Saturday, September 23, 2017

Vignettes from and about Vietnam

In conjunction with the premier of Ken Burns' documentary on Vietnam, the Concord Monitor asked me, along with other veterans, to share personal stories about our Vietnam experience. Below are my three vignettes.
My ship up a river in the Mekong Delta in 1966
CC Jean Stimmell

Fighting the War: Not finding the big answers to life, I dropped out of Columbia College in 1964. The Vietnam War had not yet winded up and was little talked about. I didn’t know what to do with my life but was infatuated with that Red Badge of courage sort of thing, thinking I needed to prove I was a man – and also to placate my father who was a combat veteran. But deep down in my heart, I knew this war was wrong and still feel deep guilt about going to this day.

While my tour, on the rivers and along the coast was extremely grueling, there was with little hostile action.  But my ship’s luck ran out the year I returned home when it was blown up by Viet Cong sappers, killing 17 shipmates. Meanwhile, the casualties among the circle of people I knew in the Pittsfield area continued to grow: by the end of the war, two had been killed, three seriously wounded and, and two, committed suicide, including a recon marine who had received a silver star for valor in combat. 

Resisting the War: A friend and I were crashing in NYC, coming back from an anti-war demonstration in Washington DC when we heard of a big protest being planned for Wall Street. Wandering around the area with our long hair and clinched fists stenciled on our tee shirts, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by rampaging construction workers with clubs and crowbars, in what turned out to be the beginning of the “Hard Hat Riot of 1970.” We thought we were done for. Just then, a burly, red-faced NY cop arrived, snarling, “Okay, guys, I’m taking over. I’ll make sure these hippy scum get what they deserve,” and started pushing us through the suddenly subdued mob toward the entrance of a nearby subway station. At that point, he shoved us toward the stairs, yelling, “Hurry, boys, run for your lives.”

Working for VA: After getting my counseling degree at almost 50, I took a position at the Sanford Maine Vet Center where eventually I became team leader. At closing time, only a couple of weeks into the job, they decided to test me. The team leader said they had a Vietnam veteran on the phone who was threatening suicide. The vet, whom I will call Joe, had called previously in a suicidal state and the police had been called which resulted in an all night, armed standoff after Joe barricaded himself in his house. Joe agreed to talk to me so I drove to his remote house where I was immediately knocked down by his lunging German shepherd. Joe was a massive man with only one leg as result of a combat injury; he was very drunk and suffering severe pain from pancreatitis. I finally negotiated a deal where I would take him to Togus VA medical center for treatment, sweetening the deal by letting him bring a beer in the government vehicle which was against the rules. On the way to Togus, his dog came close to ripping off the Biddeford toll taker’s hand. After admitting the veteran, I had to deal with his dog. Because I had pledged to Joe that I would take care of his dog, I took him home, where he immediately tackled my girlfriend, pinning her to the ground. But this story has a good ending: after treatment and therapy, Joe went on his way, doing well. So did my girlfriend.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The first day of Fall

Victorian House in Northwood Narrows
CC Jean Stimmell: 9/15/17

Putting to bed our fecund garden, now gone by,
my mind flashes to the once regal Victorian in the Narrows
commiserating with both the beauty and the sadness of growing old

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Glass is Already Broken

Still Life Constructed in my backyard: 3/30/17
CC Jean Stimmell

Everything seems fine as usual. The days fly by. We get in our shiny cars, drive to work each day, come home to our families, buy lots of stuff on Amazon. Yet, deep down, we have this persistent, nagging feeling that things aren’t fine, that, maybe, we are headed to hell in a hand basket.

But the consequence of admitting to these primal fears is more than we can stomach: We avoid thoughts and feeling about them at all costs, blocking them from our conscious mind.

Instead, like the addicts we are, we escape back to the sanctity of infotainment TV and our spending ways. But, if we could but just sober up, it would be obvious that these fears are real with devastating consequences.

How can we not comprehend that we live in a supreme bubble of denial: Mired in political gridlock and failing infrastructure while still insisting that we are God’s chosen people, destined to live on the shining city on the hill, even if the city is collapsing from neglect, graft, and the cost of fighting a succession of futile wars around the world.

Meanwhile, due to the increasing risk from global nationalism and proliferating nuclear weapons, the doomsday clock has moved to only 2-1/2 minutes from midnight –the symbolic moment humankind will be annihilated, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Finally, the earth is in midst of a catastrophic mass extinction from a combination of toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change. Billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have already been lost and the rate of extinction increases each year.

Facing this tsunami of destruction, how could we not be in denial: how can we possibly wrap our minds around the devastation that lies ahead, becoming qualitatively worse each day that we continue to hid our heads in the warm, comforting sand of our material culture – which, of course, paradoxically, further fuels our addiction.

What’s the answer: how do we break this cycle of addiction and start climbing out of the hole we are digging for ourselves?

I have a modest suggestion based on the answer Buddhist master Ajahn Chah gave to Mark Epstein, an American psychotherapist, when asked what he had learned from his years of contemplation that would be of interest to those of us in the West.  Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side.

“Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”1

I was profoundly moved by the wisdom of this story: as with the master’s glass, how can I take my world for granted when it is guaranteed to come crashing down– in most cases, sooner than later.

If tigers and elephants and countless other magnificent beings will grow extinct, it makes those still living, more precious, fragile, and worth saving. If great cities and cultures around the world are in danger of being incinerated – as we did to Hiroshima – it makes the cities still living and breathing more precious, fragile, and worth saving.

When I open myself up to their ultimate fate, I can, for the first time, identify with them fully in the here-and-now. If I have the courage to open myself up to the truth of uncertainty, it sets me free.

I have a long way to go but feel like I am on the path.

Denying that our world is broken either numbs me, making me take my everyday world for granted or paralyzes me, making me want to stick my head in the sand like the proverbial Ostrich. Conversely, wholeheartedly admitting the obvious truth that our world is already broken, opens me up to a floodgate of emotions: sadness and grief at what has been lost but, at the same time, unleashing a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty and majesty still surrounding us.

In a different context, Rob Acevedo’s sentiments expressed recently in his music column in the Monitor uncannily resonate with what I am feeling: “The simple beats, the heavy thinking wordplay, the triumphant hero leveled by a life less given. These songs filled me with a kind of beautiful sorrow that I wanted to drink in, feeding me in ways that didn’t require a textbook…2

Because I see the glass is already broken, it makes me more motivated to save my precious fellow beings of all species who have not yet fallen off the shelf due to human greed, hate, and delusion, while savoring in every moment, the faces of my loved ones and the splendor of everyday life.

1 Epstein, Mark. The Trauma of Everyday Life (pp. 44-46). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition
2 Concord Monitor, 9/14/17, Rob Azevedo’s Soundcheck Column

Monday, September 11, 2017

Wise mortals strive to steady trembling minds

Shiva celebrates year's end in my woods: 12/31/13
CC Jean Stimmell
Like an archer an arrow, 
the wise man steadies his trembling mind, 
a fickle and restless weapon 
– the Buddha

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Elementary Forces Along the Coontoocook River

Coontoocook 8/24/17
Mushrooms illuminate the scene
as a sacred talisman preens

Coontoocook 8/24/17

Friday, August 11, 2017

Leaving the Past Behind

Abandoned by the Contoocook
CC Jean Stimmell:5/30/16
Undergoing ER visits and two hospital admissions fighting multiple infections, over the last six weeks, split me open like an overripe tomato. The result has been, unexpectedly, a spiritual awakening.

Suffering in pain from a total knee transplant, combined with volatile fevers resulting in alternating chills and burning up from ongoing infections put me in limbo land: totally dependent on doctors and staff who, in turn, could provide me no answers, no lasting respite from my illness – because I was proving to be allergic to most antibiotics.

Floating in what, at times, seemed like an endless la-la land, all possibilities became real, even death, but not with a sense of fear but weary resignation. This is how people die, I thought – even me–slowly taken down peg by peg by escalating medical procedures and repeated allergic reactions, until, one day, I slip seamlessly to the other side, a void that seemed to me, little different than the feverish hallucinations of daily hospital life.

Then, suddenly, my world shifted: I transcended from terminal weariness to sublime peace and calm: Worldly cares and material concerns evaporated. I found myself floating on a forgiving cushion, resting totally in the here-and-now, a cloud without beginning or end.

My world reduced to the size of my hospital bed,  my bum exposed in my hospital johnny, having control over hardly anything, dependent on others for everything, yet how can it be: I felt totally free – and sublimely happy to be alive in this moment of time.

Whatever happened, I don’t want to lose that feeling.

According to spiritual gurus, experiences like mine can, indeed, lead to revelations and epiphanies: “Often times, extreme suffering is the portal to spiritual awakening. Great pain and desperation can make a person willing to die. And spiritual awakening is a death, a death of mistaken identity and a realization of who we truly are.”⁠1

Thankfully, my ordeal that started June 27th, suddenly ended this week: A genius, infectious disease doctor burst into my room like an angel and diagnosed my malady in less than 5 minutes. Following her treatment plan, I made immediate progress, enough to be discharged from the hospital Wednesday, August 9th. I am now on a trajectory toward full recovery.

I feel like a sailor in a lifeboat, long adrift on the open sea who, suddenly wakes up to find his boat has washed up on an island: not any island, but a rich tropical paradise.

I am writing this all down because I do not want to forget or make-light-of the importance of my experience. I intend to meditate on my fragile awakening daily. There are important lessons to be learned.

P.S. My most sincere thanks for my superb support: Russet, my son, my friends, and, in particular all the caring doctors, nurses, VNA, tech people and staff who hung in there and didn’t give up on me.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Wanting vs. Being in the age of Trump

Published in the Concord Monitor, August 2, 2017
My son Ian, cc 1983, pondering the Winter Solstice

Wanting versus Being in the Age of the Celebrity (769 words)

I know I’m older than dirt but when I was growing up in the aftermath of WWII, 7 decades ago, good character and honesty were important. Someone could be a person of modest means, holding a humble station in life, yet be looked up to by the entire community because of her or his exemplary values. We praised such people knowing their word was as good as their bond.

This respect was a fundamental element in what it meant to be an American. We looked up to those role models who had high moral values, like the legendary account of Abraham Lincoln walking six miles to return a three-cent overcharge to a customer.

But sadly, over time we have lost sight of those perennial virtues, and forgotten the people who represented them.

We’ve regressed from a state of being where we were able to rest on our own laurels, feeling worthwhile and secure, knowing we were honest and capable of doing the right thing, to a state of wanting: wanting to be slim, beautiful, and have a trophy mate; wanting a big house, three cars, two boats and an ATV; wanting to have an advanced degree, fine clothes, and collect expensive wine; wanting to win the lottery and be the envy of all our friends.

We’ve slid from an authentic state of being based on timeless values to a pathological state of wanting without end. Buddhists would call these insatiable cravings the realm of hungry ghosts.

The more secular, materialistic, and instrumental we have become, the more our cravings have increased until we now worship a different kind of god: those favored few who satisfy their larger-than-life cravings by any means necessary, walking rough-shod over all who cross their path. We call them celebrities.

In the long run, what we wish for, we were bound to get. It was only a matter of time before one of these celebrities would claw himself to the top, eviscerating all rivals with taunts, threats, and bald-faced lies, to become our president.

Congratulations Donald Trump! You are the first celebrity ruthless enough and immoral enough to successfully render our democratic traditions null and void.

Funny thing, though… Now Trump has become president, rather than fulfilling his campaign promises, he is acting like an escaped balloon pumped too full of air, chaotically spinning out of control, without purpose or direction, losing air and altitude as he goes.

How could it be otherwise. He has no inner compass to guide him, no empathy, values, or spirituality to help him distinguish right from wrong. He isn’t governing a spreadsheet of widgets to maximize profits but real, flesh-and-blood human beings who need his help.

He is an addict to his cravings like a heroin addict willing to steal from his mother. But don’t think we are all that different.

We are all addicts to our cravings and that is why we can’t muster the gumption to reform ourselves or our government. That’s not just my opinion.

It coincides with the view of Gabor Mate, Canadian physician, writing in the current issue of Psychotherapy Networker. [1] He takes issue with the widespread view that an addition is either an individual choice or an inherited disease.

Mate makes the case that “addictive patterns of behavior are rooted in the alienation and emotional suffering that are inseparable from Western capitalist cultures, which, by favoring striving and acquiring over noticing and caring for one another, end up short-changing– and too often traumatizing– children and families.”

I think Mate makes a legitimate argument. Rather than government being the enemy, it is time for government to step up, as it did with the New Deal during the 1930s, to nurture the connections between members of every family, especially those in need, understanding that family and community are the glue which holds our society together.

I’m not advocating the overthrow of capitalism. That would be impossible right now. But I am advocating a return to civility and honoring the values that did make us great, along with a larger role for government in reducing the historically high, yet still rising, level of income inequality between the rich and the rest of us.

We can start work to begin leveling the playing field by providing all Americans with universal health care, a livable wage, a dignified retirement, and affordable but excellent education for all.

If we don’t nurture the connective tissue that unites us, our remarkable American experiment in democracy and self-government will slip away and we will find ourselves hostages in a living, collective nightmare, eaten alive by hungry ghosts.

[1] Psychotherapy Networker, July/August 2017, page 33-35