness to see them. Perhaps, having just awakened, I was in that astute place one inhabits briefly before the ordinary concerns of life ooze back in like mud.

What separates us from other realities? It might be space, time, experience or any number of other factors. Or might these schisms of understanding be due simply to our own inattentiveness? If we pay attention, can we begin to see “through” the membrane and at least start to recognize differing realities?


Like the image on a theatrical scrim, what we first perceive seems to be all there is. But then, as the light of our awareness and faith rises behind the sheer material, we see a different scene altogether. And that deeper illumination takes us to deeper truth.
          If we want to see the world around us 
          as beautiful...we must be so ourselves.

I’m driving to work and someone cuts me off. I get angry. I see the other driver as mean, greedy, thoughtless and stupid. In other words, I invent a reality to justify my anger. The parallel reality— which I can only imagine, but which is nonetheless every bit as valid as my invented one— may be that the other driver is a single mom who's just found out that her toddler has been seriously hurt at day care. She’s on her way to the hospital. With that understanding, it's not so hard to believe that I'm actually in her way.

This is just one example of how learning to recognize parallel realities can empower us. There are countless others, in our relationships, in our appreciation of Nature, in our faith journeys. How we view Creation is a reflection of what’s within us.


The lesson is that, if we want to see the world around us as beautiful, or to see our fellow human beings as good and innocent, we must be so ourselves. It doesn’t take a great stretch to reach the powerful conclusion that by changing ourselves we can, indeed, change our reality.

"You've got to believe it to see it."
  DEWITT JONES, National Geographic photographer turned motivational speaker


Sunday, October 3, 2010

FOR EVERY ANSWER, A QUESTION

Don’t get me wrong; I really envy most of the people I know for their clarity of thought. I wish I could make decisions without first having to let facts and feelings percolate for a while. I wish I could be sure enough about an issue to be willing to go to bat it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of this reticence as a handicap. But, in the past decade or so, at last, I’ve found a way to free myself of that burden; I’ve decided it’s actually a strength. After all, I’m thinking, isn’t the world a more interesting place when the conversation doesn’t necessarily end at one person’s version of the truth? Isn’t it better when, for every ideologue, there’s a skeptic; for every answer, a question; for every teacher, a student? I guess I can’t stop being the student. And I think that’s okay.

Learning’s a funny thing. For some people, it’s clearly the means to an end. You learn so you can know; you know so you don’t have to listen to anyone any more. Not me. The more I learn, the more certain I am that I don’t know everything. I guess you could say asking questions is more important to me than being right.

Giving myself permission to be ambivalent has been liberating. Ironically, it seems to have actually emboldened my thinking in a way. Not that I make decisions any more easily; but I’m coming more and more to not just tolerate, but actually believe in my view that, in life, absolutely nothing—including this statement—is absolute. It all depends on how you look at it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

WHAT WHALE? Observing the Invisible

Nano-scientists are studying and even making things out of sub-atomic particles too small to see, even with a microscope. A little closer to home, I can tell there’s a big carp darting away from the bow of my canoe or a hungry smallmouth hunting for supper even when the water’s too murky to see them.

How? The same way those scientists keep track of those quarks and fermions; the same way you know about the wind even though it’s invisible and you’re inside your house where you can’t even feel it.

 Often the best—sometimes the only—way of seeing something is by the effects it has on something else. In the case of the wind, I get my clues from the trees, a flag or a leaf tumbling across the yard. With the carp, the giveaway is the subtle bulging of the surface where the water’s displaced by the fish’s movement. And you know bass are hunting when you see schools of shiner minnows breaking the water’s surface in flight.

This method of “indirect observation” has worked well for me in locating sloths in Costa Rican forests and tracking whales in the Sea of Cortez. Again, the animal may be all but invisible, so the trick is not to look for it directly. You look for the other things that give it away.

     With this expectation, it’s like the 
     mother of all Where’s Waldo pictures.

For sloths, it's the distinctive cecropia trees whose leaves and resting places they seem to prefer. And I try to find subtle breaks in the pattern of dark, narrow branches and the light spaces between them.

For the whale, the giveaway might be its “fluke prints,” the surprising, wave- canceling circles caused by the upflow of water from the creature’s up-and-down tail movements.

Indirect observation involves a subtle shift in one’s mindset. If you’re looking for a sloth, you’ve set your unconscious visual filter to rule out anything that doesn’t have brown, shaggy fur and four legs. With this expectation, it’s like the mother of all Where’s Waldo pictures; let’s say it’ll take you a while.

But if you switch the filter to a coarser mesh, that is one set to look for more generalized information, like breaks in patterns, you improve your odds considerably. If you’re bird watching, this means adjusting your eye-brain filter to focus not so much on spotting the birds themselves, but on noticing movement. It’s a pretty fine distinction, but it works.

"I believe only in what I do not see." Gustave Moreau (French, 1826-1898)

Friday, October 1, 2010

SO THIS ANT WALKS INTO A BAR...

We shouldn’t have been surprised to find ants in the house. After all, I figure just about everyone in the world has them…if not things much worse. But I just don’t like the idea of insects crawling around who knows where inside the house.

These were reddish-brown ants, smaller than the dreaded carpenter species, but considerably bigger than the tiny “piss ants” so common here in Minnesota, often attracted by spilled sweets. At first there were only a few, but eventually they seemed to be finding their way all over the kitchen.

I must admit that, against my better judgment, I’d tried various poisons. But neither those targeting sweet-eating nor fat-craving ants had worked. So now it was time to take a closer look. I decided to start thinking like an ant.

Why were they coming in through the kitchen window frame right in front of the sink? How were they getting in? (Okay, how do you stop an ant from getting into a house with a thousand holes big enough to drive an ant truck through?) And what were they looking for (or, God forbid, what had they already found)?

So I watched the ants carefully for several days. I found no well-traveled path to any one pantry shelf. For the most part, they seemed to be just randomly scouting around. In fact, I seldom found two or more of them together…except around the sink and drain. Aha! There’s some greasy residue in the sink, I thought. But even after a thorough cleaning, the ants still gathered there.

Then it dawned on me: water. It’s late June. It’s kind of dry outside. Could they just be thirsty, waiting for the next time I turned on the tap? I filled a few bottle caps with water and put them along the windowsill between storm and sash, and went to bed. The next morning, I couldn’t find a single ant anywhere in the kitchen, except along the sill. And there, sure enough, were several of them, teetering on the scalloped metal edges of the bottle caps, happily drinking from their new watering holes!

After that day—in fact, for the rest of the summer—those ants have never ventured past the kitchen windowsill, as long as we gave them what they wanted. That was a deal we could live with.
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I’ve always thought of discovery as a worthwhile endeavor in its own right. But my experience with those thirsty ants reminds me, once again, of its practical applications as well. So if you’re inclined to think of uncovering Nature’s marvels as merely a fluffy diversion for those with too much free time, here’s your chance to rationalize your transformation. Keep your eyes and ears open and you’ll save time and money, minimize your footprint on the environment and simplify your life. Now is that something you can afford not to do?