Thursday, December 12, 2019

Wedded to the Land on the Solstice

A gnarled survivor in my grandparent's orchard,
now owned by my late brother and his wife
Wedded to the Land on the Solstice

My father purchased 21 acres across from our home when I was about five. Before the neighbor sold it, she clear-cut the land to maximize her profit. The logger, as was the custom in those times, set up a portable sawmill and reduced the mature pine forest to rough-cut boards, which were then neatly stacked next to the road.

The forest was gone. I built forts out of the stickings⁠1 and slabs that were left.

 My mother and I would walk diagonally across the road and through an opening in the stonewall to pick blueberries, which spouted around the stumps of what had been majestic trees. 

Once we saw a bear.

When I was little, I loved being outside, chopping down dead trees with my hatchet and building dams on the little seasonal brook beside our house. 

I could never shake that formative experience of living an outside life, working with my hands. It haunted me wherever I went.

 When I was attending St Paul’s advanced summer sessions, I envied the groundkeepers outside the window trimming the hedges; when I was heading off to start college at Columbia, I envied the fishermen unloading their catch outside Jimmy’s Harborside Restaurant where we had stopped for lunch.

Perhaps it was inevitable I would return to the land: that I would drop out of Columbia and volunteer for Vietnam and, afterward, reject graduate school twice; and gravitate home, in the aftermath of the tumultuous 60s, to build stonewalls for a living and erect a house on that very land my parents had purchased when I was five.

I built my driveway for my new house up through that opening in the stonewall my mother and I had entered to pick berries. With a $14,000 construction loan, and a lot of sweat equity, we moved into that house, but it was only half-done.  

At our housewarming party, Bud Carpenter, local horseshoer, welded brackets and cut a stovepipe hole in a 20 ft steel culvert which we erected for the chimney, like soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

 Raising the culvert to get heat was a top priority because it was Winter Solstice time – and freezing! 

 The denuded land my father bought, the blueberry patch we picked berries in, is now a registered Tree Farm, a respectable forest of pine and oak. I still cut my own firewood and burn it, but the smoke now flows through a stone chimney.

Vietnam turned me off to the frenetic hustle and bustle of the holidays. That feeling intensified after becoming a stonemason with its demands of physical exertion and distant jobs. 

When the work stopped after the frost set in and the land went to sleep, all I wanted to do was hibernate like a bear. 

Each year, as the darkness deepens and the cold strengthens, I found myself entering a primal cave beyond words, a sacred space Gunilla Norris has been able to poetically illustrate:

Our souls can dive into the biting cold, into darkness, 
into bare being. The unknown is there…
Winter is a womb in which we grow.⁠2


Due to occupational infirmities, as I approached the age of 50, I went back to school to learn an inside profession, dealing with the trauma we inflict on each other and the world. 

Since then, my solstice reveries have been increasingly buffeted by sadness and grief at the state of our world, steeped in suffering, injustice, and climate crisis – caused not by some alien devil but our own selfish and small-minded actions.

My feelings resonate with those of the Episcopal Priest, Tish Harrison Warren: looking honestly at the darkness connects us to an “almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime.”⁠3

As I sit musing by my woodstove this solstice, I have no magic wand to awaken the world – and each one of us – to a higher standard of ethics, justice, and good behavior.

I am left with only what I’ve always had: my sense of place and the changing of the seasons.

xxx


Stacked green lumber must be separated by narrow strips of wood called “stickings” for ventilation to allow proper drying of the wood.
Gunilla Norris A Mystic Garden:  Working with Soil, Attending to Soul

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas-season-advent-celebration.html++


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

In celebration of essays, local control, and the Concord Monitor

This essay published in the Concord Monitor 11/17/19
The old Monitor Building when they were situated downtown

Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite writers, happens to be the editor of The Best Essays of 2019. I’m guessing this book won’t become a bible for Trump supporters, mainly because of one essay.

Solnit included, We are the Resistance by Michelle Alexander, because it demonstrates the author’s ability to think outside the box by disputing the conventional belief that those who oppose Trump are “the resistance.” 

On the contrary, she says, “Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.” She equates those of us who believe in diversity and universal human rights to a river, “sometimes powerful, tumultuous, and roiling with life; at other times meandering and turgid” but always moving.

The river is a perfect metaphor for our plight: Rather than viewing ourselves negatively as a dam holding something back, we empower ourselves by identifying with the river, a powerhouse of nature whose forward movement is inevitable.

Solnit asserts that essays like this are powerful currents propelling the river forward, churning out ever more inclusive perspectives on race, gender, climate, and social justice.

She says, “we live in an essayistic age,” where some of the key transformations in our country have been the result of arguments advanced in essays, not individual ones, generally “but flocks of essays that fill the sky like birds.”

I agree with Solnit and believe, on the local level, the new format of the Concord Monitor is doing the same by providing a roosting place for flocks of local writers, from a variety of backgrounds, to enrich us in “The Forum” section of the paper.

These local scribes, on a consistent basis, challenge us to broaden our horizons by embracing diversity, social justice, and equality for us all, while bringing it all home by celebrating our unique sense of place, including specific ideas on how to make our local communities thrive. 

I can say, without doubt, that I’ve enjoyed and profited more from these local folks, than the old, big-time national columnists. However, looking ahead, I worry about the future of the Monitor.

One-fifth of all newspapers have gone out of business in the last 14 years, and more are closing all the time. One can’t help noticing that the Monitor is getting slimmer all the time.

Losing the Monitor would be like losing an old friend, unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence when you are 74. Already this year, my other local paper, the Suncook Sun, succumbed without warning, erasing access to my most local news happenings.

How do we cope with this accelerating loss of access to what’s happening around us? What happens to our democracy if all our news comes from corporate giants and Russian bots on Facebook.

Everyone across the political spectrum has an answer. Folks on both the extreme left and right say we need a revolution. In an old essay in The Nation back in 2009, my mentor Rebecca Solnit claims the revolution is already happening.

In fact, she points out “we have thousands of them, being carried out quite spectacularly over the past few decades, community gardens and childcare co-ops and bicycle lanes and farmers’ markets and countless ways of doing things differently and better.”

The revolution is already happening in bits and pieces all over the place – but not much has been done to connect the dots. And that’s why we need the Concord Monitor!

The underlying vision is “neither state socialist or corporate capitalist” but something we in New England are intimately familiar with: direct democracy, as in town meetings and local control.

That’s my vision: Connecting the dots by each of us buying local, keeping profits in the community, enabling we, the people, to prosper, rather than corporate titans in NYC or Silicon Valley. 

The more we buy local, the more new, local businesses, farms, and community spaces will emerge. At each turn of the wheel,  more profit will stay in the local community.

Completing the circle, all these local businesses and farms, acting locally, will advertise in the Concord Monitor, making it once again – along with the local community – vibrant and prosperous.

And here’s the final piece of my vision: Harkening back to its roots, and in celebration of community, the Monitor returns to its brick and mortar home in downtown Concord.
xxx

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The props of my youth are collapsing

Jean Stimmell CC, photograph taken 11/15/19
Sometimes I feel like an entry in the 2 volume, psychology tome, “Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience.”

I don’t usually feel that way, even after 1-1/2 years in the brown water navy in Vietnam, 9 years counseling veterans with PTSD in the VA and now an additional 20 years in private practice with a heavy share of trauma patients dealing with life-defying experiences.

But I felt that way yesterday, attending a free lunch celebrating Veterans Day at a banquet hall in a nearby city. The veterans, a smattering from each of our generous smorgasbord of recent wars, were humble and grateful, breaking bread together, enjoying this brief reunion of brotherhood and sisterhood.

However, at least to me, the scene was more than just sitting around the fire singing Kumbaya: I was racked  by the dissonance between enjoying the understated, modesty of my fellow veterans who knew war, while, at the same time, being assaulted by ultra-patriotic music, playing so loud conversation was difficult: songs so adoring and one-sided, as to border on being jingoistic.

These lyrics pulled me back in time, twisting my soul, making me feel ill. I grew up revering John Wayne and this type of – how can I nicely say it – patriotic excess. 

But those fantasies of the USA, who never did anything wrong, were trampled, after marching off to war in Vietnam to kill innocent third-world peasants, whose leader, Ho Chi Minh, declared his independence by reciting America’a 1776 Declaration of Independence.

How could I feel proud of my country for attacking Iraq because it allegedly had weapons of mass destruction, a propaganda ploy to sanction the attack that killed 100,000’s and upset the balance in the middle east? 

How could be proud of our country today for supporting Saudi Arabia’s massacre of Yemini citizens and the dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi, our Washington Post columnist?

If that wasn’t enough, the next day, I happened across an article in the NYT magazine written by an American soldier who was a medic in Afghanistan. He tells a story of survival guilt; a familiar one I have heard from 100s of patients over the years.

What was new – and viscerally unsettling – was that he struck a nerve in me, exposing feelings I am usually in deep denial about: 

"You feel the guilt but it doesn’t feel outsize; it doesn’t seem misplaced and unjustified. Your own innocence is precisely the thing you can’t see or feel." [1]

Though it’s not that simple: in truth, my guilt extends far beyond war: I feel the same way about a lot of things, recovering, as I am, from being a white, middle-class, American, man.  

It isn’t easy, it’s a heavy burden to carry, trying to ferret out and purge my 74-year old history as a man, steeped in patriarchy, classism, and the blinders of institutional racism. 

Don’t get me started on what we’ve done to blacks and Native Americans, or my own sad history of patriarchy.

I’m trying…I’m learning…I’m changing with the help of courageous mentors. However, there’s one thing I am proud of: 

I am still proud to be an American, just one who, having taking off his rose-colored glasses, no longer grants her blind obedience, parroting that everything she does is right and virtuous.

Consequently, while I love her just as much, it’s more in the manner of a parent loving his delinquent teenager. Because I love her, it is my duty to work to change her objectionable behavior – and right now, there’s a lot to change!

xxx



Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Golden Mirrors to the Soul

Florida Flamingo   Jean Stimmell©2019

Palomino Pony   Jean Stimmell©2019


"I have long been fascinated by the use of “oracles” in shaping human thought — including such devices as augury (in ancient Rome), the I Ching (in China), the Tarot (in Europe), and Rorschach tests (in western psychology). It is my understanding that such practices basically function as mirrors — by confusing the rational mind, they unlock the user’s subconscious, allowing insights to arise from within."

quote by JonathanHarris from “A silent Place."



Thursday, October 10, 2019

Spirit Animal

Spirit Fox photographed behind my house 10/8/2019
Spirit Animal 

I encountered Fox, cleverly disguised as a stump, while strolling in the woods behind my house.  Fox is a spirit animal with many faces, representing a power far greater than ourselves.

In folklore around the world, Fox is seen variously as either a symbol of cunning and trickery, or, conversely, the victory of intelligence over malevolence and brute strength. 

Fox is also associated with shapeshifting: the ability to physically transform herself through divine intervention or magic. 

In addition, Fox is portrayed in the literature as a symbol of play: “fox is a playful sprite, quick in a flash you see him and in another flash he is gone.”1  I can attest to this from personal knowledge:

My neighbor took her cat with young kittens out into a field by her house to acclimate them to the outdoors. Without warning, a mother fox and her young pups emerged from the tall grass. My neighbor was initially alarmed but relaxed when she observed the two mothers hanging back unconcerned, while the babies rolled around on the ground, playing with each other.

Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, the foxes disappeared, as if it had been a dream. The Jungian Book of Symbols says that makes sense:

Fox’s fiery red coat “produces an elusive glimmer that beckons from another realm – a fleeting presence that Japanese poets likened to sunlight flashing amidst rain, suddenly appearing, dazzling us, and then vanishing, like the fox itself.”2

As for the mother cat and fox, what a lesson they teach about tolerance, especially in our current polarized climate where all too often, we attack those different from ourselves.

Finally, Fox can represent erratic behavior which can’t be predicted, particularly if pushed beyond normal limits.

As such, Fox is a perfect symbol for our human-caused climate change which is now pushing dangerously beyond acceptable limits, resulting in increasingly erratic, unpredictable storms with catastrophic results.

As climate apocalypse draws ever closer, we need Fox to be our guide, the master of adaptation, who can thrive everywhere from barren wastelands to frozen tundra to city landscapes – and do so sustainably.

More critically, we need Fox to be our spiritual guru, teaching us how to reestablish a comfort zone with Mother Earth, built by being humble and respecting her rules.

We need Fox’s magical powers – celebrated by indigenous people since the dawn of time – to reconnect us to what is really real, beyond the virtual reality of our tablets and smartphones. 

The Incas considered Fox to be a diviner-curer because of her ability to hear through the earth about faraway events. For Fox, everything is connected. No one is alone in this world. 

Nowadays, chaos theory proves how we are all connected by dynamic systems, best summarized by the famous quote that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon can cause a tornado in Texas. 

We pride ourselves today for being wired together by satellites and the internet, but we forget that we’ve always been intimately joined by weather’s wet kiss. As weather becomes more abusive, we all suffer.

We need Fox to awaken us to the existential truth: that we are all organically connected to our living, breathing mother who is getting sicker each day.  

In the meantime, while the Earth burns, we fiddle with the empty pixels on our computer screens.
xxx

https://www.universeofsymbolism.com/symbolic-meaning-of-fox.html
Book of Symbols, page 278.
Book of Symbols, page 278

Monday, September 16, 2019

How We are Suffering Moral Injury from Failed Leadership

A version published in the Concord Monitor, 9/26/19


My rendition in Photoshop of "The 2000 Yard Stare"

Clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, working at a VA outpatient clinic in Boston, first coined the term “moral injury” to make sense of the narratives he was told by returning Vietnam veterans. He viewed moral injury as different from PTSD, which primarily deals with the traumatic aspects of combat.

Moral Injury, to him, is neither a disorder or an illness, but an injury, manifesting itself as either moral guilt the individual feels about what he has done, or moral injury resulting from failed leadership. 

Since then, the validity of the notion of moral injury has come to be accepted as a risk to veterans of all wars, but especially our newer ones, from Vietnam until today. In this essay, I would like to enlarge the scope of this conversation to include not just the effects of the betrayal of failed leadership on individuals – but to how it now affects our society at large.

Jonathan Shay is highly respected by the military and a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”  From the beginning, he was able to think outside the box. He saw that the moral injuries he was observing were not unique to the Vietnam war but a phenomenon that has been with us since the dawn of human history. 

In particular, he found a striking parallel between his patients’ war experiences and that of the warriors portrayed in The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem, fighting in the 10-year-long Trojan War,  in the 8th century BC.

 Shay quotes Homer scholar, Johannes Haubold, to buttress his claim that Greeks from that era would have interpreted the damage to their soldiers in the Iliad as moral injury resulting from a betrayal of leadership: When the commanders in the war – “the shepherd of the people” –fail to act honorably and ethically, it is said that the leaders have “destroyed the people.”⁠2

So it was, especially for soldiers in the Vietnam war. What mattered most was not honorable behavior, but achieving the highest enemy body count by any means possible, including instituting “free-fire zones” and extensive carpet bombing (3.5 times more tonnage of bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were used in all of WW II).  Our leaders lied to us and our country about progress in the war: “seeing light at the end of the tunnel” when there was none. Further down the chain of command, inexperienced and overwhelmed junior officers often condoned atrocity with the tacit support of the high command.

Shay observed how moral injuries suffered by returning Vietnam vets turned their inner world upside down, destroying their innate sense of what is right and wrong. It opened up a hole in the center of their being. eroding their ambitions, ideals, and social trust: “When social trust is destroyed, it is replaced by the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others.“

As it was for us as returning veterans, so it now is to our whole country with the election of Trump. World affairs columnist, Frita Ghitis, recounts the symptoms we all recognize:

“One of the common features of the Trump era is exhaustion with the acrimony that has engulfed America. How many times have we heard people plead that they need a break -- from the shocking news, from the unceasing attacks, from the bitterness that has ended friendships, sparked social media ruthlessness and toxicity, and generally produced a permanent state of medium-grade national anxiety.”⁠3

Everyone recognizes the symptoms but, up to now, no one has been able to name it for what it is, not even me who knows first-hand of its ravages: Betrayal by failed leadership is causing us moral injury.

  If we go back to the 8th century BC, the Greeks would understand the nature of our moral injury because our leader, rather than being good shepherd working to unite us, has purposely divided us, one against another, since day one of his reign.  By failing to act honorably, he is “destroying the people."

The unsettled queasiness in our stomachs comes from our leader’s frontal assault on our social trust,  leaving us rudderless with only” the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others.”

xxx

1 https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/files/4602-moralinjuryshayexcerptpdf
2 Ibid.
3 https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/25/opinions/2020-voters-on-economy-vs-well-being-ghitis/index.html

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Was it a dream or a premonition?

A version of this essay published in the Concord Monitor, 9/12/19
Huge snapping turtle crossing Jenness Pond Rd 10/20/16.
Why was she out and about in the fall?
Perhaps she was confused by the abnormally hot fall,
Only a dream or a premonition?

I had a dream the other night I can’t shake:

 I am driving through a desolate land, over a maze of logging trails, trying to find the location of my new job, when suddenly a giant snapping turtle, almost as wide as my truck, steps into the path and refuses to move.

Finally, in desperation, not wanting to be late, I winch her into the back of my  truck and drive on. After several more wrong turns, I arrive at my job site: a nondescript building in the middle of nowhere, divided into a maze of warrens, where humorless bureaucrats, intent on saving the environment, crunch numbers and pore over charts. 

I enter the reception area, a sterile room with no windows, only a sliding glass door looking out on a green meadow. No one looks up to greet me or the turtle, whom I brought in with me. The turtle shuffles over to gaze longingly out the door. I start to open it to set her free but remember that turtles are very rooted to their home territory and probably couldn’t survive in a strange, new world.

Realizing what is at stake, I decide to return her to her home. As I nervously pace back and forth, trying to remember the way back, the turtle loses her patience and starts charging after me, snapping at my heels with her gaping, guillotine mouth.

I  awake in a cold sweat. 

I interpret this dream as an urgent message from earth  – speaking as Turtle –  warning us she will tolerate no more abuse.  Half measures  or experts thinking they can accomplish a technical fix just won’t cut it any more. 

Our only hope is a spiritual awakening to restore Earth to our center of our lives, the place from which all good things flow. Either we start treating her with the respect she deserves for being the very foundation of everything we are, or she will bite back – hard!

This interpretation may seem pretty far out, but bear with me while I present evidence for my case. In the end, you can make your own verdict: Either my dream is a premonition of the future from a power far greater than ourselves, or the ravings of a demented old man.

My first witness is Carl Jung: His method of dream interpretation is based on the theory that our unconscious mind is organized by certain common archetypes we all share.

 One archetype common to our collective unconscious is the turtle. That is why turtles and tortoises are major elements, central to mythologies around the world. They represent the subterranean ground of our unconscious which supports all  higher levels of life.  Examples abound:

An Iroquois creation myth tells how primordial water birds bring up bits of dirt and place it on the back of a giant tortoise, floating on the surface of the sea; over time, the earth grows and expands with the tortoise continuing to be the supporting force at its center. 

In Hindu mythology, the world is said to rest on the back of a giant turtle, the underworld embodiment of the diety, Vishnu, the creator and preserver.
—-

My second witness is science:

In the 1970s, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis theorized that the earth, of which we are a tiny component, is a living, breathing organism; they named her Gaia.  Scientists have been able to find empirical evidence to support the Gaia Hypothesis: 

Way back In 2001, the European Geophysical Union of scientists issued the following statement: “The Earth System (Gaia) behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological and human components.”⁠1

My third witness is Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Through her research, she confirms that we are all one,  part of a living Earth. 

She goes further to assert that, because we are an integral part of a living organism, we can’t help but feel despair about the harm we are causing our earth body. 

Most of us repress this despair, but it is the root cause of much of society’s rampant depression and anxiety. As the Earth is tortured ever more, Her pain appears more and more in our dreams. 

This concludes my evidence to justify my dream interpretation.  If you are still with me, here’s what Macy says we must do.

If we are going to confront climate change, we must first break through our denial. Words are empty and abstract. What is needed is artists to create  images of our ecological grief to facilitate processing our feelings and to create a strategy to fight back to save the Earth:

To acknowledge our pain for the world and tap its energy, we need symbols and images for its expression. Images, more than arguments, tap the springs of consciousness, the creative powers by which we make meaning of experience.⁠2

Without a doubt,, we are in desperate need of contemporary, sacred images to move us in profound ways, like turtle mythology affected earlier cultures.
xxx


anImage_14.tiff
1 https://courses.seas.harvard.edu/climate/eli/Courses/EPS281r/Sources/Gaia/Gaia-hypothesis-wikipedia.pdf
2 1 “World as Love, World as Self” by Joanna Macy, page 24