The Five

In my creative writing classes I gave an assignment to exemplify the benefits of immediate experience over memory of a previous encounter, and of allowing all our senses to participate instead of just one.

I sent half the students into their respective bathrooms (without limitations upon identification, of course) with a pad and pen and I asked them to spend ten minutes in there and describe it. The other half of the students stayed in the classroom but did the same thing. The results of this second group were always predictable. Certainly, every one of them had been in the bathrooms multiple times through the semester, but still they almost universally remember the trite—running water, unpleasant odor, writing on the wall, mysterious missing locks on the stalls, paper towels on the floor around the garbage can.

When the first group returned, their notes were a bit more illuminating. Not just unpleasant smells but one of overwhelming cleansers; the low buzz of a fluorescent bulb, the mirrors always slightly too low on the wall, the faucet left on, the urinal still running, the clogged commode.

We experience with five senses, sometimes six if you include that sense of familiarity, of déjà vu, but we tend to remember and often only experience with one—sight. Studies show we rely upon how things “look” to recall them more than eighty percent of the time, yet the number one trigger for recall is smell. “Use ALL the senses,” I tell them. “Perhaps ‘taste’ is not so appropriate in this particular assignment, but sound is essential, obviously smell, and touch for its absence—how can you not include the desire to not touch anything?”

We spend a good deal of our lives living in the singular. One thing at a time; one sense is enough, one path in the woods. One thing problematic in this dip back to Psych 101 is how much we are missing. Sure, sometimes one is enough—but even when we eat, taste is only a fraction of the experience—the aroma draws us in and works with taste for complement, and presentation strikes first, of course. And how many of us are not crazy about a particular food because of its texture (for me, swordfish).


This morning I sat on the rocks at the river, trying to mentally juggle too many happenings at once. The new semester starts soon—online for now—and I thought about how I had hoped for more classes but enrollment is way down, so then I thought about the project I’m working on to catalogue as many readings about nature from writers as I can and my attempts to summon interest, then about a new book project I started, kinda—okay, not so much started as stepped in that direction—and about my sharp, intensely sharp spike in anxiety and depression when the news is violent, when the rhetoric is redundant and aggravating and angry, and about a tree which fell and needs to be cut up, and about

and about…


the coffee kicked in and I took a deep breath, exhaled very slowly into the chilly breeze, and reminded myself that I need to warm up to the day in much the same way we would warm up before a class at the health club. Take deep breathes through the nose, out slowly through the mouth, stretch, let all our senses work—and stretch those senses, make them limber, feel and see and touch and taste and hear all at once, not only like we are absorbing the world around us but the world around us is absorbing us.

This doesn’t work well in the city. It doesn’t even work well at home on a mat in a quiet room—we created the room by design and experience. No, nature is safe from subjective influence, it remains absent of judgement and human influence; there’s nothing out there we need to “get to” while looking around. It has a sense of eternal about it.

So I sat on the rocks and did that breathing thing, and the cold tightened the skin on my face the way cold wind does, and I could sense every touch of air across my reddened and tight neck and cheeks. On my tongue and lips that taste of salt I have known since my childhood, the marshy odor, the freshness of the Chesapeake, and the waves ripping against the rocks, lapping on the sand, breaking ten feet out in the river, the call of a gull behind me, the low distant rumble of a workboat diesel.

And then, dominantly, the view, the view which reaches deep into the immediate and blocks out all things social and political and makes us present. The deeply blue water today, the intrusively blue sky, the foam from the cold water on the sand and the white edges on the tips of the breaking waves. The small green strip of interruption that is Parrott Island a mile or so out, and the glint of sun off the window of a truck crossing the Norris Bridge in the west.

I am rarely present these days, distracted by what I hear on the radio, disturbed by the distance between where I am and where I need to be. It happens to us all. The changes in my life over the past two and a half years have been so drastic that sometimes—usually—it is hard to keep up with everything, so I turn to the constant, the familiar, to let my senses recalibrate themselves and make things right.

I like—need—order in my very unorderly life. And stepping into nature is perhaps the most reliable method of getting all my ducks in a row and feeling centered again. There’s something Thoreauvian about that, of course, and Jung is part of this equation, but for me on a much simpler and basic train of thought, it’s the undefinable persistence of beauty that brings me peace. And the innate need of us all to love. Lao Tzu was right when he insisted that “Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart, and the senses.”

So many changes, so much turmoil, so many medications and sessions and updates and downplays that have distracted us all from what should be elemental in our lives—ourselves, and all of our senses working together. It is the cure for the soul, as Oscar Wilde once noted, as is the soul the cure for the senses.

In this new year I’ve noticed something which at once was subtle but has become too persistent to ignore—I’m stepping further away from that which doesn’t bring peace to my mind. And the one absolute I know is I never had that problem in nature.

It just makes sense.

Sir Michael the Knight


I’ve told this story before. michale in frog shirt

When Michael was about three or four, he used to play “Sir Michael the Knight.” Sometimes it would be on the sand in the yard of a beach house we rented one winter where we would build elaborate castles and he’d be Sir Michael and I was the dragon inevitably slain by the knight, culminating in my plunging death into the castle. Most often he occupied himself on rainy days when he would don his shield and sword and cardboard helmet and then barrel around the house. One time he ran through his grandmother’s home in Pennsylvania, cardboard sword before him, through the kitchen to the living room to the dining room and back into the kitchen, several times always calling “Sir Michael the Knight is going to slay the dragon!” or “You can’t get away from me dragon!” as he passed again, his voice fading in some Doppler effect as he disappeared into the kitchen, emerging around the corner seconds later. On one turn he was mid-sentence running into the dining room when his shoulder clipped the table and his feet flew out before him and his entire body slammed to the floor in perfect professional wrestling fashion. I jumped from the couch when I heard his head hit the ground, but he only lay there a second before he said, “Sir Michael the Knight hurts himself bad.” He got up and kept running.

He is still running. Michael turned twenty-three today.

When I was young my father brought my brother and me to play golf. We really didn’t talk about anything other than the round of golf as we played, and often we finished with hotdogs at the grill. But it was bonding time, a chance for us to be together somehow knowing just the time together was more than enough; we didn’t need long, deep conversations. I can recall those times as clearly as if they happened yesterday. In the later years Dad and I would have Scotch together every Tuesday night. I’m not a fan of Scotch but of course that wasn’t the point. We’d sit and talk about baseball or teaching or whatever movie might be on, and we’d slowly sip the single malt.

Still there was always that gap that separated his generation from mine. For my dad’s generation “dressing down” meant loosening their ties. They listened to news on the radio and more often than not for most of them the first trip out of town was World War Two. Their music came from crooners and orchestras and nearly all their relations lived relatively close.

But the generation gap between my age group and my son’s is much less evident. We listen to the same music, dress the same, share the same adventurous spirit for travel, and communicate through social media more often in one day than I might have communicated with my father at all in a month. There are differences, of course and thank God, but the gap today is more of a small ravine with a variety of bridges compared to the canyon which stood between “the Greatest Generation” and the baby boomers.

I’ve been especially privileged to spend time with Michael. It isn’t unusual to find us at a local oyster bar splitting a dozen and drinking hard cider. Together we’ve ventured to various east coast spots like Long Island and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, trained across Europe and Asia on the Trans Siberian Rail Road, and walked across Spain. We’ve been around the block together, and we’ve seen more together than most fathers and sons get to experience in a lifetime. I am constantly aware of this and deeply grateful.  

But none of those journeys compare to the pilgrimage we make to the river every evening when we’re both home to take pictures of the setting sun and we wander around in silence to listen to the water and watch the wildlife. One of us might mention a colorful cloud formation or the approach of an osprey, but mostly we take pictures and point out the peacefulness. This has been a steady routine since he was four; the picture taking started just a few years later. In the summer the sand fleas can be unbearable but we tolerate them, swatting our legs and faces determined to remain at the river a bit longer. In winter we bundle up ready for whatever wind whips down the Rappahannock toward the bay. Over these nearly two decades we must have taken thousands of pictures. I prefer to point my camera up at the ever-changing cloud formations picking up the last bit of light from the fading sun. I try not to allow anything “earthbound” into the frame, including trees or even the water. I like the fluidity of clouds, how beautiful they are ever so briefly before they dissipate. Michael aims at the surface, seeing hues and shapes that swirl and gather and disperse as fast as he can find them, capturing just the right combination of color and design before the tide takes over.

It is about perspective. When people my age get older, we are “getting older.” When a man Michael’s age gets older, he is “growing up.” Twenty three years ago today I can tell you exactly what I was doing, where I was, how I felt, what I was wearing, what I ate, and the temperature outside. That was a lifetime ago; it was moments ago. Twenty-three years ago I was someone else entirely, a character in a story. Today it is almost as if I should find Michael coming around the corner, cardboard sword pointed toward an imaginary dragon.

These days I prefer to look forward so I don’t slam into anything. I am not sure where Michael’s going next but wherever it is and for whatever reason, I am confident it is with faith, a sense of humor, and an instinctive ability to be kind to people. I am as excited as he is about what’s over the horizon.

Happy Birthday, Sir Michael.