Thursday, December 29, 2011

RECLAIM WONDER! – Some New Year's Resolutions

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

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

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

I will make time for awareness, curiosity and wonder.


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

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

I will notice and celebrate the power of presence.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will seize every opportunity to help a screen-bound child reconnect with Nature. 


For your own FULL-COLOR, FRAMEABLE VERSION of the Reclaiming Wonder Pledge, just send me an e-mail: jeff@willius.com

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

AWESOME, SCHMAWESOME – The Slow Death of Superlatives

Awe is the most transcendent of all human emotions. That makes it hard to talk or write about. After all, words are all we have, and they are so inadequate. That doesn't keep us from trying, though—sometimes, perhaps, a little too hard.

ILLUSTRATION: Katy Farina

HYPER-HYPE
For example, in my lifetime the word awe in all of its manifestations, as well as other terms used to describe profound emotion, have been rendered virtually powerless by their misuse and overuse. The media—especially the entertainment media (which now apparently includes journalism)—seem afraid that if they don’t out-awe the competition, they just won’t get noticed.

Awe, awful and awesome...roll off people’s tongues like so many watermelon seeds at a July picnic.

And it’s rubbed off on everyone; just listen to how people talk. Awe, awful and awesome, not to mention ambitious words like disaster, horrific, unbelievable, extreme or mega-fill-in-the-blank, roll off people’s tongues like so many watermelon seeds at a July picnic.

CALL THE AWE POLICE
My children’s generation managed to attach awesome to everything from Nikes to Napster, rendering that word, in particular, powerless to describe much of anything that’s truly important. Come on now, if everything’s awesome, then nothing is.

So how do we describe something that really is rare and awesome—or unspeakably bad—when the words we once reserved for such occasions have gotten so threadbare?

I suppose we could try to restore those words to their long-lost potency. Under threat of arrest, we’d reserve them for describing—or should I say trying to describe—only things that really matter. Like an experience (good or bad) we can never fully understand, and which truly humbles us. Short of that, very, very little of what most of us are or do or see qualifies as either "awful" or "awesome."

Wouldn’t the truest, most articulate expression of an emotion this powerful be utter speechlessness?

THE ELOQUENCE OF SILENCE
The other solution, one that makes more sense to me, would be to just accept the fact that some words, especially those derived from awe, have simply become too frivolous to be used or believed any more. After all, wouldn’t the truest, most articulate expression of an emotion this powerful be utter speechlessness?

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." ~ ALBERT EINSTEIN

Friday, December 23, 2011

SEASON'S GREETINGS!!

I may be without a computer for a few days, so I want to wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—over 65 countries so far—the very best of this season. For us Christians, that means MERRY CHRISTMAS! (para mis hispanohablantes amigos, ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!) For my Jewish friends, it's HAPPY HANUKKAH! For all of us here in the northern hemisphere, it's HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE! 

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Tips

TIP #13
Find Your Core.


Too much of life occurs at the margins—those rough spots where we chafe against obligation, assumption, expectation, fear.

So how do you find your sacred center, that place where all time is now? Go where your heart leads; it alone knows the way.

Friday, December 16, 2011

ON TLALNEPANTLA TIME – Savoring a Mexican Moment

One of the many things I admire about Mexican culture (at least in parts of the country I’ve visited) is the way people savor life.

For generations Mexicans have gotten a bad rap for being slow, unreliable and lazy. While I know from much experience that this is far from an accurate characterization, I can see how an ignorant person might get that impression.

It’s a responsibility to things on which a norteamericano or an europeo might not 
place as high a value.

Mexicans don’t let plans, schedules or clocks run their lives. This isn’t because they’re inconsiderate or irresponsible; they aren’t. In fact, it’s often because they are so responsible that Mexicans find it so hard to be bridled by time. But it’s a responsibility to things on which a norteamericano or an europeo might not place as high a value—especially their commitment to family and community, and their unfailing graciousness.

SIMPLE PLEASURES
Mexicans know how to appreciate the simple little wonders that life presents while others might be busy making other plans.

One telling—and typical—experience with this occurred several years ago when I, two of my fellow Spanish students and my friend Silverio were visiting the home of Silverio’s old friends, Ignacio (Nacho), Marta and their three daughters in Tlalnepantla, a northern suburb of Mexico City.



Mexicans know how to appreciate the simple little wonders that life presents while others might be busy making other plans. 

They were going to join us for dinner and a night out in the big city’s infamous Garibaldi Square. We arrived at their house at about 8:00 PM. I thought we were in a bit of a hurry, since we’d planned to leave for the restaurant by about 9:00.

After hugs all around, I presented our hosts with the customary regalito—little gift—a bottle of maple syrup I’d brought from home. (On a previous trip I’d given them another taste of Minnesota exotica, a ceramic moose.)

ONE KERNEL AT A TIME
We sat around the dining room table. Nacho offered us the obligatory tequila, poured from the fanciest of four or five bottles prominently arrayed on the overwrought bar—obviously his pride and joy. When Marta asked if anyone wanted popcorn, the hands of Brenda, Andrea and Abril, shot up in the air, making it unanimous.

A few minutes later Marta emerged from the kitchen carrying nine paper napkins and one small, steaming bag of microwave popcorn. We all helped ourselves to our share, just about a handful each, which we piled on our napkins.



One precious kernel at a time, they’d hold it up, inspect it and finally place it in their mouths.

I watched the little girls as they quietly savored that popcorn. It was as if it were the last popcorn they’d ever see. One precious kernel at a time, they’d hold it up, inspect it and finally place it in their mouths. They made those few buttery morsels last for about ten minutes.

PRECIOUS MEMORIES
I got up to stretch my legs, taking a closer look at some of their prints and knick-knacks. Nestled in the corner of the living room was a small all-glass étagère with three or four shelves. On each were displayed cheap little souvenir items from places the family had been to or dreamt of going to: a baby spoon engraved with the name of some amusement park; a shot glass from a resort area near Guanajuato; a plastic replica of the Statue of Liberty. And there, front and center on the top shelf, was my moose.

By this time, everyone else had joined me around the curios. For the next half hour, we all stood there admiring those three- or four-dollar items, listening to the girls recalling each trip, hearing all about the people who’d sent them this keepsake or that. At times, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the lengthy silences, no one uttering a word except for a few contemplative “Hm-m-ms.”

Many of us north of the border strive too much, 
talk too much and admire too little.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN
I suspect that here in the United States this scene would have played out quite differently. First, the mementos would have been more expensive by a factor of a hundred…but that’s not the point. Even if they were Faberge eggs and Hummel figurines, we’re not exactly famous for our attention spans. Chances are, the first time there was a lull of more than a few seconds, someone would have jumped at the chance to change the focus to something more exciting.

Many of us north of the border strive too much, talk too much and admire too little. Silences make us nervous. I’ve tried to adopt a bit of the Mexicans’ appreciation of little things, their comfort with quiet, thoughtful interludes in conversation, and their knack for being in the moment.

All these gifts, it seems to me, lend themselves very well to our relationships, not just with other human beings, but with ourselves, with Nature and with whatever it is we find sacred.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
JOHN LENNON – "Beautiful Boy"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

ORANGE APPEAL / As If For the First Time

(This is the first in a new series of reflections, As If For the First Time, describing the most commonplace of experiences through a fresh lens, one of innocence and wonder.)

With the possible exception of apples and bananas, the orange is probably the most common fruit most of us here in the USA know.

But, like so many of Nature's little wonders, the moment we start seeing it as if for the first time, the orange turns into something quite sensational.


PEEL-AWAY PACKAGING
First of all, just look at the color. How many foods are truly orange? Okay, carrots, peaches, maybe a good yam, but an orange is the only one with that semi-gloss surface that so deepens and intensifies the color.

Once you've broken through the tough skin...
the stuff zips off like a tight sweater.

Peeling an orange is a satisfying experience—almost as neat and definite as peeling a banana. Once you've broken through the tough skin enough to get the end of your thumb under an edge, the stuff zips off like a tight sweater. The thicker the peel, the easier the peeling. (Then again, if it's too thick, I always feel kind of cheated, don't you?)


If you're lucky, a few jets of fragrant orange oil will spritz out of the fruit's glands—those little dark spots just under the outer surface—letting anyone within twenty yards know what you're up to without even looking.

The two sides of the peel could hardly be much different: tough, leathery, dimpled like pigskin on the outside; soft, creamy-white and kind of furry on the inside. Some of this stuff—the pith—always tries to cling to the fruit. I don't mind; it doesn't have much taste, and besides, I hear it's good for you.

AN EXPLOSION OF FLAVOR
The meat of the orange, when you step back from its familiarity, is like something you might read about in the tale of a journey to some exotic eden. Sheer membranes divide it into these little bite-sized, translucent wedges that peel
neatly apart.

...hundreds of tiny little teardrop-shaped sacs explode, filling your mouth with their luscious juice.

 

You raise one section toward your mouth. If you think its cool, rubbery texture suggests what it's like biting into it, you're in for a surprise. As your teeth penetrate, hundreds of tiny little teardrop-shaped sacs explode, filling your mouth with their luscious juice. (If it's the kind of orange I like, those oil glands in the fruit's skin have infused the juice with their orange essence, and the sweetness is balanced with a nice acidic bite.)

WHENCE LITTLE ORANGES COME
Then there are the pips (seeds). The color of rich cream, each is like a tiny parcel wrapped in crinkled wax paper. Inside is the smooth, tender, white-centered seed. Hints of green suggest its miraculous potential for new life.*

A navel orange, of course, has its belly button at one end and, inside—amazing!—a second little orange in embryonic form. Eating it—if you can set aside the embryo image—is an adventure of still more flavors and textures.

Next time you peel an orange, try my approach: do it as if you'd never done it before. Try to forget what you know will happen. Take your time, open all your senses and enjoy! Then won't you please share your "as if for the first time" experience here by leaving a comment? Thanks!
*I've heard people say orange seeds are poisonous, but I don't believe them. In fact, I've eaten a number of them, just to see what they taste like. Personally, I think there's a greater chance you'd choke than be poisoned.

Friday, December 9, 2011

THE LUXURY OF HABIT – A Chat With My Older, Wiser Self

Maybe it's all this writing I'm doing about awareness, wonder and gratitude…
or perhaps just something that happens to human beings of a certain age.

Lately I've experienced a series of small epiphanies, flashes of astounding clarity that feel like messages coming back to me from an older, wiser version of myself.



STRUCK BY BEAUTY
They say hindsight is twenty-twenty. The trouble is, of course, that you can't benefit from it until it's already too late to do anything about it…or can you?

The latest of these little flashbacks from the future occurred just yesterday, as I drove to work. I'd been absorbed in the usual trivial logistics of my morning routine: having breakfast; scanning the paper; collecting stuff I might need for the day; rolling the trash can in from the curb; getting in the car and setting off for my office.

Pedestrians and other drivers turned from nameless, faceless obstacles I had to negotiate to living, breathing people I could care about.

When you do the same thing every morning for decades, it gets pretty much programmed into you. I make all the correct turns, stop at all the red lights, pick up a latte at the coffee shop and arrive at my office building—all with hardly a conscious thought of what I'm doing.

Yesterday was different, though. Just as I was turning onto University Avenue, a thought suddenly snatched me from my reverie, a realization of how much of my life I'm taking for granted. I'm not sure what the catalyst was—most likely a stirring piece of music on the radio. But all of a sudden I was seeing everything differently.



The unexceptional clouds became amazing clouds; the snow, no longer just random splashes of white, struck me for its exotic beauty—a wonder most people on earth will never experience; pedestrians and other drivers turned from nameless, faceless obstacles I had to negotiate to living, breathing people I could care about. Peace and freedom, conditions I nearly always take for granted, suddenly enveloped me in a radiant glow of gratitude.

ALL IN THE FAMILY
Where, I asked myself, was this acute awareness, this fresh perspective, coming from?

More than just a passing notion, it felt like my point of view had shifted from that of the man I am now, with all my options still pretty much open to me, to a man 15 or 20 years older. This older man had already endured some of the losses most of us will inevitably, grudgingly, trade for living a longer life.

It dawned on me that this voice was my own, 
that of the man I have yet to become.

He could no longer be trusted to drive. It was assumed he would no longer work. He was unable to walk very far on his own. Many of his family and close friends had passed away.

The one capacity that hadn't yet betrayed him was memory. And here he was, in the car with me—in the welcoming space of my consciousness—sharing the bittersweet wisdom of that perfect, twenty-twenty vision of hindsight. It dawned on me that this voice was my own, that of the man I have yet to become.

COMINGS AND GOINGS 
The man told me he'd had very few regrets about his life, but one would haunt him forever: complacency. Here with me he could see so clearly what he'd taken for granted for most of his life, those trivial events that comprise most of our daily experience and which become so commonplace that we no longer fully appreciate what they mean.

But to this old man that meaning was quite clear indeed:

You, he pined, still have the freedom to go wherever you want, even if that's only these two rote miles to work. To me, that simple jaunt would mean the world.

You still enjoy the sweet blessing of communities of your own choosing. I am, no matter how nicely you put it, institutionalized.

You can still observe, with wonder, the routine comings and goings of your fellow human beings, and feel your shared humanity. My peers no longer come and go any more than I do.

You still bask in the astounding beauty of Nature—the kind to be found in wilderness if that's what you choose, but also in this most ordinary urban day. I will consider extraordinary the day someone takes me outdoors…anywhere.
He reminds me…of the curiosity and playfulness
of childhood that still smolder somewhere inside humans of any age.

 

THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…?
As I pulled into the parking lot, my visitor went on his way, but not before asking me a couple of questions:

When you reach the place where I am now, will you look back on your life with bitterness and a sense of loss as I do?

Or will you have the grace to remember these moments of clarity you're having now, and focus not on what you've lost, but on the many, many precious gifts you've received…and still receive?

Not just the big gifts like life, good health, a loving family, a relationship with your higher power, but also the simple, everyday wonders of Nature and humanity that surround you every day.

Perhaps most importantly, will you have the well of joy, the generosity of vision, to believe that such wonders still exist, if you let them, no matter how "small" your physical world?

I guess time will tell.

I hope my older, wiser self keeps coming back for these little visits. He reminds me—in the voice of someone who knows and cares—of the very things I believe in and pretend to write about: the curiosity and playfulness of childhood that still smolder somewhere inside humans of any age; patience; challenges that test your faith, connect you with others and make you grow; the eloquence of just sitting silently with someone you care about…

…and yes, I suppose, the luxury, the guilty pleasure, of habit.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Tips

TIP #1
Remember, for any given moment there's more than one way to be in it.


In the concert of life, are you tuned in to the musicians? To the conductor? Perhaps it's the music, taking you far away.

All that presence asks is that, wherever experience takes you, that's where you go—fully, gladly and all the way.
 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

WANT SALT ON YOUR FLIES? – A Resurrection to Savor

I cannot in good conscience take credit for this amazing little experiment. In fact, I don’t even know who does deserve the credit. Maybe it was some high school biology teacher...or for that matter, maybe a Nobel Laureate. All I know is that I witnessed it first-hand. Call it a cheap bar trick if you will, but don't try to tell me it wasn't a wonder of Nature!

I was working for a small advertising agency in Walpole, New Hampshire (the town that documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, calls home). When my boss discovered that our biggest client was a fishing fanatic, he decided to take him on a fly-in salmon fishing trip to northern Maine. Trouble was, my boss didn’t know a dry fly from a Daredevle. But he knew I did, so there I was—after our narrow escape from crashing the float plane on take-off from Lake Sunapee—in a remote, rented lake cabin about 40 miles northeast of Mt. Katahdin.

Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp, by Frederic Church, 1895

As we were preparing our gear for the next morning’s outing, our French-Canadian bush pilot, Bernie St. Laurent, made us a bet. “See dis fly?” he asked, pointing to one of the dozen or so common black houseflies that shared the cabin with us. “Bet I can kill da ting and den bring ’im back ta life.”

The few beers already under our belts made us easy marks. “The hell you can!” my boss and I blurted, reaching for our wallets.


The show began on an impressive note with Bernie neatly grabbing one of the flies right out of the air with his hand. He plopped his palm down on top of a beer glass he’d filled three quarters full of water, trapping the fly. Then he carefully stuffed a paper napkin under his hand until its wet mass held his poor victim underwater with no escape.

After struggling for a while, the fly finally stopped moving. “You guys tell me when you tink he’s a goner, eh?” Bernie said. Just to be sure, we waited a couple more minutes before giving him the nod.

“Okay den,” he said as he removed the soggy napkin, the dead fly’s leg barbs still attached to it. With a toothpick, he carefully pried the corpse away and positioned it, upright, on the table. He reached for the saltshaker and began sprinkling the wet carcass.

Soon the pile of tiny translucent cubes completely covered the fly. Like any good con man, Bernie took advantage of the moment to sweeten the pot, goading us out of a few more bucks. Hey, how can you bet too much on a sure thing, right?

Bernie waited a bit longer and then began delicately plowing aside the salt with his toothpick. Soon all that was left was the last wet layer of crystals that clung directly to the body. Like a fly brain surgeon, he used the instrument to gently dislodge individual crystals.

It took several minutes, but finally he’d gotten just about all the salt off that he could. Then, with a wry, confident grin, he tapped the fly’s corpse with the flat end of the toothpick. On the fourth tap, the fly’s wings twitched. Then it shook its legs and began using them to scrape off the remaining salt.

In less than 20 seconds, the damn thing shook off the last of the salt and flew back to the window sill to tell his friends of his alien abduction.

We all agreed that Bernie had earned his money. Now, if only he’d had a way of sprinkling some of that magic on the salmon!