Features


HAIKU BOUQUET
 

Looking for springtime
A glimpse of a daffodil
Hope in a flower

               ~~~

Tulips salute us
Floral soldiers on parade
Just wishing us peace

               ~~~

Crocus daffodil
Tulip azalea iris
Parade of posies

BOOK REVIEW: THE HUMAN AGE
 

The latest book by naturalist Diane Ackerman is titled, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us. In it, she notes that some scientists have proposed that the current age we are living in could be called the Anthropocene—the Human Age. Such labeling recognizes “our unparalleled dominion over the whole planet.” Ackerman cites a number of surprising statistics. For example, she writes, “We and our domestic animals now make up 90 percent of all the mammal biomass on Earth; in the year 1000, we and our animals were only 2 percent.”

As might be expected in such a book, Ackerman discusses issues related to human-caused climate change. The most intriguing part of the book is her discussion of a variety of alternative energy sources that most of us have probably never heard of before. She tells of a train station in Stockholm, Sweden, whose ventilation system is able to capture surplus body heat from commuters—this captured heat warms water that is then used to heat a nearby office building. She also describes bladeless wind turbines that are being developed in the Netherlands (a country that knows a thing or two about deriving energy from wind).

The next most fascinating section of the book is about robots. Ackerman writes about scientists working to develop robots that are conscious and self-aware: “Engineers are designing robots with the ability to attach basic feelings to sensory experience, just as we do, by interacting with the world, filing the memory, and using it later to predict the safety of a situation or the actions of others.”

There is one part of the book, near the end, that is weaker than the rest. Ackerman talks about a young woman’s DNA in this part, and at first the young woman seems to be a real person, and then later on she appears to be an invention of the author. This lack of clarity is confusing and distracting. A reader might wonder if this section was written in haste to meet a deadline.

But the disappointing discussion of DNA is an aberration. Most of the book makes for satisfying, informative reading. All in all, in The Human Age, Ackerman does a fine job of presenting some of the concerns and hopes of our times. 

IN HONOR OF PI DAY: 5 POINTS ABOUT PIE


March 14th is referred to as Pi Day, in recognition of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter (which is approximately 3.14159). This year, the date of Pi Day can be expressed as 3.14.15, which makes it extra special, since 2 more digits of pi show up in the date. In honor of this occasion, here are some points about pie (the kind you eat):

3.14.15

1) National Pie Day is on January 23rd each year.

2) According to a Nielsen survey conducted in 2014, apple is still number one among pie flavors. (Pumpkin and chocolate are tied for second, followed by cherry.)

3) Pies originally had meat fillings and baking a pie was a method of food preservation.

4) There are at least 3 types of “pie” that aren’t really pie: Boston cream pie (a type of cake), whoopie pie (a cross between a cookie and a cake) and sweetie pie (a term of endearment).

5) For some people, their favorite pie is pizza pie! For many of us, every month is pizza month, but it turns out that October is actually National Pizza Month.

WORD OF THE MONTH: CURIOSITY
 

Simply put, when we’re curious, we want to learn something. We realize that we don’t know everything about the topic at hand. Small children are naturally curious—they realize that they have a lot to learn. Sometimes as adults, we may be reluctant to reveal our curiosity, because we would also be revealing that there is some particular knowledge that we lack.

Curiosity is at times viewed as dangerous. Certainly we can get in over our heads in some situations if we don’t balance curiosity with a degree of caution. And while we can have a healthy and compassionate curiosity about the lives of friends, relatives and neighbors, there can be a fine line between that type of curiosity and intrusive nosiness.

That said, curiosity is essential to human life. It spurs exploration, research, invention, travel, trying new things and much more. Albert Einstein was quite an advocate of curiosity. He observed, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

PHOTO OF THE MONTH: HINTS OF SPRING
 

Delicate blossoms quietly let us know that spring is finally arriving.

Bishop’s Garden Gate, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC, March 2006. (Photograph by Michael Riddle.)

Bishop’s Garden Gate, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC, March 2006. (Photograph by Michael Riddle.)


FEATURES FROM THE PREVIOUS MONTH



BOOK REVIEW: THE ART OF COMMUNICATING


While some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings have a timeless quality to them, his recent book, The Art of Communicating, includes numerous references to cell phones, texts and email messages. These references make the book very relevant to 21st century life. He does remind us that having a device does not ensure genuine communication. He writes, “But if the content of your speech is not authentic, talking or texting on a device doesn’t mean you’re communicating with another person.” In this book, Hanh present steps we can take to make our communications more genuine.

According to Hanh, if we want to communicate well with others, first we have to effectively communicate with ourselves. If we don’t know what is going on within us, “How, then, can we communicate with another person?” As might be expected, he recommends using mindfulness practices to aid in communicating with oneself. He says, “When you sit and breathe mindfully, your mind and body finally get to communicate and come together. This is a kind of miracle because usually the mind is in one place and the body in another.”

When it comes to communicating with others, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that there are two keys: deep listening and loving speech. Deep listening helps us to understand other people. Hanh notes that “Compassion and love are born from understanding. How can you love unless you understand?” In addition to talking, loving speech includes written forms of expression. Hanh suggests that we can use writing as one way to help us practice mindful communication; any type of written communication can serve such a purpose, including letters, emails and text messages.

The Art of Communicating contains six “mantras” of loving speech. These aren’t meditation mantras—rather, they are words to say to a friend or loved one. Some of them sound a little stilted. For example: “I know you suffer, and that is why I am here for you.” However, he does encourage readers to use their own words to convey this meaning.

This book is a quick read; there are just 166 pages totally. It’s the kind of book that can be fruitfully read repeatedly. In sum, Thich Nhat Hanh effectively communicates how to communicate more effectively. 

3 THOUGHTS ABOUT FEBRUARY

Three observations about the shortest month:

"February Thoughts"

1) In terms of length, February is the most distinctive of months. It’s the only month with less than 30 days and the only month whose length varies. How special (and, on occasion, frustrating) it must be to have one’s birthdate be February 29th!

2) Most of us who live in areas that experience snowfall seem to tire of winter at some point in February. Even some of the folks who really appreciate brisk weather, falling snow and winter sports tend to show signs of winter-fatigue by this time of the season. Little reminders of spring, such as a bouquet of flowers, can be most welcome in February.

3) A powerful reminder of warmer weather for baseball fans is spring training, which starts this month in Arizona and Florida. Spring can’t be too far behind once all of the players have reported to their training camps!

WORD OF THE MONTH: SILENCE
 

Thinking about silence brings to mind Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, the quietest place I’ve ever visited. There I was on a February day about 15 years ago, in the desert among the distinctive saguaro cacti with their upraised arms—no one else was nearby, there were no rustling leaves and there were no animal sounds. It was astonishing and memorable to be outdoors and to be surrounded by so much silence.

Clearly there are varying degrees of silence. When we experience the most basic type of silence, there’s no talking going on. We experience a greater degree of silence when we turn off music or the TV and we experience a still greater degree when we’re in a place where even nature is quiet. How can we benefit from such experiences of silence? During quiet times, we can really communicate with our deepest selves. We can truly listen to what our hearts have to say. Silence can take us to a place that is beyond words. As the Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Let silence take you to the core of life.”

Even though “silence is golden” in many circumstances, silence does have a downside. There are times when it’s necessary to not keep silent—that is, there are times when it’s necessary to speak up on one’s own behalf or on behalf of others. We may need to speak up to try to prevent or stop harm or to correct injustice. Or we may simply have to speak up to make sure our preferences or opinions are known. We can treasure both the wondrous depths of silence and the verbal expression of our authentic selves.

PHOTO OF THE MONTH: SUNSET SILHOUETTES
 

Silhouettes at sunset present us with a dramatic study in contrasts….

St. Pete Beach, Florida, May 2011. (Photograph by Michael Riddle.)

St. Pete Beach, Florida, May 2011. (Photograph by Michael Riddle.)