Tuesday, December 30, 2014

RECLAIM WONDER! – New Years Resolutions for Mystics

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. 


WANT TO PRINT & FRAME THESE RESOLUTIONS?

Framing example only; frame not included in offer.
 
ORDER YOUR FREE, FRAMEABLE, FULL-COLOR 
RECLAIMING WONDER PLEDGE DOCUMENT.
Print it out, frame it, or make it the background of your computer desktop.
Give a framed copy to someone you know who's also yearning to reclaim wonder in his/her life.

TO ORDER, JUST SEND JEFF AN E-MAIL: jeff@willius.com
Thanks for taking the Reclaiming Wonder Pledge! Have a wonder-full 2015!

Friday, December 26, 2014

THE PERFECT SNOWBALL


Snow is a wonder of Nature, exquisitely beautiful from the detail of a single flake to its sparkling white accumulations.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in northern climes learn about snow from an early age. We learn that a single flake landing on your tongue is the most ephemeral of delights; that the joy derived from rolling in it is just barely worth the jolt of an occasional handful down your neck.

Not only is snow beautiful. Not only does it magically cleanse a graying winter landscape. Given the right conditions, it’s also plastic; you can make stuff with it. Snow angels, toboggan jumps, snowmen. You can build a fort or—a time honored tradition for the young and the young at heart in these parts—have a snowball fight.

    The more sensible your gloves the harder it is 
    to make the perfect snowball.

GLOVES, SCHMUVS!
Here in Minnesota, many of our winter days are too cold to make snowballs— there’s just not enough free moisture in the snow for it all to stick together. But at 32 degrees Farenheit (0 celsius) and above, bring it on.

PHOTO: L.L Bean
Conventional wisdom would say you must wear good gloves to make snowballs. I’ve done it in everything from the wispy woolens Aunt Elsa knit us for Christmas to those fabulous creamy-soft, golden, wool-lined leather choppers. And I’m here to tell you, the more sensible your gloves the harder it is to make the perfect snowball.

Once you accept the initial burn—and then the inevitable numbness—of your fingers, you’re good to go. Scoop up a double handful of nice damp snow—not too much; just enough so your hands wrap all the way around as your snowball takes shape.

RHYTHM METHOD
A good maker develops a certain rhythm. Your first squeeze or two dispenses with any overage of material, which you unconsciously whisk off as you go.

After that first rough compression, you impel the clump about an inch upward, rotating it slightly, while at the same releasing your grip on it. This frees the mass to turn maybe 20 degrees and land back in your closing hands for your next press.

By the time you’re about eight, you’ve got this down to a science, effortlessly executing two or three of these lift/turn-release-squeeze cycles a second.

This repeated rotation is what gives the ball a nice round shape, something veteran snowball warriors appreciate both aerodynamically and esthetically. As you continue the forming, you learn to feel for high and low spots and compensate by tamping down or repositioning small amounts of your medium on the fly with a finger or thumb.

      Then there's the satisfaction of seeing 
      that sweet roundness explode into shivery 
      shrapnel as it hits home.

AMMO
I’ve seen folks who think snowballs are more about quantity than quality. They slap together clumps of the white stuff that barely resemble balls. Worse yet, some don’t even bother with that, just grabbing and throwing hands-full. I've never quite understood this utter disrespect for the medium.

Me, I prefer quality. I know that the more perfectly spherical a ball is, the farther and truer it flies. And then there’s the perverse satisfaction of seeing that sweet roundness explode into shivery shrapnel as it hits home.

PHOTO: Chuck Kerr

No matter your work ethic, the side with the biggest arsenal often prevails—and it helps a lot if it’s all within arm’s reach. For as soon as you bend over to pick up more of your raw material for another ball, a crafty opponent will be all over you like…well…like the snow she dumps on your head.

HONOR AMONG HEAVES
There are a couple of unspoken rules about snowball fights. No throwing at the face—though this one walks a fine line, since handfuls of soft snow don’t count...and if I just compact it ever so slightly, who's to know?

Another rule is you can’t gang up on someone—unless, of course, that someone is an adult and you’re a bunch of kids. Hey, nobody said this was fair.

And finally, only the most malicious sort will craft a snowball that won’t disintegrate on impact. Like that hoodlum back in middle school who picked on the weak and timid, the one who just disappeared mysteriously from class one day—probably headed to reform school.


  The “cotton-to-cannonball” technique does for 
  a snowball what brass knuckles do for a fist.

Not that I would know first-hand, but I’ve heard there are basically two ways to design these deadly projectiles. First, there’s the “diamond” process, in which so much pressure is put on the damp snowballs that they take on the shiny surface and near-transparency of pure ice.

The second method produces an even denser missile. The “cotton-to-cannonball” technique does for a snowball what brass knuckles do for a fist. You take your “raw” snowballs, saturate them with cold water and then let them freeze solid.

One caveat here: you’d better really enjoy a snowball fight with such heavy weaponry, as it will likely be the last one you ever have. Even if you don’t end up in reform school with that now-aging fiend from middle school, no one will ever again accept your challenge.

THE MEDIUM, THE MESSAGE
PHOTO: TrendHunter.com
If the simple act of making and hurling a snowball is somehow too much for you, there are a few clever devices out there that will do the job for you. One, a big plastic, scissor-like press with a hemispherical cup on each arm, takes a clump of snow and presses it into a near-perfect sphere. Another, shaped more or less like a jai-alai basket, throws a snowball with a quick flick of the wrist.

These devices are not fair. Besides, they completely miss the point. This is about children—and adults who are in touch with their child sides—interacting directly with Nature. Like splashing water in the summer, rolling in dry leaves in the fall or digging dirt, making something to play with out of snow is the most eloquent of expressions of a human being’s oneness with the natural world. Why would you want anything to insulate you from that essential connection?

Making snowballs is about the way your hands feel...and then don't. It’s about the smell and taste of snow. It's about everyone’s different idea of perfection—its shape, its texture, its heft.

And it’s about seeing and hearing that pristine white orb, the one with the ideal size and consistency, land, just between the shoulder blades of a stunned adversary—preferably an older one if you’re young; a younger one if you’re old—who never dreamed you had that kind of an arm.

PHOTO: Molly Redden, Georgetown Voice

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

SEASON'S GREETINGS!

I wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—75 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. May they bring you new awareness, wonder and gratitude!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

THE JOY OF BLOGGING – A Virtual Person of the World

PART II (continued from Dec. 10 )

ILLUSTRATION: Carol Aust - carolaust.com

CREATURES OF HABIT
Several friends and family members have asked me about how to get started blogging. Of course, I’m happy to share what little knowledge and experience I have. After all, I ask them, what have you got to lose? At worst, you’ll spend countless hours writing and posting for your own and perhaps a few other sets of eyes. At best, you’ll become the next Life Hacker or Mashable, get absurdly rich and never leave your computer chair again.

Start with what you know best. Perhaps it’s stuff related to your nine-to-five, but which isn’t fully appreciated by your boss. Maybe it’s some hair-brained theory you can’t get folks to listen to. Or maybe, as in my case, it’s just a series of unforgettable life experiences strung together on threads of spirituality, philosophy or some other theme. Whatever you know, care deeply for, or just wonder about...that’s your content.

You produce something heart-felt and interesting 
on a regular timetable or people will go somewhere 
else for their blog fix.

A word of advice, though: If you’ve ever been in charge of producing a newsletter, you know that all the best intentions in the world are not enough to save you each week, month or quarter when that merciless deadline approaches. I have, and believe me, that publish-or-perish date seems to sneak up on you faster every issue. You’ve got to produce something heart-felt and interesting on a regular timetable or people will go somewhere else for their blog fix.

How often should you post? If you want your site to attract and retain a following, you must commit to a regular schedule. The frequency will hinge on how much you have to say, how efficient a writer you are, your resourcefulness in wrangling content from yourself and other contributors, and of course how much time you can devote to your writing.

(For the first year or so, I managed a new post every third day. Now, it’s more like once a week—and that seems to be the threshold at which I notice daily readership starting to fall off.) Remember, blog followers, like newspaper readers, radio listeners or podcast fans, are creatures of habit.

PACKAGING THE WORD
Just a word or two about design. Without even reading a word, it’s pretty easy to see who the credible bloggers are and who are the rank amateurs. Not even the most engaging content can hold its own against a poorly organized, unappealing, visually unwelcoming design.

PHOTO: r77designs.com

My goal was to position my One Man’s Wonder as far toward the professional end of that spectrum as I could with the resources at my disposal. As I mentioned, I spent nothing on design (though I am a career graphic designer and know how to make the best of even a limited number of design options). Perhaps you have a friend or two who are conversant in design and would give you some pointers.

Here are half a dozen design and style tips you might consider:
  • Strike a balance between verbal and visual content. Use sub-headings, featured quotes, photos and illustration to both support the story and lend visual relief to long blocks of type.
  • Limit your paragraphs to three sentences if possible. Even if technically it’s not a new thought, breaking it up like this makes it much easier to follow on a glowing screen.
  • Use fonts that are easy to read. Serif fonts are well-known to be easier to follow in blocks of text, while the occasional use of sans-serif type can lend variety for headings and captions. Try not to use more than two different type styles in a single post.
         If you need a bit of encouragement—
         let me know and I’ll be glad to help. 
  • Use comfortable language. You don’t want potential readers turned off by too much technical jargon or a stilted tone; they can get their fill of that in an academic textbook. Use connecting words and transitions to let one thought flow easily into the next.
  • Avoid garish colors and backgrounds that compete with your text. You’ve probably seen them: blogs where the author’s favorite color gushes from the page, drowning the other content. And that forest green type on a royal blue background? Bad idea! You want as much contrast as possible between text and what it sits on.
  • Maintain a consistent look. You wouldn’t wear a disguise when showing up for a second date, right? Well, your readers shouldn’t have to take a second look to recognize your blog either. Not to say you shouldn’t freshen up your face once in a while. Between the occasional make-over, though, keep it familiar with your usual fonts, colors and layout.
And, if you have any questions—or simply need a bit of encouragement—let me know and I’ll be glad to help. We bloggers, I've found, are mostly an open, supportive bunch. Happy blogging!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

THE JOY OF BLOGGING – A Virtual Person of the World

PART I  of two parts
 
ILLUSTRATION: kingdesignllc.com

About ten years ago I ran into an old schoolmate who told me how much he
was enjoying blogging. “Great!” I replied, not wanting to reveal my ignorance. Nonetheless, he explained briefly how it worked and that it allowed him an international forum for his best thinking and writing. He said it was easy; I
wasn’t so sure.

But the idea of blogging simmered in the stew of my ambitions. Then, a few years ago, I found myself on the verge of having my first book* published. One of the first questions I knowingly asked my publisher was, “Should I start a blog?” And they agreed that was a great idea.

The strategy, they told me—apparently the rapidly changing indie publishing industry’s new model of how to market a book—was to build, well before our release date, an online following for the kind of content featured in my book, and then pitch the release not just to the nebulous universe of Amazon and Barnes & Noble shoppers, but to my own, pre-vetted, captive audience.

So, a few years back, I started One Man’s Wonder. It was as easy as my friend had said it was; I used Google’s Blogger** platform, which provided me a number of predesigned formats and simple, intuitive tools to customize them to my tastes. And—unbelievably then as now—it was free.

        If it was good, I got comments from 
        readers, making it not just my soapbox, 
        but a lively forum.

The blog, along with my faithful empire-building efforts on Facebook and Twitter, delivered more or less as everyone had hoped. Sure enough, I gained followers who became fans who became buyers of my book. But I also got to connect with kindred spirits who simply share my love of Nature and my appetite for the spiritual nutrients it provides—some of whom were also working on their own books.


A few of these more-famous-than-I new friends, at least partly because of their familiarity with my work through the blog, were kind enough to endorse my book—which has made a huge difference in gaining it interest and credibility.

But One Man’s Wonder’s connection with my book soon became secondary, for blogging came to be a joy in its own right. I got to write about things I ponder all the time and that I love to share. If it was good, I got comments from readers, making it not just my soapbox, but a lively forum. I was grateful, too, for the occasional push-back, which helped me to examine both my thinking and my style.

MYSTICAL MINGLING
It was thrilling to count—in Blogger’s rudimentary analytics feature—the number of visitors I was getting every day, which operating systems and browsers they were using, the keywords they entered to find me, and in which countries they logged in.

I remember those first weeks when I was checking my page views every hour or two, hoping to break double figures for that day. Then, gradually, with the help of my growing followings on Facebook and Twitter, my daily readership grew to the hundreds and, on a good day, the thousands.

Even as I close in on 200,000 all-time page views, I realize these numbers mean little by themselves. Still, it’s been an amazing experience tracking them, watching them grow, and trying to imagine people in, say, China gazing down at the exact same screen view I was seeing—my writing, my photos, my thoughts and feelings.

    Connecting with someone across repressive 
    political or cultural barriers, like fishing 
    for giants in a deep, dark pool, borders on
    the mystical.

But the truest rewards of all have been the wonderful comments I get in person from readers, many of them “lurkers,” followers who never comment online, or who do so anonymously. Ranging from “Oh, I love the photos you share!” to “Such-and-such a post inspired me to get my kids off their little screens and outdoors for some real connection,” this feedback reminds me that my audience is far wider and more interested than the number of comments would suggest.

Visitors to One Man's Wonder have logged on from 75 countries.

Especially fascinating is the international following I seem to have built. At first I was blown away by noticing an occasional page view from Canada, Mexico or somewhere in Europe. But the list has grown, now comprising 75 countries from Argentina to Vietnam.

Connecting with someone on the other side of the world—often across repressive political or cultural barriers—is more than just gratifying; like fishing for the denizens of a deep, dark pool, it borders on the mystical.
(to be continued)

* UNDER THE WILD GINGER - A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder. You can order custom-dedicated, signed copies directly from the author at a special discount for the holidays—just $9.95. Just send Jeff an email: jeff@willius.com

** There are many other free blogging platforms, including WordPress, Typepad, Moveable Type and Tumbler, some of which have far more sophisticated features, but I’ve found Blogger’s intuitive design features—not requiring any knowledge of HTML programming—suit my needs very well.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

COMING TO OUR SENSES – How to Free Your Inner Child

What incredible contraptions we humans are. Our bodies make even the most complex machine we’ve ever devised look like a child’s toy. They’re an astounding integration of systems, each a marvel in itself—musculoskeletal, circulatory, pulmonary, digestive and immune, among others.


Perhaps the most amazing of all is the nervous system. Sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell are the receptors we use to sense the world around us. They afford our brains the reach they need to collect data about the conditions and resources we need to survive.

They tell us when danger is present, compel us to satisfy our hunger and thirst, and let us communicate. Should one sense fall short of the job, the system calls in reinforcements from the others. Our senses nourish us with learning, recreation and spiritual connection. And they indulge us with pleasure. 

As blessed as most of us are to have all our senses, too many of us under-appreciate and under-use them. Life’s tough for a sense. First of all, since few of us any longer depend solely on our raw, native senses for survival, they’ve gotten soft and bloated. What’s left of them gets harried, waylaid and drowned out by all the demands—and perceived demands—of life in the 21st century.

  Curiosity does for our perception what a strong 
  sense of self does for our health and well-being.

SHAPING UP
But we can rescue our poor senses. It’s not hard to do, but it takes some re-prioritizing and a bit of practice. Just like when we’ve failed to properly feed and exercise our bodies for a while, we must assert some discipline to get back in shape.

No, you can’t just sit on the couch or at your desk all day; no, as hungry as you might be for it, you can’t pig out on the tempting, but far-from-nutritious virtual experience and “connection” heaped on your plate by a phone or iPad screen.


Reclaiming our native senses also requires the recruitment of an ally, a quality no less deserving than intuition of status as our “sixth sense.” Curiosity is the impulse that fuels the senses. It does for our perception what a strong sense of self does for our health and wellbeing.

We’re all born with curiosity—lots of it. As far as we know, we’re the only creatures with the luxury of possessing it for reasons not immediately related to survival. Other animals may track a smell, follow a sound or turn over a rock to see if there might be something to eat. We get to do so just for the joy of discovery, just for the fun of it.

Turn off all the little i-robots conspiring to keep you in your seat under their all-consuming spell.


FREEING YOUR INNER CHILD
So, how do you start? Just ten or fifteen years ago, I would have said just observe a five-year-old child. Sadly, though, children, even more so than we adults, have been abducted by the fat, lazy aspects of technology.

So perhaps the best way to picture success is to remember what childhood was like for you. No phone; no laptop; no 24/7 news scaring you into believing conflict and danger are ever-present in your life; no ├╝ber-litigious legal system instilling fear into anyone daring to let kids experience spontaneous, parent-free, outdoor adventures.


Try to channel that spontaneity and freedom. Feel the rekindling of that old inner fire of energy, awareness and curiosity. Meditate, in whatever way you like, to rise above the myriad “adult” concerns holding those native instincts back.

Turn off all the little i-robots conspiring to keep you in your seat under their all-consuming spell. And get outside in Nature, whether that means in a remote wilderness, a national park or just that little patch of grass down the street, and let her draw out your senses as only she can.

         What’s so hard about it is actually 
         that it’s so utterly simple.

OUT OF CONTROL
And finally—this is the bitterest pill for many folks—let go the illusion of control that’s come to delude nearly every one of us trying to cope in what seems an ever-more-out-of-control world. Surrender your senses and your spirit to the ever-wise, all-knowing oneness of the universe. For it knows, even if you do not, where peace and wisdom reside.

Many find it hard to grasp this exercise in faith, because somehow it’s gotten confused with something complex and abstract. Some would have you believe that we have to go on long, arduous quests for it. We think we have to pay people to guide us to it; we take all sorts of elixirs to bring it on.

But what’s so hard about it is actually that it’s so utterly simple, and—perhaps the biggest obstacle to our sensing like kids once again—we’ve gotten conditioned not to trust that simplicity.

We must re-learn it, for the sake of our own health and happiness, for that of our children and grandchildren, and for that of this precious, vulnerable planet.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – Tip #102

Savor the luscious fusion of sense and emotion.















There’s a place where all the sense impressions that come into you churn and stew with stuff that’s looking for a way out.

You keep what you need, but the essence, the aroma of it, exudes through your skin, inviting more, inviting others.


(Happy Thanksgiving to my U.S. readers!)

Friday, November 21, 2014

TALL ORDER – How Yao Ming and You Can Save the Elephants

Anyone see the PBS documentary the other night about the poaching of African elephants, and NBA gentle giant Yao Ming?

PHOTO: WildAid

Yao is appealing to his upwardly-mobile Chinese countrymen to understand the impact of their appetite for decorative ivory craft—not just how it's decimating elephant populations, but how it stresses entire ecosystems, destroying both ecology and economy for countless Africans who have very little else.

 If you abhor the slaughter of nearly 100 of these 
 noble creatures every day for the sake of folks’ 
 pretty little trinkets, here’s what you can do. 


PHOTO: collect.at
I’ve decided to support Yao’s efforts and, if you abhor the slaughter of nearly 100 of these noble creatures every day for the sake of folks’ pretty little trinkets, please consider joining me. Here’s what you can do:

  • Check out Wild Aid (www.wildaid.org) to see what the only substantial organization coming at poaching by drying up the ivory market (and the outfit that enlisted Yao’s help in a massive P.R. campaign to that end) is doing.
  • Support Wild Aid if you like what you see. Donate, volunteer, or at the very least let others know what they and Yao are doing.
      Ask them to help spread word...
      that having ivory on their curio shelf 
      is no longer cool.
  • Contact anyone you know who lives in or knows someone living in China, and ask them to help spread word to their countrymen, friends & family who may not realize what’s at stake, that having ivory on their curio shelf is no longer cool. Include a link to Wild Aid or to any news coverage of Yao Ming’s heartwarming campaign for elephants.
  • Share your interest with your own family, friends and colleagues, and ask them to help stir up some buzz.
  • Pray—for Yao and his challenging work; for organizations like Wild Aid fighting to protect elephants; for desperately poor Africans who feel they have no other option but to participate in the slaughter to find other employment—perhaps helping protect wildlife or in safari tourism; for buyers and traders of ivory to make a compelling emotional connection to the results of their actions.
  • And pray for the elephants.

PHOTO: Animal People News


Thursday, November 13, 2014

THIS ONE’S A GAS – The Home-grown Science of a Twelve-year-old

The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. Sometimes people get their ends reversed.  – THEODORE ROOSEVELT

Twelve-year-old boys, it seems, are especially good at discovering and exploiting the quirks of the human body.

One of my grade school pals showed me this truly odd little experiment applying both physiology and physics. First, you have to yawn. (We learned it’s pretty easy to make oneself do so on demand.) Yawning does several things: it opens your mouth; it draws your tongue back and up; and it produces a rush of saliva (tears too).

          Surely, this was science at its best, 
          though I’m not sure the rationale would 
          have held water with our parents.

While your mouth is still open and your tongue back, you force your tongue quickly down and forward. The little pool of saliva that’s collected in the soft pocket under your tongue gets squeezed, and, if you’re lucky, a few drops will squirt out, maybe a foot or two. Needless to say, we had contests to see how far each of us could squirt. (But Mom, we were just studying fluid dynamics!)

(I found out much later that we weren’t the first to discover this odd practice. In fact, there’s a name for it: gleeking. Go ahead, google it; I dare you.)
 

FIRE IN THE HOLE
I’ll never forget my first lessons on the combustibility of methane and hydrogen. One day, at a friend’s house, he was all excited to show me something. I thought, oh, the lucky stiff; he got a new baseball glove. When we got up to his room, he shut the door, pulled the shades and slumped down in a chair.

     Usually, matches meant we were about to 
     light either a cigarette or a cherry bomb.

He asked me to hand him the book of matches on his desk. Usually, matches meant we were about to light either a cigarette or a cherry bomb. This time, he just told me to shut up, watch and listen. He tore out a match. Then he drew his legs up in the air. I could see he was straining, the veins on his neck standing out and his face getting red. For some reason this didn’t surprise me.

There was a dull flupping sound as he passed some gas. He quickly struck the match and moved it right to his crotch. Swear to God, a grapefruit-sized ball of blue flame poofed between his legs.

Surely, this was curiosity and wonder at its best—the way only kids can do it. I’m not sure the science rationale would have held water with our parents. But for me it was far more than science, more than an appreciation of the wonders of Nature that reside on us and in us; this was the stuff of legend.

             

Thursday, October 30, 2014

AGELESS WONDER — How To Channel Your Inner Five-Year-Old

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
 SATCHEL PAIGE

As those of you know who follow my efforts here and in the social media, I’m a champion of reclaiming curiosity, wonder and regular access to Nature for a generation of kids robbed of those birthrights by well-intentioned parental interference, socioeconomic barriers and the glow of three- to ten-inch screens. I’ll continue to lobby for, at the very least, equal time for the wonders of technology and those of real, first-hand, low-tech experience in the out-of-doors.


And this isn’t just about kids; I actually make my case for people of all ages and circumstances. Everyone needs a regular dose of “vitamin N,” not just on weekends or vacations, but in our daily lives. Without it, we deprive ourselves of life’s most abundant font of peace, reflection, mental clarity, spiritual inspiration and general replenishment. Perhaps most importantly, without Nature we forget who we are and where we came from.

           Without Nature we forget who we are 
            and where we came from.

SITTING AND SETTLING

We all start life with an abundance of the natural tools we need to commune with Nature—curiosity, playfulness, creativity, spontaneity, wonder. But something happens as we grow up and become acculturated to the strictures of adult life. Ambition, expectations, responsibility and a cabal of other seductions conspire to rob us of those simple joys.

We learn to settle for Nature as an occasional treat, if at all, and something that takes an extraordinary effort. But we need the calming, healing, restorative effects of vitamin N every day and in every aspect of our lives.

That need to be touched by Nature all the time doesn’t end when we reach some arbitrary age—that of retirement, of moving to assisted living, or even of winding down our final days in this life. Indeed, as I’ve preached so often on this forum, our need for Nature may be most vital during both our first and last years of life.

Our entire culture has alienated itself from Nature at a rate unprecedented in human history.

As a man of advancing years, I can only hope that I—and certainly those entrusted with my care as I come to depend on them—will recognize that need and honor my express wish that vitamin N be part of my care-and-treatment plan until the very end. I want to be outdoors, feel the sun, smell the flowers and interact with the animals and birds. I want to go fishing.

But there may be some obstacles to clear. Many folks are so wowed by medical technology's incredible devices and pharmaceuticals that they seem to have forgotten Nature's powers. In fact, our entire culture has alienated itself from Nature at a rate unprecedented in human history. If we don't devalue it or forget it altogether, we fear it. And, even if we’re surrounded by Nature, too many of us have lost the ability to understand and embrace it the way we did when we were children.

That can change.

So here are my top-ten tips on how, even at a ripe old age, to get up, get moving and embrace Nature like a five-year-old again:

1. Make time.
You’ve spent most of your life since high school conforming to schedules and deadlines. The self-serving muse of competition has convinced you that if you don’t work during break, after hours and even while you’re on “vacation,” someone else will and steal your job. Hogwash! Declare it mental health time, a medical emergency, whatever takes. For that’s more than some crafty “dog-ate-my-homework" excuse; it’s the truth.

2. Get outdoors. Between household chores and the big game on TV, the sirens of sloth try to persuade you that it’s easier and more predictable to just stay inside and relax. That’s okay up to a point, but you’ll almost always unwind and restore yourself—physically, mentally and spiritually—more completely if you get outside and let Nature do her magic on you.

3. Explore.
Human beings are hard-wired to explore. Sadly, we’ve decided to let devices, and someone else’s legwork, do the exploring for us. We're coming disturbingly close to the point of googling natural wonders instead of expecting to actually observe them.


4. Touch. The idea of fiddling with things just to fully experience them was all but beaten out of us by the time we were about eight. Hey, you’re an adult now; you know to be reasonably careful, and besides, you can pay for it if you break it, right? It’s high time to reclaim this, the only one of our senses that's always reciprocal.

5. Be patient.
Here’s one place where maybe you don’t want to act like a little kid; often, with Nature, you just sit for long periods without anything happening. That’s the beauty of it; you enjoy what’s there, not something you expect to happen. Don’t worry, if you follow step 1, you’ve already taken the biggest step.

        As in nearly any aspect of life, you see 
        pretty much what you expect to see.

6. Hang out with like-minded folks. Depriving yourself of Vitamin N is just like any unhealthy habit; codependency helps support it. If you have trouble hoisting your friends off the couch, go by yourself…or get new friends.

7. Take youngsters with you. The key here is to get them out there in field or forest, set a few parameters and then let them alone; don't be responsible for entertaining them. Nature is the consummate playmate. It invites kids to exercise their curiosity, wonder and sense of play. Watch carefully what they do—digging, building, playing with sticks, rocks and water...and then you do the same. The simpler, the better.

8. Let go.
Have you ever seen young children playing who looked like they had the weight of the world on their shoulders? It’s impossible. Same for you. Suspend your need for control. Put the stresses of “adult life” into a musty corner of your consciousness and let spontaneity and joy make your day.

9. Insist on Nature as part of your elder care. If you want vitamin N to be an integral part of your care during your old age, speak up now. Don't trust the medical community to think of it. And do make sure your family and closest friends know your wishes. In my case, I've spelled it out: take me outdoors every day, weather permitting; if I can't go out, bring Nature to me—surround me with plants and animals I can touch and hold, play recordings of Nature's sounds, read to me of people's adventures in Nature.

10. Expect wonder. Believe it or not, there's an element of faith in all of this. As in nearly any aspect of life, you see pretty much what you expect to see. If you come into any experience with cynicism and doubt, sure enough, you’ll be disappointed. Approach it with an open mind, heart and spirit, and whatever happens—or doesn’t happen—will end up somewhere between cool and awesome.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – Tip #15

Try a food or dish you've never tasted before.




 



 












Food is fluent in any language. Let it be your guide to distant lands, your introduction to other cultures and new friends.

At home or abroad, explore new flavors; challenge your tastes; 

feed your sense of adventure.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

LANDSCAPES

When I converse with Nature, just as when I converse with people, perspective is everything. Close up, I can see the pores and the warts; far away, details start to blend together, and the subject becomes shape, pattern and movement.

Perhaps this is why I so appreciate a beautiful landscape. Both broad and deep in its scope, the view rolls out in a seamless progression of receding layers all the way to the horizon…and beyond. It always fills me with wonder and gratitude.


But something's been happening to our landscapes, something that's occurred in just the last generation or two. Fewer and fewer of us—most glaringly, fewer of those under thirty—seem able to find one any more. Part of it is that such unbroken stretches of unspoiled land are disappearing. If a housing development hasn't obliterated the view altogether, a highway, power line or cell phone tower stains it.

But as I so often preach, seeing is a two-way street. It doesn't have to do with just the quality of what's being looked it; it also has to do with the looker. And that we can do something about.

   These mental eyesores are about as unwelcome 
   as a frac sand mine in Eden.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
A panorama might have all the qualities you could ever want in a vista—all those sublime strata of terrain, foliage and sky, unmarred by any trace of man's meddling. Maybe a lake or river graces the scene. If you're lucky, a tired sun pours that last, precious, liquid-gold light over hill and dale.

As ideal as it sounds, that picture can still be marred. This time, though, the defacement occurs at the other end of the exchange—in the eye of the beholder. The rude blurting of my cell phone blocks my view; cynicism slashes the canvas; concerns with time or responsibility dog-ear the corners.


Whatever the culprit, these mental eyesores are about as unwelcome as a frac sand mine in Eden.

Think of it as one's state of mind being his or her internal landscape. I see more, reflect more, learn more when that inner view spreads out all around me as if I stood atop a mountain. And anything that spoils that sensual, spiritual space ruins not just my mental outlook but my woods-and-rocks-and-waters view as well.

It all comes down to my belief that we see pretty much what we want to see.

   The view starts deep in my soul and extends, 
   simultaneously, to both earth’s horizon and  
   that of my deepest internal knowing.

To understand this in the context of my pantheistic view of the world, it helps if I see the inner and outer views as one entity, one continuous vista that starts deep in my soul and extends, simultaneously, to both earth’s horizon and that of my deepest internal knowing.

WHAT'S YOUR VIEW?

Where does your outer landscape end and your inner one begin? Are you aware of how they overlap? Can you feel your ability to appreciate the view improve when you clear your mind and spirit of distractions? How do you do that?


Sunday, October 5, 2014

THE QUEST FOR UNCERTAINTY – Why Wondering Is More Powerful than Being Right


Don’t get me wrong; I truly envy some people for their clarity of thought. I often wish I were more decisive, that I could be sure enough about a decision or an issue, right away, to be willing to go to bat for or against it.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of my reticence as a handicap. But in the past decade or so, at last, I’ve found a way to free myself of that burden; I’ve decided it’s actually one of my greatest strengths.

          Isn’t the brew of consequence richer, 
          more robust, when one lets facts and 
          feelings percolate for a while?

After all, I’m thinking, isn’t the world a more interesting place when the conversation doesn’t necessarily end at one person’s version of the truth? Isn’t the brew of consequence richer, more robust, when one lets facts and feelings percolate for a while? Isn’t genuine understanding better served when for every ideologue there’s a skeptic; for every answer, a question; for every teacher, a student?

I guess I can’t stop being the student. And I'm pretty sure that’s okay.


          The more I learn, the more certain I am 

          that I don’t know everything.

Learning’s a funny thing. For many people, it seems it’s just the means to an end. You learn so you can know; you know so you don’t have to listen to anyone any more. Not me. The more I learn, the more certain I am that I don’t know everything…and the harder I listen. For me, asking questions, keeping open the door to curiosity and wonder, is more powerful than being right.

Of course, I understand that much of modern life revolves around having answers. Sometimes one must act on those answers—the best ones possible given constraints of time and resources. But I keep thinking how much of the human experience, spanning nearly every culture, hinges not so much on whether or not those answers are the right ones, as on some clever person’s ability to make you think they are. There must be a better way.

       Isn’t there a kind of abundance in knowing 
       that all the possible conclusions are still 
       out there for you?

Giving myself permission to be ambivalent has been liberating. Ironically, it seems to have actually emboldened my thinking in a way. Not that I make decisions any more easily; but I’m coming more and more to not just tolerate, but actually celebrate the knowledge that absolutely nothing—including this statement—is absolute. It all depends on how I look at it—the lens of my experience; the filter of my judgement; the lightings and shadings of my emotions.

Besides that sense of liberation, isn’t there a kind of abundance in being slow to judge, in knowing that all the possible conclusions are still out there for you? Come on, isn't there at least a small part of you that pities those who so quickly limit their prospects to just one outcome, one reality?

                                         ~         ~         ~

I’m interested in your take on this. How certain are you, at your core, of decisions you make? Does having to know something for sure ever feel like a constraint on your intelligence and creativity? Do you catch yourself turning off your curiosity in order to protect your certainty?

Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and wrong.
  ~  H.L. MENCKEN

Monday, September 29, 2014

FOR DEAR LIFE – The Tree that Survived 9/11


The Discovery Channel's documentary series, “Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero,” recounts some of the countless captivating back-stories surrounding 9/11. One episode, re-aired recently on the thirteenth anniversary of event, has made an especially deep impression on me.

After weeks of clearing away the 1.4 million tons of debris from the vicinity of the World Trade Center towers, workers unearthed a living survivor of the horror—a bruised, beaten and burned, 30-year-old callery pear tree.

   It was the last thing to leave Ground Zero alive.

PHOTO: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

In a long-shot effort to save the mangled tree, a horticulturalist for the Parks Department had it removed and carefully transplanted in a nursery in the Bronx, where it remained in obscurity for nine years. This was not just the only one of many trees on the WTC site not pulverized by the force of the collapses; it was the last thing to leave Ground Zero alive.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo Vega, another city worker and one of the thousands enlisted to help bring equipment and supplies to Ground Zero after the tragedy, reported faithfully to the site every day, doing what he could to help bring closure to the nightmare and honor the memory of its victims.

Vega never missed a day. He was so committed to the site that he eventually was named the 9/11 Memorial’s Director of Design and Construction. As concepts for the Memorial percolated, he heard about the intrepid pear tree, and was immediately smitten by the power of its symbolism. He wanted that tree.

It took Vega six weeks to find out what had happened to it. In March, 2008, he went to the nursery and got his first look at what he now referred to as the Survivor Tree; it was in full bloom. From that moment, the tree would become the focus of his passion for the Ground Zero site, and he vowed it would occupy a prominent spot in the Memorial’s design.

But the challenges weren’t over for the tree. No sooner had Vega seen it flourishing, than it was torn nearly in half by the 100-mile-per-hour winds of a huge nor’easter. Nursed once again back to health, it was finally moved into place on the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in 2010, where, just nine months later, it managed to hold on through Hurricane Irene.

PHOTO: Noel Y.C.

IF IT'S THE LAST THING...
Now, the story of the Survival Tree is dramatic enough. But that is a matter of cellular biology, phytochemistry and perhaps a bit of luck. What leapt off the screen for me in this documentary was the story of Mr. Vega himself. That, my friends, is a story of heart.

Though it’s difficult to find much written about Vega’s personal challenges, one can piece together the narrative. As a first responder and a denizen of Ground Zero every day for 13 years, he was exposed to no end of toxic particles and vapors. At 55, he’s got triple the maximum levels of arsenic and mercury in his body, and suffers disease of the liver, lungs, sinuses, blood and skin.

Like so many workers on the site, the exposure is killing Ron Vega. Yet life has never been more fulfilling for him. “There’s certain things you decide in your life what's worth it and what's not worth it. Working at Ground Zero was worth it, was worth it whatever comes," he says.

     The Survivor Tree has the power to steer us        
     to those places of body, mind and spirit where 
     we were always meant to be.

The tree has become the most important part of Vega’s life. He suggests, in one interview, that his devotion to it has supplanted other relationships and responsibili- ties—those of home and family and friends—to the detriment of all. But he is consumed by the depth of meaning this one organism holds for him, how it "speaks to both the horror and the healing" of the tragedy.

I take the significance a step further; the way I’d put it, the Survivor Tree represents the sheer power of Nature to sooth, to heal, and to steer us to those places of body, mind and spirit where we were always meant to be. I suspect Ron Vega's discovered that truth and realizes, as precious few others can, exactly what the journey is worth to him.


PHOTO: Discovery Channel

A TESTAMENT TO LOVE
I’ve not yet been to the 9/11 Memorial, but it looks like the most stunning American monument since Maya Lin's rend-the-earth design for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. Its two square waterfalls surround the footprints of the twin towers in whispers of remembrance. Outlining each are bronze parapets engraved with the names of each of the 2,983 victims of the 9/11 attacks.

PHOTO: AP/Mark Lennihan.

These waterfalls and pools represent the voids left in human lives and in the hearts of a city and a nation. And around them stand other powerful symbols of the transformation that so often grows from the grief. One is the spectacular new buildings erected around the memorial site—including the new One World Trade Center, or Freedom Tower, built to exactly 1,776 feet in height. I guess they’re, at the very least, an understandable statement of defiance and pride.

The other symbol, one that holds a softer, yet more powerful, meaning for me, is the 400 swamp white oak and sweetgum trees, harvested in areas surrounding the sites of the three 9/11 crashes. These gifts of Nature also represent the hope and the unshakeable spirit of growth and renewal that define a city, a nation, a people.

And finally, how magnificent that Ronaldo Vega and his indomitable callery pear—the Survivor Tree—are there to represent the nexus of those two realms of remembrance. Theirs is, of all the symbols, perhaps the most powerfully personal and moving testament to the constancy, the splendid beauty, the healing promise of Nature.

For theirs is a testament to love.

PHOTO: Amal Chen/The Epoch Times


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

GREEN RIVER – Leafscapes of Change

         In one last gasp the thirsty land exclaims 
       in fervent hues, “Do not forget me, green!”


         These aerial views of summer’s wane are rich with meaning. 
           The landscapes speak of flow and ebb, growth and decay.


              Rivers of green recede from lands they’ve nourished, 
            lush and pliant, since May. Tributaries that coursed then 
             with new life now gather it, drain it back to the source. 
      Stream to brook to rivulet—all know in their cellular souls that, 
      here in northern climes, frozen flow hurts more than none at all.


         In between, red, orange and gold spread as on New England   
                 hillsides. In one last gasp the thirsty land exclaims 
                        in fervent hues, “Do not forget me, green!” 


                    In the end, flow slows to trickle; trickle, to seep, 
             and then is gone. Sere earth mottles, cracks and crumbles. 
        And decay’s fall brew percolates to nourish the land once again, 
                      stored up for yet another May flood of green.


Monday, September 15, 2014

WHEN NATURE SPEAKS – Echoes of Eternity

When Nature speaks, it’s for a reason. She's sharing things we need to hear—invitations, affirmations, lessons about truth, beauty, love and life.

While the human animal’s obsessed with how to stretch and bend her to create our own realities, Nature reminds us of one eternal reality, that everything is connected. Everything. That what we might fear in her we actually fear in ourselves. And that what we do to her we do to ourselves and others. 

What a joy our place in her should be, a position that, miraculously, both humbles us when we’re arrogant and ennobles us when we’re feeling unimportant.


BODY AND SOUL
Nature’s voice surrounds us, fills us, every day. She speaks to our minds, showing us immutable truths of how things always grow and move and interact. At the same time, she refreshes those ancient instincts that have always advised us on how to apply those truths. She tries as she can to show us both the portals and the boundaries of our intimacy.

            Only if we love her back will we 
            care enough to protect her as if 
            she were our own flesh and blood.

Sometimes the message is for our bodies, calling us to work with her, run with her, bask in her. She fills us with contentment, with exhilaration, and then reminds us that, while she may seem indefatigable, we are not.

Finally, she speaks to our hearts and our spirits, reminding us of our deep belonging to her. It is an unconditional love, that of the tenderest of gods, yet utterly indifferent to the values we humans have devised for ourselves—and so often fail to exemplify. 
 
WHAT TO SAY BACK
Don’t think for a moment that what Nature has to say to us has to be a monologue. In fact, there are many ways to hold up our end of the conversation. Perhaps the most obvious is through sound.

If we spot a beautiful bird—a cardinal, let’s say—we obviously can’t look like a cardinal; we can’t feel or taste or smell like one either. But we can sound like one. I do it all the time (and the cardinal nearly always comes closer).

When Nature calls us to our child side, we might answer her with playful cries and joyous laughter. Or we can welcome her accompaniment as we shuffle leaves, crunch acorns or splash water.

We can shout or clap our hands and listen as desert ignores, forest ponders or canyon mimics. Or we can offer Nature the one gift we have that might nearly rival birdsong and wolf call—our own voices in song.

                You know it's not really a 
                sound, but still you hear it.

THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE   
Can we converse with Nature through silence? Have you ever experienced true, total silence? I’ve done so only a few times in my life. It leaves an impression. At first your brain doesn’t quite know what to do without the foundation of at least some ambient sound.

It’s kind of like being in total darkness. It makes you dizzy. You can almost feel your ears reaching out, expanding, cupping to detect something, anything, to get a bearing on.

Then, like the way we try to fill the awkward lull in a conversation with an “um-m-m” or an “ah-h-h-h,” Nature comes up with her own space filler, a sort of dull roar. You know it's not really a sound, but still you hear it.

How curious that, while total silence may disorient, near-silence—especially that infused with Nature’s whispers of wind through trees, water over rocks, the jabber and scurry of life—is where, more than any place, you will hear the sound of your own spirit, that reassuring voice that reminds you of your unique part in the oneness of everything.


MISPLACED FEARS
This is an era in which too many of us humans seem to be getting it backwards in our attitude toward Nature. We've come to fear her more than we love her. We keep our young ones indoors where we can keep an eye on them. We discourage them from the kinds of adventures that defined our own childhood, but which we now somehow believe are too risky.

        In her voice are the echoes of everything 
        that ever lived...or ever will live.

If we truly listen, we know that the truth is a different matter. In fact it is Nature that should fear us. Once again, she’s telling us—and we should be listening—how we hurt her through our arrogance, our greed, our short-sightedness and, perhaps most tragically, through those poorly-informed fears.

Nature is as benevolent as she has ever been. And, in this era of virtual experiences and connections, her presence in our daily lives is needed more than ever. Depriving our children of her nurture, her teachings, her healing spirit, is hurting them—and us—in ways we are only now coming to document, and to a degree that far, far outweighs any actual risks.

FLESH AND BLOOD
So keep your ears peeled for Nature’s voice. It’s there, not just in the forest, but in the heart of the city. You can hear it in creatures’ voices, including our own. It comes from growth and movement—the raspy rattle of tree branches rubbing shoulders in the wind; water’s cheery chortle as it charms its way over and around hard rock. Some folks even hear the trees, the clouds, the land.

And only if we listen—truly listen with ears, hearts and souls open—will we learn about Nature and our belonging in her. For in her voice are the echoes of everything that ever lived...or ever will live. Then, only when we know and trust that eternal bond, will we be able to reciprocate her love. Only then will we know enough to protect her as if she were, indeed, our own flesh and blood.