Monday, January 31, 2011

HUNKERED DOWN – Bringing Wonder Home

It's the depth of winter here in Minnesota. Not to worry; we're hearty souls. Generally, we don't let that stop us from enjoying life, even life outdoors—which, by the way, is still full of great beauty and life.

        A person's need for discovery and wonder 
        doesn't get left at the door like the parka 
        and boots.

Nonetheless, below zero wind chills conspire with the sun's quitting at 4:30 to make us spend far more time cooped up inside than we do in the summer. Sometimes we have no choice but to hunker down for a couple of days and wait out a blizzard and the arctic deep freeze that so often follows.

But a person's need for discovery and wonder doesn't get left at the door like the parka and boots. Even indoors we're curious; our child side still needs to play, learn and experience delight.

Of course, there's always TV, a good book or the Internet to help pass the long, dark hours. But these, I submit, are remote, second-hand experiences. They may entertain or inform us, but do they nourish a curious soul?

Even indoors I'm always surprised and delighted at how many real-life, present-moment natural wonders await discovery when I'm willing to look with care. Here are just a few examples:

      Study the strokes and patterns; marvel 
      at the feathered crystalline brushwork; 
      imagine how the artist determined where 
      each element in the composition would go.

Could there be a more elegant artistic expression than the crystalline masterpieces Nature renders with water? Outdoors, of course, it’s snow; whether seen as flake or drift, it's the most sublime of sculptures. Indoors, though, relegated to the two-dimensional “canvas” of frozen glass, she once again outdoes herself.

Look closely at frost; study the strokes and patterns; marvel at the feathered crystalline brushwork; imagine how the artist determined where each element in the composition would go. Touch it; see how ephemeral it is. See if you can melt it without quite touching it.

Perhaps the one thing that changes most when our world moves indoors is our appreciation of things that live and grow. Instead of marveling at trees, shrubs or flowers in their natural, wild setting, we devise ways to shrink, capture and confine them in pots that clamber close to windows. Try not to take them for granted. These plants, for their staunch, surrogate duty, are all the more worthy of our notice.

For our indoor animal fix, we turn from summer's chancy thrill of spotting critters in their own realms and on their own terms to the certainty of specimens we've shaped to our convenience, bred to need no more than our care and attention. Take advantage of these most opportune occasions to relish your closeness to these dear creatures.

    The subtle white, comet-tail streaks suggest the 
    seeds have streaked out from center. And there 
    they’ve landed, on the vivid, glossy surface of 
    the fruit, each cupped in its own tiny crater. 

Instead of discovering a strange new fruit or nut on a wild plant somewhere in the woods, we learn in winter to explore things closer at hand, perhaps things so common we never thought to look at them with wonder. For example, have you stopped to appreciate the elegance of line, color, form and texture in a freshly sliced strawberry?

See how the flesh morphs from furry, white, womb-like core into sweet, solid crimson. Note the subtle white, comet-tail streaks that suggest the seeds have streaked out from center. And there they’ve landed, on the vivid, glossy surface of the fruit, each cupped in its own tiny crater.

Would you agree that discovery and wonder need not be lost on the home-bound? See if you can find "wild" living critters like meal worms, spiders or perhaps the occasional holdover ladybug. See what you can discover about another person. Play with soap bubbles or static electricity. Explore the attic. Cook something. Try to...ah-h-h...wait a second...whoa-a-a!...I'm sorry, I have a fire going in the fireplace, and there's this...amazing bright blue...tongue of flame…

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Today was a good day.

I learned something. I needed a word in Spanish meaning way more than funny. My trusty old Latin American Spanish/English dictionary's definitions for uproarious, hilarious, a scream and half a dozen other terms fell short of the task. I Googled it. Finally, my ten-minute search paid off; I found just the adjective I needed: arrasador. (Its primary meaning is destructive or devastating.)

          For those four glorious minutes, 
          my spirit took wing.

I gave something. Today's the day I visit one of my two hospice patients. This one, to my great delight, has actually "graduated" from the program's six-month life-expectancy window, deciding, at age 91, that he was no longer a dying man. Now he's an active, curious, creative person with a mischievous sense of humor who not only creates digital art, but teaches art to his fellow care center residents. He inspires me.

I experienced wonder. In fact it happened twice before I'd finished breakfast. I was looking out my Minneapolis window at Nature all decked out in fresh white. I thought of how exotic the colors of a Caribbean reef or the deepest Amazon forest are to me, and imagined someone who'd never before seen snow finding this sight every bit as breathtaking. It struck me that, even for one who's seen snow all my life, this was indeed that kind of glorious moment. I just hadn't realized it before.

Just then, on the radio, they played Gershwin's Fanfare for the Common Man. I'd just started my cereal. I stopped chewing, put down my spoon and just listened. I let those sounds, the soaring and the sublime, transport me. For those four glorious minutes, my spirit took wing.

Yes, it was a good day. But such days are not uncommon for me; I seek them out...or should I say they seek me out?

What makes a good day for you?

Monday, January 24, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #102
Be creative in choosing your vantage point.

Nature doesn’t necessarily keep regular hours, and, in general, She’s pretty shy. But there are things you can do to better your chances She'll reveal something really amazing next time you’re out and about:

    •  Head for places that are hard to get to. This means—if you’re able—
        hiking a little further, climbing a little higher, paddling and portaging
        a little more.

    •  Go when other people don’t; if summer’s the most popular time,
        go in the spring or fall.

    •  Get there early or stay late.

    •  Find a point of view others may not have imagined.

    •  Finally, if you don't succeed in evading crowds and canned tours,
After all, people are part of Nature too, right?

Friday, January 21, 2011


Lost in a hot winter shower
A shower feels good any time of year. But in the winter—especially when it's 15 degrees below zero outside as it is this morning—sometimes a good hot shower's the only way you can reach that chill that's penetrated to your core.

This morning I'm taking one of those showers.

I let the water run until the glass steams up. How relative the heat is. When I first step in, I have to quickly turn the handle down to avoid burning myself. But in no time it feels tepid; I turn it up. By the time I'm "cooked," I've done so several times, to the point where the water's now much hotter than it was at first when I couldn't stand it. Now my skin's turning red—brightest on top of my shoulders, with definite streaks where the nearly scalding rivulets run down my chest.

The meditation's put me in touch with something very basic, very pure. A celebration. I am deeply warmed in body and soul. 

I play with the tickling jets of water, testing the effect of each on a pruning fingertip. Of the hundred or so strands the shower head dispenses, no two are alike. Some are focused and fierce, biting into my skin; others I can barely feel. Some subdivide their meager share into still finer spray; a few barely drip, choked off by years of lime deposits.

I turn around to face the beneficent bombardment. As it drives heat into my chest,
I feel my back cooling. I experiment, and finally perfect a sort of "rotisserie" movement, gradually turning my body while rocking slowly back and forth. That's more like it.

After a while, I realize I've indeed lost track of time—in fact, of every thought. The meditation's put me in touch with something very basic, very pure. A celebration.
I am deeply warmed in body and soul.

I turn off the water and reach for my towel. The shower head gurgles as it drains. Each drop clips the gray rubber edge of the shower squeegee hanging from the shower caddy and deflects out at my chest. They're cool, but it feels good.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


It was certainly a white Christmas here in Minnesota. In fact, it's been a white winter, with 55 inches so far here in Minneapolis—and our snowiest months yet to come.

We don't take snow for granted; some years our winter landscape ranges from one tone of gray to another. It's then that we appreciate how much color snow brings to the winter palette. Remember: white is not the absence of color; it's the presence of all colors.

How many colors do you see in snow?

Our eyes do a funny thing with color. We tend to perceive it only in comparison with its surroundings. Since there's seldom anything more "white" in our view than fresh snow, we think of it as all white, pure white. But if you could tear out a swatch of that "white" and paste it down next to some other apparent whites, all their distinct hues would be obvious. (I deal with shades of white and black in my 12/9/10 post, Black & White – And Other Shades of Gray.)

I've done this exercise on paper, and I do it in my mind's eye all the time, so I know what to look for. Today, for example, the fresh snow on gabled roofs across the street is tinged with lilac—reflecting the influences of a patchy blue of sky, a dab of brick red from adjacent walls, and perhaps a muting hint of cloud gray.

The sun's last rays still caught the top of the next ridge, like a great golden-glowing knife slicing through thick charcoal.

I've seen snow tinted every imaginable color: pinks, blues, golds, even greens. Perhaps the most memorable example caught my eye several years ago on a cross-country ski trip on the North Shore of Lake Superior. We'd been skiing all afternoon. The conditions were perfect; the biggest challenge was the sun's blinding glare off of the fresh snow. Later, as the sun nestled into the horizon, the cold and the gray wrapped somberly around us. Nearing the trailhead, we turned to cross the top of one last ridge, and there, a half mile off to our right, the sun's last rays still caught the top of the next ridge, like a great golden-glowing knife slicing through thick charcoal.

Now that I'm attuned to the colors of snow, I can't help seeing them. In fact, I'm thinking, snow without color must be very rare indeed. If one were ever to behold it, possessed of its full complement of color and light—in other words, perfectly white—I suspect it might be a profound, even disturbing, sight, the eye's equivalent, perhaps, to the ear's perception of absolute silence.

Where was the most colorful snow you've ever seen?

Friday, January 14, 2011

NATURE AFTER HOURS – Frog Serenade at Las Ranas

With overexposure threatening the earth’s remaining wild places, we now have to regulate people’s access to many of them. Parks and nature preserves close for the night. Wilderness areas limit the number of people allowed to enter or the length of time they can stay. In a way this is sad, but I suppose it’s a good thing, considering how many of Nature’s gifts we’ve already managed to love to death. 

   Were they addressing the spirits that 
   dwell here? Or were they the spirits?

Still, I’ve often wondered if Nature isn’t one step ahead of us. Do you think she might, out of sheer spite, decide to wait until these places empty out and close their gates for the day before letting down her guard and revealing her best? 

My friend, Silverio, and I were exploring the northeast corner of the Mexican heartland state of QuerĂ©taro. 

Climbing into the Sierra Gorda, we came to Las Ranas, the archeological site of a pre-Hispanic Totonaca town, featuring nicely excavated and restored pyramids surrounded by elaborate, walled stone terraces stair-stepping up to the crest of a steep, thickly forested hill. What an odd name, we thought: Las Ranas – The Frogs.

Turns out we’d arrived pretty close to the site’s surprisingly early closing time. The two disheveled guards told us sternly to make it quick, and that we’d better be out by 4:00. We hoped that deadline would be measured in "Mexican time."
We wandered among the immutable gray stone structures. One was an arena of sorts, site of the ancient pelota game (which looked, in artists’ representations, like a precursor to soccer). Silverio told me this game, though not played any more, remains an important symbol to many Mexicans. I’d heard elsewhere that the Aztecs took it so seriously that losers were routinely sacrificed to the gods!

      ...the wave had crested right over us, filling the treetops, 

    inundating us in a raucous chorus of dry, raspy twittering.

By the time we'd worked our way up to the highest spot on the site, I noticed that the few other visitors had all left; it was already after four. The prospect occurred to me of being locked overnight inside what might be a pretty eerie place in the dark. Should we rush out?

Then we remembered we’d actually parked outside the gate and could easily scale the flimsy fence. We looked at each other, at the timeless structures surrounding us, and then at the gorgeous view across the lush gorge. What the hell, we decided, they'll just have to come get us. (In fact, we didn’t see them again.)

Now that we had the place to ourselves, everything felt different. It was that rare sense of privilege you experience when you have something really good and really popular all to yourself. We sat in silence for several minutes, soaking in the stillness, communing in our own ways with whatever spirits might still dwell there.

Illustration: Katy Farina

Suddenly an incredible drama started to play out. In the distance, from the bottom of the gorge, we heard a faint, eerie murmuring sound, like people whispering—lots of people. 
Then, like a tsunami, the sound swept up the hillside toward us, swelling in its intensity. 

Within about ten seconds, the wave had crested right over us, filling the treetops, inundating us in a raucous chorus of dry, raspy twittering. Then the wave ebbed, sweeping back down the hillside and fading back to stillness. It all took less than a minute.

We scanned the treetops to see if we could find what had produced that incredible deluge of sound, but then we remembered the site's name: the frogs

So it was frogs—specifically tree frogs. Could it really be that their ancient ancestors had once serenaded the Totonacas in this very spot six centuries ago? Had they always acted like this, waiting every day until they thought they were alone before speaking out so unanimously?

Were they addressing the spirits that dwell here? Or were they the spirits?

Monday, January 10, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #85
Don't miss the trees for the forest.

Ten thousand sardines turn as one organism. Leaf-cutter ants pour like a river afloat with tiny, green-sailed ships across the jungle floor.

Wonder en masse. But pick just one individual and watch it closely. See why life's so much closer to the edge for the one than for the whole.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

ON STEEL AND WATER – The Marvels of Ice Skating

Back when I played college ice hockey, I used to love being the first player out on the rink before a game or at the start of a new period. That was when the ice was pristine, freshly planed and recoated by the Zamboni. I always thought to myself it was like skating on butter, a metaphor not as much for the physical qualities of fresh ice as for its deliciousness.

For one exquisite lap, mine were the only marks on that translucent, milky surface. I could take one powerful stride and coast the length of the rink. Even more fun, though, was
taking that first lap fast, with long, powerful strides. I'd look behind me at the graceful, outward sweeping lines my blades were etching into the ice. Each one threw a dusting of bright white snow, chiseled by the angled steel edge. The pleasure of that pattern reminded me of the trail of swirls one leaves canoeing across a glassy lake.

In those moments, skating was a sort of meditation.

In those moments, skating was a sort of meditation, a deep awareness not just of the esthetics, but of that sublime progression of muscles, motions and balance that comprise a skating stride. It starts with a subtle lowering of the center of gravity as hip and knee contract and weight begins transferring to that leg.

The extension comes, almost imperceptibly, from the buttocks; then the thigh thrusts outward while the knee straightens; and finally, like the exclamation point at the end of a command, the ankle straightens sharply, the toes and ball of the foot driving the blade's curved toe into the ice and impelling the transfer of weight back to the other leg. That last little snap of force makes a distinct munching sound as the blade bites deeper into the ice. Instead of snow, little chips of ice fly.

Skating outdoors on natural ice is very different. Ideal conditions are rare. In fact, in my lifetime, I've only experienced them a handful of times. Instead of the silky, milky white of man-made ice, the perfect natural ice is black. In fact, it has that paradoxical quality of clear blackness, like the water of a pond rich in dissolved organic material. Black ice occurs only when it's below freezing for some time before the first snowfall. And there can't be lots of wind while that bare ice is forming, or it will have humps and waves.

Cracks wind through black ice like white ribbons on edge.

Once in a great while, a fleeting, surreal image 
will catch your eye: a fish frozen into the ice.

Skating on perfect black ice is a rare and wonderful experience. Because it nearly always occurs early in winter, you're always wondering if the ice is thick enough to support your weight. Supposedly only three inches will do it for someone walking, but will that hold true when all that weight's concentrated on a 3/16-inch blade? It only seems to sweeten the experience knowing there's twenty feet of ice water below. As if to remind you, dull thumps and snaps reverberate through the ice as it contracts and shifts.

Outdoor skating's normally confined to a rink—that is, whatever portion of the ice you've managed to clear of snow. But with black ice you have the whole lake. If you're lucky—with extraordinarily smooth ice and some wind at your back—you can coast all the way across the lake.

Another wonder of black ice is that you can see what's going inside of it. Here and there cracks wind through the ice like white ribbons on edge, showing its thickness. Bubbles are frozen in time. Once in a great while, a fleeting, surreal image will catch your eye: a fish frozen into the ice. You stop and look, wondering how it could possibly have not been able to swim away as the water, passing from 33 to 32 degrees, started to set around it.   

I know there are other skaters out there. What are your observations?