Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rain drop, tea cup

Today my walk in the woods was one of those days when you are never out of your rain gear, even for a minute.  Fully protected from the pouring rain, I become an island of warmth moving through the lonely woods, the sound of raindrops on my hood a constant companion.

Before I left today, I made some hot tea and put it in my little silver thermos.  About two miles in, it sounds really inviting.  I sit on a rotting tree stump and fish around in my old black messenger bag for the thermos.  Pour a cup, take a sip.  The liquid goes down hot, and the steam rises into my hood, fogging my glasses.  I hear the "plunk" sound of a rain drop landing in water.  It is so silent in the woods today, I can hear individual rain drops landing here and there.

That one landed in a puddle somewhere.  But I see no puddle anywhere.  Then it happens again, and I locate the sound.  The rain drops are falling into my tea cup.  As I look into the cup, it happens again. "Plunk" goes the rain drop, and there is a shiny ring of ripples in my little tea cup.  As I watch, the tea settles down, and just for a moment, I can see a reflection of the tall woods in the surface of my tea.  As I try to pick out details, another rain drop plunks into the tea, and the image is shattered.  But just for a moment, and then it is back.

I move the tea cup closer to my body so the bill of my hood shelters it from further rain drop impacts.  There, by my raincoat, I can read the image in my cup; a reverse of the tall, misty trees above my head.

Shortly after, it's time to turn around and head back.  The miles unravel on the muddy path and soon I'm back in the world.  But the image of the tall trees rippling in my tea cup remains with me.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


The horrifying symptoms of my latest health scare have abated.

Last night, in physical comfort, I watched a movie until I was sleepy, and then, I slept.  I woke at 3 am, got a drink of water, watched the full moon for a few moments, and then slept some more.  And this morning, I showered, made coffee and read the news.  Somewhere around 10am it occurred to me that normal was back in my life.

Lately, when the pain recedes and the fear dies down, I find myself doing normal things, like making coffee, or looking at the moon.  Or making the bed or doing laundry.  These things are so precious now.  My title today is "Normal" but maybe it should be "Precious."

These days the moments of doing something common, pain free, are cast in sharp relief, because of past pain.  With attention, each moment, every moment, is crisp and new and disclosive.

Today I went to a record store and bought some Sarah Vaughn and Dizzy Gillespie.  The store is in an old house.  The wood floor is made of dark, old planks and it creaks when I walk on it.  The vinyl LP's are in cardboard covers with paper sleeves inside.  When you remove them, they are shiny black.  In the middle, on the labels, it says "Columbia" or "Mercury" or "ASCAP."  They have their own smell, and indeed, the entire House of Records here in Eugene, Oregon smells of memory and music and vinyl and the joy of attention.

At home, I put some Dizzy Gillespie on the turntable and I begin to make Chili.  The wall heater hums, taking the chill out of my studio, onions and cumin fill the house with cheerful smells and Dizzy resonates.  They are all melded in a seamless experience.  A timeless experience.  It could be 1947 and I could be making chili in a studio apartment in Eugene, Oregon, listening to jazz.  Or it could be 2067 and I could be doing the same thing.

Each moment crisp and new and showy.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


Today, at long last, the doctor had some encouraging news for me.  It's been a long haul, one difficult thing after another for the last six months, and living in pain and fear the whole time.  Finally, the doctor offers hope.

And I can feel the quality of my attention shift.  It's a subtle progression.  First, of course, there are tears of relief, sitting in the car in front of  the doctor's office.  They pass, and I start to drive into town to do some shopping.  I'm surprised to find I don't feel ecstatic.  My sense perceptions are hyper-clear, suddenly.  I've experienced that before, after times of high stress.  My theory about it is that when we are in stress, we tend to tune out information that isn't relevant to the on-going threat or problem.  Then when it's over, sense perception floods back into our awareness and it seems powerful because it is fresh

I've experienced the same sensation after a long sit, or other mindfulness practice session.

My emotions seem to be dominated by something I can only inadequately describe as peace and acceptance.  Curiously, it is the same feeling I've had during some of the worst moments, without, of course, the fear and pain.

It's a feeling I want to keep on having.  It reminds me of the Buddha's advice to "suffuse yourself in this feeling, this state" once you have found it.  Tonight, I'll spend a quiet evening at home, and tomorrow maybe go for a short walk in the woods.  Maybe when I'm walking tomorrow, the state will settle on me once again.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Today my walk up on the Ridgeline took a difficult turn.  It was a cold, rainy day here in Eugene, and I was looking forward to the quiet and solitude that comes to these wooded hills in winter.  Shortly after I got on the trail, the day turned, seamlessly, to a struggle.

First, the late breakfast I ate at the Jiffy Mart did not agree with me.  I found my self fighting down nausea while making the steep climb in the first mile.  It was cold out, and I forgot my warm hat.  In no time, I had a sharp ache in my ear from breathing cold air.  And something in my nose, oddly enough was hurting, I have no idea why.  Some very dark thoughts that have been haunting me came forward.  Lonlieness crept in, and I found myself thinking about aging, my health and all the people I've lost in the last few years.

Mortality seemed to ride on my shoulder and say "you're mine."  Even this was odd.  Usually, when I think of mortality, it is with a sense of wonder.  Today, everything was hard, and the woods were like a dark tunnel.  Whatever my feelings are, I know they will greet me when I go the woods.  I've learned that the thing to do is to take the next step, and the next, and to be in the woods anyway.

On the way down the hill, a magical thing happened.  As I rounded a switchback in the trail, the high wooded ridge I had just come down from came into view.  A heavy mist was falling lazily over the tops of the tall trees, and the rain was sheeting down, pattering on my rain gear.  And a very old, very familiar feeling came over me.

It was the feeling of Having Been Up There.  It's a feeling I first had as a teenager, descending from the first peaks I climbed in the Cascades.  I've felt it many times at the end of a rappel, when my feet touch the ground again after climbing hundreds of feet on a vertical rock wall.  It feels like coming back to the regular world after spending some time in a world apart, a world that is only for the few.  In my expernience, no amount of fear, pain or despair can stand up to this feeling.  And today was true to form.  My struggling faded, and I remembered that my condition is temporary, in all respects.  The woods seemed a little more welcoming, a little more like the life-time home they really are, and have always been for me.

Sitting in my little pub, sipping a beer, I'm at home again.  My breakfast has settled,.  My concerns are still there, but they don't feel like a struggle anymore.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sameness, Newness

When I was young, my hikes were all about the next horizon, the next summit.  I rarely went to the same place twice, because I craved the new.  Now that I am older, I find that I can encounter newness on the same trail over and over again.  What is different?

My attention, of course.  Today, I'm hiking the Dillard Street loop, which I have probably hiked over a hundred times since I moved to Eugene.  Every time I go, it's new. 

Today, as I cross the little footbridge that leads into the woods, I see a dead fall to my right, an Alder that came down in a windstorm two years ago.  It didn't make it to the ground.  It got caught in the fork of a White Oak.  Now it has lost its bark and its limbs and it is only dead wood, shiny with rain, laying in the arms of the Oak.  As I stand there looking at the dead fall, a yellow maple leaf somersaults down from above, and lands in and Alder bush, suspended, not three feet from my shoulder.  It is so quiet here that the leaf actually makes a sound I can hear when it lands.  On the other side of the creek valley I'm walking in, a very tall Douglas Fir has leaned over onto its comrades.  By the end of the winter, this giant will fall to the ground.

As I continue to climb, the light comes up briefly as the clouds part, back lighting the leaves and trees to the south, turning the hanging raindrops into shiny jewels.  At the next footbridge, I notice the little creek isn't running yet.  But at the next two bridges ,higher up it is, making small splashy sounds as it leaps down from one tiny pond to the next.

Another half mile takes me to the ridge top, where the trail surface changes from rocky to packed earth, covered with a thick padding of pine needles and maple leaves.  Up here, the Douglas Fir thins out and there is more Madrone, including a very large one I had not noticed before.  Madrones shed their bark, revealing deep red wood underneath.  This one is tall and bendy, and the rain has made it's inner wood shine in the sunlight.

Further along the ridge, I step out into a clear cut and there are open views of the valleys and hills beyond.  Two valleys away, mist rises from the hollow.  At my feet a tiny brown mushroom has pushed thought the pine needles.  It wasn't there last weekend.  Further down the ridge line to the east, a small rotted out tree stump is dry inside and tiny plants thrive there, sheltered from the winter weather.  Now the clear cut reveals views of the summit of Spencer's Butte, another view I have not noticed in my many walks up here.

As I watch, a dark cloud appears from the South West and the Butte vanishes.  The wind comes up and the air begins to smell earthy and wet, and slightly metallic.  There is rain on the way. To the south the rain clouds are lit by sunlight breaking through the clouds, and they shine. Now the trail turns back to the west and loses elevation.  Here the hillside is very steep, vertical in places.  To my left, a silent, sturdy phalanx of Douglas Firs lines the trail.

The last mile of my walk repeats the first, but it is not the same mile.  Now I walk a mirror image of the first mile.  I see the other side of every tree, shrub and stone.  The heavy rain cloud that made Spencer's Butte disappear has arrived.  The wind comes up, the air smells heavy, and now the rain starts to fall, pouring down, and cold.  The woods are transformed. The light is subdued, almost like twilight, as if I were in a private place.  The rain drums down onto trees, leaves and my rain gear, creating a symphony of sound.  At a footbridge, I hear voices, very clearly.  I am used to hearing things in the woods, things that my mind turns into voices, to chase away the quiet.  But these voices are so real.

Just about the time I think I am having a true psychic experience, I see them; a young couple hunkered down under the bridge, escaping from the driving rain.  I finish out the last mile, the rain making everything bright, and just as I arrive at the car, a lingering peal of thunder announces the end of my walk.

This, my latest walk on the brand-new Dillard Street loop.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Ridge hike

Last Sunday I hiked up my favorite hill right outside of town.  I don't know why, but a half mile in I turned and followed an abandoned road up a steep hill.  Mostly I avoid roads because they don't offer the experience of being in the trees, and that is what I crave.  This road paralleled the ridge I usually walk, so I had some confidence I would be able to climb a little further east and get on top, maybe somewhere different from my usual hike.

Sure enough, about a mile east I saw an opening leading into the dense brush.  Soon I was climbing an obscure trail toward the ridge line.  As I topped out, I saw a man standing there at the summit.  He asked me if I was almost done with my hike.  The weather was closing in and I assume he was thinking I met get caught in it.  "Depends on where the day takes me I guess," I told him.

I turned west and soon found myself on a two-lane blacktop road.  The trail didn't connect to my ridge line.  I knew it was out there though, off to my right.  So as the weather closed in and the rain started to fall I got into my rain gear and wandered down the road, scanning to the right for the classic tell-tale; a space in the brush, an narrow opening, a wider than average space between two trees.  It was raining hard, and no one was about.

Sure enough, I saw it, about a half mile on: a barely- there opening between the trees.  I jumped the ditch at the side of the road and stepped up onto the trail.  Walked into the deep trees.  Rain tapped on my hat and coat and the tall Douglas Firs swayed  in the south west breeze with a shushing sound, a sound I've always known.  The woods were dark and the trail disappeared into mist about a hundred yards out.

Everything fell away, except the rhythm of my movement, and the swaying trees, dripping rain.  Mist before and behind closed my attention down to this place and time.  I joined the ridge trail and turned west. And for another hour, every step was home.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Thursday morning, driving up I-5 to work, I spent the entire trip in an agitated, desperate state, thinking about a situation at work, only to find upon arriving at the office that it wasn't at all what I thought it had been.  On another day I spent an hour in fear, about a voice mail on my phone that I  didn't want to play because I assumed it was bad news about my mother.  When I played the message, I discovered the news was good; my mother is doing well, and is coming home from the hospital.

Sometimes I wonder if we get attached to these mistaken perceptions of what's happening in our world partly because facing the truth can be humbling. The truth is that we are capable of making assumptions about our world that are wildy mistaken. On top of that, the emotions can be so convnicing that we forget to look at the evidence, which is the events that we actually know about.

The power over these states, of course, is the deceptively simple act of bare attention.  Lately, when I find my mind racing, I ask myself, "what is happening now?"  The question has a powerful way of reminding me that almost all of the moments in my life are beautiful, quiet and loving.  The hard moments can so hard, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of the moments in my life are magical opportunities to watch the leaves fall, see the rain clouds lower the sky, or feel joy on seeing a loved one.

What is happening now?  I'm sitting in my little pub, writing this column.  Outside, there is a row of maple trees, yellow with autumn.  As I watch, a single leaf floats down from one of them every time there is a breeze.  A heavy, dark porter sits next to my computer and every sip is a subtle dance of aroma, flavor and texture.  Elizabeth smiled at me, Dan asked me about my day, and Diane hugged me, like she always does.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Work has been so stressful lately that I haven't been sleeping, and I can feel my health going down.  I've been doing a slow breathing exercise, taking my breaks and trying to respond differently when the hard stuff starts to happen.  Sometimes it's hard to follow through. It would be so much easier to just stumble through the day. I feel stressed and discouraged and I wonder, is it working?

This morning I sat down at my desk and opened my computer, logged on and went to email.  It's a ritual I've done every work day for many years now.  Catch up on emails, update my to do list, review the day's calendar.  Then I go for coffee.

Today something else happened.  As I read my emails, I noticed myself speeding up inside. The feeling was fast and tight. I could feel my shoulders tightening up, my breath getting short and fast.  There were emotions too.  There was anticipation, excitement and familiarity, because I love my job.  But I also noticed tension tinged with dread, the way you might feel if you were stepping into the ring for a boxing match.

I pushed my chair away and sat back, just noticing the tightness, the short breaths, and the dread. I brought my attention the moment. There was sunlight just beginning to color the sky, and I could hear people in the lobby, greeting each other, starting their day.  And I realized, felt in my body, that this moment was such a good moment, a sweet time.  I felt myself slow down inside, felt the dread dissipate.  There was stressful stuff today, but there was a small, still place in me.  I noticed how meaningful it is when I answer a question or give encouragement.  And on my break I noticed how the maple leaves are only beginning to turn red, and some are still varied shades of green.

Is it working?


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mole Sauce

On Sunday, I made Mole.  Mole is a sauce used in Latin-American cooking.  The main ingredients are tomatoes, peppers and unsweetened chocolate.  But there are also lots of spices, and the process of making mole involves steps and processes that balance all the flavors.

I began by turning on the music, as I do every time I cook.  This morning it was jazz, brought to me by our local public radio station here in Eugene, KLCC.  To the haunting voice of Sarah Vaughn, I toasted Ancho and Guajillo peppers, sesame seeds and slivered almonds.  Then came Cumin, Cloves, Thyme and Oregano.  Then onions, garlic and tomatoes, all in the proper order, all with their own process.

The house began to smell like magic.  Charlie Parker’s sax provided background as the spices muddled.  Outside, the sun shone with autumn clarity as I sautéed and simmered all the subtle ingredients.  My home felt warm and spicy as I sprinkled chocolate into my simmering sauce, the last step.  I dipped out a small taste with my wooden spoon.  It was perfectly balanced, thick and tomato-y, the spices coming through in layers.  I ate some more, right out of the pot, just to savor the way the spices happened in my mouth, one after the other.

Three hours had gone by since I started.  It is a very curious sensation, when time goes away.  Tasting my mole, I had the sense that I had a put in a lot of work, done many steps.  But I had no sense of those three hours passing.  I put the mole away, put on my jacket, and walked into town under soaring maple trees bright with autumn leaves.