Friday, September 29, 2017

BEYOND WORDS – A Dialog of the Spirit

I’ve been visiting Harold (not the man's real name) as a hospice volunteer for three months now. His diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and the reason he’s in hospice is that it’s quite advanced.

When I first met him, Harold could talk. That is, he had enough breath to make sounds, and he could move his lips. He’d even punctuate his comments with hand gestures and the occasional little chuckle. But very little of it came across clearly enough for me to understand.

As for my end of the conversation, I’d tell him what kind of a day it was outside, report on how the Minnesota Twins were doing, or maybe recount one of my experiences I thought might resonate with one of his. Occasionally, when he was tracking, he’d respond to something I said quite clearly, “Oh, is that right?” That was nice to hear.

I did my best. Most often that meant simply maintaining eye contact with him as
he spoke, trying to keep that faintly-received channel open. Since I didn’t want to pretend to understand when I didn’t, all I could do was nod so he’d know I was, if not understanding, at least hearing him.

Once in a while I’d make out a word or two. If I heard “brother,” I’d respond, “Oh, your brother. Uh-huh” or “I’ll bet you and your brother were quite a pair.” Anything to preserve a crack in that shell of isolation the poor man must inhabit.

      I remember vividly why I originally signed 
      up for hospice work...I knew it had little to 
      do with words.

Harold still likes to talk, but now, at this week’s visit, he’s clearly faded…a lot. He’s gazing up at me with what appears to be the intent of speaking, but I have to look hard to detect the subtle movement of his lips. I hear wisps of air coming out of his mouth, but he can no longer make a sound.

I’m so sad for him; I know he’d once been a pretty gregarious fellow. He still had the will, but not the way. I also feel an arresting sense of gratitude. Yes, of course, simply for not being Harold, but also for the opportunity– the privilege—of being with this good man at such a vulnerable point in his life.

I’m a writer; my stock in trade is communicating with words. So this is unfamiliar territory for me. Yet I remember vividly why I originally signed up for hospice work. I felt I had something spiritual to offer. I wasn’t quite sure how to describe it, but I knew it had little to do with words.

So I’m sitting here at Harold’s bedside, and he’s just looking up into my eyes. It’s a little unnerving, but I feel something—I’ll call it energy for lack of a better word—flowing between us. It feels good, and I can only hope Harold feels it too.

I take his gnarly hand and hope I can convey some kind of understanding that way. I don’t know how much he can grasp, but I acknowledge how awful it must be to have thoughts ambushed like that before he can get them out. “It’s okay,” I reassure him. “I’m hearing you.”

Our hour together comes to an end. I take his hand again and ask if it’s okay for me to come back next week. He just looks at me. As I walk away, I recall the moment, just the week before, when, after I’d strained the whole time to understand a word here and there, he somehow managed to say, as plain as day, “Thank you for coming.”

Today, he says nothing. But his eyes follow me through the door.

Monday, September 25, 2017

HARD TRUTHS – The Telling Face of Rocks

This gray Keweenawan basalt, whose fifty-foot ramparts flank this stretch of the St. Croix River, is unfathomably old, dating from the Precambrian Eon, somewhere between 500 million and a billion years ago.

It is also the hardest basalt-type rock in America—so hard that boulders of it were used by NASA to test the drills employed on the moon probe.

And yet, these rocks are far from the static, silent objects they seem. There is movement here; those sinuous lines—visible only when the sun shines at just this angle—bring to the moment red-hot lava’s flow when life on earth consisted of little more than algae.

 There are distinctly human 
 utterances here.

These rocks speak volumes of a broad swath of history. Cracks and fissures recount epic battles between ice and stone, heat and cold, forces commanded by gravity. Lichens, some of their species nearly as old as the rocks themselves, bear testament to those ancient algae. For, in the face of otherwise untenable circumstances, only the subsumption of those algae by the lichen has enabled them to survive.

Near the cliff's base, the St. Croix’s natural scums and dissolved tannins have ranked water-level horizons on the rock face—a subtlety captured in just the last nanosecond of geologic time.

And, perhaps most compelling for their flesh-and-blood kinship with the likes of me, there are distinctly human utterances—portrayals of hands, a buffalo head and other symbols—likely made by Dakota or Ojibwe hunters nearly 1,000 years ago.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


(A follow-up on my Facebook post the other day showing spruce boughs festooned with bright red box elder bug nymphs)

I’m out walking Sylvia the puppy. It’s cooled off considerably from the last-gasp-of-summer heat wave of the past few days, but it’s still a lovely, fall-ish sunny day.

I notice a couple of small sun-lit spots on the lawn slapped with blotches of red: dense swarms of box elder bugs. One numbers at least 1,000; the other, maybe half that number. The two hordes are about three feet apart.

Sylvia spots them and follows her nose to the smaller group. When she’s about a foot away, they scatter, suddenly, haphazardly…and all at once. Their flight evenly dilutes the red spot, and within five or six seconds it’s gone.

Meanwhile, the larger swarm has not moved. But I watch—fully expecting wonder as usual—as those insects headed that way from the first group reach its perimeter. Then—mind you, I now have Sylvia firmly in tow several feet away—the second legion explodes in flight simultaneously just as the first had.

         I’d have expected one of the heralds to 
         shout "Run for your lives!" or at least
         wave its wings madly.

PHOTO: Timothy Ng

Now, I can understand how the big, red, compound eyes of every single one of the box elder bugs in that first swarm may have caught sight, in the same instant, of the schnauzer colossus coming at them. They’re out of there; no communication needed.

But for the second swarm to have reacted identically, with no sensory input other than the approach of a few fugitives from the first group, begs the question: how do these little red-coats communicate?

I’d have expected one of the heralds to shout "Run for your lives!" or at least wave its wings madly, but it turns out box elder bugs don't do that. Instead, it’s quite likely a matter of scent—one which apparently disperses incredibly quickly.*

All this leaves open the broader question: how do other creatures do it? A murmuration of starlings, chased by a falcon, sloshing like pools of water across a pitching sky. A school of 10,000 of herring veering as one from marauding dolphins.

PHOTO: John Myers

I guess we’ll leave that investigation for a future post. That’s what it’s like with Nature; so many questions, so little time.

Adults and nymphs have a pair of scent glands located on the dorsal side of the abdomen that secrete monterpene hydrocarbons and may be used for communication. Boxelder bugs also have a pair of ventral abdominal scent glands through which males secrete an exocrine compound during copulation to stimulate or claim the female. It is speculated that males also use this secretion during confrontations with other males. Males are attracted to the odor secreted by females. Boxelder bugs have compound eyes and ocelli, which are believed to aid in perception of the environment along with antennae, the primary sense organs. There are no acoustic or vibrational signals used for communication. (Aldrich, et al., 1990; Bauernfeind, 2005; Millar, 2006)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

OPPOSITE REALITIES – At Sea In a World of Duality

On my frequent trips to New England—more specifically, to the very maritime South Shore area south of Boston—I see nautical charts everywhere. They decorate the walls of bars, hang in peoples homes, plaster the sides of trucks.

These handsome maps—some are works of art, really—show everything a sailor needs to know about the waters he or she is navigating. Water depths, natural features of the seabed, the ins and outs of the coastline, navigational hazards, locations of natural and human-made aids to navigation, information on tides and currents, and local details of the Earth's magnetic field.

It’s not surprising that sailors would have a unique, rather self-centered way of looking at the world; naturally, they think of the sea as where everything that matters to them happens. And surrounding it, the land, all but void, inconsequential except for its ability to shape one’s course and the winds and currents that affect it.

We landlubbers, on the other hand, see our element as the center of our world. The sea surrounds us. Our maps show everything we need to navigate our element, but leave the oceans nearly devoid of detail. Of course we’re aware of the seas, but, again, they're like an afterthought, acknowledged only for what they can do for us…or to us.

What can this equivalency of opposites teach a curious person about life? Do opposites—like opinions, let’s say—always have equal value? Metaphysically, might they be just mirror images of the same thing?

With much of what happens in my life I strive for a sort of quasi-Buddhist view: that one outcome has no more relevance or value than another. That the only things that really matter are—to quote the Buddha himself—how much you love, how gently you live, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

Easier said than done.

  Could the radically differing truths people seem 
  to espouse these days be, like those maps, simply 
  two different, but equally valid, versions of the 
  same reality?

A old friend was once diagnosed with cocci meningitis, a disease which at that time had a very high mortality rate. He chose to fight the disease with an arsenal of non-traditional weapons, including Buddhist spiritual practice. I’ll never forget his heartfelt summation of his chances: “If surviving this is a decadent bowl of chocolate ice cream, then dying from it is vanilla. They’re both ice cream.” (He ended up with the chocolate.)


Sure, I know this kind of stuff intellectually; its truth resides somewhere deep in my soul. But what about in my nuts-and-bolts, emotion-tinged real life? Can I really live with such ambivalence?

After all, it might help me as I ponder the extraordinary political and cultural polarization eroding civility in the US—and other developed countries around the world. Could the radically differing truths people seem to espouse these days be, like those maps, simply two different, but equally valid, versions of the same reality?

Or is it just a matter of which slices of the unfathomable totality of reality we choose to see, leaving the rest, like the land to a mariner, as one enormous blind spot?

I must say I’m having a hell of a time achieving the degree of inner peace that would allow me to see some of my countrymen’s utter denial of my reality—think “alternative facts”—as the vanilla ice cream to my chocolate.

What about you? What truths do you find in this notion of opposing voids and their relative validities? Can you stand on the solid ground of your own reason and values, and still accept the contrasting reality of those who seem so at sea? 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

THE HUNGER OF MY STEPS – An Old(ish) Man's Reflection on Mobility

Many thanks to my dear old friend, Robin Easton -- blogger and author of Naked In Eden -- for inspiring this post with her recent Facebook post about healing and her transcendent bonds with Nature.

                                          ~/ - /~        ~/ - /~        ~/ - /~    

Some time in the winter of 1946 I took my first sips. That was all my wobbly little legs and feet could handle.

From then on, though, my abilities—and my appetite for movement—grew exponentially. I played; I jumped; I ran, sometimes just for the sheer joy of it. Eventually I was playing every sport I could. As an adult I skied; I hiked; I led others on hikes. Even in my 60s I was taking stairs, both up and down, two or three at a time. It was delicious.

I got used to that abundance of steps—those flavors of speed, of rhythm, of palpable heartbeat felt all the way to the tips of my fingers and toes. And lately, as
I notice my stride slowing, perhaps shortening a bit, I crave them all the more.

The length and number of one’s steps may abate, but the hunger for them—especially for a person whose whole identity has been about moving, learning, testing his senses—never does.     

Nowadays, I suppose to compensate for the increasingly cautious measure of my gait, I savor not just the number, but the quality, of those steps. I actually think about them and the wonder of being able to move under my own power.

Nowhere do I appreciate this more than in my work as a hospice volunteer, where
I see rather intimately what it looks like to lose the nourishment of one’s steps.

          It was like waving a nice juicy steak 
          in front of a hungry guy with no teeth. 
          I was a starving man.

Travel adds spice to the dish, helps one appreciate the lusciousness of each step. I’ve learned more about life and love and beauty—and certainly about myself—from my adventures in Mexico and other Latin American countries than
I ever could have discovered staying home.

A couple years ago I traveled to Cuba. The trip involved a lot of walking, from exploring the back streets of Old Havana to climbing rugged hills in the western region of ViƱales. But I was in pain.

For quite a few years an impinged nerve in my lumbar spine had been worsening, manifesting as intense phantom pain in my left hip. By the time I went to Cuba, I could only walk or stand for a few minutes at a time. I hated being the “old guy” who had to sit out a hike or, at best, lag behind.

Problem was, every other part of my body and spirit put me in about the top ten percent of men my age for fitness. It was like waving a nice juicy steak in front of a hungry guy with no teeth. I was a starving man.

But last August an incredible surgeon at the Mayo Clinic gave me my teeth back. Free from pain, and with a back that now feels like that of a much younger man, I’m once again able to give my wandering feet what they so crave: freedom. Freedom to taste still-more-exotic places, test my capacity for wonder, delight as much in the journey as the destination.

I’ve no idea how many more steps are left on my plate. But I’m going to relish each one, not as if it were the first—for that tentative step back in 1946 was simply instinct. No, I’ll relish each one as if it were my last. I guess I believe that these precious autumn-of-life strides, so full of knowledge, memory and intention, are the ones whose taste I will most remember as I slowly, inevitably, starve away to nothing.