Sunday, June 16, 2024

RIVERINE PERFECTION – A Memorable Day On the St. Croix

I’ve been a river rat since I was nine. That’s when I fell in love with the beautiful St. Croix River, a Natural Scenic River forming the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota for most of its 169-mile length.

I can’t simply run down to the St. Croix and hop in our boat or canoe as I did most summer days as a kid. Nowadays it takes a bit more effort, including a 50-minute drive. But I still manage to tote my gear up there to my put-in spot at Franconia five or six times during the summer.
These river outings in my little 13-foot Mansfield/Stowe Osprey have always been good for my soul, a close connection with Nature and a cherished expression of
my independence. But today’s paddle is extraordinary, on as close to a perfect afternoon as I can remember.

          By about 6:30, the sun’s slipping on
          its golden-hour filter, bathing everything
          in honey light.

First, the weather’s ideal: upper 70s, sunny with scattered cotton-ball clouds and light breezes. The water level is a bit high. That means very little of the landing’s sand beach is exposed, making embarking and disembarking a bit challenging. And it usually means poor fishing.

But high water also means I can access my favorite slough, a flowing backwater that meanders through the woods on the Wisconsin side for several miles, and which becomes accessible only by portaging once the river drops to its usual summer level.

Going on a weekday, there are fewer people out; I see just a few small groups kayaking and a couple of polite power boats in the main channel.

As usual, I head out at about 2:30, since those five or six remaining hours of daylight are always magical, coaxing out all kinds of wildlife, from orioles to ospreys, muskrats to muskellunge. And by about 6:30, the sun’s slipping on its golden-hour filter, bathing everything in honey light.

So that’s the setting. Perfect enough, right? But today several other factors contribute to the magic.

One measure of my joy during my river paddles is how much wildlife I get to see. Today, the sense of oneness with Nature is just extraordinary. An eagle soars past at the treetops thirty yards away, a great blue heron flies close enough so I can hear the whisper of the wind on its wings.

Muskrats crisscross the stream, busily tending to their lodges. I don’t see deer this time, but I can hear them in the woods.

I’m far from a bird expert, but I love seeing them, listening to them, trying to imitate them. Today I hear unfamiliar birdsong coming from a dense grove of big trees along the bank. Sifting through memory, I rule out a few bird calls I know well, and come up with a guess: must be orioles. Now I haven’t spotted an oriole for years and have forgotten what they sound like.

PHOTO: Tony Castro

I start replying, and within a minute a dart of orange emerges from the shadows, coming toward me…and then two…and finally a couple more pipe in from deeper in the woods. What a privilege not just to see these spectacular birds, but to communicate with them (saying who knows what)!

Later, I try for another conversation. Nearly always on these evening paddles, I start hearing barred owls’ evocative eight-note incantation in the woods about an hour before dark; most often there are two or more trading calls.

This evening, emboldened by my success with the orioles, I try reaching out to any barred owls who might be within earshot. It’s not perfect, but my low-pitched coo-like whistles do the trick. One of them replies…and then another. I have chills.

I enjoy fishing. I like catching too, but that’s not essential to the mystical connection with Nature fishing evokes. Most days on the St. Croix the effects of current and wind make bait casting from a canoe quite challenging; I get one, maybe two, quick casts before I’m either turned completely around or barreling toward the rocky shore.

Today, though, the light breeze and moderate current are in near-perfect balance, managing to hold me in place or even move me gradually upstream—a perfect pace for covering a new spot along the shore with each cast.

        This spiny, mauve, shark-skinned beauty
        is thought to have appeared in the biota
        some 100 million years ago.

Usually, my fishing time on the river is punctuated with little, under-my-breath curses when I’m struggling with stronger winds or when my little Mepps Spinner snags on a stone or log, or, worse, catches an overhanging tree limb. Today, incredibly, I do all the usual target practice on submerged structure all afternoon, and without a single snag.

Now here’s the most amazing part. My average day fishing on the St. Croix might produce a few small fish, usually pike or smallmouth bass. Today, despite the high water, I catch seven fish, each a different species. Exactly one each of sunfish, crappie, yellow perch, rock bass, smallie, northern pike and sturgeon. Do you know how extraordinary that is?

Of those, the perch is one I seldom see on the river. (I worry that, since they love aquatic weeds, maybe that means the St. Croix’s waters are warming.)

But the most exotic by far is the sturgeon. This spiny, mauve, shark-skinned beauty is like a living fossil, thought to have appeared in the biota some 100 million years ago. Catching one—even a 20-inch youngster like this—always leaves me in awe. 

Finally, I can’t recount a summer evening on the St. Croix without mentioning our Minnesota “state bird,” the mosquito. We’ve had plenty of rain lately and temperatures are ideal for mosquito procreation. And, with little wind, I’d expected to be mobbed by the little assassins.

VIDEO: LaiTimes

But not today. Whatever this magical spell that seems to envelop me, it’s working better than 100 percent DEET. Nearly all afternoon I’m surrounded with a squadron of dapper dragonflies using me as bait and gobbling up the skeeters before they can land. I ask you, is that not a perfect example of synergy?  

          I allowed myself the lightness of being
          that allows wonder.

Serendipity is, by definition, elusive, impossible to replicate. We’d love, wouldn’t we, to be able to catch it, bottle it and open it another time. Alas, we can’t make it happen.

Like so many of Nature’s small wonders, it’s not all about what you actually see or do or even what happens to you. A big part of serendipity is about how and where your spirit is when you’re there.

The spirits of some folks I know are like magnets for wonder. They seem always to be in a place that’s wide open to curiosity and awe…and, yes, serendipity. For me, it can be a little harder. Too often I get stuck in my routines; I impose limits on myself when I needn’t; I’m too serious.

So today, this magical, near-perfect day on the St. Croix River, only happened because Nature and I happened to be on the same page. My worries were few; my filters were turned off; my senses were tuned in; and I allowed myself the lightness of being that allows wonder.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024









Ebon bud swells, unfurls
Cannot contain
A passion of purple

Whose sinuous curves
Trace forbidden desire
Wild, yet discreet.

Eager tongues of it
Savor luscious hues
Of eggplant, plum and wine

As gossamer skin
Its cool, velvet sheen
Seduces eyes and touch.

Like a midnight tryst
This stolen moment
Sates a yearning soul

Then, etched in mind’s eye
Yields to memory
Wilts and falls

Friday, May 17, 2024

QUICK, PULL MY FINGER! – A Sure Cure For the Hiccups

I don’t think there’s another of the human body’s many quirks that’s quite as quirky as hiccups. I dare say we’ve all experienced them, from the momentary one that feels a little like a burp, to a continuous, hour-long assault. From a gentle “hic” to a full-throated, chest-clutching, inhaled honk.

Singultus (the medical term for hiccups) starts with the diaphragm, a thin, dome-shaped muscle below your lungs and heart. Attached to the sternum, the bottom of the rib cage and the spine, it acts like a bellows to power respiration, expanding and contracting when you breathe.

Hiccups happen when the diaphragm spasms in response to air getting trapped in your throat. That forces your vocal cords to contract and produce that distinct “hic,” followed by the lesser sound of them relaxing. (This makes “hiccup” an onomatopoeia. )

The condition, while usually benign and short-lived, can be a symptom of more serious illness—pneumonia, uremia, alcoholism, disorders of the stomach, diaphragm or esophagus, or even some bowel diseases. Certain psychological or emotional conditions can also contribute to its occurrence.

Most mammals—all those with diaphragms—hiccup. Some scientists have postulated that the action may be an evolutionary relic from amphibian respiration.
             Among the strange cures: having
             someone pull on your ring finger.

Hiccups are classified as transient (occasional episodes lasting seconds or minutes), persistent (occasional episodes longer than 48 hours), recurrent (repetitive bouts lasting longer than transient hiccups), and intractable (essentially nonstop occurrence) Long bouts can be treated with medication, but there is still no definitive cure. *

Charles Osborne

Some people have endured non-stop hiccups for as long as decades. The official record is held by American Charles Osborne who lived with them for 68 years, from 1922 to 1990. **

In some cultures, folks believe they get the hiccups when someone not present is talking about them or missing them. In others, they’re said to be the work of elves. The notion that a sudden scare will drive out the affliction has been thoroughly debunked.

As many types and causes of hiccups as there are, there are even more remedies. Among the strangest are:
     • Saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards
     • Drinking water from a glass covered with a paper towel
     • Drinking lemon juice
     • Having someone pull on your ring finger
     • Massaging the roof of your mouth with your tongue ***

Some of these strange cures are based on superstition or spiritual beliefs; some are believed to be psychosomatic; but there are also many that actually physically affect the underlying cause of the diaphragm’s spasms.

        I’ve offered this sweet miracle to
        dozens of people…and it’s never failed.

I have one simple go-to cure and one that’s more exotic. At least for me, they’re both foolproof. Next time you get an episode, give them a try.

The first involves simply cutting my lungs’ intake of oxygen. Most proponents suggest a long, gradual drink of water or breathing into a bag for a while. My mother swore by a cure that involved a bit more discipline: simply holding one’s breath while swallowing one’s own saliva ten times as quickly as possible. I use this method all the time, since it’s perfectly self-contained and you can do it nearly anywhere.

If you’re suffering an especially strong attack, the spasms might break through your efforts to swallow them. But keep at and it eventually works.

Most of these tricks work by increasing carbon dioxide levels in the lungs, which is believed to relax the diaphragm, which stops the spasms. (I think the swallowing part also helps by interrupting the hiccup reflex.)


The sexier hiccup remedy I use just blows people’s minds—it makes a fabulous party trick. I’m so confident in it that I challenge folks: If my treatment doesn’t stop so-and-so’s hiccups in their tracks, each of you coughs up a buck, okay?

Once we’ve confirmed the intransigence of the victim’s singultus—and my suckers’ commitment—I ask for some sugar and a spoon. Regular old white, granulated sugar. I pour a rounded teaspoon of it, hand it to the patient and instruct them to pop it in their mouth and simply swallow it as quickly as they can.

It’s hard to swallow dry sugar. Maybe that’s part of the remedy; it completely distracts a person from the hiccups. Whatever it is, once that sugar’s down, there will be no more hiccups. Not one.

I’ve offered this sweet miracle to dozens of people—and done it for myself many times—and it’s never failed.

I’m sure we’d all love to hear of your especially memorable hiccups attacks, and any cures you’ve found effective—the quirkier, the better.

onomatopoeia: a word formed to sound like the thing it describes

** Guinness Book of World Records
*** Farmers Almanac

Saturday, April 20, 2024

IS IT REAL OR AB? – The Perils of Artificial Beauty

I’m noticing more and more symptoms of a troubling affliction spreading through our communication with one another—starting with the easy-come, easy-go milieu of social media.

I’m not talking about this chilling, cyber-war-style artificial intelligence that purports to catch one’s opponent lunching with Charles Manson or calling for the mercy killing of old folks. No, it’s a much subtler, more benign threat, but one not to be taken lightly—especially by this blogger, a guy who lives for small wonders.

I call this creeping blight artificial beauty (AB).

It could be the image of some amazing creature or landscape. Perhaps it’s the striking face or figure of a person from another culture. Or a dreamy, lavishly decorated room or dwelling.

The colors are over-saturated, the textures just a bit too intentional, the composition posed in a way that doesn’t quite look natural. Things that in the real world are beautiful in their imperfection are rendered perfectly. A flower, bird or butterfly that’s just over-the-top ornate; a woman’s face whose skin looks like it was grafted from the face of a toddler; maybe a surface that’s supposed to look weathered that’s just too perfectly weathered.

        At least with the romance   
        novel you know it’s fantasy.

So what’s wrong with a little digital “enhancement,” you may ask. Is there any more harm in folks’ admiring these idealized pictures than in, say, reading trashy romance novels? After all, during this deeply depressing era, shouldn’t we celebrate anyone’s finding simple beauty wherever they can?

What’s wrong is that it’s no longer simple beauty. Not when someone decides simple beauty is boring and starts messing with it. At least with the romance novel you know it’s fantasy. These doctored Facebook shares I’m seeing are offered—and apparently accepted, given all the compliments and heart emojis—as real.

Let’s look at the ruse in context.

You know how kids have been seduced by technology’s siren song of excess? By now, if it’s not bright, fast and, too often, violent it gets elbowed out of their impressionable consciousness by something that is.

If you’re a game or app developer or a creator of advertising you know this. That what you’re dealing is like a drug; it’s seductive, but quickly loses its kick. So you keep making it louder, faster, glitzier. If you don’t amaze them in the first few seconds, you’ve lost them.

          It’s an era in which the very concept
         of reality is being challenged.


But that’s our kids. We adults would never let ourselves get hooked on a drug that induces its own strain of ADD, right?

Sadly, many of us have. It seems reality, whether in the people we meet, events we experience, or the wonders of Nature, has started to bore us too. In fact, thanks to AI, it’s an era in which the very concept of reality is being challenged. Just a few years ago I saw this deception coming at us in little more than a trickle; it has now grown to a tsunami.

We see the hype in advertising, politics, journalism, entertainment…and now in our simple, everyday attempts at connecting with each other.

Even more troubling than the deceit is that it’s being generated by a relatively early form of the technology. This is only going to get worse.

             The real thing is perfectly beautiful  
             without your digital fiddling!

Through which lens do you see your world? The perfectly fine one you were born with, the one that loves the amazing, imperfect, asymmetrical, muted-color way Nature renders reality? Or the one whose PhotoShop feature can’t leave well enough alone?

If, like me, you find Nature perfect just the way it is, what can you do about the spreading infection of artificial beauty? What I’m doing, first off, is simply to call it out for what it is. When I see someone's posted a bogus image I Google the subject to see if I can find any reference or image suggesting that such a person, place or thing really exists.

If not, I click on the “pissed off” emoji and comment something like: “This is fake,” “Never happened,” or “The real thing is perfectly beautiful without your digital deceit!”

Maybe, just maybe, if enough of us do this it will serve as a line in the sand for just how much artificial beauty we’re willing to accept. For how much of our souls we'll surrender in this deal with the devil that is digital technology.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

FINAL GIFTS – Negotiating Life’s Ultimate Transition

Charlotte’s sister had been contending with cancer for some time. Sally and I would ask about her whenever we ran into Charlotte in the neighborhood. After several of those updates—reports of points made and lost—we learned that, after all, she’d lost the argument.

Soon after Charlotte returned from the funeral in Michigan, she gave us a book called Final Gifts. She explained that a friend had given it to her, and that it had helped her and her family get through those last painful months. The book was a blessing, she said, one she wanted to pay forward.

Final Gifts was written by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, two veteran hospice nurses who not only care for the medical and emotional needs of patients who are dying, but help them and their families understand and grow from the end-of-life experience.

What makes this so relevant to the theme of One Man’s Wonder is that these wishes often aren’t immediately apparent on the surface.

A Kirkus review of the book says, “The ‘final gifts’ of the title are the comfort and enlightenment offered by the dying to those attending them, and in return, the peace and reassurance offered to the dying by those who hear their needs.”

In one example after another, the authors describe how the fear and grief associated with death are buffered by the dying person’s deep-seated need to reconcile relationships, settle accounts, spare loved ones’ feelings and leave a meaningful legacy.

What makes this so relevant to the theme of One Man’s Wonder is that these wishes often aren’t immediately apparent on the surface. Understanding them involves curiosity and open-mindedness.

Instead of using conventional words or actions, a dying person, especially when they’ve entered the stage the authors call “Nearing Death Awareness,” may describe what they’re going through or ask for things they need using apparently inane symbolism.

A reference to a map or packing a suitcase, for example, might indicate the patient’s fear of the unknown or of not being prepared for death. Talk of a balance sheet or I.O.U. might represent scores to settle or amends to be made. Or the mention of having received an invitation might signal the patient’s peaceful acceptance of death.

In all their cases, Kelley and Callanan help families of the dying to do emotionally and spiritually what many of us already know how to do with our physical sensing: to appreciate the wonder of life, discover new ways of looking and seeing, give voice to deeply-held faith and, ultimately, to embrace the unfathomable.

Like all of Nature, death has more to teach us when we appreciate its many layers. For one dying person it might be the opportunity for caretakers and loved ones to look under the surface of spoken words to discover his or her ultimate needs.

It might compel another patient to reach back through layers of time, asking someone long estranged to come back and share the letting go of resentment, hurt or blame—often for a disagreement whose reasons have long since been forgotten. In many cases, patients are able to hold on just long enough to reconcile with that person before passing away.

Suddenly, he sat bolt upright in his bed, his gaze fixed on a point somewhere
well beyond the upper corner of the room.


Sometimes the end of life even enables a dying person to reach across death’s threshold and sense the welcoming spirits of previously-departed loved ones.

Sally and I had no way of knowing how soon the things we learned from reading Final Gifts would apply to our own lives. But within months after Sally finished the book, her friend, Mary, after decades living with recurring cancer, finally was succumbing.

One evening near the end, Sally was sitting with her. Mary’s eyes seemed to drift away from Sally to something in the empty corner of her bedroom. “Who are they?” Mary asked.

Sally admitted later that her normal reaction would have been to try talking Mary out of her “confusion.” But, having read about this behavior in the book, she was able to embrace Mary’s experience and help her make sense of it. “Tell me more about them,” she prompted.

That simple acknowledgment helped Mary realize that the figures were those of her long-departed sister and uncle, and that joining them might not be as fearful as she’d imagined.

Those who experience Nearing Death Awareness often talk about seeing an indescribably beautiful place, one that moves them to wonder and awe. When my dad was dying (at the age of 91), we knew death was imminent. After being knocked to the floor several times by jolts from his defibrillator, he’d decided to have it turned off.

The doctor advised us he’d almost surely die within a couple of days. My brother, Dan, and I decided to keep vigil with him for whatever time remained. We let him know of our sadness and our hope that he’d change his mind. Ultimately, all we could do was to support him, talk with him, advocate for him, and make sure he was comfortable.

It was my shift. Dad was in deep sleep, his breathing so thin that I feared each time his chest rose and fell might be the last. Suddenly, he sat bolt upright in his bed, his eyes wide open, his gaze turned upward, fixed on a point somewhere well beyond the upper corner of the room.

His expression was one of pure rapture. It was as if he were witnessing something stunningly beautiful. Even though the wonder, whatever it was, was visible to me only in his eyes, I too was struck dumb. After about 20 seconds, he lay back down, closed his eyes and resumed his sporadic breathing.

He died the next morning.

Does all of this mean that death’s a wonderful thing? It depends. For my dad, I think it was. He was ready. On the other hand, I can barely imagine what it must be like to lose a child. Or a young family’s loss of a parent. Or anyone dying alone and scared…just the thought brings tears to my eyes.

Nonetheless, Final Gifts reminded me that the pain, fear and grief surrounding death are not evil; they’re part of the human condition, part of the Creator’s plan. When I view death in that context, through eyes unclouded by all the value judgments and taboos our culture imposes on it, I can’t help feeling that, somewhere under those folds, there’s the potential for it to be an awesome, even beautiful, thing.

The patients and families depicted in the book struggled with the apparent contradiction between that possibility and the stark reality of their own loss.

                                              ~             ~             ~         
I’ve given away that copy of the Final Gifts that Charlotte gave us, as well as several others I’ve bought. The initial reaction I’ve gotten from some recipients, especially those under 40—from whom thoughts of death and dying are still far removed—has fallen a bit short of gratitude: “What a downer!” “Why such a creepy gift?” “Are you dying?”

Most, nonetheless, have dutifully read it. Everyone who’s done so has thanked me for the discoveries and the comfort it’s brought them. I hope you’ll read it too—and then continue the sequence by passing it forward.

Final Gifts – link to Amazon

(Final Gifts and a few other books and articles I’ve read about death and dying have led me to become a hospice volunteer—with Health Partners Hospice—which has deepened my understanding and appreciation of the end-of-life experience.)

Saturday, February 3, 2024


In my As If For the First Time series I 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 toddled before my first birthday, and I’ve been on my feet ever since. Never doubting my ability to stand up, put one foot in front of the other and walk across the room.

Until late last summer.

That morning—it was September 13—I’d gotten up as usual, brushed my teeth, done my stretches. I’d just opened the refrigerator door to grab the orange juice when I felt a twinge of wooziness. Odd, I thought, as possible causes sifted through my mind.

Stroke? Heart attack? Brain tumor? Before entertaining any of these awful prospects, I decided just to sit down, relax and see if the dizziness might pass. But ten minutes later, as the dog barked to go outside, I just knew I wouldn’t be able to stand up. I tried, and I was right.

Quite the saga unfolded from there. Staggering to the door, vomiting, an ambulance ride, and an eye-opening night in the ER where they did every imaginable image and test to rule out the obvious culprits. Thank God, about 24 hours after whatever it was stole my balance, I was finally able to walk out of there.

The diagnosis after all that: dehydration. Ha! I knew that wasn’t the case. (Ever since having passed a couple of kidney stones years ago I’ve been quite conscientious about my water intake.) So if that wasn’t it, what was it, this mysterious, vertigo-like case of the swirlies? I just hoped and prayed it would be a one-and-done.

Then, just over three months later, while I was visiting my daughter and her family in Maine for Christmas, it happened again. Roughly the same time of day, same circumstances, same debilitation. Only this time, realizing that all the most dire causes had been ruled out, I worried less.

Sure enough, twenty-four hours later it was gone. But not without leaving me mystified again and feeling more vulnerable than ever.

           As far as walking, you might as well
           be aboard a tiny boat on rough seas.


While researching my new disorder, I’ve been reminded of the fascinating workings of the human body’s balance center, the inner ear. Among its components are thousands of little calcium carbonate crystals that sit on a gelatinous bed inlaid with tiny vertical hairs.

Normally, the crystals' condition and position signal to the brain where your body is in space. And they coordinate with your muscles to keep you…well…vertical.

But if those little crystals get jostled and some get tipped into the semicircular canals, that can be a problem. The errant crystals are supposed to dissolve, but certain positions can hinder that process, and then all bets are off. As far as walking, you might as well be trying to stand in a tiny boat on rough seas.

If it is vertigo there’s a remedy. The Epley Maneuver—a series of specific head and torso movements—can help satisfy the inner ear that you’re not really aboard a storm-tossed dinghy. I tried it three or four times without success.

This is one of those junctures in my life where I wish I could talk to my dad. He was a good-natured stickler for good posture. He’d see my brother or me slouched over our oatmeal and, without saying a word, demonstrate what sitting up straight looks like. Robot-like, he’d lift a spoonful straight up to the level of his face and then execute the precise 90-degree turn into his mouth.

Dad must have been taught the same thing growing up, that posture’s not just good for one’s spine, but is also an expression of one’s character. He walked steadily—and even played cartless golf—until just a couple of weeks before his death at age 91. No one would have been more profoundly bothered by the inability to stand.

Maybe that’s why this vertigo thing has hit me so hard. I’d like to ask my dad if he ever had an episode of this vertigo-like disorder. And if so, how he felt and what he might have learned about it.

From here on out, I guess all I can do is keep exploring possible causes…and hope it doesn’t happen again. I’ve made an appointment at the National Center For Dizziness and Balance, located here in Minneapolis, so maybe I can get some answers about causes, prevention and, I hope, a remedy.

And I’ll never again take simply standing for granted.

Friday, January 19, 2024

ARTICULATE SILENCE – The Power of Presence

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing...not healing, not curing...that is a friend who cares.”
                                              ~      •     ~      •.     ~     .     

It’s taken me a very long time to realize that just sitting, with no task, no agenda, no expectations, isn’t necessarily a waste of time.

“Just being” is something babies and old folks do very well. I suppose you could say that’s because they can’t walk and their hands don’t work very well. But more important than how they might have come to be so acutely in the present moment is the fact that only the most cynical observer would ever conclude from their lack of “productiveness” that they’re wasting their time.

It’s a shame the art of just being is so lost on the rest of us. For it’s in that state, devoid of ambition and guile, liberated from expectations of any kind, that we’re best able to experience what I’d argue are the human pursuits of the highest order: curiosity, compassion and wonder.

By the time we’re in grade school, most of us have already been indoctrinated with the familiar mantras: Keep your nose to the grindstone; Idle hands make for the devil’s work; Work hard enough and everything will be fine. You know, the good old American dream. Trouble is, there are some worthwhile goals that don’t fall within the reach of anyone who’s reaching.

          There are some worthwhile goals that
          don’t fall within the reach of anyone
          who’s reaching.

We’re all conditioned to place enormous value on the past and the future. We think the past, the sum total of all our life experiences to date, defines who we are. We think the future is where all our hopes, dreams and fears will play out. In fact, we tend to focus so much of our mental and emotional energy on the “then” and the “when” that we fail to fully experience the “now.” As much as we’d like to think we can do it, no one can be in two places at the same time.

I learned a lot about just being during my parents’ last days in this life. These lessons come naturally when you’re with someone who can no longer communicate with words. You sit there. Maybe you talk a little, hoping the person understands you at some level. But mostly, you just sit.

Simply sitting with someone may seem like an old-fashioned idea, like visiting or court-
ing. These are things no one used to think much about; there were fewer options, fewer distractions, so they just did them. But now that we’re all wired in, on call, connected 24/7 wherever we go, it’s gotten harder and harder not to feel we should be “productive” at some level nearly all the time.

Yet it’s precisely in such moments of “emptiness” that we are most apt to be fulfilled. That’s when we let go of any notion that, somehow, we’re “in control,” that there’s something we should be doing or thinking, or that anything but our presence matters.

When our consciousness is full of stuff from the past and future, there’s no room for what’s happening now. It’s only by clearing the decks of these preoccupations that we can be open to a communion with the present, whether with our own true spirit, the soul of a loved one, or the astounding beauty of Nature’s gifts that surround and fill us.

            We focus so much of our mental and 
          emotional energy on the “then” and the
          “when” that we fail to fully experience
          the “now.”

To be truly in the moment is a difficult concept for some people to grasp. After all, how can you achieve something that’s accessible only to those who don’t try to achieve it? Is it really possible to notice the absence of everything?

Can you really hear silence, feel emptiness? You can if you’re ready. Just as a sponge can’t absorb a spill until it’s wrung out, you can’t understand these things without first wringing from your consciousness the concerns and constructs that saturate your mind.

Perhaps the one mental construct that clashes most with just being is our notion of time. We imagine our lives as linear paths; we move along a time line. Each day, each experience we have, becomes another part of our past, that which defines who we are.

And the line extending in front of us, the future, holds all the experiences we will have from now on, illuminated by our hopes and dreams. It’s precisely in such moments of “emptiness” that we are most apt to be fulfilled.


Curiously, we even tend to see the spatial aspect of our existence as linear, imagining, again, that only those places where we’ve been and where we’re to go delineate the sphere of our existence. Imagine walking through a Costa Rican rain forest, touring the Musee D’Orsay or even riding the bus home from work, looking nowhere else but straight ahead or straight behind you. Would anyone consider this a whole experience?

As Eckhart Tolle says in his wonderful book, The Power of Now, these linear paradigms are just illusions we’ve invented to help us deal with the incomprehensible reality of the infinite. 

If you're looking to the past, the future or a change
of scene for the secret of happiness, you're looking
in the wrong place. If fact, it makes no sense to be looking at all, because you already possess it; it’s already inside of you. It is part of you; you are part
of it.

This is why just being is such a powerful, articulate force. Notwithstanding its utter simplicity—or, perhaps, because of it—it is a most eloquent expression of a reality few of us are ready to grasp. That, outside of the present moment, nothing—literally, nothing—exists.

Even the most defining moments of your past exist only as you interpret and apply their lessons now. Even your fondest wish, your most compelling goal, exists only in the work you begin now to realize it.

Monday, January 15, 2024

ANGELS AMONG US – A New Year’s Tradition Takes Wing

For the past decade or so, Sally and I have spent every New Years Eve in Scandia with my brother, Dan, his wife, Ruth Ann, and two other couples we’ve gotten to know through them.

Of course, there’s always good food—Ruth Ann’s an excellent cook—and wine—Dan is a fine sommelier. And everyone contributes an appetizer, side or dessert. The setting is incredible; their beautiful home sits atop a bluff overlooking a stretch of the scenic St. Croix River.

All these people are, each in their own way, smart, funny, talented and kind, and we share many interests. So conversation and laughter come easily.

Nonetheless, every year Dan, a week or two beforehand, throws out a theme for that year’s celebration. Everyone’s to bring something creative, their own or borrowed, that somehow expresses that theme. A reading, a hand-made craft item, a work of art or musical piece, or a group activity.

New Year’s 2023’s theme was “Angels,” and, as usual, everyone responded with something thoughtful and expressive of who they are.

It was heartwarming seeing and hearing all the interpretations of “angels,” ranging from silly to solemn, plainspoken to poetic. Some were quite touching.

While most saw their angels manifest in other people or things that have happened to them, Sally’s offering, typically, turned that on its head: First she handed out halo garlands. Then, once they floated above our heads, she asked each of us to share an experience in which we had been the angel.

Some were reticent to pretend to that status. Still, I think everyone walked a little taller after being urged to claim it. I mentioned my hospice volunteering.

The influence of the angel theme didn’t stop there. For the rest of the evening it kept popping up in the conversation. There was even talk of folks showing up Sunday at church next Sunday wearing those fuzzy halos.

And I won't be surprised if the evening's effects extend well into the new year
for some of us—maybe in the form of resolutions. Twenty-twenty-four: year of
the halo?

(In case you might be interested, here’s what I shared as my take on “angels”):


Once, they hovered, haloed
Revealed by none less than God,
A bridge from divine to human.

I’ve not seen such angels,
Not that they don’t exist,
Just that I don’t believe they do.

The kind I like are real, and I’ve met a few:
People, animals, trees…even experiences
That showed me the way, saved my hide…or soul.

My angels are like my god; they’re everywhere.
In me, around me, beyond me,
They show up exactly when I need them.

As mortals, though, we miss more than we see.
For angels don’t just happen to us; they happen from us.
From love, from presence, from faith.

We discern what we expect.
So with angels, as with other wonders,
Believing is seeing.

And that same generosity of sight, belief and spirit
That allows us to see angels prompts us to be angels.