Sunday, January 16, 2022

A Sense of Place: The mind thinks, but the body knows

My family's ashes are sprinkled around this oak.
I cut the granite stone to mark the spot.

A friend of mine wondered if she would be remembered after she died. An answer sprung up unprovoked from somewhere inside me: Of course, you will, I said. You will always be remembered like Julius Caesar is because some of the same molecules Caesar breathed you are inhaling right now. He is inside you, part of our shared humanity. That’s why none of us will be forgotten. 

My mind thought the story I had told her to cheer her up was a gross exaggeration. But my body, like an indigenous shaman, knew better, casting a spell over me, which I only discovered later when I took a walk: My beloved woods had magically come alive; the air I was breathing became a fortune teller revealing my past.

As I walked by a fallen log by a twin towering oak tree, I remembered being there with my father breathing the same air now he was breathing when he had showed me on that fallen log how to skin a fisher I had shot stalking my chickens, 50 years ago.

I remember my mother and me picking blueberries on the adjoining 21 acres of land that my father bought for $100.00 cash, which they later gave to me, upon which I built the house in which I am now sitting. On the day in question, I remember we were terrified after stumbling upon a bear, also berry hunting, both of whom I hold so close, breathing the same air molecules as they did, 70 years ago.

Then I catch a glimpse of the rascally deer who are decimating my rhododendrons. I welcome them as descendants of the deer my grandfather, a real animal lover, used to commune with, sitting on his favorite stump nearby. I rejoice breathing in the same air molecules that coursed through the deer and my grandfather, who was also named Jean, 100 years ago.

Under my spell, past and present merged as ghosts of my family’s past gathered with me under that same red oak tree where mom, dad, and my brother’s ashes now rest. The branches of the trees creak in the cold, and my friend Raven, croaks as he flies by. No longer mortal, the world and I merge as one.

Getting home, I googled the alleged story about how we all share Caesar’s breath. Eureka! Science has confirmed it! According to BBC Science Focus Magazine: A breath seems like such a small thing compared to the Earth’s atmosphere, but remarkably, if you do the math, you’ll find that roughly one molecule of Caesar’s air will appear in your next breath”⁠1  – and one molecule from  Cleopatra, Einstein, your grandmother, and even that bear in the woods.

None of us will ever be forgotten.




Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Take this job and shove it

"Quit Now" by fuzzcat is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Last spring, Republican governors in a dozen states, including NH, prematurely terminated the additional $300/month unemployment benefit, paid for by the federal government stimulus program. Republicans claimed this bonus made workers lazy, encouraging them to loll around playing video games rather than going to work.

Multiple reputable studies prove Republicans are wrong. Some employees stayed home to take care of their kids, while others feared catching Covid. Others refused to return, not because they wanted to play hooky but because they hated their jobs and were looking for something better.

The federal stimulus program is now long gone, but folks continue to quit in droves. It is garnering headlines, and stacks of articles and books are being written about it. Why are people still quitting? Not surprisingly, the lowest-paid workers are leaving most often. Their jobs are the ones that tend to be dead-end without benefits: repetitive, boring, and sometimes dangerous.

A raft of self-help books have sprung up, purporting to solve the problem, usually by advising readers to reinvent their lives during the hours they are not working. These books may help upper-middle-class folks who have the financial resources and leisure time to pursue new hobbies and passions. But these rosy scenarios are pie in the sky to most working folks, tolling for long hours, often at two or more jobs, struggling just to get by.

This refusal is not a result of individual laziness but reflects long-standing American policy decisions that hamstring the average worker. It’s a fact that the voices of poor and low-income people, over 40% of our population, have been silenced in the national political conversation.⁠1  Not surprisingly, studies show that workers are happiest in countries, such as in Western Europe, which provide a generous safety net: universal health care, childcare, welfare, and a secure retirement. Conversely, we provide, at best, just a faint echo of these robust programs. 

Conservatives rejoice over this, believing that people are shiftless and won’t work unless threatened with draconian poverty. Of course, the happy yet still productive workers in places like Finland prove them wrong. The real problem is big business and corporations which have a fiscal mandate to maximize profits; they achieve this objective by bleeding wage-earners for every last dime they can while refusing to pay their fair share of taxes – if they pay any taxes at all– to further the common good.

This has lead to popular unrest and resentment, which our former president capitalized upon. But, sadly, rather than lifting up working folks through policies like Biden is proposing, Trump chose to fan the flames of our smothering cultural divisions.

In a sick sort of way, if the Republicans successfully block the Democrat’s agenda to lift up the average Joe, they will win twice by rewarding their big corporation donors while, at the same time, driving more increasingly desperate and angry workers into Trump’s camp. They will do this, like they did last election, by promising their base the freedom to openly carry assault rifles, to keep out immigrants, and to ignore any regulations they don’t like.

That’s a recipe not for freedom but anarchy. However, right under our noses, there is a way to increase individual freedom, simply by removing the straight jacket of how we define work. As Kathi Weeks, a feminist scholar, writes,  “I think what you’re seeing with people refusing to go back [to work] is a kind of yearning for freedom.” …that our society is entirely too obsessed with work, that employment is not the only avenue through which to derive meaning in life and that sometimes no job is better than a bad job.⁠2

Defining our lives solely on how we make money has turned us into commodities. As author David Frayne writes, “For all the propaganda we hear about work as a source of good health and a way to ‘meet potential’, work so often seems to stand in the way of people realising what they are capable of in terms of their capacities for creation and co-operation.⁠3

The whole notion of what work entails needs to be expanded to include the work we do taking care of our family, the work we do in service to our community, and the work we do making our world better through volunteer work. To achieve that goal, we need a more generous safety net, following the lead of enlightened countries around the world.

A  good case in point is Finland which has been named the happiest place on earth for the fourth straight year, based on Gallup World Poll Data, which included measures of social support, personal freedom, and gross domestic product (GDP).⁠4

Let's start to catch up by passing Biden's "Build Back Better" bill.





3 The Refusal of Work by David Frayne. Zed Books. London.


Thursday, January 6, 2022

Why Habits Are Important

Surveying my woodpile, a few years past

In the latest Harper's magazine,⁠1 Meghan O'Gieblyn writes an extended meditation on habits, covering both the pros and the cons. On one extreme, she says, are the techies who think ditching habits would be "unimaginably great." That's how I felt when I was young, driven by testosterone and the turbulent times of the 1960s: I craved to be unleashed, to run free and unfettered from restraints of any kind.

O’Gieblyn covers every contingency but, in the end, makes a strong case for why good habits are indispensable, enlisting the support of wise luminaries from the past like Seneca, St. Benedict, and William James. They all agree on the importance of spontaneity but say that’s not sufficient: To live a life of purpose with tranquility and composure, “this first nature” has to be combined with “the second nature” of habit.⁠2 Progressively, as I’ve grown older, I’ve gravitated to this second position.

One revelation that changed me came from reading the Myth of Sisyphus by Camus. Sisyphus, of course, was that guy from Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever pushing a boulder up a mountain, only, just before reaching the top, to have it roll back down. When I first read that book in my twenties, I thought Sisyphus’s fate was worse than death.

However, rereading it in my forties –  perhaps it helped that I was working by then as a stonemason– I no longer thought getting up every morning to lift stones, day after day, year after year, was such a horrible fate.  It turned out to be a satisfying way of life, especially if one had enough beer to drink. I think Camus and I agree, based on how he ended his book:“The struggle itself is…enough to fill man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”⁠3

A second revelation also came in my forties from reading The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh while pursuing my graduate degree in counseling at Antioch. He became my mentor, demonstrating why good habits were crucial even when doing a mundane task, like washing dishes:

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”⁠4 


At one point in her essay, O’Gieblyn concludes since repetition is a component of all ascetic traditions, she thinks her “own habits constitute something like a spiritual discipline.” I feel the same way, especially since, sadly, my nature veers toward procrastination and disorder. Learning to form mindful habits to accomplish essential tasks has made my life more orderly and stress-free. The payoff comes when these new habits become rituals, opening up space to be spontaneous.

No longer attempting to juggle multiple tasks all at once, I now delight  from mindfully doing one thing well.  I especially enjoy being grounded in my physical body while working with my hands. The first thing that comes to mind is cutting firewood. It’s a joyful act I know I share with my wood-burning pals: that real sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing our woodpiles grow longer in preparation for the long winter ahead.

It’s a habit I’ve honed over the years that connects me to something bigger than myself: By participating in the sacred dance of Nature by cutting up cull trees off my land in winter, hauling the pieces out to be stacked in the summer’s sun, and, finally, carrying them into the house to be burned in winter, I warm both body and soul. 

As Meghan O'Giebyn found out, in a different context, my ritual of woodcutting "constitutes something like a spiritual discipline." It makes me feel aligned with the universe.




2 ibid. page 31

3 Albert Camus, Myth of Sisyphus. 1942

4 Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Getting beyond delusion to what is really real

Our exquisite blue little planet: the only home we’ve got

"NASA - The Blue Marble" by smiteme is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Observing the recent rise in conspiratorial beliefs and pseudoscience, a visitor from another planet might diagnosis much of the American public as delusional. So says Nicole Karlis in a recent edition of Salon Magazine.⁠1 After all, a third of all Republicans think the COVOD-19 outbreak is a plot by a powerful elite.  Sadly, eighteen percent of Democrats agree. On top of that, a majority of Republicans believe Trump won the last election, despite no evidence of fraud. 

The only thing Americans  can agree upon  today is that we disagree. 

Are many of us delusional? Karlis says, yes, a large swath of us are suffering from delusional behavior, a condition predicted long ago by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. According to this renowned psychologist, individuals are easily attracted to 'unreal ideas,’ because we aren't as rational as we think we are.

To Jung, Americans were particularly prone to such society-breaking delusions because we are blind to our past; as a result, we don’t have the tools to make mature judgments about the present.  To remedy this, we would have to overhaul our whole educational system.

Toward that end, the educator, Roosevelt Montas, promotes studying Great Books as necessary for everyone to get “a sense of how to decide what your life is for amid all the possible choices before you; understanding that the ethics of how civilizations and power operate is complex rather than reducible to facile binaries and snap judgments.”⁠2

At one time, Montas was in charge of the Great Book core curriculum that I completed during my freshman year at Columbia, back in 1963. Looking back on it now, I see these seminars were a transformative learning experience: sitting around a table several times a week, debating the big questions of life in the company of some of the wisest authors of all time.

Karlis also highlighted another central theme of Jung's work: society can't thrive without a central guiding paradigm. Studying Great Books can also  help here, shining a light on the dynamics of how civilizations change over time. One learns that Christianity provided a stable underpinning for the West for over a thousand years until the Renaissance emerged, putting reason over faith; then, in the late 19th Century, modernism arose, predicting that industrialism and technological advances would improve life for everyone.

Faith in technology was still ascendant when I was growing up, as I once wrote about in my blog: “During that time, science was next to godliness; we wholeheartedly supported its quest to unravel the mystery of life while making life a breeze for all of us. A senate committee in the 1960s projected that as a result of improved technology, the American workweek would be reduced to 14 hours by 2000. And scientists predicted we would soon have unlimited atomic power “too cheap to meter.” 

Sadly, those rosy predictions ran aground on the shoals of capitalism. Instead, working folks are slaving away for many more hours to earn a smaller paycheck on a treadmill that moves faster each year; meanwhile, inequality between the haves and the have nots continues to rise, while the cost of everything has skyrocketed. In addition, rather than basking in paradise, we now face toxic pollution, pandemics, and the threat of climate change apocalypse.

The bloom is now off the rose, causing unrest and paranoia across the country. Rather than viewing science as our savior, it is now often seen as the enemy. The government, it is said, no longer works for the ordinary person.  Too often, authorities are accused of “just making things up." Rational analysis, based on facts,  is now often ridiculed as the highfalutin, mumble-jumble.

The center no longer holds. 

Our common guiding myth has shattered, like what happened to Humpty Dumpty when he fell off the wall. Some associate this fragmentation with postmodernism, which, for some in academia, means downplaying the idea of universal Truth. Instead, they contend that our world is socially constructed, resulting in multiple truths depending on an individual's background and standing in society.

Jung is correct: finding a path back to reality is crucial to our survival. The question is, divided as we are, is there still a common theme that might unite us. To my way of thinking, a book published back in 1997 points the way: Resurgence of the Real by Charlene Spretnak.⁠3  She calls it ecological postmodernism.

While she acknowledges that some aspects of reality are socially constructed, the essential parts that make us human are really real: the innate wisdom of our bodies, our sense of place, and Nature Herself. These truths, spelled with a capital 'T,' could be the basis of a new paradigm, replacing the groundlessness of today with "the groundedness of bodily, ecological, and cosmological processes."

I guess some would call this a new religion celebrating the Earth, but nothing about it is new: indigenous peoples around the world have been practicing it since the dawn of time.



1 ttps://


3 The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in the Hypermodern World by Charlene Spretnak

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

To see the world in a mud puddle

“Finding Infinity in a Mud Puddle."
CC Jean Stimmell

A note to the reader: I wrote the following essay in  response to a Monitor article from last week. In no way do I mean to detract from the joy and sacredness of  this Christmas  holiday which I savor as much as anyone

To see the world in a mud puddle

Some might call me a heathen for rejecting established religion. At least  I’m not alone as I found out from an article in the Monitor last week: What’s your Religion? In US, a common reply now is “None’”⁠1 

It turns out, 29% of us are not affiliated; if we were a church, we would be the largest religious group in the United States. Some are atheists, some agnostics, but many, like me, are spiritual. I agree with what one of the unaffiliated folks, previously a Catholic, said in the article: “It just means finding meaning and perhaps spirituality without practicing a religion …pulling from whatever makes sense of me or whatever fits with my values.”

Facing my fourth cancer has  prompted me to look more closely at what makes my life meaningful. While I am comforted and buoyed up by something bigger than myself, it is not that bearded, old, white man in the sky. My spirituality, instead, comes from my Buddhist outlook coupled with my identity with Mother Earth.

Nevertheless, I still experience sacred moments with a sense of awe. For instance, just centering my breath on the present moment can induce a sublime sense of oneness, causing an involuntary smile to spread across my face: I am not my puny self anymore but tethered securely within a living Earth and the cosmos beyond.

I’m attracted to Buddhism because it provides a pathway toward living a meaningful life, not by worshipping a supreme being but by coming to terms with who I am within an impermanent world. It is now paying dividends by helping me deal with the uncertainty of my medical prognosis. Like being drenched with a bucket of ice-cold water, cancer has woken me up to the present moment,

An American Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chodron, said it best: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land. To experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”⁠2

Connected to my Buddhist sensibility is my bond to the Earth. I identify with what  Pablo Casals, the great cellist, wrote about nature’s mastery: “I do not think a day passes in my life in which I fail to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature. It is there on every side. It can be simply a shadow on a mountainside, or a spider’s web gleaming with dew, or sunlight on the leaves of a tree.”⁠3

Casals' ability to be present in the living moment was extraordinary, reminding me of William Blake's famous quote, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. 

Or this from another of Blake’s poems:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand 

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour.

I get fleeting epiphanies like this from my photography. I like to carry my camera with me because it forces me to slow down and actually see what is in front of me: a magical shadow on a rock, a hidden world in an ice crystal, or heaven in a mud puddle.

I am secure in my faith now, but as a young man,  I was agnostic or worse. Christian Wiman has written a profound and poetic book: “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” addressing folks who believe in God. I am cheeky enough to think it also applies to me:

When I assented to the faith that was latent within me— and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.⁠4




2 When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön


4 Wiman, Christian (2013-04-02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (p. 1). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. Page 10

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

What if rootlessness is the cause of our unease?


Uprooted tree by the Suncook River in  Barnstead NH

We are being uprooted from our ground like trees in a hurricane, separated from our extended family, local community, and the natural world.  Witness the fate of Generation Z, born in the mid-to-late 1990s, who are predicted to hopscotch all around the U.S. in their lifetime, working 18 jobs, spanning six careers, while living in 15 different residences.⁠1  Contrast that with  my  parent’s generation, who often worked their whole lives at one trade while living in the same house in the same community.

It can’t be denied: we have become uprooted from the land where our ancestors were born and died;  where local customs with maze-like connections to our community have withered and died with the rise of interstate highways, TV, and social media; where even the smells of the earth and of the air itself have become a distant memory in the antiseptic suburbia of America that have blossomed like overfed algae since WWII.

Our rootlessness accelerates in pace with climate change, obliterating nature's normal rhythms, which always served as our most reliable guide. Political polarization is undermining the bedrock of what we believe our democracy to be. And now, along comes Covid: Beyond attacking our physical bodies, it is short-circuiting our social habits, which, by their intimate regularity, affirms our humanity by connecting us to our community.

It’s a big deal!

As a retired psychotherapist, environmentalist, and follower of Carl Jung, I believe our roots to the earth – and to each other – are as essential to our survival as food is to our bodies. So you can imagine my delight in discovering a book, Rootedness: The Ramifications of a Metaphor, by Christy Wampole that examines this subject every which way. It's a limited edition academic tome that cost an absurd amount to buy on Kindle, but I had to have it.⁠2 

I believe we are like trees, except our roots connect to the earth through the sprawling, subterranean networks of our brain. Wampole expresses this notion in academic language: “I claim that the root is not only a powerful figure that represents home, the past, death, memory, and the mother; it is a figure for the subconscious itself.⁠3 

Here are some other musings from her book: “Subterranean life, imagined as the final resting place and a return to the womb of Mother Earth, is subconsciously strived for by all people. Both humans and plants rest in beds.”⁠4 

Traditional cultures,  particularly indigenous ones, can’t comprehend our rootless, free-floating existence. As an example, Wampole writes about the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, who was amazed, after moving to America, that when a baby is born here, the umbilical cord is thrown away.  "In the Congo, it is kept and buried in the soil of home, which remains a permanent place of return. With this symbolic attachment of the child to her homeland, a transfer from the mother’s body to the body of Mother Earth, initiation into life begins with a tethering."⁠5 

What an embracing notion for those of us not traditionally religious who, like motherless children, feel cast out alone into a bleak, postmodern world. The feeling of being forever tethered is a real security blanket. Of course, we have trees.

Look at all the recent, best-selling books touting trees' miraculous, human-like qualities. With each new book, we discover more ways that plants, particularly trees, are like us. But, Wampole says, the most recent scientific research suggests we have it backward: it's not that plants are like us but that it is we who are like plants.

In fact, she says, due to our new love affair with all things digital, we are becoming more plantlike. “In our increasingly vegetative state, in which we access the remote world through a screen, we have taken on something of the plant’s existence, which requires everything to come to it.”⁠6

Wampole concludes by going further afield, erasing the separation between plants and us: “Humans and plants have always been in direct communication via their shared cellular consciousness, which is so intimately and reciprocally attuned that the boundaries between plant and human are dissolved.⁠7


But one thing is for sure: whether tree or human, you can cut off a bunch of our roots, and we will still thrive – but cut a few more, and we will die.




2 Rootedness: The Ramifications of a Metaphor, by Christy Wampole. Kindle Edition

3 ibid.Location 263

4 ibid Location 669

5 ibid. Location 511

6 ibid. Location 1519

7 ibid. Location 5225

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Revising what I was going to write last week

Yin and Yang leaves outside my window in first snow

Last week I started a column contending that, emotionally speaking, events in the 1960s were as disjointed and perilous as the existential angst we face today. My mind had flashed back to those olden days as I cut kindling with my hatchet to start the first fire of  the season with wood I had harvested off my land.

The war in Vietnam War raged. Each day the news reported, like a sports score, how many of the enemy we had killed, as if that number justified the death of many of our brothers and sisters who also became cannon fodder that day. Things flew further out of control as the decade unfolded. 

Our beloved president, JFK, was assassinated, along with his brother Bobby when he ran for office. Tragically, the murders continued to accelerate, not only MLK and Malcolm X but "almost every major national leader of the black struggle in the United States."⁠1 The National Guard was patrolling our streets. Our cities were on fire. Polarization  between pro-war and anti-war Americans reached a fever pitch. It felt like the apocalypse had arrived.

We tried fighting for social and environmental justice; we tried to stop the war any way we could, some of us after fighting in it, but to no avail. Finally worn  out, overwhelmed by events outside our control, we retreated back to the land, looking for solace and simplification in our lives. For many, including me, it was a revelation.

I  found refuge in the  land: it was soothing to my soul to get off the consumer-driven rat race by living as simply and sustainably as I could. My  apprenticeship with the natural world changed my life, teaching me the importance of living in harmony with the rhythms of nature. That’s when  the true significance of the well-known Zen saying “Chop wood, carry water” became clear to me.

The origin of this saying goes back into ancient times when a young boy who had become a monk complained to his Abbot that all he did was chop wood and carry water for the monastery. I want to learn, he said.  I want to understand things.

The Abbot replied, “When I started I was like you. Every day I would chop wood and carry water. Like you I understood that someone had to do these things, but like you I wanted to move forward. Eventually I did. I read all of the scrolls, I met with Kings and gave council. I became the Abbot. Now, I understand that the key to everything is that everything is chopping wood and carrying water, and that if one does everything mindfully then it is all the same.'"⁠2

That’s the lesson I wanted to write about, but it got edited by real life: I underwent surgery and discovered I have cancer, again. 

Not surprisingly, this had a sledgehammer impact on me, smashing the words I was going to write so blithely about chopping wood and carrying water. Because of the intervention of real life, it struck me how I was “talking the talk rather than walking the walk.” Or, in Dale Carnegie’s words, I was “dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon.”

This week I can feel the actual prick of the rose thorns in the ouch of my stitches. Now it is real: The chickens have come home to roost, forcing me to ask again: how do you cope gracefully when things go to shit? 

Yes, I can bloviate about watching our ecosystems and societal structures  self-destruct around us. But that is still abstract, different from how it feels when my body is the target, when the comforts of middle-class life and the supportive armor of white privilege can no longer protect me. The question then becomes visceral: what do I do now, coming face-to-face with the grim reaper of old age, illness, and death.

I found great solace in Jon Aaron’s discussion of this in “Finding Joy in Uncertainty.”⁠3 His radical solution is to refine the focus of “chop wood, carry water” – and our entire existence – down to just this breath right now: We can receive each breath with gratitude; we can receive each breath as an opportunity: “Oh, here I am, another moment to be fully present.” Then we can start to see the contrast between conditional joy and unconditional joy.⁠4

It works. I breathe in with joy in this perfect moment, the sun shining through the window, writing to you.






4 ibid