Monday, May 28, 2018

A Memorial Day Exercise


 another way to deal with life -- and death

[Note: this story was extracted from "Til Death Do Us Part?", a Kindle book by Christopher Nyerges, also available on request at]

It was a sunny and brisk day as Dolores and I walked up the steep stony driveway to the WTI headquarters.  We were going to the annual Memorial Day gathering, which would be held outdoors.  Neither of us had been involved in the preparation of this event (as we had with other events), so we were coming as “guests” with no idea what the agenda would be.

When we reached the top, we could see that several others had already arrived.  Prudence approached us as I was scanning the book, and she handed each of us a hot cup of their special coffee.

“Thanks,” I said, taking a long sip.  “That sure hits the spot.”

Dolores and I said hello to the dozen other guests who were sitting on chairs, or reading from a pink paper.  Timothy approached Dolores and I and handed each of us a copy of something printed on pink paper.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, smiling broadly with his charismatic smile.  “Once those instructions are clear, you should go to a private spot with your notebook.   We’ll all meet back here in 30 minutes.”

“OK,” I said. We both studied the paper as Timothy stood there.

I quickly read the instructions.  We were to select three living “loved-ones” and write their names in our notebook. We were then to go sit under a bush, or sit in some private spot somewhere on the hilltop.  Next, we were  to mentally imagine that we get a phone call, and someone tells us that one of the people on our list have died.  Each of us  was to feel and experience the grief as if that person really died, and attempt to make it real.  With the full feeling of grief, we were to write down all those things that we wished we’d told that person before they died.  We were to do this exercise with all three of the people on our list.

“Any questions?” asked Timothy, still standing in front of us, but now he was  beginning to look around as other guests arrived.  

“It seems pretty clear,” I said, thinking to myself that this was an unusual exercise. 

“Seems clear enough,” added Dolores.

“Oh, one more thing,” said Timothy.  “It doesn’t say this on your paper, but it would be good if at least one person on your list of three is someone who is here today.” 

“OK,” I responded.  I knew that my father would be on my list, and so would Dolores. 

I walked up the rough steps which led to the upper portion of the property, and I sat myself under an old citrus tree.  It was one of my favorite spots on the property because I always felt very “invisible” there, yet I had a terrific view of the surrounding neighborhood.

I began my list.  I wrote down Dolores, Prudence, and my father.  I then closed my eyes, and imagined that I just received a call from my brother telling me that my father had died.  I let it hit me that he was gone, dead, out of my life.  I began to cry involuntarily.  My mind automatically thought back to the earliest childhood memories of my father cutting the lawn, and taking me with him in the station wagon to the supermarket.  I remembered the things I did wrong, and was punished for, and my mind went through a non-chronological review of various events. I attempted to mentally do a chronological review, but found it easier to just let the memories flow.  I began to laugh at some memories, such as the way he and my mother would argue whenever the family was getting ready to go to the local beach for the day.  My mother seemingly wanted to pack everything from the kitchen into the station wagon, and my father – with great pantomime -- would express his desire to do it as simply as possible. I remembered how upset my father would get when my mother called him a gypsy, an insult to a Hungarian.

I realized my father was by no means perfect, and yet I could see he tried to do what was right, despite his many weaknesses or deficiencies.  I found myself missing him terribly, in spite of the fact that he was still alive and  I had not called him for over a month.

I began to do the same with Dolores and Prudence.  Dolores and I hadn’t yet married, though we were both very interested in one another and enjoyed each other’s friendship and company.  Still, we had already experienced several “rough spots” together.  I looked at my watch and saw that I had already been there over 30 minutes, so I quickly finished writing my notes and then headed back down to the gathering.

Most everyone was already back down at the gathering site, and were serving themselves from the delicious dishes that everyone provided.  I began to serve myself a smaller than usual dish.  I still felt very “shaken up” by my brief but intensive experience of  “hearing that my father had died.”

Once everyone had returned and served themselves a dish and a mug, Timothy  shared a few prepared readings about Memorial Day and the nature of death,  mostly writings by Shining Bear, as well as some passages from Alexander Solszynitzn’s classic book where he told the story of his time in the Soviet Union’s prison camps, Gulag Archipelago.

Then we got to the part where Timothy asked each person to briefly share their experiences with their list of three people.  A few people said they had experienced nothing worthy of sharing, which I found remarkable. Perhaps they were embarrassed in the unfamiliar setting and did not want to share a deeply personal experience.  I could understand not wanting to share deeply personal things in an unfamiliar public setting. But I could not believe that anyone who actually performed the prescribed exercise would have had no worthwhile experience.

Prudence’s son spoke of the experience of someone telling him his father had passed away and how sad he felt.  He shared a few of the things he would tell his father.

“I’m going to tell him that I love him, and I’m going to pay him back that money I borrowed from him last year,” he said with great enthusiasm. Everyone laughed.

Once each person briefly shared their varied experiences, Timothy then got back in front and, with his charismatic smile, announced that everyone now would have a rare opportunity. 

“You’ve all just done what most people do when they learn that someone they love has died.  However, all these people are still here.  Now you need to tell them today those things that you’d regret not telling them if they died.  We have two phones here, so whomever wants to use them may do so now.”  [Note: this was before the days of universal cell phones.]

A few people got up and went inside to call someone.

“Or, you can write a short note or letter right now,” Timothy declared.  “If you don’t have any stationery, we have lots of paper and envelopes that you can use.”  He pointed to the wooden table behind him where there was a can full of pens and pencils, a small stack of envelopes, and an assortment of stationery paper.

“Now, if the person is here now,” Timothy continued, “I want the two of you to go to a private place and you can tell that person whatever it is that you want them to hear.  Don’t be embarrassed.  We’ll all meet back here together in about 30 minutes and share that experience.”

I was a bit hesitant to do this next step.  It would be risky. It’s always risky to be completely honest and  open.   Nevertheless, I first went with Prudence to a private spot.  It turns out that she also chose me, so we were able to “kill two birds with one stone,” so to speak.

My private-talk with Prudence went well, and both of us shared a few past unresolved issues that bothered us, and tried to make amends for some old hard feelings. We were both fairly open and blunt in both our criticism and praise of the other, and we were able to agree on a few simple steps we could do to bring things to a state of balance.  I was satisfied with this experience.  Next, I did the same thing with Dolores.

After a few minutes, everyone gathered again in the central outdoor meeting place. Prudence read a few passages from a book about death.  I took a few notes as I listened, and also looked around at the expressions of those gathered there that day.  I felt very much “startled awake,” and I could tell that most everyone had had some sort of eye-opening epiphany about life and death and how quickly it all passes. 

I was experiencing an inner turmoil, a bit apprehensive about my plan to talk to my father later in the day.  I was also very reflective about all the choices I make day in and out, and how everyone else affects me, and how I affect everyone else. Especially Dolores.  How to do it all “just right,” all the time, I wondered?  How can I live my life without regrets?  I wondered, was everyone else feeling such inner turmoil, and inner challenge? 

Finally, Timothy made a few closing remarks, shared a few upcoming events, and thanked everyone for coming.  It had been several hours but it flowed so quickly. 



That evening, I called my father, and asked him if he had a minute.
“Sure,” he said, “what’s up?”

“I just wanted you to know that I really have appreciated all the things you’ve done for me all my life.  I know that at times I have seemed very disrespectful, but I….

“Is something wrong?” he asked.  “Do you need money?”

“No, no, no. I don’t need money. No, nothing’s wrong. I was just thinking about you today, and how we never talk, and I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate you and really love you.”

I think that was the first time I ever told my father that I loved him.

“What’s wrong,” he asked more firmly, “are you in some sort of trouble?”

“No, I’m not in any trouble at all, I just…”

“This doesn’t sound like you, something must be wrong…”

“No, nothing’s wrong.  I just realized that we rarely talk. Today seemed like as good a day as any to tell you that I appreciate you.”  I had momentarily thought that I would explain to him that I’d attended the event earlier in the day, and let him know that he was part of my exercise.  But somehow, if I did that, I felt it would diminish what I was saying to my father, that it was some sort of school assignment or exercise.  Rather than regard it as something genuine coming from me, he would think that I was in the clutches of some sort of controlling cult and was just acting out their dictates.  This had to be real. This had to be from me, because I wanted to communicate these things to him.

“Well, OK,” he responded.  He paused, and said, “Are you coming over for dinner?”

“No, not tonight, but I’ll see you tomorrow.”

It was the beginning of a thaw in our relationship.  There was not an instant turnaround in the way we related to each other, but slowly, slowly, I began to view him as a distinct individual, and slowly, I could tell that he did the same with me.


Later, I told Dolores how my father reacted.

“That sounds just like your father,” she laughed.   We both found the exchange hillarious, and we could not stop laughing about it. 

We went to dinner that night and we continued to talk about my father’s suspicious nature, and we laughed like children.  It felt very good to laugh with Dolores.  It was a light time, and somehow, laughing together made us closer.  It also shifted the focus from problems in our relationship to my father’s character, and in that moment, it was a good thing.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Memorial Day -- A tale about Death

MEMORIAL DAY 1998 – A Tale about Death

An excerpt from “’Til Death Do Us Part?” a book by Christopher Nyerges, available on Kindle, or from

It was Memorial Day 1998 – 20 years ago – when I had scheduled to conduct a wild food outing at Pasadena’s Hahamongna Watershed Park.  Since it was Memorial Day, my topic for a short discussion at the end of the outing was “death.” 

It was a cool and overcast day as participants for the wild food outing gathered in the parking area of the park.  Among the half-dozen participants who showed up for the outing was Martin Kruse, a bearded, burly bear of a man who looked like he’d be more at home in the 19th century.  He introduced himself and told me that he’d long wanted to meet me, that we both wrote for many of the same publications and had many friends in common, such as Ron Hood.  Martin and I chatted as the other outing participants listened, and he told me about his work with archery and primitive bow-making. 

We walked down in the flat area of the large expanse of the park, where the wet mud had hardened, capturing countless animal tracks.  Martin told us how to differentiate between coyote and dog tracks.  He identified crow and other birds, showed us how to recognize the tracks of squirrel and rabbit.  He’d obviously done a lot of tracking during his time hunting with a bow. 

I later learned from Martin’s father that this was a favorite place of Martin’s when he was much younger.  He’d come here and spend a week or two and study nature and tracks and practice with his bow.  When we saw the deer tracks, Martin showed us how the deer’s hind foot had stepped into its own track just laid by its front foot.  Martin said that only the female walks this way, that the male’s gait is different.  He told us that the size of the hoof print meant it was a female deer about a year and a half old.  I could tell that Martin enjoyed telling us all about the track. 

After walking throughout the flat area, I led the way back to the oak trees where I would share my lesson.  Within seconds, someone in the rear called out.  Martin had fallen.   I first thought it was a joke, and ran to him.  It was no joke.  His face already looked purple.  The man who had been walking with him said he’d not tripped -- he just fell.  You could tell by his hand position that he didn’t trip.  I tried to rouse him, but it was quickly obvious that he was “out.” 

Several of us moved Martin into what we assumed would be a more comfortable position, and that wasn’t easy!  Martin was a big guy.  And then -- since I was the only one who knew the area -- I ran to a phone to call 911.  This was before the days of ubiquitous cell phones.  Within 10 minutes,  before I even got back to the group and Martin’s flat body -- paramedics from the City of Pasadena were on the scene, attempting to revive him. They all worked like a highly-coordinated team, speaking among themselves only briefly and in terms we didn’t understand.  They were what we call a “well-oiled machine.”  They carried him into the ambulance and took him away. 

I could tell that the remainder of the outing participants were in varying degrees of shock.  It had all been like a dream, and now Martin was gone.  We discussed the merits and pitfalls of the modern medical system, and whether there was more we could have done to help Martin. We discussed whether we thought Martin would revive or not.

So there we stood in the cool afternoon breeze, contemplating death in the most sobering manner possible.  I explained to everyone my death lesson -- which hardly seemed appropriate now.  I didn’t talk everyone through the intended exercise -- I just explained a process that I’d done many times on Memorial Day.  [The details of that exercise can be found in my “Til Death Do Us Part?” book – I’ll send anyone an e-version who wants one.]

Each person commented how “coincidental” it was that the lecture topic that I’d chosen for the day, and listed on the schedule, was “Death.”  We kept reflecting on Martin.  At that moment, none of us knew yet that Martin would not recover, that he had in fact died, and that he died in a place he loved.  Nor had we known that Martin had a heart pacer, and an artery to his heart that was narrow.  We were aware that he’d had surgery -- probably to the heart -- because we opened his shirt and saw the scar. 

A German woman who’d been on the outing, Walti, told me that we should not feel sad. 

“It was quick,” she told me later. “What better place to die.”  I could not help but agree with her.  Martin’s death was apparently sudden, and his last memory would have been looking at the willows and the rushing stream and the cloudy sky and the sand flats of the Hahamongna Watershed Park.  In his final moments, he was surrounded with friends that he’d only met that day, trail compadres who shared a common love of the outdoors, all brought together at this time and this place to witness his passing.

Though I barely knew him, I felt closer to him in death.


Later, I told Dolores about this when I got home.  I was a bit shaken by the experience.  In fact, it was not until late that night that I learned the name of who had died on my outing.  Yes, he’d told me his name when he arrived, but so did a dozen other people who’d I’d just met that day.  By calling around to the fire department and to the hospital, I learned Martin’s identity, and I managed to figure out his phone number through process of elimination in my phone log.  Of course, I was partly worried about legal ramifications.  It was Martin’s wife who told me that Martin died doing what he loved doing, and that it was probably the best of all possible outcomes that he died in that manner.  She also said that the family felt Martin was living on “borrowed time,” that they felt he should have died (according to what the doctors said) five years earlier. 

A few days later, Dolores and I and a few others were discussing this incident, and wondering about the series of choices that brought Martin to me on his last day. 

Dolores seemed very thoughtful about all this, and said that possibly Martin’s Doer (his spiritual Self) knew that his body was going to die.  Coming to my outdoor outing brought him into contact with my Doer, my spiritual Self, which could have been a final uplifting act, whether or not each of us realized it. 

Dolores was never one who engaged in flattery, and she always kept me humble.  She knew that we were not perfect and that we had a long way to go.  Yet, we continued to work at and struggle on the Spiritual Path of  perfection and evolution.  It was always “fall down seven times, get up eight times.”  In our perspective of a morally-bankrupt, and spiritually dark world, we did feel that we (including our “spiritual family”) represented a light in the darkness.  Yes, often a flickering, barely noticeable light, but a light nevertheless.  It is to that Light that Dolores believed Martin was coming to, and it was with that desire that he took his final breath.  And that was good for Martin.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Zorthians: Memories of Altadena's eclectic couple

Serendipity, and Reflections Upon Life:


Altadena’s most eclectic couple

[Nyerges is a naturalist and outdoor educator. He is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Foraging California,” and other books. He can be reached at].

It was just one of those days. I had a few hours before my next appointment, and I was driving towards the direction of home and there was the cemetery where my parents had been buried. I hadn’t said “hello” for some months, so I pulled in and began looking for the spot.  Right away things looked a little different. A road had actually been removed and it was the road that took me right to their tombstone.  So I had to drive a little further away, as I was a bit disconcerted.  And a movie was being made with the various lights and crew, a distraction from my inner communion with my parents.

Still, after some guesswork and wandering, I found the tombstone and kneeled before them to chat a bit. As usual, I just shared some news and thoughts that were swirling in my mind. My mother seemed to respond first, as if she was more alert. Conversation ensued.  My father slowly awoke, and passively joined the conversation.  Was this all in my mind? Who cares? It was real enough to me, to be there with my memories of them, to feel their presence, to listen to what I think they would have said.

I sprinkled some sage on their stones, and then I walked back erratically to my car, always amazed at the diversity of tombstones and messages over such a long period of time.  I understood the solitude, and the sacredness, of the cemetery, this place of timelessness where the dead and the living meet.  Regardless of whatever hurly-burley is happening in my life, in the cemetery I realize that the physical life has its limits, and will one day end.


Nearly to my car, I happened upon the tombstone of two old friends, Dabney and Jirayr Zorthian.  I knew Dabney much better, for she often attended my field trips and we would have long conversations after Jirayr died.  I knew Jirayr most through his reputation, and from our many phone conversations.   Why had I happened upon their grave this day?

For those of you unfamiliar with the Zorthian family, Mr. Zorthian had long been considered the most famous eccentric artist of Altadena, and the parties held at their sprawling foothill property were legendary.  Everyone has a story about the Zorthians.

The “last words” engraved next to Dabney’s name were “I want to know.”  What a perfect thing to express!  I want to know.  She didn’t state that she wanted to know a specific this or that, just   that she wanted to Know!  The quest for knowledge, and the drive to do more and try more, was such a signature of Dabney’s.  In our conversations, she often asked many questions, always listened sincerely, truly trying to learn and to know.  Our conversations seemed like true communing, unlike so many of today’s conversations where one party is not listening and is just waiting for the talker to stop so they can say what they are waiting to say.

Jirayr’s tombstone said “Make my heart my mind.” Beautiful!  I took that to mean that Jirayr’s quest was to think with feeling in all that he does.  Even though most of my interactions were somewhat commercial and mundane, I found him to be a creative thinker, thinking outside of the box and finding creative solutions to problems.  

His tombstone carried a second phrase also: “Give me a pleasureful life.” Indeed!  Jirayr didn’t wait for someone to give him such a life, but he pursued pleasure in his art and parties and interactions with other. I don’t believe that he experienced any shortage of pleasures.

Though I doubt anyone would ever inscribe a phrase about pleasure on my tombstone, the fact is that I’m not Jirayr, and it did seem appropriate for him.  As I stared at the phrase, it made me think of all the pros and cons of pursuing pleasure, the excesses of pleasure, but also the simple pleasures of life which money cannot buy.

As I sprinkled some sage on their tombstone, I felt blessed to have had some interaction with one of Altadena’s most unique and eclectic couples.  And I could not help but feel the shortness of life, that one should never wait in the pursuit of knowledge, that one should pursue new knowledge with every breath, and that one should also do so by allowing the heart to be the mind.  In death, Dabney and Jirayr imparted their final lessons to me, and it made me again acknowledge that they indeed had a most wonderful life.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Getting to Know the LOQUAT

LOQUAT (Eriobotrya japonica)

[Nyerges is the author of “Nuts and Berries of California,” “Foraging California,” and other books. He also leads regular field trips to learn about the uses of wild plants. He can be reached at]

The loquat, also sometimes known as the Japanese medlar,  is one of those fruits that seems to be everywhere, and most of it just gets eaten by birds or falls to the ground and rots.  This smallish tree – perhaps up to 15 feet tall --  produces some of the earliest fruit each spring.  The plant is somewhat common in California, and fortunately, more and more people are getting to know it, and more importantly, more and more people are beginning to value this sweet fruit.

Loquat’s native home is China, Japan, and North India, this evergreen’s leaves are broad, and pointed at the end, averaging about 8 inches in length.  Each leaf  is darker green on the upper surface, and the under surface is lighter green, with a characteristic wooly surface.

The tree produces white flowers in the late autumn, and its golden-yellow fruits are often abundant on the trees.  The small oblong fruits can be about two inches long, give or take. The flesh is sweet and free of fibre, and each fruit contains a few large brown seeds.  The flavor is sweet, but with a slight sour tang. They’re a bit addicting once you get used to them.  The fruit is high in Vitamin A, dietary fibre, manganese, and potassium.

If the tree is cultivated in your yard, you can produce some bigger fruits by simply irrigating and fertilizing. If the trees are just allowed to go wild, the fruits tend to get smaller each year, though still delicious.  Sometimes in our local wild areas, you can see where someone stopped to have lunch and then spit out the brown seeds, which readily sprout. 

I think loquats are great simply chilled and eaten fresh.  You can remove the seeds, and serve a bunch of the fruit with some ice cream.

If you’re on the trail and you happen upon some loquat trees in fruit at the time, just stop and enjoy a few!  They make a great refreshing trail snack.

Once the large seeds are removed, the flesh is sweet and tender and can be readily made into jams or pie fillings.  Just use a recipe that you already know and life for some other fruit, like peaches, and substitute loquats for the peaches.  You’ll find that these make an excellent jam or jelly.

Sometimes you’ll see loquat jam or jelly at local stores or farmers’ markets.  Mary Sue Eller, who is a professional cook who sells loquat jelly at the Highland Park and other farmers markets, shared with me her recipes, which is printed in my “Nuts and Berries of California” book.  She starts with four cups of fresh loquats, which she washes and deseeds.  She puts them into a pot with a little water, 1 to 2 cups of sugar (depending on the desired sweetness), and the juice of one lemon. She cooks it all until it gets thick, and then puts them into sterilized jars.  Eller suggests that first-time canners research all the details of such canning (in a book or website) before doing this.

It’s pretty easy to grow new loquat trees, and they will produce fruit in a few years.  Though they’re drought tolerant, they will still produce better fruit if they are watered somewhat regularly and fertilized with some regularity.


The leaves of the loquat are used in Chinese medicine to make cough syrup. The demulcent effect of the leaves soothes the respiratory and digestive systems.