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celebrating the senses: smell

roasting chilesSmell is different from our other senses. It has a direct connection to the brain, and its signals are in a hurry (per John Medina, author of Brain Rules). Smell immediately stimulates our emotions. But we don’t all like or dislike the same odors or feel the same emotions when we experience them.

One of my favorite smells is green chiles (yes, that’s the correct spelling) roasting outdoors in the fall. Come August or September in Albuquerque, chile roasters spring up all over the place. You can sometimes get a whiff as you drive past one. The local Whole Foods operates a couple of roasters right outside the front door. I’ve been known to stand in front of them with my eyes closed breathing in the intoxicating aroma. It’s too bad the internet isn’t scratch-and-sniff capable. I’ve yet to encounter anyone who actively dislikes the smell of roasting green chiles—or at least who’s willing to admit it.

coffeeOther smells I love are coffee, pine trees, rain on hot pavement, strawberries, jasmine and gardenia (both in moderation), wood smoke, popcorn, rosemary, citrus, ginger, and libraries.

cilantroBut my second favorite thing to smell, after roasting green chiles, is cilantro—which also makes the list of my favorite tastes. Every time I rinse a bunch of cilantro leaves I have to stop and inhale the scent before using them. Cilantro used to come in at number one but got bumped down a notch after I moved to New Mexico and got my first sniff of roasting green chiles. If either of those scents could be bottled, that’s probably what I’d be wearing, so maybe it’s good they aren’t available.

In thinking about celebrating the sense of smell, I’ve realized that although I go out of my way to create a visually appealing environment for myself, I don’t put much thought into the way things smell. I’ve fallen out of the habit of using essential oils on a regular basis, maybe as a result of getting a curious kitten. But the kitten is going on five years old, so I think it’s time to bring out the tea lights and the oil burner and reintroduce some celebratory scents to my space.

What are your favorite things to smell?

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

celebrating jazz appreciation month

jazz appreciation monthJazz Appreciation Month was created 13 years ago at the Smithsonian, which considerately provides this list of 112 ways to celebrate jazz. My own appreciation for jazz developed late in life. Although my partner of 30 years was a professional jazz musician, I’m just a little bit resistant and considered jazz to be his music. I didn’t listen to much of it at all.

But a character in a story I was writing turned out to be a big jazz fan. I knew enough to make the guy’s interest in jazz believable, but somewhere along the re-write route—a few years after my partner died—I started along my own path to becoming an actual jazz fan.

If my partner were around to compare notes (sorry!) now, we would probably discover some shared interests, although he might be a bit surprised to learn that I named the cat I have now Naima, after the John Coltrane tune of the same name.

I’m sure we would also find that our preferences don’t completely overlap. For example, I’m a huge Sonny Rollins fan, and I can’t recall ever seeing a Sonny Rollins LP or CD among my partner’s music collection.

Jazz has all kinds of moods, high and low, fast and slow, sunny and blue. But this post is about celebration, so I give you the most celebratory Sonny Rollins tune of all, Don’t Stop the Carnival, performed live at the International Jazz Festival in Montreal in 1982. Simply joyous! So please enjoy it.

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

celebrating with Fiesta ware!

fiestawareThis isn’t the inside of one of my kitchen cupboards, but it’s close enough. Fiesta ware—known affectionately by those of us who collect it as “kitchen crack”—makes everything that involves dishes a celebration. That includes emptying the dishwasher because, of course, it’s full of Fiesta ware goodness.

fiestaware2Exchanging all of my more practical and mundane dishes for Fiesta ware has definitely added the element of celebration to my life on a daily basis. No matter how preoccupied I am or how low my mood may be, when I open a cupboard to get out a bowl or plate I always stop for at least a few seconds to gaze upon all the beautiful dishes.

The only thing I don’t understand about Fiesta ware is why anyone would intentionally choose black, white, or ivory. Doesn’t that defeat the festive purpose?

fiestaware3Choosing a color or putting different colors together never gets old. The enjoyment, like the colors, never fades.

Everyone should have at least some Fiesta ware in their lives. But beware. This stuff really is addicting. I’m fortunate to have a relatively small kitchen; otherwise, I don’t think I would have been able to stop when I did.

Is there something in your home that gives you a feeling of celebration every day? (And if you don’t have any Fiesta ware, don’t you want some now…maybe a small fruit bowl or a little bread and butter plate?)

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

celebrating special occasions

lensicLast week a friend treated me to what turned out to be an outstanding performance by Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe. I haven’t heard any live music since last summer and I’d never been to the Lensic before, even though it’s directly across the street from one of my favorite places to eat in Santa Fe, The San Francisco Street Bar and Grill.

The concert was a benefit for the Espanola Valley Humane Society, so we were treated to a revolving selection of adorable cat and dog photos on the screen at the back of the stage before the show started. It was great to learn afterward that the money raised far exceeded the evening’s goal. I’m always up for celebrating cats—and dogs are OK, too.

mary chapin carpenterIt’s been more than two decades since I owned a Mary Chapin Carpenter CD. And my musical tastes have taken a lot of twists and turns since then. I’ve gotten quite a bit older and so has she. But in comparing her live performance with some of the studio recordings from her younger days, I’ve decided I much prefer her more mature voice.

She and the two musicians in her band are extremely talented musicians and performers who had the audience from the first number and kept it all the way through the show. I stayed out past my bedtime (it was the middle of the week, and I had work-related appointments the next morning), but it was well worth it. After all, I had another opportunity to sleep the very next night but not to hear this great music again.

Thank you, John!

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

celebrating red shoes (the angels wanna wear my)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have to buy shoes online (narrow feet), so to avoid the hassle of returning the ones that don’t fit, I’ve settled on a couple tried-and-true brands. Back in the day, I had a pair of Enzo Angiolini Liberty flats in two-toned purple that I loved, as much as one can love a shoe, and finally wore out.

This style still comes in an amazing variety of colors—and in my size—but, alas, no more purple.

However, they do have this fantastic chili pepper red. As soon as I saw them, I had to admit that I really, really wanted a pair of red shoes. But red shoes seemed like an indulgence. They were definitely something I could do without, so I kept doing without them.

This spring, when I found them at half price, I went for it and indulged my desire for red shoes. They have turned out to be a celebration not only when I wear them but whenever I see them in my closet.

I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused.

The red shoes definitely help!

Is there something, shoe or other-wise, that you’re happy you indulged in—or that you want to?

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

to celebrate the waking, wake

Muriel RukeyserIt’s National Poetry Month!

To celebrate, here is a poem by Muriel Rukeyser.

She’s the author of my all-time favorite quote: The world is made of stories, not of atoms.


Make and be eaten, the poet says,
Lie in the arms of nightlong fire,
To celebrate the waking, wake.
Burn in the daylong light; and praise
Even the mother unappeased,
Even the fathers of desire.

Blind go the days, but joy will see
Agreements of music; they will wind
The shaking of your dance; no more
Will the ambiguous arm-waves spell
Confusion of the blessing given.

Only and finally declare
Among the purest shapes of grace
The waking of the face of fire,
The body of waking and the skill
To make your body such a shape
That all the eyes of hope shall stare.

That all the cries of fear shall know,
Staring in their bird-pierced song;
Lines of such penetration make
That shall bind our loves at last.
Then from the mountains of the lost,
All the fantasies shall wake,
Strong and real and speaking turn
Wherever flickers your unreal.

And my strong ghosts shall fade and pass
My love start fiery as grass
Wherever burn my fantasies,
Wherever burn my fantasies.

I’ve written (very little) and written about poetry fairly often on this blog, which is named after some lines in an e.e. cummings poem. You can check the posts by clicking the Poetry category link.

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

celebrating trees in spring

springtrees6Spring is absolutely my favorite tree time of the year. Trees in spring almost—almost—make winter worthwhile. In winter, the leafless trees seem barren and forbidding. But in spring, the delicate green tracery of budding leaves dresses up the branches, showing off the trees’ underlying architecture to best advantage. (The architecture of trees is amazing!)

springtrees4It doesn’t last long, this lacy phase. And it’s ephemeral. Trees in summer—resplendent in green—and trees in fall—outrageously dressed—are easy to capture in photographs; trees in spring are not. So I celebrate this brief, ephemeral moment of trees in spring that signals winter is really over, life is being renewed, and brighter days are ahead.


What is your favorite “tree time” of year?

Note: This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the category link for Celebration.

celebration is a state of mind

celebrate 1At least that’s how I’ve decided to look at it. Recently I noticed that celebration hasn’t been present in my life as much as I want it to be—or as much as it has been many different times in the past. I could identify a few reasons for that, but the reasons don’t matter. What matters is that I want it back!

So I’ve decided to create 30 Days of Celebration to help me get back into the celebration habit. That means I will post something about celebration every day from now through April 30th.

In thinking about what represents celebration for me, I quickly came up with a list of at least a dozen things. One of them is music. To kick off this 30 Days of Celebration, I created a celebration playlist of 20 songs and put it on a CD.

Levels (Avicii)
Shut Up and Dance (Talking Is Hard)
It’s Time (Imagine Dragons)
Wings (Jimmy Buffett)
Wonder What You’re Doing for the Rest of Your Life (Train)
Bright (Echosmith)
Hands in the Air (Timbaland feat. Ne-Yo)
Wonder (Emili Sande & Naughty Boy)
Good Life (OneRepublic)
Leaving Winslow (Jackson Browne)

Glad Tidings (Van Morrison)
Earthquake Driver (Counting Crows)
The Moment (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
Avalanche (Talking Is Hard)
Terra Nova (James Taylor)
Downtown Train (Patty Smyth)
Good Feeling (Big Idol)
Wake Me Up (Aloe Blacc)
I Lived (OneRepublic)

The songs that represent celebration for me may not feel celebratory to you. I invite you to consider which songs do feel like celebration to you—and to play them today.

If you, too, would like to amp up celebration in your life, please visit throughout the month and share the things—and the ways—you like to celebrate.

reflections on a tea-soaked madeleine

How does autobiographical memory actually work—and how reliable is it?

proust madeleineThe scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera, for example, that it just records, and it files things away in mental DVDs that we can pull down and set playing. And in a way, that’s not surprising, because we see memories as foundational for who we are. We commonly feel that we are our memories; our memories define us. So something needs to change. … Accepting that memories are not literal representations of the past as it happened doesn’t mean that we have to forget about them or start disbelieving them all. But they’re shaped by who we are now. They’re shaped by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are. (Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light)

According to neuroscientist Karim Nadar, it may be impossible to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way. Memories we replay mentally over and over or talk about a lot with others are especially susceptible to such alterations. And when you retell it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory.

What we now know is that our brains happily reconstruct memories, though we are frequently fooled into thinking that the reconstructions are seamlessly recorded recollections. … Even for the sharper memories born from strong emotions (often called flashbulb memories), time erodes the infrastructure, leaving cracks and gaps. Instead of remembering specific, perfectly accurate details, what constitutes memory over time are general impressions of events with spotty details—and the older we get, the spottier they become. (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow)

There is more than one way to lay down a memory. We’re not talking about a memory of different events, but multiple memories of the same event—as though two journalists with different personalities were jotting down notes about a single unfolding story. … The conviction that memory is one thing is an illusion. (David Eagleman, Incognito)

The world is made of stories, not of atoms.

So said poet Muriel Rukeyser. And she was correct. The world of atoms is composed of facts, details, events, objects, phenomena, information, etc. In the world of atoms, things happen (events take place).

The world of stories consists of our perceptions and interpretations of what happened, as well as the meaning we assign to it.

The things that happen to or around us and our stories or explanations about those things are not the same thing. But because of the speed with which our unconscious brain (a/k/a System 1) processes information—and the fact that we’re not aware of what it’s doing—we think that our story about what happened is what happened.

  • Something happens.
  • We pay attention to selected aspects of it. How do we decide what to pay attention to? For the most part, System 1 (our unconscious) makes that decision for us, based on the model of the world it maintains.
  • We miss most of it! We’re not capable of consciously perceiving everything that is going on around us. Our unconscious can process around 11,000,000 bits of information at a time compared to the 40 bits we can process consciously. There’s an amazing amount of filtering going on all the time.
  • We come up with an explanation for the parts we paid attention to. We have an inner interpreter/narrator whose job it is to maintain an ongoing narrative of our lives, creating order out of chaos, making cause-and-effect connections, and generally leading us to believe we understand what’s going on. Our inner narrator is a great confabulator. If it doesn’t have all the information, it will make something up. And we will almost always believe what it tells us. And we can’t stop ourselves from interpreting or explaining.

A set of brain circuits—usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish—force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. Our minds constantly struggle to extract meaning from the data rivering through our senses. … In the same way that your mind sees an abstract pattern and resolves it into a face, your imagination sees a pattern of events and resolves it into a story. If there is no story there, we are only too happy to invent one. (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal)

  • We assign meaning to our explanation of what we paid attention to or noticed. We decide the meaning of things. And we can’t stop ourselves from making meaning.
  • After the fact, we have a memory of what happened, which is really a memory of our fragmentary perception overlaid by our explanation and the meaning we attached to it. This is not a memory of what actually happened in the world of atoms. Our memory tells us stories. So what we get to keep from our experience is a story. The kinds of memories that make the best stories—and the easiest ones to recall—are of events that had a strong emotional impact.
  • Each time we tell the story (to ourselves or others), we edit it. Talking and/or writing about an experience interferes with our memory of it. We remember not what we have experienced but what we have said about what we experienced. Usually the editing is unintentional, but if you pay attention, you can catch yourself in the act of editing to suit your audience, your purpose in telling the story, the impression you’re trying to make, or even your mood.

We have a tendency to reshape the irregular features of our world into smoother, more symmetrical forms. Inconvenient details tend to be pruned from our memories, and facts that do not fit together in a coherent way tend to be forgotten, deemphasized, or reinterpreted. The process of retelling a story in our own narrative style places certain constraints on what we recall, and these constraints guide our reconstruction of events. (Joseph T. Hallinan, Why We Make Mistakes)

  • What we are left with is the latest version of our altered recollection (and selected perception) of something that happened and what it means to us.

When you’re writing a story from a character’s point of view, you include only what that character is aware of. Unless you’re a really bad writer, you don’t include random bits of information just because you find them interesting or because you discovered them in the course of your research.

Everyone always has a point of view, in real life as well as in stories. We—and our characters—can’t help but view the world subjectively. Everything that happens happens to us.

Your P.O.V. character acts, reacts, and interprets events based on his or her model of the world the same as we do in real life. No one is a completely reliable narrator because we are all selectively paying attention to—or screening out—various things, interpreting what we pay attention to, creating cause-and-effect explanations, and assigning meaning.

Furthermore, our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a true story. A story can be more or less “truthy,” but never completely true.

for writers: use your brain to make writing a habit

(Note: This article was first published in the September issue of the SouthWest Sage newsletter.)

writing daisyYou probably already know that waiting for inspiration to strike is a sure way to get little or no writing done. If you want to produce a body of work—and be prepared to welcome inspiration when it does show up in your neck of the woods—you need to write regularly. The best way to do that is to turn the act of writing into a habit.

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration.  —John Steinbeck.

Habits are a labor-saving device for your brain, which needs all the help it can get. Your brain weighs only about three pounds, yet it consumes 20% of your body’s energy. Habits allow your brain to streamline some of its operations by powering down and switching to autopilot. Essentially you’re wired to have habits. And your brain isn’t interested in your opinion about your habits (whether you think they’re good ones or bad ones). A brain’s going to do what a brain’s wired to do.

When you perform any activity on a regular basis—brushing your teeth before going to bed, snacking in front of the TV, going to the gym after work—your brain takes note. It then “chunks” that behavior, beginning with the cue or trigger that initiates it, and turns it over to your basal ganglia. The cue could be time of day, a particular feeling such as loneliness, or even another activity. In the case of writing, it could be sitting down in front of your computer at the same time every day or with your favorite hot beverage.

engage the habit loop

Once a behavior has been chunked, each time your brain encounters the cue or trigger for it, it switches to autopilot while you go through the motions of performing the activity. After you complete that chunk of behavior, your brain turns autopilot off and powers back up.

In addition to the cue and the behavior itself, the third part of what’s called “the habit loop” is the reward. The reward is the feeling of pleasure you get during—or after—engaging in the behavior. The pleasant feelings you experience are the result of your brain’s release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that also activates emotional and learning circuits. The reward is positive reinforcement that motivates you to repeat the behavior. Although it’s a critical part of the habit loop, the reward is the part people are most likely to skip when trying to create a new habit. If you aren’t writing on a regular basis but think you ought to be able to do it without having to reward yourself, your basal ganglia beg to differ.

Until you’ve developed the habit of writing, you’re needlessly taxing your brain by forcing it to operate at full power while you debate whether, when, where, and what to write. Once you’ve turned writing into a habit, you can channel that brainpower into your actual writing.

Start by choosing a time and place to write, preferably daily. Decide on a cue so your brain knows when to switch to writing mode. Try hooking your writing habit onto an existing routine, such drinking your first cup of coffee or tea or returning home from a walk or the gym, and using that as a cue. Then choose a reward. You can give yourself a smaller reward each day or a bigger one after, say, a week. Just make sure you reward yourself often enough that your brain associates the reward with writing.

There is no magic number of days it will take before sitting down to write at the designated hour becomes automatic. It varies from person to person and habit to habit. Your brain responds to consistency, however, so it will eventually get the message. In fact, once you’ve developed the habit of writing you may find it hard to resist the siren call of your writing cue, even on days when you’re sure you don’t have time to write.

If you find the blank page a daunting place to begin, avoid having to face it by stopping in the middle of a scene or a passage. By the time you get back to it the next day, you not only won’t have to think about whether or not to write, you won’t have to think about where or how to begin, either. As a bonus, you will have given your unconscious the opportunity to make connections and see patterns that may not have been evident the day before. That’s how to use your brain.

P.S.: It’s a myth that we only use 10% of our brain. We don’t use all of it all the time, but we use 100% of it during the course of a day.

To learn more about using your brain, be sure to check out Farther to Go!

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