Friday, September 28, 2012

AT LAST – Jeff's Reflections Distilled in a Book!

A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder



Order one for 
yourself and a
few to give! 
A lovely meditation on what makes life worth living.
RICHARD LOUV, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle 
A welcome invitation to see the world through new eyes.
MARTI ERICKSON, cofounder, Children & Nature Network; cohost,
Warmhearted, wise, uplifting—simply enchanting!
ROBIN EASTON, author of Naked in Eden: My Adventures and Awakening in the Australian Rainforest
Inspires us to keep our childlike wonder alive.
ANN BANCROFT, polar explorer, teacher and author
Nourishes the soul. 
MEG PIER, travel writer, photographer,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Do you remember how it felt when, as a child,
you first discovered some little creature or flower
you’d never seen before and when, moved beyond
speech, all you could manage was a breathless wow?

That little whisper, that crystalline moment of pure
wonder, is what Under the Wild Ginger is about.

You can reclaim the magical in your hectic life. You’ll learn how to open both your senses and your spirit to your surroundings, how to notice and celebrate the countless small miracles that await, often right under your nose.


A guidebook to journeys of wonder 
with children and grandchildren

The book introduces the concept of seeing generously. It suggests that, while sensing may seem a kind of acquisition, it’s really as much about giving as taking—letting go agendas and schedules; surrendering cell phones and computers; committing your time; applying your imagination; and, above all, simply paying attention.

Giving something of yourself to the process of perception restores the curiosity and joie de vivre each of us possessed naturally as a child but which got buried in layer upon layer of adult structure, stress, and cynicism.

Under the Wild Ginger is a book to enjoy in quiet moments by yourself, to give to kindred spirits, and, perhaps most importantly, to share with your children and grandchildren as a guidebook to journeys of wonder you’ll undertake together.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A DARK PRESENCE – Claiming My Spirit

I couldn’t sleep. The scratching sounds inside the wall just inches from my head were back. I’d been hoping it was just mice, but they must have been really big ones; I could hear their weight as they scurried around.

It was my first house, on 16th Avenue South, in a poor, racially diverse neighborhood of South Minneapolis. Not the best area, but it was the only house I could afford, and, after living in a rooming house and mooching rooms from friends, I was more than ready to get on board the home-ownership, equity-building escalator.

I’d only been in the house for a little more than a week. I hadn’t even unpacked. The bed frame still lay in pieces on the floor next to my queen-size mattress.

It was nothing I could see, just this cold, dark, malevolent force.

My welcome to home ownership, so far, had not been an especially warm one. Besides the creepiness of having who knows how many and what kind of animals scratching inside my walls, I’d also had to deal with six inches of fetid raw sewage backing up into my basement, not to mention being awakened at 2am one night by a man staggering along the street, screaming, “Oh God! They stabbed me in the face!”

I was already beginning to miss the murmur of neighbors’ lives that comes with sharing your building, realizing now how comforting that proximity had been.

As I lay there in the dark, all these unsettling things churning in my mind, it occurred to me just how alone, how uncentered, I felt. It hit me really hard. Above me, the pitched walls of the finished attic space seemed to fall in on me, stirring a twinge of claustrophobia.

Then I felt a sensation I’d never experienced before. In the course of 10 or 15 seconds, a presence poured into the room, coming from everywhere at once. It was an aura that clearly was not of me, but surrounded and consumed me. It was nothing I could see, just this cold, dark, malevolent force.

Whatever it was seemed to be going right for my core, trying to inhabit my sense of myself. I’d never fully appreciated, until that moment, just how much I’d always taken for granted that sense, that nucleus of warmth, light, and innocence that normally animates our thoughts and actions. I’d never before seen what it looked like to lose it.

For lack of a better characterization for something so devoid of kindness or love, the image that came to mind was one formed, I’m sure, when I was a child: “the devil.” I could hear myself thinking that, and couldn’t quite grasp that it was all real and not a scene from a book or movie. But it was as real as any spiritual essence I’d ever felt. And I was so frightened I couldn’t move.

Even the faint light that had been seeping into the room from the streetlights outside now seemed swallowed by the all-consuming pall.

Okay, I thought, maybe I’m just feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the recent changes in my life. Maybe if I just try to think about something else, the dread will go away. But whatever it was, it was not going to allow such diversions. Even the faint light that had been seeping into the room from the streetlights outside now seemed swallowed by the all-consuming pall.

I felt like a drowning man clawing for something to hold on to. I was able to say the name of my black lab, Bess, who’d been lightly snoring on her blanket just across the room. I knew that, if she’d come to me, somehow her spirit could help rescue mine.

I tried to call her again, louder this time, but the sound just seemed to stay inside my head. I was devastated that she wasn’t there for me, but then realized with a chill that she too must be feeling this presence. Her snoring had stopped. I couldn’t see her, but I sensed she was awake.

I don’t think of myself as a religious man, at least not in the conventional sense. But at that moment, prayer seemed perfectly consistent with my animist leanings. So I prayed; I prayed really hard. I asked the Creator of all that’s good, true and beautiful to save me from this alienation and restore that certainty, that inner light I’d always taken for granted before.

There was no doubt, no ambiguity, no hesitation. A new presence wrapped around me like the softest, warmest blanket. As that warmth swaddled me, it also filled me, and the chill, that profound darkness, began flowing out of the room—and out of me—as it had come in.

Bess’s tongue, like the kiss of angels, welcomed me back to where I knew I belonged.

I lay there for a minute, still awestruck by what had happened, basking in the glow of that beneficent spirit. I felt a different kind of warmth; it was wet too, bathing my cheek. Bess’s tongue, like the kiss of angels, welcomed me back to where I knew I belonged.

I’ve often wished animals could talk, but never more than at that moment. Had Bess felt what I’d felt? Did she even have a sense of self? Had this kindly spirit intervened for her too?

I don’t suppose I’ll ever find answers to those questions, nor to why I was visited by that dark, hopeless spirit. I’ve not caught an inkling of it since. Now that I’m aware of my true essence and understand that it’s not to be taken for granted, I spend more time appreciating it, nurturing it, celebrating it.

I pray every day, and ask God to help me be in a sort of permanent state of prayer, humbly, gratefully aware, throughout the day, of how it feels to lose sight of his grace.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

SEE YOU TOMORROW – A Lesson in Grace

When I spend any time with very old people—I suppose I should say older than I am—I can’t help but try seeing myself in their shoes. I’m especially drawn to those few elderly souls who, despite their obvious physical restrictions, still manage to keep learning every day and shining their lights of optimism, joy and kindness. That's what I want to be when I grow up.

Might the elegant designs Nature has crafted for everything else in creation include compensating us, when we age, for our loss of physical mobility with a proportional gain in our spiritual reach?

If this is the case, I think I might understand what grace is. And it brings to mind an experience I had when the door to my mother’s century-long life—at least the part of it that afforded her access to the physical world—had closed to a narrow slit.

                                             *    *    *

"Oh, Irene’s the one in charge of the whole place," Mom declared. "Everything goes through her." I looked at Irene and the others at our table, and somehow I knew she was talking about Joyce.

Mom had been in the nursing home for only a few days, and already she’d assigned a pecking order to her fellow "inmates." She'd even pointed out "the head table" in the dining room. It was always a different table, always one occupied by people no more able nor important than the rest. Still, the institution seemed of great interest and importance to her. There was no resentment in her matter-of-fact tone, just a vague note of resignation.

I'd been joining Mom every Thursday for dinner and bingo since she and Dad had first moved into assisted living eight years before. The staff at her new full-nursing-care residence had been nice enough to establish a standing guest chair for me at Mom’s table, so every Thursday there was a place set for me. Even more thoughtfully, they'd assigned to our table residents who could feed themselves, and who still had the ability—and the desire—to converse.

Tonight, everyone at the table seemed in fairly good spirits. And Joyce was positively in seventh heaven. One of the two dinner choices was biscuits and gravy. To her, this was pure ambrosia—real comfort food reminiscent, she explained, of her youth. The servers always brought her two large biscuits and an extra bowl of gravy on the side.

With her one functioning hand and special fat-handled spoon, she resolutely spaded off each morsel of biscuit, slathered it in the thick, starchy, sausage-dotted gravy, and lifted it slowly to her mouth. Gravy crawled down her chin, dripping occasionally onto her bib. I remembered my mother's comment about Joyce and wondered if she saw something I was missing.

I exchanged pleasantries with Irene, Mark, Marion and Joyce, but somehow the conversation never managed to build up a head of steam. I guess it's hard to talk when just taking a sip of juice demands every bit of your strength and concentration. Every few minutes, it seemed, a nurse would interrupt, dispensing medications in little pleated paper cups.

      While nearly everyone else in the room
      seemed carried by conditions beyond their 

      control, Joyce still carried herself.

As dessert was being handed out, I found myself looking again at Joyce. On the other side of that gravy-spotted bib, there was indeed something different about her. While nearly everyone else in the room seemed carried by conditions beyond their control, Joyce still carried herself.

It was hard to put my finger on, but, if one can imagine a 90-something, half-paralyzed, wheelchair-bound woman embodying a mystique, Joyce, I decided, had it.

This presence was by no means intimidating—though she was a woman with a large frame. But her erect posture, her direct, confident tone of voice and an earnest, resolute manner just seemed somehow strong, safe, reassuring.

She seemed wise too, as if, when she mentioned something factual, you could believe her. Among this community of crumbling minds and spirits, her core of strength seemed intact, as yet unconquered by her years.

Eventually everyone began leaving their tables one by one, a few steadfastly wheeling themselves, most being pushed by aides. It was then that I was glad I'd kept watching Joyce, because the most remarkable thing began to happen.

A woman at another table who'd been staring vacantly into her own lap was wheeled by her still-ambulatory husband all the way across the room to our table—to Joyce. When the wheels of their two chairs touched, the woman raised her head and gazed distantly into Joyce's eyes. "Yes, dear, I know," I overheard Joyce intoning.

   She'd always end her audience with those
   gently powerful words: "I’ll see you tomorrow."

I lost most of the words, but the solid, caring, deeply reassuring tone was unmistakable as she leaned forward toward the woman. Joyce raised her hand and, offering the softest part of it—the back—tenderly stroked her supplicant's cheek. "Good night, sweetheart; I'll see you tomorrow," she said.

In the coming weeks I witnessed Joyce's gentle ministry, once again with the same woman and with several others. "Darling," "sweetheart," "love"—she embraced them with her words and her touch. And she'd always end her audience with those gently powerful words: "I’ll see you tomorrow."

Last Thursday I was back in my special spot at Mom's table. "Hey, where's Joyce?" I said to no one in particular. There was an awkward silence before Irene's quavering little voice answered, "Joyce..." She forced the rest through a catch in her throat. "...passed away this afternoon."

I miss Joyce. Everyone misses her. My mom has appointed no successor to her imaginary exalted post. I keep looking for a sign that someone else—anyone—will carry on.

Maybe, I'm thinking, Mom was right after all. Maybe Joyce really was in charge.

Friday, September 14, 2012

UNDER THE WILD GINGER – The Birth of a Book Title

(PART 2 OF 2 – For part 1, click HERE)

(In part one, I shared a rather detached view of the wild ginger plant—its habitat, range and reputation. Now, in part two, it gets personal.)

So, I'm out walking around my neighborhood one fine June evening. I'm soaking in everything—the colors, the sounds, the smells, the way the air feels—as we northerners do after six months of cold, dark-grayness.

In one yard, right along the sidewalk, I come across this patch of ground cover, a solid mat of satiny, heart-shaped leaves. And I don't know what possesses me, but some instinct, perhaps one of those spontaneous, child-like curiosities that manage to slip out now and then from under the weight of our grown-up preoccupations, makes me bend down and separate the leaves.

It's too dark down there to see much, so I kneel down, bend over and take a closer look.

There in the cool, dark bower under that leafy canopy, nestled at the base of the stems, is a flower, a precious little three-lobed, burgundy orchid-like bloom, as beguiling as something illustrated in a fairy tale. And there are more, scattered among the hairy stems.

I didn't know at the time that what I'd explored was wild ginger (Asarum Canadense), but thank goodness for Google! The information settled nicely into my mental catalog of such fine little discoveries.

I learned that those amazing little hidden flowers have three sepals (botanically distinct from petals), that they bloom from late spring through early summer, and that, because they're so well hidden, they have to attract ants and other crawling insects to pollinate them.

Flash forward about ten years. I'd been writing essays about how I've been able to notice and celebrate life's—and Nature's—small wonders. I happened to send a couple of them to my old friend, Charlie, in Boston. He wrote back, "Hey, these are pretty good; if you could come up with about 50 of 'em, you'd have a book."

This was the first time the notion of a book even entered my mind. I went right to my laptop and counted my essays. I had 51.

So I started reviewing those essays, looking for a common theme, a thread that would tie them all together. As it turned out, nearly every one of them involved not just being aware and in the moment, but also an additional element, an extra measure of curiosity, patience, creativity or faith.

So there it was, a book in the making. But a good book needs a strong, evocative title, so what would it be? It took me about ten seconds to decide. I remembered my magical introduction to wild ginger, that moment when I could easily have thought what a handsome plant! and kept on walking.

It was the perfect metaphor for curiosity, the kind that requires that one extra, curious step. It was an inviting image I believed would draw people to my message. I knew I had my title.

Under the Wild Ginger – Order it now by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

UNDER THE WILD GINGER – The Birth of a Book Title

Wild ginger may refer to any of a wide variety of plants, often with a similar appearance, odor or taste to cultivated ginger. Among the many genuses is Asarum, which itself comprises some 60 species. The most common here in Minnesota is Asarum Canadense, also referred to occasionally as Canada snakeroot.

Asarum Canadense is native to the forests, yards and gardens of eastern North America. It is found from the Great Plains east to the Atlantic Coast, and from southeastern Canada south to approximately the fall line in the southeastern United States. Spreading through rhizomes, it grows best in rich soils and prefers dappled to full shade.

Wild ginger is not a true ginger but gained the name because the root makes an excellent ginger substitute and the leaves smell of ginger when crushed. (Though it is said to have been used medicinally by Native Americans and European settlers, some sources describe the leaves as quite toxic, to both skin and the digestive system.)

Lewis and Clark mentioned wild ginger in their journals. While camping along the Lolo Trail, Lewis wrote:
Pott's legg which has been much swolen and inflamed for several days is much better this evening and gives him but little pain. we applyed the pounded roots and leaves of the wild ginger & from which he found great relief.
Even at first glance, Asarum Canadense is a beautiful thing. Usually found as a thick, perennial ground cover, each plant has two satiny, dark green, heart-shaped leaves, about the size of one’s hand, on six- to ten-inch hairy stems. They have a distinctive vein pattern which subtly puckers their surface.

Very nice. But the true wonder of wild ginger— as with many of the wonders I celebrate in my writing—lies hidden to first glances. Curious? Well then, stay tuned, my friends…


Sunday, September 9, 2012


 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 kind of 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 great hemispheric sweep of our vision, most of it—with all its wonders of wisp and wing, billow and beam—lies above eye level.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


True to its name, this sunflower pulses with light, its tousled petals like solar
flares erupting from the seething, seeding core.

Look closely and you'll see flowers within the flower—tiny star-shaped florets surrounding the maturing seeds.

They're all arranged in one of Nature's most sublime patterns, a spiral lattice, so precise in contrast to the careless abandon of the petals, to the raspy, gangly stalk.

What an amazing gift to the eye—and spirit—this sunny early September day!

MORE ON SUNFLOWER'S SEED HEAD PATTERN (From Wikimedia) – Generally, each floret and seed is oriented toward the next by approximately the golden angle, 137.5°, producing a pattern of interconnecting spirals, where the number of left spirals and the number of right spirals are successive Fibonacci numbers. Typically, there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other; on a very large sunflower there could be 89 in one direction and 144 in the other. This pattern produces the most efficient packing of seeds within the flower head.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

EVENING GLORY – The Other Side of Now

I've always loved morning glories. The way they greet each new day with all their being, expending their most joyous color early, fading in afternoon's heat, then closing down, passing their lifeblood of light to other buds whose day is tomorrow.

I've marveled at that one continuous parasol petal, a fabric of such gossamer translucence that it must be lit from within.

And then there's that breathtaking color—blue's my favorite, a clearer, truer blue than that of any bloom.

But this evening I stop and appreciate the plant's evening glory. Here, in one
gaze, are both its coming and going, evidence that one's not simply the inverse
of the other.

No, morning glory unfurls radially, like a twirled umbrella, but curls up another way, rolling in and over itself like water down a round hole. It will not open again.

The irony's not lost on this wonderer that, so unlike me, this moment's all about past and future. I'm glad that, come morning, now will once again unfurl.

                                                     Video: Unfurling Glory