Saturday, August 29, 2015

NOT A CHANCE – The Inevitable Reward of Expecting Wonder

This afternoon I had a clarity rush, one of those rare flashes of awareness and understanding you experience when you suddenly see—and just totally get—everything.

This time I was driving, sitting at a stop light. I glanced around at the far-from-remarkable surroundings: the Quarry shopping center with its Target and Home Depot; the McDonald’s and Taco Bell across the street; the other cars and drivers.

Somehow, on the median next to me, a narrow strip of waist-high weeds caught my eye. Again, quite unremarkable, right? But as I watched them sway gently in the breeze, a flood of wonder and joy washed over me. And gratitude, that such a fine little community of herbal drifters had managed to put down roots here—even those pariahs, goldenrod and ragweed—and that I was here to behold it.

           In that one extraordinary moment, 
           I knew everything there was to know 
           about those weeds.

I understood completely what a gift from God those living wonders are—and how much I would miss, if no longer able to receive such simple gifts in my daily comings and goings, merely setting eyes on them once again.

In that one extraordinary moment, I knew everything there was to know about those weeds. I mouthed words of thanks for their colors and textures and smells and movement. For the sweet, life-giving oxygen they produce. For the tiny biosphere they form, and all the bugs that dwell in, on and under them. And even the family of bunnies I knew, somehow, must live in there.

At the very instant my lips pursed for the “b” in “bunnies,” a young cottontail hopped out of the underbrush onto the adjacent patch of grass, turned and looked up at me.

Coincidence? Not a chance! Not today!

And then the light turned green.

PHOTO: Pixabay

Thursday, August 27, 2015

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY – The Distance of a Grandfather’s Love

The 9:10 commuter train heading back to Boston squealed to a stop. I bent down to hug her, her wiry wisps of arms reaching up ‘round my waist, that perfect pixie face pressed against my side. I told her I loved her, turned and dared not look back.

I stepped aboard and took a seat. Clambering over my carry-on, I put a hand on the window and looked out.

There she was on the platform, scanning the dark-tinted windows—all but opaque to her—like a sailor craning to make out a speck on the distant horizon. For an instant, I thought our eyes might have met, but she looked right through me.

A deep desolation pulled me down, the kind a dear, departed spirit must feel when fully present with, yet unnoticed by, a loved one revisited.

The train jerked into motion. Still delving the dark, blank windows, she walked along just beside me, barely keeping up. Now I pressed both hands and my whole face against the glass, grinning, waving, weeping.

And then she saw me. Our eyes locked, the gulf between us suddenly narrowed nearly to arms’ length. Beside me she ran, faster and faster, her limbs a spritely fusion of flailing and grace…and she beamed.

I turned, looked back, and those few seconds swept her from my view. But that image, that sense of being at once so far and so close to that sweet girl, will stay with me until I am once again on that magic train…and I am the one looking through that dark window for a glimpse of her.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

HYPOCRITIC OATH – Choosing Real Reality

I write about Nature all the time—about its countless wonders, small and large; its wise counsel in ways of patience and knowing; and its constant coincidence with my brand of spirituality. I promote closer connections with Nature for everyone, especially children.

But I’m a hypocrite.

I actually don’t spend nearly enough time outdoors. And when I do, I sometimes forget to turn off my cell phone. Too often, I fall victim to the very temptation I urge others to resist: the lazy cosmopolitanism, the false presence, afforded by digital technology’s instant “connections” with people, places and information.

It started, I’m afraid, with the publication of my first book, Under the Wild Ginger; my publisher told me I had to put myself out there and promote, if not actual sales, at least a point of view that would attract like-minded readers. To that extent, the venture has borne fruit. I’ve also made some wonderful friends, folks I’ve come to feel close to even though we’ve never met.

            Blaming the medium for its abuse 
            is a pretty poor excuse.

But cyberspace is a wily seductress. At first, the allure was like the one I felt as a boy when, no longer fooled by that old tin-cans-and-string ruse, I dreamed of having a real walkie-talkie. Or later when I’d spend hours with my ear pressed against the speaker of our tabletop Emerson radio, fine-tuning among the stronger signals and static for distant stations. This communicating beyond the range of my own, unelaborated ear and voice struck me as nothing short of mystical.

There’s a certain boundless freedom in sending and receiving messages over untold expanses, across geographic, political and cultural boundaries. And doing so practically instantaneously only adds to the allure. I experience something like that kind of freedom during my favorite, recurring dream: flying (on my own power, without any device). It feels like the very essence of spiritual connection, a magical oneness with time and space and all of creation—not to mention that it strikes awe and envy into every onlooker.

Well, blaming the medium for its abuse is a pretty poor excuse. What brought this line of reflection to the fore was our last month-long stay last spring in a lovely seaside town in Guerrero Mexico. There, the nice little TV in our villa never once blinked on. Sure, we spent time on our devices most days, keeping in touch with loved ones, sharing a few photos. But those times were quite limited. And, though our minds may have been in cyberspace now and then, physically we were still in direct contact with Nature during all our waking hours.

Even inside our villa, where there’s no wall separating us from the view over the bay, delicious warm breezes waft in day and night, carrying the sounds and smells of the neighborhood and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Critters—butterflies, geckos, bats and the occasional scorpion become our benign companions. Our relationships with our Mexican friends seldom abide the quick phone call, email, or—God forbid—the terse-but-tedious text. No, folks there take the time to come calling, to spend a few minutes exchanging pleasantries and just being…well...nice.

         It’s not really the physical walls that 
         hold me back. It’s the virtual ones.

How quickly we get inured to such wonders; by the end of our stay, we were already taking this sustained communion with Nature, including these unhurried relationships with people, for granted. But now, with the singular clarity of hindsight, I know why this month in the tropics was so restorative in so many ways. It was exactly what I’ve been losing, bit by bit, in my life here in the “real” world: the close presence of Nature in my life every day. Paying attention, not just to a little screen, but to the countless real small wonders playing out around me all the time.

No matter what one might see or learn, or even feel, on that little screen, when you get right down to it, does it ever really take you any further than arm’s length out of yourself? But with real wonders, Nature’s wonders, there are no limits. For me, they range from those little “floaters” that punctuate my vision from the inside, to whatever horizon the weather defines that day, to the stars on a clear night, to the still-further reach of my imagination.

Now, I realize it might prove impractical here in Minnesota to remove one side of our urban townhouse and let in the air, light (and mosquitoes). And winter…well, don’t get me started! But I’m thinking it’s not really the physical walls that hold me back. It’s the virtual ones. I’ve been allowing others—content developers, marketers, fellow addicts…whomever—to limit what I can experience, to steer the direction and extent of my vision.

This is not what I want. Is it what you want? Don’t we have our own vision, an outlook which belongs to no one but us? Shouldn’t we be the ones deciding what will surprise and delight us, who will become our next good friend?

         ...we stop imposing our will on Nature 
         and life, and vest in them the power to 
         have their way with us.

Now that summer’s starting to yield to fall, I aim to reclaim my birthright—the birthright of every human being—my connection, my belonging, to Nature. And the way to start is to, as I like to put it, get off the screen and into the scene. Like surmounting any bad habit, this will require being thoughtful and deliberate—disciplined—in how I spend my time.

What makes it hard is that I have to make time for the cure before I can recover the time spent on the disease. For example, if I’m to take a walk every morning, I’ll have to let go of the time I’m wasting on television or the Internet the night before. Or I may have to re-prioritize the short list of friends I correspond with most often, making room for Nature on that list.

And I most certainly will have to reclaim my point of view. I must remember to practice what I preach, using all my senses, not just taking in the wisdom and beauty of Nature, but giving something to the transaction too. I call it seeing generously.  It’s a mindset in which we stop imposing our will and way on Nature and life, and vest in them the power to have their way with us.

That is what we do in the relentless, blast-furnace Mexican sun when we stop every few minutes to rest in familiar pools of shade. It’s what we do when we think we’re going to the park for an hour and end up spending the day. And when we allow ourselves to be moved deeply by even the smallest droplet of beauty shed on us from Nature’s infinite sea of wonder.

These are real connections, ones we can touch and feel, ones that sustain us—physically, emotionally, spiritually. They are to be trusted completely, for they are not only for us; they are of us. It is one thing to recognize the difference between the real and the virtual; it is another entirely to choose the real.

I choose the real.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY – Hooked, Lined and Sinkered in Tortuguero

I suppose I should have known I was being had when Franklin, my taciturn Caribbean-Costa-Rican tarpon fishing guide, handed me that rusty, beat-up, medium-weight spinning rig. On the recommendation of our lodge in Tortuguero (in Costa Rica's northeast, Caribbean, corner), I’d paid him his $150 up front to put me on some of that magnificent, acrobatic game fish, revered by its aficionados as the Silver King.

Once he’d skillfully tiptoed his tiny, open boat through the swirling currents and standing waves at the river’s mouth, it appeared Franklin might just meet my expectations after all; there were tarpon everywhere. The mirror-bright flanks of their sleek, 50- to 150-pound bodies caught the sun, flashing in the murky, blue-green water as they “daisy chained” ‘round schools of six- to eight-inch sardines. The bait fish, hundreds of them, turned and darted in unison as if one fluid silver-blue organism.

I was ready.

PHOTO: Tony Cappechi

           There I was...shooting fish, as it were,
           entirely outside the barrel.

As quickly as my hopes had risen, that's how fast they fell again when Franklin reached under his seat and pulled out his "professional” fishing-guide tackle box. (It was really the small, cheap plastic kind a ten-year-old American kid would buy at WalMart for $9.95.) Inside, strewn atop the one swing-up tray, was a motley selection of well-used lures. He picked up a big, lead-headed jig with half of its red and white feather streamers still intact, and handed it to me.

“Poot deese own deah,” he mumbled indifferently, pointing to the swivel clip on the end of my line. Figuring he must know something I didn’t (After all, he is a professional guide, right?), I complied. Then he said, “Now drope eet ovah and let eet foal to dee boatum…dat weah dee feesh ah.”

I was nearly too dumbfounded to speak. “Ah-h-h, but I can see the tarpon! They’re feeding up here right next to us,” I protested. Franklin was unmoved. “No, dey own dee boatum!” So there I sat, jigging that red-and-white lure up and down off the sea bed twenty feet below as I watched the awesome monsters I was fishing for circle near the surface, feeding on those silver-blue herring.

Just in case, I grabbed my line just forward of the reel and pulled, checking the drag setting. It was set way too tight for these quick-striking, powerful fish, but when I tried turning the setting knob, it wouldn’t budge. Great! Even if I accidentally snagged one of these brutes, I’d have to pray it went easy on me.

My frustration simmered. I looked around and noticed another boat, even smaller than ours, drifting about 100 yards away. Standing in it was a man fly-fishing. I admired his effortless style as he flew his streamer back and forth over his head, feeding it another couple of feet of line with each false cast. Then, about 60 feet out, he let it drop. He watched it sink a couple of feet and then retrieved it with deft tugs of his free hand.

Suddenly, the man reared back, lifted the rod high with both arms and laid into whatever had taken his bait. Before he knew what hit him, a six-foot tarpon exploded from the water, thrashing wildly back and forth. It seemed like one of those sport fishing highlights films, where the action is captured in slow motion. Wow! I thought, this guy’s just caught about a hundred-pound Silver King...on a
fly rod!

And there I was, fishing the wrong lure in the wrong place at the right time—shooting fish, as it were, entirely outside the barrel. Maybe it’s because I’m from Minnesota, but it dawned on me that I’d been sucking it up to spare the feelings of the man who was robbing me.

       I hadn’t turned the crank more than five 
       times when it hit, the kind of strike you get 
       when you’ve suddenly snagged a log—
       except this one was moving.

My admiration for the fly-fisherman turned to envy; the envy to resolve. Enough
of this!

“Oh, my God,” I blurted, pointing to a random spot in the water just behind Franklin. “That one must be close to 200 pounds!” As he turned to look, I seized the moment, reaching down and opening the main compartment of his tackle box. And there it was: a six-inch long, silver-blue, Rapala type lure. Not only did it look exactly like what the tarpon were feeding on, it was practically brand new.

“How about this one?” I asked, my tone carefully measured somewhere between question and demand. As he turned back to face me, our eyes locked in gritty stares. He blinked first, and I picked up the lure. He started to reach for it, but I’d already unclipped my snap swivel. He scowled, mumbling something under his breath.

With the right bait on, I flipped open my bale, cocked my arms and wrists, and let fly a modest cast in the direction of the other fisherman. (I was so intent on my own hunt now that I didn’t even notice if he’d landed his fish.) The faux sardine landed with a splash and I started reeling. I hadn’t turned the crank more than five times when it hit, the kind of strike you get when you’ve suddenly snagged a log—except this one was moving.

I set the hook as hard as I dared with that pitiful equipment. From the moment
I’d casted, it couldn’t have been more than ten seconds till it happened: my drag nightmare came true. Before it had even jumped, the tarpon took off like a shot…and then that sickening sound fishermen dread, that of heavy monofilament line snapping. Just like that, it was over.

I’ve had many sport-fishing captains console me on the loss of a big fish. Sometimes they counsel me on what I might do differently next time. Most are eager to get another bait out there. Franklin? He was just pissed. Here this pushy white guy, obviously a man of wealth and privilege, had just lost his prize lure on, of all reckless things, a fish.

Red and white jig? Bounce it on the bottom? Proper drag? Trust me, I’m a professional? These and other snarky comments clawed at the thin fabric of my restraint. I realized, though, that shaming Franklin would accomplish nothing. Besides, I still had to rely on him to get me back, through those treacherous waters, to the lodge.

Still, though I was more than ready to end our laughable outing, I wasn’t about to let the man off the hook. So, with no more lures in his little Plano box that even remotely resembled a herring, I tied the red-and-white jig back on, dropped it in the water and kept jigging—for nothing more than jigging’s sake...and perhaps to drive Franklin's hourly rate as low as possible—for the rest of our contracted time.

Franklin just sat there brooding—calculating, I suppose, how to lure his next sucker.