Saturday, December 24, 2022

Happy Holidays!

 I wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—80 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!

Saturday, December 10, 2022

BANSHEE BRINK – Survival and Serenity On Cross-Country Skis

Ah-h-h, the dry, rhythmic whisper of skis on snow. Sh-h-h…sh-h-h….sh-h-h-h-h. An inch of fresh powder last night, and my green wax is spot on—grabs like tank treads going up hills; slick as Teflon going down.

Vivid sun cuts cleanly through fourteen-degree air. In the forest, trees cast pillars of shadow. Snowflakes, awakened by gentle breezes from their naps on high boughs, dust my jacket with glitter.

My body’s working well; I ask the best from every limb, and get it. My hands are already warm enough to shed my gloves. My spirits encourage me, as if skiing just ahead, laying down solid tracks, making it look and feel so easy.

          Before I know it I’m going way too fast
          to slow down.

Through a small clearing I glide, up a long herringbone hill, along a wooded ridge, and finally over the top. Speed picks up slowly; a little poling, faster and faster; now poles can’t keep up; I nearly brush the trees; hope I can stay in the tracks!

Wait! What’s this just ahead…Oh, no, too late! Over a blind crest and Whoa-h-h-h! A roller-coaster hill drops out from under my skis, sending me into near free-fall. Before I know it I’m going way too fast to slow down. Oh my God, I’m dead.

At the bottom a sudden dip catapults me out of the enclosure of the woods and into open sky over a sea of white. It feels like I'm in the air for five slo-mo seconds. I land more or less on my feet, regaining my balance, and then coasting…coasting.

A few easy strides…coasting…and then, far out on the frozen lake, I glide to a stop. I pause to catch my breath and listen. To the brittle silence of winter wilderness. To the still drumming beat of my heart.

(I later find out that I've just survived "Banshee Brink," one of the area's most notorious cross-country ski trail features.)

One’s thoughts are torn at exquisite moments like this. Between the immediate magic and deeper reflection. I’m not very religious, but for some reason, the words of a chapel reading I heard nearly 60 years ago when I was a counselor at a boys’ camp in Maine come to mind:

May the lake, the trees, the wide spaces of the fields and all the nature
 sights and sounds of earth and air be unto us as gates whereby we enter the vast kingdom of thy presence—and think quiet and compelling thoughts.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

TALKING SNOW – And Other Winter Wonders

It’s early December here in Minneapolis. We’ve just been visited by the season’s first snow storm, which blanketed my home town in eight inches of beautiful, sparkly-white powder. In a typical winter we’ll expect another four to six feet.

Like most of us norteños, I entertain mixed feelings about the coming four-and-a-half to five months of winter.  From mild depression over its getting dark at 4:30, to annoyance at having to don two or three extra layers of clothes to go outside, to the sheer exuberance of a nice ski with the right wax on fresh snow.

My trick for staying reasonably happy through a Minnesota winter—or any season for that matter—is to overcome the downsides by opening my eyes and my soul to wonder.

Here, in no particular order, are a few tips I hope might warm your way through these long, cold, dark days, alternating with some of my most memorable winter experiences related to each tip:

Forget the notion that snow is white, and look more carefully for the many colors it wears.

During a watercolor painting class I tried painting a snow scene. I kept wondering why it looked so flat, so unconvincing. The instructor explained that my snow was just “too white.” She was right; I added shadings of blue and violet, even hints of gray, and nailed it.

Snow and ice love to play. Blow them; throw them; slide on them; build with them; make igloos and angels.

When I walked to school as a ten-year-old, I’d pass an old, iron fence whose posts were capped with three-inch spheres. Every cold winter day, my friends and I would each spit on one of those balls. By February, barring a major thaw, we’d have three- or four-inch spit stalagmites.

Snowflakes seem so calm and silent. But see if you can’t make out their whispered breath when a few million of them settle and shift in a light breeze. Listen for snow’s “hush, hush!” under ski or sled. Heed its complaints when crushed under foot or tire.

When Sally and I head home from an evening event on one of those crackly-cold, minus-20 January nights, I love the concert that emanates from the parking lot: snow's squeaking like Styrofoam underfoot; its groaning and crunching under tons and tires; the rasp of scrapers on icy windshields; the labored cranking of cars’ starters.

Don’t curse the freezing air; celebrate it. Marvel at the way it reveals your breath. How its density carries sounds. How it lets you walk on water. Or skate…or drive.

When it drops to minus 20 or colder, I love to take a pan of boiling water outside and throw the water up in the air. It explodes into a cloud of snow, hissing as if you’d thrown it onto a white-hot griddle.

             The hard rubber puck hit the goal’s
             metal post…and shattered.

If it gets really, really cold—like the minus 36 I experienced last winter up in Bemidji—remember how that feels; it’ll make for a kind of warped bragging rights the rest of your life.

My high school’s hockey rink was outdoors, unenclosed. One day when the temperature hovered around 25 below one of my teammates hit a great slap shot. The hard rubber puck hit the goal’s metal post…and shattered.

Appreciate the graceful shapes snow assumes when sculpted by the wind; and its ability to record everything from the passing of a field mouse to the progression of climate change over millennia.

Right after a fresh snowfall, Nature bore witness to a poignant, life-and-death drama right in the middle of my back yard: a line of delicate mouse or vole tracks that ended abruptly. And flanking the very last tiny footprint, the subtle, but unmistakable, imprints of two-foot wings.

Discover snow’s sublime beauty in both its micro and macro forms. An individual snowflake is one of Nature’s most elegant, beguiling creations. And, in the billions, they can bury a freight train, shut down a city or become the medium for gorgeous drifting dunes.

During my Army stint, I spent a weekend leave in New York City. Sunday dawned to the hush of over a foot of fresh snow. The normal hustle and hum of big-city life had been damped down to the easy murmur of a village. The only things moving were people on foot; the only sounds, the laughter of folks having a snowball fight…and swish-swish of one guy skiing.

Discover how, when a lake’s unbridled liquidity freezes solid and flat, it sets free your own gliding, swirling dance. You will need skates.

I’ll never forget my first skate on “black ice." Sunfish Lake had just frozen over (just a couple of inches thick), and neither wind nor snow had yet marred its glassy, obsidian perfection.*

Shed the scratchy, stifling coat of adulthood for a while, and free your inner child to delight in the season.

While skiing through the woods, I stopped in a pool of sunlight. I don't know what prompted me to lift my gaze, but suddenly I was awash in a fine, dazzling-diamond mist. The five-year-old in me opened my mouth and caught as much as I could on my tongue. I took a deep breath of pure, sub-zero air and vowed I’d never forget.
I haven’t.

All right, I know everyone who lives anywhere has his or her own war stories about their weather. But I say you can have your hurricanes and heat waves, your super cells and sand storms. I’ll take the winter weather wonders of Minnesota any day. 

 C’mon, I know you’re envious!

* I later learned that another skater had fallen through the ice that day on the same lake. Officials insist lake ice is safest to walk on when it’s clear and at least four inches thick. Even then, you should carry a pair of picks designed to enable your escape in the event you break through.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

WHERE NOTHING IS EVERYTHING – The Sacredness of the Spaces Between

In Nature, as in life, we can see more if we notice not just things, but the spaces between things; not just sounds, but the silences they frame.
Far from empty, these inhalations in the song of creation are what make each note so clear, so sweet.

From Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, by Jeffrey Willius

I’ve been reading Eckhart Tolle’s inspiring 2005 book, A New Earth – Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. I’d been aware of the elfin spiritual guru’s Zen-like teachings for many years, and have watched several of his interviews about spiritual evolution and the path toward ego-less consciousness. (I also enjoy actor/comedian Jim Carrey’s unlikely musings about his own Tolle-inspired take on life.)

Revisiting Tolle has piqued my interest in better understanding and articulating my own spiritual beliefs, especially where they align with his on the concept of space.

I’ve written in these pages many times about the metaphysical significance of space. How to find it amongst the phalanx of responsibilities and stimuli that press in on us every day. How Nature can help provide that space.

         It’s all just story, whose true setting
         is invariably in the past or the future,
         neither of which even exists.


I love the way Tolle delineates the realms of ego and higher consciousness. Ego, he says, comprises all the thoughts, feelings and even experiences that seem to define our lives. Higher consciousness, our true essence, our Being is everything else. It’s like this invisible—yet somehow perfectly beautiful—vessel, which exists both everywhere and nowhere.

While the ego feeds on stuff—Tolle calls it “content”—that comes and goes through that space, it’s all just story, whose true setting is invariably in the past or the future, neither of which, he asserts, even exists.

Content—like emotion, accomplishment, personality or pain—though the ego wants desperately to glom onto it, inevitably comes and goes. Our self-actualization depends on our ability to let it do so while realizing that it has nothing to do with who we really are. 

         Though I often hear people describe their
         ultimate happy place in terms of fullness,
         I experience mine as a divine void.

I love this notion of space being the essence of awareness. It feels like the central truth in which I’ve always known my personal spirituality is grounded. It explains perfectly why, though I often hear people describe their spiritual happy place in terms of fullness, I experience mine as a divine void. It’s why, for example, I find the “moment of silence” sometimes offered in services of prayer and remembrance so powerful.

It explains all kinds of notions human beings find hard to comprehend, but which I know somewhere deep inside to be true. Like how one reality might reside just a membrane’s thickness away from its opposite. Like the seeming mirror images of the immense and infinitesimal. Or how there’s no such thing as a straight line—since they all eventually end up at the same place they started.

That timeless, placeless, formless expanse in which those truths reside sounds a lot like what many spiritual traditions would call God.

                                             ~            ~             ~    

                                SIDEBAR: There’s Nothing To You
In case you had any doubt about the relative importance of matter and space in the Universe, consider this: If one could remove all of the empty space contained in and around every atom in every person on planet Earth and compress us all together, the overall volume of our particles would amount to something roughly the size of a sugar cube! *  **

* “The Volume of Humanity – If All the Space In Our Atoms Is Removed” By Phil Plait, SYFY Wire, Oct. 29, 2018

** Of course, this compression can only happen theoretically. Since the position of atoms in most solids is determined by what’s called wave function, they are about as close together as the laws of physics allow.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

CAP’N CRUNCH – Master of Dwindling Days

I’ve never been that big a fan of fall. The lush, green mantle that summer tucked around us so tenderly in June is growing threadbare. Flowers are fading. The crisp crack of bat on baseball is giving way to the dull thump of foot on football.

Summer’s luscious, oxygen suffused air will turn first to the sugary sweet smell of decay, then get wrung out, dried and sterilized.

Worst of all, daylight, after nourishing eyes and souls well into the evening for the past few months, gets dialed down like lighting for a noir photo. Too soon it will be dark by 4:30.

And need I even mention the coming four-month deep freeze here in Minnesota?

     I set out each day looking for—and finding—
     the bright side of autumn.

It all feels like gradual starvation. Nonetheless, determined to choose a mindset of abundance over scarcity, I set out each day looking for—and finding—the bright side of autumn.

My daily walks are a kind of meditation on that ambition. I head outdoors with eyes and heart open to fall’s undeniable small wonders: berries, from black to white with all the colors in between; the busyness of critters squirreling away stores for winter; leaves, dying with panache, flaunt their finest colors.

One of my favorite harbingers of fall is the oaks’ dropping their acorns. More specifically, stepping on their brittle capules, many of them knocked loose by impact with the sidewalk.

As I walk I seek out the elegant little crowns, aiming to crush as many as I can. I'm sure I look deranged, lurching back and forth, seeing if I can’t hit one with each step. Chalking up a double is especially rewarding.

Squnching one with the toe or arch of your shoe might do the trick, but the sound and feel are most satisfying when you hit it right on the ball of your foot.

The lower the humidity, the crunchier the little cups get. If it rained last night, fuggedaboutit. The best is when they’ve baked in full sun for a few hours.

(My wife rolls her eyes when I do this; thinks I’m reverting to my silly, inner ten-year-old. Which, of course, I take as a compliment.)

      Look right past the withering of summer’s
      joys and find those of fall.

Don’t we all—especially after all the dispiriting events we’ve been through the past few years—need a little more reversion to childhood? Hell, we needed it even before COVID, George Floyd, the climate calamity and what’s-his-name, when far too many of us were already allowing workaday concerns and mindless diversions to steal our innate senses of wonder and play.

So c’mon folks, let’s reclaim that precious, lighthearted exuberance that is—or at least should be—every evolving soul’s birthright. Get out there, take a deep breath of this sweet, late-summer air. Look right past the withering of summer’s joys and find those of fall.

Look for those first crimson leaves of sumac and the fantastic shapes and patterns of fungi; smell the crisp autumn air; listen for the Vs of Canada geese heading south.

And by all means, indulge your still playful ten-year-old self with a mischievous, crunch-a-licious stroll through fallen acorns.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •


     There are three distinct classifications of crunchiness: Crispy is onomatopoeic; it whispers; sounds like its spoken-word self. Crispy is biting into a classic potato chip or a piece of puffed rice cereal (a Rice Crispy, if you will). 
has a bit more heft. The item’s usually a bit harder, more rigid. The sound’s deeper, gravellier, like chomping into a fresh carrot or a well-toasted almond.
     And then there’s Crackly. Crackly’s brittle, snappy; you really get the sense that something’s breaking. It’s what happens when you bite into stuff that’s hard and thin, like peanut brittle, ribbon candy or even some “kettle” style potato chips.
     Some things—like ice—can be either crunchy or crackly, depending on their hardness or thickness.

Saturday, August 13, 2022


An irrepressible flow, an unmoving impediment. If both were solid objects, there’d be a collision, likely some damage, and motion would cease.

But with water—or any substance that either is, or acts like, a liquid—the effect
of that collision is a thing of beauty, a sublime coalescence of concession and conquest.

Take a rock and a river. Collision’s no problem for either of them. The water simply separates effortlessly to flow around the barrier, then momentarily reverses course and regroups to carry on its gradual, inevitable surrender to gravity.

It’s an object lesson in fluid dynamics.

     Eddies are made by objects as small as the
     teaspoon you use to stir your morning coffee
     or as large as…well…Antarctica.

An essential characteristic of flow is that when the liquid changes direction it creates a void in the place where it would have gone if left alone. It’s something like a vacuum, which draws in the liquid next to it. This creates the swirl we call an eddy—or vortex, gyre, whirlpool, maelstrom…all the same thing, though some of these terms suggest varying scales.

If the water flows ‘round that rock on both sides, the void occurs right behind the rock, stirring a swirl on each side and an area between them where the water flows back against the current. If the rock is a peninsula, there’s also a backflow, but from just one swirl.

Liquid eddies are made by objects as small as the teaspoon you use to stir your morning coffee (made easier to see when you stir right after putting your cream in) or as large as…well…Antarctica.

I know a thing or two about water eddies because I’m a canoeist and a fisherman.
I see them coil from either side of my paddle as I dip and pull it back. On those rare occasions when the water’s like glass, I can turn and watch them spin down for a few seconds as they recede behind me.

Bigger eddies might offer a challenge to steering a canoe. As you enter one, you can feel it grab and rotate the craft. But an experienced canoeist anticipates such twists and turns.

An eddy doesn’t just roil the water on the surface; the effect often extends all the way to the bottom. Because this buffers the current, it’s the perfect spot for a predator fish to lie in wait, with minimal effort, for prey getting swept past.

And the circulation can be vertical as well as horizontal. This is why it’s so dangerous for a swimmer to get caught in the area just downstream of a dam or a submerged rock or log. The rolling undertow there can keep pulling you under with no escape.

            Get outdoors and let Nature be your
            slowing-down, calming "eddy."

So are there any life lessons to be taken from eddies, as there are from so many of Nature’s teaching ways? 

What would that big brook trout lurking behind the rock say? Perhaps “Why fight the current stalking prey when you can relax here and simply let the current bring dinner to you?”

Perhaps the message is that if you run up against an obstacle, it doesn’t mean your quest is over; with flexibility, you can simply “flow” around the barrier, and regroup in the calm before moving on.

Or maybe that life doesn’t have to be one continuous onslaught of expectations and demands. You can seek out those quiet “eddies” where you can relax and take sustenance.

Or that just about the best eddy you can find is immersion in Nature.

What other metaphorical lessons can you add? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

      “Water… for a dwelling it chooses the quiet meadow; 

        for a heart the circling eddy.”

             LAO TZU, Tao Te Ching

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

A GRACE IN THE CROWD – Revisiting My “Aura Fixation”

The grade school concert was more of an obligation than a choice. You know, our friends’ kid was singing.

It was a pretty typical display of talents for that age group. A few kids could sing; most couldn’t; a few didn’t. (But, of course, talent wasn’t the point.)

By the end of the second number, I’d spotted her. A girl in the third row. She was far from the best looking of the kids on stage. I don’t know if she was an especially good singer. But there was something about her.

I was enjoying whole show—the expressions on the singers’ faces, the nervous, distracted body language—but my eye kept going back to that girl in the third row.  
What was it about her, I asked myself. For one thing, she was about the only kid smiling. That told me she liked singing, maybe even enjoyed having an audience. (Or her mom was an ex-beauty pageant contestant who’d drilled the smile thing into her.)

There were subtler graces too: at one point, between numbers, she turned and said something to the nervous looking boy next to her. Maybe a word of encouragement.

I couldn’t single out the girl’s voice from the rest, but I knew that if singing turned out to be something she pursued—or whatever else, for that matter—she’d be successful at it.

      It was like watching the one student in a
      classroom who clearly gets the assignment.

Recently, Sally and I went to see Ain’t Too Proud, the fabulous musical about the life and times of the Temptations. The stage was full of performers—singers, dancers and actors—who were quite obviously the cream of the crop.

Even though the talent level was major league, there was still one performer who caught my fancy. He wasn’t the lead, just one of a number of characters who orbited the Temps’ inveterate leader.

Actor/singer Jalen Harris

But there were several things that kept my eyes coming back to him. First, his stunning eyes (I could see them pretty well since we were seated in the second row). Unlike the vast majority of African Americans, his are blue. And his connection with the audience, more than looking at some vague spot above our heads, was compelling. He actually made eye contact with folks, and, to the delight of the four young women sitting right in front of us, winked at them.

Mr. Blue Eyes also happened to be the best dancer—and the Temptations, like no other group ever, could dance. That, along with that electrifying, azure gaze, was so commanding that I almost wished I hadn’t noticed.


It was somewhere between T-ball and little league, just a kids’, parks-and-rec baseball game. This time Sally’s son, Matt, was the draw.

Of all those ten-year-old boys, half of them looked to be in over their heads with either the batting, the catching or the running…or all three. Nonetheless, I cheered Matt’s every move.

But once again there was this one boy on the other team I couldn’t help watching. More than just his obvious athletic skills—clearly a couple of levels more advanced than the others—it was his countenance, a grace in the way he carried himself, the way his eyes seemed to perceive the world around him. 

You could tell by watching the other boys’—even the coaches’—reactions to him that he was a natural leader. Like the one student in a classroom who clearly gets the assignment.


So, I’ve experienced this minor obsession with one person in a group countless times, in every imaginable setting, from busy street corners, to ballet performances, to riding a “chicken bus” in rural Guerrero, Mexico. One person I just can’t keep my eyes off of.

What does this say about me, I wonder. Does everyone suffer this affliction? Is it just a quirk of human nature or something particular to the way I observe the world? Does it border on the creepy?

Do graces in the crowd captivate you? We’d love to hear of your experience in “Comments.”

I’m sure I’ll keep spotting these beautiful people, the ones with the auras. I don’t think I can help it. But wouldn’t it be something if one of these days, while looking for some new face in the crowd, I should spot someone who can’t keep their eyes off of me? I won’t hold my breath…

Monday, July 11, 2022

A BREATH’S BLESSING – My Intimate Encounter With a Dying Baby Squirrel

A heartbreaking little drama played out this afternoon while I was walking along the beautiful, peaceful trail that flanks the Mississippi River just below our house.

Right in the middle of the asphalt path, right where people walk and ride bikes, lay a little pink lump not much bigger than my thumb. As I got closer I saw that it was a baby squirrel. It must have been just days old, since its eyes looked as if they’d not yet opened. 

I saw no sign of injury, but its bare skin looked to be a bit sunburned. My first thought was, the poor thing, it might well have succumbed to the heat of that searing pavement.

And then it moved. At first it was barely noticeable, but its precious little feet and tail were definitely moving. Oh, my God, I thought, it’s still alive!

     I prayed somehow my intervention, my touch,
     might be a vehicle for Creation’s mercy.

A shot of adrenaline coursed through me as my thoughts turned from finding a decent resting place for the kit, to actually saving its life. First, I had to get it out of the sun and see if it would take some water.

I listened for any sound of an agitated squirrel parent from the adjacent woods. (I didn’t want to be one of those well-meaning folks who might intervene when it’s not necessary.) Not a peep.

So I wrapped the little thing in a grape leaf and hurried down to the river’s edge. As I did so, I prayed somehow my intervention, my touch, might be a vehicle for Creation’s mercy. Please, please let it live!

Dipping a small stick in the river, I was able to transfer a few drops of water to the tiny animal’s partially open mouth. But there was no reaction.

In fact, now there was no more movement at all. The sweet little creature had died in my hand. I stroked its soft, wrinkled side, hoping it might respond.

I sat down on a log and wept, fully present with that precious departed soul. I was grateful to have made its acquaintance, and hoped I’d offered some small recognition of its life.

There was just one thing left to do. I made a sheltered little bower on the forest floor and lay the sweet baby to rest, its last fleeting breaths having blessed me in ways I’ll not soon forget.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022


This pandemic, this past two-plus years of unimaginable, worldwide catastrophe, have brought gratitude into sharp focus for me.

There are two steps to experiencing true gratitude. The first is appreciating the blessing. The second is understanding—totally accepting—the impermanence of it. It’s one thing to feel blessed while you’re enjoying the gift, especially if you fully expect it to continue. It’s another thing to still feel the gratitude after the blessing ends—which they're bound to do…except one.

Maori fishhook / gratitude symbol
IMAGE: Vassil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I feel grateful today for my life. Not only for the gift it is right now, but for there being no known end to it. But what if I learned tomorrow that I have incurable cancer and that my life will be ending quite soon? Would I still feel grateful for the very, very fine life I’ve already lived?

As a hospice volunteer for the past eight years, I’ve been afforded quite an intimate view into the process of dying. Far more important, though, has been the view these beautiful people have gifted me of the process of living. Not one has said—or acted like—they’ve felt cheated by the prospect of death.

So, as my days wane I thank God for my life—both the promise of its continuing (the blessing that always ends) and the gift of its having been (the blessing that never does).

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

A FAN OF PHANTOSMIA – The Smell of My Own Nose

“Smell” is an interesting word, isn’t it? It’s one of very few in the English language that’s not only both a noun and a verb, but is also both an action verb—John smells the rose—and a stative verb—The rose smells (sweet to John).

I’m pretty sure every living organism on Planet Earth has some sense of smell. Animals use theirs to find food, sense danger and engage mates. Plants use their version of smell to react with pollinators, size up pests and detect disease in nearby plants.

For us humans, smell may not be quite as vital as that to our day-by-day survival, but if you’ve got a natural gas leak in your house, it just might save your life. And let’s not forget the sense’s aesthetic merit. Flowers, the sea, fresh-brewed coffee and babies’ heads come to mind.


They say one’s sense of smell fades as one ages. I’m sure that’s true with mine. That’s probably why I’m using more and more seasoning in my food these days. And, though it may be simply a measure of my love, why I can no longer smell my dog’s farts.

But I’ve discovered another aspect to my olfactory perception, one that seems to increase with age. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it phantom smell. That is to say, I’m smelling things that aren’t really there.

I first noticed it a couple of years ago while I was meditating. I sat down in my favorite chair, leaned back and, because it was daylight, pulled the hood of my sweatshirt down over my eyes to tone down the brightness.

As I followed my breathing into my inner space, I caught these fleeting whiffs of the most intriguing smells. Ebbing and flowing, they often varied with each inhalation. I found them engaging in the most pleasant, evocative way. But evocative of what, I’m not at all sure.

Even trying to describe them makes me think of a genteel oenophile deciphering notes of chocolate or leather in some nice, old Grenache.

It’s funny, I only get these smells when I meditate—with that sweatshirt pulled down over my eyes, collecting and holding, I suppose, whatever combination of real and imaginary smells come to haunt me.

            They’re more subtle, like the aroma
            of my skin after I sit in the sun.

So, what are these smells that come and go, that might morph one into the next with each inhalation? It might be easier to describe what they aren’t. They aren’t floral, nor sweet. They aren’t aromas I’d associate with food.

They’re less common, more subtle, like the aroma of my skin after I sit in the sun; like the not-quite-herbal, not-quite-spice smell of a hot, summer meadow; like the damp, fertile fragrance of deep forest; or the warm, toasty smell of our miniature schnauzer’s feet.

I’m pretty sure there’s nothing around me that actually smells like that. No dog in my lap; no food left on the side table; nothing spilled on the cushions. My mustache has been known to catch and hold the smell of the bacon I had for breakfast, but it isn’t that either.

I realized that I don’t smell anything until I pull that hood down over my eyes and nose. Maybe that’s where the smells were coming from. But no, I washed the sweatshirt and next time the smells were still there. 

      Oh my God, why are these smells after me?

Since the smells aren’t coming from anything around me, I’ve concluded that they must reside in me. Maybe they’re like dreams: you know they’re not real; you may not know what they mean; but you do know they’re based on something you’ve experienced.

There’s a name for this kind of phantom smell: phantosmia. Medical websites say it can have a number of causes: sinusitis, stroke, tumors, schizophrenia, …Oh my God, why are these smells after me?

Most often, phantosmia produces not-so-pleasant smells, like badly burned toast, chemical or metallic odors, rotting flesh…yikes! How fortunate that mine are so congenial. In fact, I actually look forward to that element of my daily meditation, where the smells help me break through my shell of mundane concerns and into a state of dreamy inner-consciousness.

The sense of smell is another of those miracles we become so accustomed to that we may barely notice it. Whether it’s a pleasant waft or a foul reek, whether the source is real or imagined, smell is, indeed, worthy of wonder.

So, have you ever been visited by phantosmia? Does it beguile you or beset you? Won’t you please leave a comment? We’d all love to hear how you smell.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

HEAR, HEAR! – Music As If For the First Time

Those of you familiar with my As If For the First Time (AIFFT) series will recognize the premise: pick some common observation or activity—one so ubiquitous as to easily escape one’s full appreciation—and describe it as if I’d never seen or done it before.

I’ve written at least fifty of them, and the other day, while listening to our local public radio classical music station, I realized music just begs for a place at the
AIFFT table. Why had it taken me so long?

                                                    ~        ~        ~    

         It can curl one into the fetal position
         or lift one to prayer.


Usually these treatises practically write themselves. But the more I think about music, the more it’s proving one of the hardest themes I’ve tackled.

It’s just that music is so intangible. Unlike any of my previous AIFFT reflections, experiencing it involves no physical action. You can’t see it, pick it up, turn it over, smell it or taste it. You can only listen…and relate.

Much of our response to music is emotional. Like poetry for the ears, it can render one sad, happy, pensive, agitated…or sleepy. It can curl one into the fetal position or lift one to prayer. It can move one to dance. 

IMAGE: New York Times

It coaxes out the sweetest and sorest of memories. It can draw shut dark curtains of fear or doubt, or open them to the golden-hour light of promise.

And yet, how do I describe music as if I’d never heard it before? Doesn’t its appreciation require some cultural or personal reference point? Or could some aspects of it actually be innate to us? In other words, might even infants love a Mozart concerto the first time they lay ears on it? (Brain sciences researchers say they do, and that music plays an essential role in speech development.)

I’m reminded of a film I once watched portraying some early 20th century explorer who’s managed to penetrate a remote jungle—in Borneo I think it was—and discovers a tribe whose culture remained untouched by modern civilization. The visitor unpacks a Victrola, winds it up and plays Caruso. The natives are spellbound.

Why? Is it because the music their visitors love has touched their souls too? Or is it simply the novelty of their magically producing such sounds—any sounds—from that odd spinning disk?

It’s not that they’ve never heard—or played—music before. Of course they have their own rudimentary music. But where does the inspiration for that creation come from? And why hasn’t it produced works of comparable sophistication to those of Mozart or Steely Dan or Nas?

Nature’s sounds are influential—as they have been for composers in other cultures. From the rumble of thunder to the shrill airs of birds; from the sighs of wind through trees to the rhythm of cricket chirps or water dripping.

This might explain basic melody and rhythm, but what do those wide-eyed Borneans know of harmony? Of tonal color? Of counterpoint? Even though Nature has never shown them such niceties, might they not have simply invented them through experimentation?
     Is rhythm something we’re born with, part
     of our DNA, or is it taught us by no less
     a maestro than our own mother’s heartbeat?

The one aspect of music that just might be inherent to us human beings, even before it’s ensconced in culture, is rhythm. So is the urge to tap our fingers and move our feet a need we’re born with, part of our DNA? Or is it taught us by no less a maestra than our own mother’s heartbeat? (Brain development research has shown that it is.)

And our appreciation for harmony, is that an innate quality of sound, an invention of our hearing, or a component of our souls?

          Do infants love Mozart the first time
          they lay ears on it?

We listen to and appreciate different types of music for different reasons. While some folks love what we might call traditional harmonies and rhythms, others prefer their music dissonant, their tempo harsh, even angry. And still others…well, our tastes are all over the map.

One example: Years ago, I met and became friends with the fantastic Mexican magical-realist painter Fernando Garrido. I was absolutely sure Fernando would love a new album I’d discovered, a CD by Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen, whose sublime style “melds brooding Nordic lyricism and modern jazz.” *

So, next time I visited him at his home in Querétaro, I brought the CD and gave it to him.

Now I find Gustavsen thoughtful, soothing, at times etherial—creating the perfect “head space” for my own creative writing and crafting. What better music, I reasoned, to stir the creative juices of a famous, prolific, Caravaggio-inspired Mexican painter? Right?

Wrong. After months of my trying tactfully to pry an honest opinion of the CD from my tactful friend, he finally came clean. He said, “It’s so slow; it has no life.” So much for becoming soul mates with Fernando Garrido—at least music-wise.

So I guess music’s effect on us, like that of art, or design, or any other type of expression, is colored not just by taste, but by culture and by our own experience. I know I’ve heard music most people would find nice, but not especially moving, which, because it recalled for me a particular moment of love or loss, caused my heart to swell or brought me to tears.

         It's like trying to assess emotion as if
         we'd never been able to feel.

So, experiencing music as if for the first time. Is that even possible?  

For something so ingrained in the development of our brains, so influenced by our natural surroundings, so colored by both experience and culture, I’m inclined to say it is not. It’s like trying to assess emotion as if we’d never been able to feel. Or discussing language without words.


At least for me there are far fewer answers than more questions. If you have some answers based on your own experiences with music, we’d all love to hear them!

“If I can learn to understand this language without words, I can learn to understand the world.”

“Remember, all music was once new.”
* Apple Music ( )

Saturday, January 1, 2022


What is hope? Is it anticipation? Expectation? And where’s it located? Is it all about something happening way off in the future? Must it always be about the future?

Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle likes to say, because the past has already happened, and the future hasn’t yet, that neither exists. That the only time that’s real is now.

So, what does hope look like, not when it’s about some distant outcome, but closer to now?

Well, of course there’s the kind with a capital H, that big, existential kind that’s just out there somewhere. But the small-h, everyday kind—is grounded in the here and now, resting not as much in fate as in our own hands, heart and spirit.

It’s really a choice we make, like love or happiness. But more like surrender, cut of the same cloth as faith.

If big-H Hope is the distant glow at the end of the tunnel, small-h hope is lighting candles in the darkness.

In these discouraging times, we need all the hope we can get—both kinds. Big-H Hope to put out there in the Universe as our sacred intention for ourselves and the world.

And small-h hope, which is often just putting one foot in front of the other. It’s there in the smallest details, minutia that might slip right past us if we’re less than fully present to call it what it is.

What is hope?
It’s a rustling in the brush along the bank of Peasley’s Slough
A glint of light through the forest ahead promising the end of the portage
Kneeling down to check the thickness of the ice
Swiping on a little blue kicker over your glide coat
Casting into that deep eddy just downstream from a rock point
Sticking out your tongue for a snowflake

It’s walking out with your choir onto the stage
Composing that exotic, dream itinerary
Readying your craft space with papers, scissors and glue
Checking how many students have shown up in your Zoom waiting room
Wrapping your finished lampshade arc around the rings
And it’s watching the garage door open and wanting so much for your partner’s car to be there.

There is hope in all these things, all of them signs of wonders about to happen.

So, as we face a new year, still groping our way through this tunnel of fear and uncertainty, may we take comfort in the glow we see at the end, and light those little candles. 

May we seek and find hope everywhere. Yes, up in the sky, in the big picture of what might lie ahead for us. But let us also find it in the moment, in the common, the constant. In each small wonder, each fleeting thought, each precious moment of 2022.