Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SOME KIND OF MUSIC – When the Words Aren’t There

 "The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers." - THICH NHAT HANH
New York clinical psychologist Alan Dienstag, a guest on NPR’s excellent Speaking of Faith program, was talking about his experiences leading a writing group for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I was especially moved by his accounts of the inevitable transition out of the group by participants no longer able to communicate in ways that contributed to the meetings.

He recalled one such woman who, it seemed, had reached that point. As her disease advanced, he continued seeing her privately, helping her hang on to what few connections her brain was able to make, especially those with Nature.

A smile’s light suddenly broke through her opaque expression, and he knew this had reached her.

Even after she could no longer vocalize her experiences of the birds, animals and plants, she and Dienstag would still just walk around and look at things. Later, when she’d retreated still further into “almost a mask-like blankness,” he began talking with the woman’s husband about whether their sessions were the best way to spend her time.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dienstag was preparing to go on vacation. He knew the woman shared his love of the beach. So, as he was leaving their session, he told her that’s where he was going.

A smile’s light suddenly broke through her opaque expression, and he knew this had reached her. He asked her, “What do you love about the beach?”

Then, in Dienstag’s words, “She kind of drifted away…and she got very quiet. And again I waited and I thought…she can't really answer that question. And she turned to me and she said, 'There's some kind of music that lives there.'"

I witnessed a similar breakthrough in my mother during her last few years in this life. No one seemed willing to say whether she had Alzheimer’s or not, but it seemed clear that she—or at least that bright, articulate part of her spirit once visible to us—had gone somewhere.

I joined Mom for dinner every Thursday evening. I’d catch her up on the latest news of family and world. Most of the time I couldn’t tell if she understood me or not. Even when I’d try to engage her with a question, her expression would remain blank, her eyes unfocused.

I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, hoping that, at some level, she heard and understood me—perhaps like what we sometimes hear about people coming out of comas and remembering people who’d visited and talking with them.

She lifted up her head from her osteoporosis-bent body, fixed her cloudy eyes right on mine and said, “Oh, you have no idea!”

Once in a while, Mom would look at me and start talking exactly as she might have ten years earlier. The first few words would have that familiar, bright, engaging intonation I remembered. “Well, you know I’d…” Whatever it was she’d intended to say, the thought would evaporate into thin air. That was it. I didn’t know what to do.

Sometimes I'd just assume that what she’d intended to say pertained to what I’d been telling her, so I’d go back and provide more details. Or I’d try to guess what she’d meant to say, but she wouldn’t respond to my questions. This had happened several times when I finally said, “Mom, it must be awful knowing what you want to say and not being able to find the words!”

It was a long shot; I figured it would go right through her. But she lifted up her head slowly from her osteoporosis-bent body, fixed her cloudy eyes right on mine and said, “Oh, you have no idea!”

Nature can affect us at any number of levels and in ways we might not expect. Both of these women, even though nearly stripped of their ability to interact with anything outside of their own skin, still managed to find and express a point of connection.

How haunting these glimpses into the hidden layers of mind and spirit. After all, we know so little about those places. At least so far, we can’t interview anyone who’s been there and come back in any condition to tell the tale.

Perhaps my mother’s comment comes as close as we’re going to get to a report on what that’s like. I suspect each of us lives with a shard of fear that we could succumb to Alzheimer’s, ending our days in what seems like it must be a living hell. Would we be acutely aware of our alienation, or might Nature (or would God) mercifully provide us an antidote to the loneliness—perhaps the emotional equivalent of adrenaline?

I want to believe that, just as a person can lose his or her hearing or vision or legs and still adapt and carry on with a happy, productive life, one with a cognitive disease like Alzheimer’s might fall back on some other, as yet unknown, capacity for happiness. Perhaps it’s an imaginary world or maybe just a heightened level of spirituality.

Whatever it is, I pray the reason we don’t yet know about it is simply that we haven’t been able to find it. We should all be grateful to the researchers who are looking.

Might Nature … mercifully provide us an antidote to the loneliness—perhaps the emotional equivalent of adrenaline?

If I’m ever in that position—unable to communicate, possibly even close to death—my fondest wish would be that someone give me the benefit of the doubt that I gave my mother that evening. Believe—no, expect—that, in some way, at some level, I’ll understand.

It’s not so different from how enlightened parents teach their children. Just as they expect their kids to understand some things other parents might assume are beyond them, I’d like my loved ones to expect that I can hear them, understand them and appreciate their presence.

And I don’t want this credit to end with just the obvious physical and mental contacts. I want them to understand that I’ll still need spiritual nourishment too. As Dr. Dienstag did, take me outdoors and let me feel the air, smell the earth, witness life. If anyone says it’s pointless, ignore them. 

Give me the chance to touch my grandchildren or great-grandchildren and pass on, in ways far surpassing words or even thoughts, my love and my spirit. Bring me dogs too, so I can exchange with them that sublime blessing I’ve always been able to share with animals.

They’ll understand.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

NATURAL FORCES - My Weekend "Off"

A blogger's work is never done—or so I've often thought this first year, while posting something new more or less every third day.

But one's priorities have a way of changing when certain natural forces come into play—forces like grandchildren and hurricanes.

Here I am in Boston, enjoying the fifth birthday celebration of my granddaughter and the christening of my one-and-a-half-year-old grandson. The party—planned as a back-yard cookout—took place yesterday, despite one hefty party crasher: hurricane Irene.

One's priorities have a way of changing when certain natural forces come into play—forces like grandchildren and hurricanes. 

The increasing downpours couldn't dampen spirits, since most of the kids' activities involved water anyway. Still, we had to move the picnic part indoors, and that was a little tight, especially with the tropical stillness of the air. Bottom line: the birthday girl seemed to have a wonderful time! Others, even if they didn't have fun, will still remember the day they had the cookout as a hurricane bore down on them.

Today was supposed to be the christening, but this time Irene wasn't going to be denied. Winds are gusting to over 60 miles per hour. Thousands of trees are down, including one that fell right across the back yard here—right where we were all playing yesterday at this time.

Given the theme of One Man's Wonder, maybe we could call it research.

Nearly a quarter million homes are now without power in Massachusetts. And the powers-that-be in the local Congregational church have declared all "business" closed for the day. So we'll try again for tomorrow morning. Looks like Irene will be petering out somewhere over Quebec by then, so we should be okay for the second big event of the weekend.

So, you see, I have a couple of perfectly good excuses for missing my self-imposed deadline of yesterday for a new post. To those of you who may have been counting on something profound, I hope you'll accept this hastily prepared excuse.

Believe me, I haven't just been goofing off. Between spending time with my wonderful, beloved grand-kids, pitching in to help with the party, and marveling at the power of a small hurricane, I've had my hands full.

Come to think of it, given the theme of One Man's Wonder, maybe we could call it research.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

TIP #5 
Describe a flavor.

Like people, the flavors we meet are easier to judge than engage. But give them a chance, and you may find they have a lot to say.

Get to know the sweet and smoky sides of bacon; draw out the earthy traits of mushrooms; give voice to the grainy sweetness of a fresh strawberry. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

SUNLIGHT IN A JAR – Capturing the Sensations of Summer

Summer in these northern climes is a short-lived feast of colors and sounds, smells and feelings. No sooner than we start getting used to all these sensations—and the abundance of daylight to enjoy them—we're seeing reminders that it isn't going to last. The alarming whine of cicadas, sneezes from ragweed pollen, a breath or two of dryer air; nights dropping below 60, and darkness by eight.

Every year at this time, a sense of melancholy starts seeping in through those little cracks in my summer reverie. This is when I realize that within two months the leaves will be falling; within three, snow could fly, extinguishing the last flickers of color from the landscape.

...come January, I'll be able to take those memories off the shelf and enjoy a taste, a sweet distillation of this glorious season's bounty.

Every year I tell myself I'll remember all the little sensations of summer so that, sometime in the dead of winter, I'll be able to relive them—at least in my mind.

Trouble is, summer's bliss is awfully perishable. In fact, the very reason for much of its magic is its spontaneity and impermanence. So by January, little remains, and I'm left scrounging for scraps.

But this year will be different. This year I'm doing some canning. That way, come January, I'll be able to reach in, take those memories off the shelf and enjoy a taste, a sweet distillation of this glorious season's bounty—just enough to get my spirits through until the banquet is spread afresh in May.

Here's what I'm putting up in my mental Mason jars:
  • the shady spaces trees create
  • the luscious brew of nitrogen, oxygen, moisture, and scent that is summer air
  • water that's not hard
  • the laughter that wafts in from a night baseball game two blocks away 
  • fungus
  • the sweet smell of just-mown grass
  • dappled sunlight
  • the solid green archway fallen trees and grape vine have built over my walking path
  • the way my skin feels, exposed to non-air-conditioned air
  • two hours of daylight to play after supper
  • air and sound pouring into the house through open windows
  • the warm, nutty smell of sun tanned skin
  • lavish color
  • the primeval smell and feel of rich, moist soil
  • the pulsing sizzle of an August meadow
  • the way a thunderstorm unites and humbles people
  • that sour smell of hot pavement just after the rain starts
  • the way an ice-cold Coke goes down when you're really, really thirsty
  • the curious "ps-s-seew!, ps-s-seew! of twilight nighthawks
  • the uncontained music of an outdoor concert
  • the way trees stand out, like black lace, against golden twilight sky
  • hearing night sounds as I fall asleep
  • the throb of crickets chirping in unison
  • the one lonely little frog in our stormwater pond
  • the special wild place I can, most days, call my own
  • walking hand-in-hand without gloves
  • babbling brooks
  • the way my arms and shoulders get their second wind after hours of paddling my canoe
  • a million critters to watch—each with its own desperate drama of survival
  • the way road construction delays make you dig deep for serenity
  • growing things
  • cooling off naturally—with sweat and breeze
  • fresh corn on the cob and home-grown tomatoes
  • the way the tree leaves show their light, silvery sides on a 100-degree day
  • planing my hand in the rushing air out the car window
What impressions have you harvested for canning this summer?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

THE BRAINS OF THE OPERATION – The Difference Between Women and Men


When my wife and her women friends get together, I listen in awe to how they communicate. Indeed, they seem to move seamlessly from one topic to the next, following what might best be described as a non-linear train of thought. At times, conventional language comprises, if anything, only part of the conversation.

A woman will start out with what sounds like it’s going to be a sentence, but then, after little more than the subject comes out, she’ll either start a new sentence or be interrupted by someone else’s sentence fragment. To a male, it would seem that almost no real information is exchanged, yet everyone seems to understand completely.
My wife does this with me too, often with disappointing results. She knows exactly what she’s saying and assumes I do too, even though her actual words have not delivered a complete thought.

   Occasionally she’ll take 
   issue with something I never said, but which she 
   knows I must have been thinking.

To be fair, she's equally confounded by my thoughts and how I attempt to convey them—or not convey them. It baffles her how much time I devote to assigning my thoughts and plans their proper boxes. She’s sometimes hurt by the fact that my box for apologies (like that of most men) is either missing or in very poor repair.

Occasionally she’ll take issue with something I never said, but which she knows I must have been thinking.

Men and women have different concepts of time.

While I have separate compartments for past, present and future events, to my wife they’re not so easy to distinguish. I choose to think only about the present and maybe, once in a while, the future—not at the same time, of course.

For her, the present and the past blend together, the latter continually haunting her (as it does lots of women) through guilt. Because this requires stuff from two boxes to intermingle, men tend not to do guilt very well.

Remember, these things are not just momentary reactions to specific circumstances. Nor, for the most part, can they be changed. They’re hard-wired (or, in men’s case, hard-walled) into our brains, and for good reason.

Ages ago, before evolution worked this wonder, lots of men multi-tasked and harbored guilt. But those who did were all either slain by enemies or eaten by wild animals, both of which were, in those days, better equipped than they were to focus on the task at hand.

  Isn’t it a miracle how those respective strengths  
  have come to compliment each other so well?

And some women, before they’d mastered their comprehensive thinking, sensitivity and intuition, failed utterly at raising children and maintaining social connections. Neither those women nor their families survived either.

So here we are today, women and men, both products of that evolution, both very good at some things, not so good at others. Isn’t it a miracle how those respective strengths have come to compliment each other so well?

My wife and I once took a community education class in meditation. After a few frustrating sessions, she declared that, alas, she was going to be the first person in history to flunk meditation. She just couldn’t, she explained, shut off the flow of thoughts, plans and worries going through her head. Now, as I picture that endless tangle of wire in her head, I finally understand.

"A woman marries a man expecting he will change, but he doesn’t. 
A man marries a woman expecting that she won’t change, and she does." SOURCE UNKNOWN

* Apologies to Dudley Riggs's Brave New Workshop, Minneapolis, for using the title of their hilarious comedy production.

Monday, August 15, 2011

THE BRAINS OF THE OPERATION – The Difference Between Women and Men


Are you as confounded as I am about how the mind of the opposite sex works?
I suspect I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure this out. Usually it’s like trying to prove something doesn’t exist; it just doesn’t work.

Still, as with all of Nature’s mysteries, investments of a little awareness, curiosity and faith often are rewarded in small, yet significant, ways. can go one of two ways. We’re left either 
    in awe (perhaps a better term would be utter 
    frustration) or in stitches.

If we’re lucky, we might come to understand and appreciate our partners better.
If not, it can go one of two ways. We’re left either in awe (perhaps a better term would be utter frustration) or in stitches.

Comedian Mark Gungor has a brilliant act in which he sheds some very helpful— and hilarious—light on the differences between male and female brains.

On each side of the stage, about twenty feet apart, stand two pedestals. Atop each is a sculpted head, one of a woman, the other of a man. He walks over to the male bust and lifts off the top of the skull.

Inside are rows of neatly arranged little wooden compartments. Not only are they separate, he explains, under no circumstances can they be allowed even to touch each other.

In a man’s brain, he continues, everything—work, money, house, kids, sex—gets put into a different box. The guy can take a thought or emotion out of one compartment and move it to another if necessary, but it can only be in one box at a time.

What’s more, he says, men have no trouble at all shifting their focus from one box to another. They can even choose not to deal with any of the boxes at all. In other words they can, at times, think about absolutely nothing.

  Every thought, every emotion, is connected to  
  everything else. And it can never be turned off!

Now Gungor walks across the stage to the woman’s head. He begins explaining why women have trouble with men’s compartments, illustrating this by acting out a typical Mars-versus-Venus marital spat. Just as Venus is throwing up her hands in utter frustration, Gungor lifts off the top of the head.

The audience roars.

Inside, filling the entire cranium, is a tangled mass of copper wire—one continuous strand, he points out. Every thought, every emotion, is connected to everything else. And it can never be turned off!


Friday, August 12, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

TIP #70  
Stick your arm in a compost pile.

Hey, nobody said finding wonder would be easy; sometimes it's a 
dirty job. 

Biodegradation, the work of billions of microorganisms, 
is one of Nature's most clandestine of miracles. You can't see it, hear it or even smell it happening. But you can sure feel it.

Find a healthy, working compost heap (the effect is much more impressive when experienced in contrast to  winter's cold). 

Carefully work your hand into it—all the way to its core. You'll know the most dramatic by-product of the process when you feel it!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Helen Keller, when asked which of her senses she missed most, chose hearing.
She said it was because she so missed the gentle, reassuring sound of her mother’s voice.

Hearing is an amazing sense—different from all the others in several important ways. First off, unlike the other senses, the perception of sound starts out as a purely mechanical process. Sound enters the ear as fluctuations in air pressure and those waves physically move the surface of the eardrum.

So, technically, our ears feel sounds before we hear them. This is why we can experience certain sounds—like music with a solid bass—in the rest of our bodies as well as our ears, and why even deaf people can enjoy music.

              What sounds transport you? 
              Where do they take you?

Sound has the power to transport us to another place, another time. This effect is pretty obvious when you're listening to music from a bygone era. Not only are those tunes—and often the way they were recorded—dated in their own right, they’re also full of associations with movies, plays and other cultural representations of the time.

But I’m also carried away by other, more timeless sounds: a dog barking or children laughing in the distance on a still summer night; the “sizzle” of insects and wind-rustled grasses in a hot August meadow; the congenial snapping of a campfire.


These sounds may not remind me of one specific time or place, but they transport me nonetheless—to a place of peace, contemplation and vague yearning. Is their seduction a call back to my childhood, or just to the idea of a simpler, purer life?

The otherworldly little clicks, glugs and whines of life underwater in a lake or river; the gregarious chatter of a high "V" of Canada geese cutting its way south through an October evening’s sky. What sounds transport you? Where do they take you?

There is hearing—as in simply noticing sounds—and then there is listening. Even though I’m a highly visual person, I find myself listening with every nerve in my body. It completely commands my attention, effectively turning off my other senses. This can be unnerving.

For example, when my wife and I go somewhere in the car, if I listen to her (I don’t mean just nod and say “Yes, dear” once in a while; I mean really listen) I cannot see. Let me say that again: when I listen, my eyes don’t work. We could pass our exit, miss a detour, or fly haplessly into a speed trap; I wouldn’t have a clue.

      We need to turn off that interference, 
      allowing beauty and wonder to begin their 
      quiet, compelling conversation with us.

Things we hear, like those we see and touch, have layers. And sound, like those other senses, lets us approach a curiosity in various ways. Sometimes it's not the most obvious sounds that are the most interesting.

We’re used to enduring so much man-made noise that Nature’s whispers—wave lap, ruffed grouse thump, wind breath through crispy leaves—get shouted down. Sometimes the only reason for one obnoxious racket is to snatch our attention away from another: TV, radio, cell phones, that breaking and entering of automated pitchmen on our answering machines. Why do we put up with it?


And then there’s the “noise” of our own thoughts and concerns. These, too, like static over an old recording, can stifle our ability to hear other kinder, gentler sounds. As we do with our other senses, we need to turn off that interference, allowing beauty and wonder to begin their quiet, compelling conversation with us.

When Nature speaks, it’s for a reason; we should listen. She may be speaking to our minds, letting us know of something we should either interact with or avoid. Sometimes the message is for our bodies, reminding us of our physical limits.

But she also speaks, as Helen Keller’s mother did to her, to our hearts and our spirits, reminding us of our belonging to her.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

EAGLE EYES – A Conversation of Spirit

A flurry of enormous wings, black between splashes of pure white, gathers atop a tall dead tree trunk.

A hundred yards ahead, the bald eagle has already spotted me working my canoe slowly upstream toward him in the narrow slough. Is it the same wary one I've been spotting in here all summer? The one that flees each time I round a bend, only to spurn me again 'round the next and the next?

Oh my, a silent voice wells up from my ancient spirit, You beautiful creature! This time, please don't be afraid. This time, let me share a moment of wonder with you.

I paddle silently against the high-water current, gaining a foot or two with each careful stroke. My intentions, as well as my eyes, are fixed on the bird. I know you see me, I breathe. Don't be afraid; I won't harm you, my noble friend.

  At the very moment my emotions overflow in 
  tears the bird turns his snowy head and looks 
  down knowingly into my awestruck eyes.

Soon, I'm passing the spot where the roots of his pedestal grasp the grassy bank. Concerned now with being too close, I've averted my eyes and kept to the far side of the channel. Still, I repeat my mantra. You are safe with me. All I want is to admire you, celebrate with you the splendid freedom we share.

When I've gone a ways past the eagle, I turn my bow out into the main current, crossing the narrow stream and drifting right toward his perch.

Again I'm staring at him, having to look nearly straight up now. He's looking around. Do you still notice me, or have you spotted something more interesting to an eagle than I? Do you share even a hint of the fascination I feel?

Directly under the magnificent bird now—maybe 30 feet away—my heart swells with a sense of privilege, gratitude for the knowing acceptance this splendid wild being has shown me. Emotion moves up through my throat, and at the very moment it overflows in tears the bird turns his snowy head and looks down knowingly into my awestruck eyes.

The eagle turns his head and looks right down at me.

NOTE: I repeated this little dance with my eagle friend twice more. Somehow I knew trying to take a picture would break the spell, but I couldn't help myself. Allowing me just this one quick shot, he let me know I'd been right and, with that breathtaking air-buffeting sound only big, powerful wings make, he was off.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

10,000 VIEWS – Milestone or Millstone?

When I first moved into this cyber-neighborhood last October, I had no idea what to expect. In fact, I was a bit skeptical as to how effective this blogging platform could be for what I had to say. I also had serious doubts as to whether one could really form any kind of meaningful relationships through the exchange of "follows," "likes" and "retweets."

Those first few weeks, it seemed I checked my stats almost hourly. I'd get excited if I'd had five or ten page views. And I was blown away when the occasional visitor from another country showed up.

And why have I been getting hundreds of visits 
from folks in the Ukraine, of all places?

Well, this morning I logged my 10,000th page view. I realize that, for a top blogger, that's about the number of views you might expect in a day, but to me it's huge. It shows me that at least something I've been doing has been making an impression. (The way I see it, no matter how telling page views may or may not be, 10,000 is a whole lot better than zero!)

And I've now had visitors from 64 countries. For some reason, this strikes me as even more amazing than the page views. Maybe it's the intrigue—wondering what kind of person each new tick represents, imagining the perils they might encounter for subscribing to the free expression of ideas in countries like China or Iran. And why have I been getting hundreds of visits from folks in the Ukraine, of all places?

Well, I guess it's kind of like flying for me. I know there are good solid reasons why it works. Still, no matter how often I do it, I just sit here like an awestruck kid, thinking it's nothing less than a miracle.

It's not about the numbers; it's about the dialog, 
the relationships you make, how you're affecting 
your readers.

At the same time that I celebrate this little milestone, I must keep in mind what the wisest and most experienced bloggers have told me: it's not about the numbers; it's about the dialog, the relationships you make, how you're affecting your readers.

I've realized for myself the validity of this advice, often succumbing the seductiveness of the numbers, only to have that temporary burst of energy and confidence fall off like the rush of a cheap drug. What truly energizes me—and keeps me energized—is the writing and the responses of readers who find it interesting and inspiring.

So I'll continue to deny my admitted need for affirmation and keep my focus where it belongs. Among my goals for the coming months:
  • to learn more about my visitors—what your interests are, where you're coming from, how long you stay, etc.
  • to offer content that's engaging enough to convert visitors into subscribers through the RSS feed
  • to elicit more of your comments (I've always intended this to be a dialog, not a soliloquy.)
  • to broaden and strengthen my connections with other bloggers
  • to find more and better ways of participating in the growing movement to rescue and restore children's natural affinity with Nature.

Many thanks to all who've visited One Man's Wonder, those who've taken the time to comment, my faithful RSS-feed subscribers, and to those who've shared, liked and tweeted about OMW.

Thanks to my fellow bloggers who, as a rule, have proven to be kind, generous and supportive.

Very special thanks to Meg Pier at A View From the Pier, Robin Easton at Naked In Eden, Karen at Univisions, and Lori Deschene at Tiny Buddha, who've mentioned or shared my posts with their followers, offered suggestions, posed challenging questions, and/or agreed to share my work as guest posts at their sites.

And Rob Whitehead at Zihua Rob's Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa Message Board has generously allowed me to include a link to OMW in my comments there, as well as slipping in an occasional, shameless plug for one of my posts.

My friends, your encouragement and support has been a great blessing, often coming, miraculously, at just those times when I most needed a pat on the back. THANK YOU!

Monday, August 1, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

TIP #46 
Crush a leaf or bud and smell it.*

There's so much more to plants than meets the eye. As beautiful as they may look, some are like chocolates: you have to get inside to reach the good stuff.
Pine needles, geranium, sage, juniper berry, creeping Charlie: just a few of the plants that may surprise and delight you with their fragrant essence.

* Don't do this if you don't recognize toxic plants when you see them! And please, don't pick anything unless you know the plant to be common and prolific.