Extra! Extra! Sensory! You've Got More Than Five Senses!

For twenty years, I've been pressing writing students, "Use the five senses!" 

It's a simple formula that transforms your writing. Scenes, stories, poems–they all come alive when you invite us to breathe, smell, taste with you. Senses on every page are a brilliant way to vivify fiction and nonfiction alike.

But now I'm behind the times. Scientists have uncovered far more than five senses in the human repertoire. Your sense of balance, for instance. Write about a dizzying feeling! It can belong to you, or to one of your characters on the page. The fancy word is equilibrioception.

Another sense, which can make any story compelling, is that of hunger. How would you describe the gnawing, yawning, empty, or growling feeling of a belly asking for food?

A third sense is thermoception, which is the ability to detect heat. What is the sensation of trudging through a desert landscape, or simmering alongside a summertime pool? By the same token, we can feel cold within our bodies, from our chest to our toes, to the tips of our ears; or we can sense a chill that comes from the outside.

Another interesting sense is proprioception. This is feeling where you are in space, and includes the giddy feeling standing on a twentieth floor balcony, or the precariousness of walking a tightrope. 

Wake up to your senses - they are legion, and they fill each human moment with possibility! For more, check out Wisegeek.

Letter from the 9-Year-Old Boy on the Bus

Some time ago, when I had to commute for work, I met this kid.

He sat in the back of the bus with a somber expression.

He burnished a Moleskine notebook in his long, thin fingers. He chewed on the eraser end of a pencil.

He spent most of the time writing and looking out the window.

Every now and then he would say something, usually something that made me think.

Currently, with the state of the world, I'm not riding the bus. So I was beyond thrilled to get a letter from him in the mail. We've been corresponding since then.

Every philosopher needs an audience, I guess. So I'm passing along excerpts from the 9-year-old boy on the bus.

Dear Lady Who Carries A Backpack:

Glad you're staying home and mostley happy. But you don't always have to be happy. Some people think emotions can only do one thing at a time.

It’s not true. My emotions can usually do five things at a time, with a sixth emotion doing double time.

Most people who survive awful things are the funniest people you ever met in your life.

Aunt Rosabun, she juggles spatulas between flipping three pans of pancakes, but she lived in an orphanadge once. And my bus driver had his teeth knocked out when he was 9 but his new teeth lasted him all the way to 74, which is now, and he was voted Most Handsome Smile by all the girls at Klamath Falls High School.

Anyway, emotions are interesting if you’re the kind of person who invents things in the kitchen.

Today I found out, too much apple juice in chocolate peanut butter cookies doesn’t work--

IT’S TOO STICKY--but a little is just right.

What I love is mixing sticky and fruity plus crunchy or sour. Plus the dark, heavy feelings. And sprinkle the thin, shredded ones on top. Sometimes you’re in the mood for grainy ones. That can be good, too, if you like nutrition.

You have to be careful not overmixing.

Also, your oven has to be hot.

Also, maybe your emotional taste buds aren’t ready. They have to get mature. You might have to wait to grow up some.


P.S. It snowed right after we got sent home. How weird and cool is that? We'd never be able to make a snowman if we couldn't freeze our fingers off and laugh at the same time.

Dabbling, Dead or Alive: Kodachrome

As a fan of all things Portland Center Stage, I loved hearing "Kodachrome" had its beginnings in 2015 at JAW, an annual festival of staged readings where unknown playwrights have a chance to show their work - to move, perhaps from dabbling to official.

"If the casual is made official, would it stop the rest of us from dabbling?" That's the question asked by Suzanne (Lena Kaminsky), who photographs everyone in her small town, capturing events large and small. When the Young Man (Ryan Tresser) proposes to the Young Woman (Kelly Godell), it's a sketchy moment - we're not sure if they'll make it out alive. Suzanne photographs this drama gone comically awry. Next she introduces us to the hardware store owner, librarian, history professor, mystery novelist, florist, perfume maker, waitress, and policeman.

Everyone has a story, and Suzanne is amused, bemused, yet removed somehow. She recounts how the Young Woman wrestles with ambivalence over her engagement. "It gets eerily quiet as the young woman has eight separate feelings."

I love the hilarity and truth of that. How does a human being process multiple feelings all at once? How do we sort out how to love and create in this world when we want so many conflicting things?

"Sometimes I can't tell the difference between what I want, and what I think I should want," says the mystery novelist.

Dabbling - making something without too much care for the outcome - gives us a chance to discover what we truly want, a chance to experiment. When we're creating, we can inhale, get to know our relationship with the subject matter - a story or play we're writing, a flower bouquet we're arranging, or perhaps a space we're brightening with the change of a light bulb. Dabbling can help us in everything we're doing, without needing the finality of black and white. We can allow full color. We can allow the full spectrum of emotion.

In the background is my favorite character, Earl, an unassuming grave digger (Ryan Tresser) who seems rather slow - but who sees more than anyone else in town. The reason for this? He can see dead people.

Earl and Suzanne have a chat one day, and it dawns on us why she seems so removed from her world. She's dead.

Even so, she's having a hard time letting go. With every picture she takes, she's dabbling - processing the life she's left behind. She asks questions. "Why is the goal happiness?"

Meanwhile, Suzanne's widower, the hardware store owner, goes about his days, empty and broken.

As a creator, even dead, this photographer has to allow all her human emotions and experiences. She can't pretend she's ready for the next thing when she isn't.

Everything comes to a standstill, and even the quirky, adorable Earl has to face heartbreak. And then there's the moment Suzanne says, "I'm feeling five distinct feelings. One . . . two . . . three . . . ."

This allowing, this dabbling, this feeling - it can move you out of stuckness into something rare and new.

The hardware store owner says he's forgotten how to be alive.

He's given sound advice, what you might tell someone who has forgotten how to dabble: "You'll pick it back up."

Photos by Patrick Weishampel 

Creativity, Loss, White Christmas, Irving Berlin, and You

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin offers warmth, inspiration, and the chance to lift one's own voice—wonderful things to cultivate over the holiday season.

I now have a history to connect with the plethora of charming songs written by this unlikely creative hero—and I want to watch those old movies and sing along.

Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, survived a traumatic, impoverished childhood, exhausted a sixth grade education, and created all of his 1200-plus songs at the piano. “Annie Get Your Gun,” and “Cheek to Cheek” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” have all the pluck and humor and resilience of their author.

Hershey Felder, inhabiting the role, is a wonder. He embodies the above characteristics all while performing Berlin’s music masterfully. 

This Portland Center Stage world premier drew me into Berlin’s life, the bittersweet memories of his family, and his idiosyncrasies. Most of all, though, I absorbed the sadness of all the goodbyes said over his lifetime. A simple, sweet song like “What’ll I do?” reveals a hard, heartbreaking question.

What do I do when I have to say goodbye? What do I do when I feel alone?

Recently, goodbyes have been weighing on my heart. I witness Berlin finding his way despite his own untimely losses.

When the love of his life dies, a friend urges him to write a song about it, but Berlin resists. All he has ever done is write breezy stuff. “What it’s not going to do is make it any worse,” admonishes his friend.

It’s true. Creating in grief doesn’t salt the wound; it helps us own and live and grow through the experience. For this reason, my daily journal, my creative walks, and my poetry have become my dearest companions in loss. 

Berlin, too, came to understand that creating was his ally, and this new “serious” songwriting paved the way for something entirely new and beautiful in his career. Those songs of his that we know best touch the deepest, most poignant places of loss.

“I don’t like being alone,” Berlin says. “What a song does is never leave you alone.”

In our creating, in our singing, we find a witness to all our grief. When we pick up the pen or the paintbrush or sit at the piano, we gather hope and sweetness even in the dead of winter; we stumble upon our own “Russian Lullaby,” our forever “White Christmas,” our beautiful, impossible “Always.” 


Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel

Do Hard Things: Hold These Truths

No clear impressions, either from above or without, can be received by a mind turbid with excitement and agitated by a crowd of distractions. [S]tillness (is) needed for the clear shining of light within . . . .

--Caroline Stephen, 1834-1909

The play, "Hold These Truths," at Portland Center Stage, found me in a state of distraction. 

I took my seat grateful for the company of the friend who had joined me. Deep down, though, I was nursing disappointment because of the friend who had cancelled at the last minute. I was prickling with shame about the ambivalent way I was handling an important, long-time relationship. I was worried about my car in the shop. And on top of everything, I was coming down with a cold, dammit.

What I didn't want was to confront these feelings. I found a blanket of Numb, and pulled it over my heart.

Even so, there was a welcoming vibe in Portland Center Stage's downstairs theater, the Ellen Bye Studio. Ryun Yu took the stage with a wonderful, engaging presence, and soon I was caught up in the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi.

Yu starts by bringing Gordon's parents to life for us. Japan-born, they have learned to get by in a world of discrimination. There's his down-to-earth father, saying, "The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit." There's his fussy mother, urging him down a Seattle street after a man yells, "Get out of my country, you f--ing Japs."

We watch Gordon's transformation from a meek, rule-following boy, into a University of Washington student grappling with government orders to shove him and his family off to a concentration camp, which is indeed what these prisons were called. He reads and re-reads the Constitution's promise of "life, liberty, and property."

Then he sneezes.

Ryun's got a cold, I realized. He didn't skip a beat, but made this a graceful part of his performance, even as he had to wipe his nose on his sleeve. It was fitting.

Gordon takes up a political battle which is all about that nail getting hit, again, and again. He is misunderstood, even by his family. He is imprisoned and alone.

It breaks your heart, especially when you know that his efforts as a single person wouldn't change the course of history. More than 120,000 Japanese Americans - U.S. citizens as well as foreign born - were kept behind barbed wire in compounds for the duration of World War II.

Meanwhile, all the ads of that era show rosy-cheeked, white Americans sitting around their tables with their flowered centerpieces, happily making sacrifices for the war effort: giving up butter or sugar.

I think about my own childhood as a white kid in Seattle, and my shock when I moved to a neighborhood where all the other kids were white, too, and my complete ignorance of this historical event until decades later. Nobody talked about what we did to the Japanese.

Give us our blanket of Numb.

The show is peppered with audio bits, including evacuation orders. It was surreal to hear the names of familiar childhood streets and locations: Yessler Way . . . King County . . . Bainbridge Island . . . Puyallup. Within these boundaries, lives and livelihoods were stolen as longstanding community members became outsiders. Homes were ransacked and repossessed. I grew up knowing those places, but I never knew of this horror. 

It made me think about Hard Things.

What power there is when a human being can give up comforts, care, and approval because of who he is, because of his own, unwavering belief in what is right.

How weak I am in light of that.

The play underscores Gordon's Quaker beliefs, and how they centered him during this turmoil. "Before we soar to a great height, we often plumb great depths," Gordon tells us.  

I don't even want to face my feelings. Yet here was someone who was locked away, abused, discriminated against, who felt cold and hunger and darkness and disapproval and . . . who chose this battle.

Plus he probably had a cold.

Seth Godin talks about laziness versus emotional labor. Being too lazy to feel doesn't expand me as a human, and ultimately, it doesn't make me happy.   

A meaningful life isn't about getting what I want. I have no control of the outcome of so many things, including the behavior of others, individuals or whole nations. What I can do, what I might do, is learn to be a little less numb.

Maybe I can be uncomfortable.

Maybe I can turn off my computer, my distractions, my noise, and find the stillness within myself, sitting with hard decisions and frustrations.



Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.