Sunday, July 14, 2024

Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty


This birch tree is special to me. It was just a mere sapling back in 1977 when I was building my house. Marauding kids, footloose for the summer, snuck by and peeled off a large swatch of its bark, prompting me to feel so sorry for it that I did not cut it down, despite the fact it was perilously close to my foundation.  

The birch tree survived and prospered over the last roughly 50 years, while we, enduring our share of shady campaigns. have become old war buddies,  The scars on our trunks from calamity and surgery are marks of our character, proving we have lived through dark, stormy nights of the soul, not just a succession of sunny but eventless days.

I took this photograph,  literally swooning in the recent record-setting heat. As I composed this picture, a quote by the iconoclast JunichirĊ Tanizaki flashed through my mind like a bolt of lightning, “Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,”⁠1

Tanizaki was a Japanese writer and a follower of the Tao. I had read this quote before, but its significance never sunk in until, perhaps because of my susceptible state, I was able to witness this swirl of shadow and light in real-time through my viewfinder. As Tanizaki sees it, “beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”⁠2 

Somehow, taking this photograph under these unique circumstances, short-circuited my normal Western way of seeing things: The tree was no longer a logical concept: a straight, vertical line with a bushy top. Instead, I saw only gyrating patterns of black and white. 

No, I hadn’t suffered terminal heatstroke. Instead, under the influence of Tanizaki, I had fallen into the mysterious realm of the Tao; I had moved beyond language and thought into the constantly shifting patterns of the present moment. Alan Watts, the well-known interpreter of Eastern philosophy for Western audiences in the 1960s, called these shifting patterns “wriggly.”

He said that the whole world in the present moment is “a great wiggly affair. Clouds are wiggly, waters are wiggly, plants are wiggly, mountains are wiggly, people are wiggly. But people are always trying to straighten things out.” But it can’t be done. The only solution is to surrender to the wriggly.”⁠3

Indeed, for Tanizaki, the world was profoundly wriggly and full of ambiguity. For him, seeing imperfection as perfection was a fundamental way of being in the world. Shadows were essential. He criticized the progressive Westerner who was obsessed with always improving his lot: “His quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate the minutest shadow.”⁠4

Shadows are certainly being eradicated today in our hyper-polarized country. It’s reached such an extreme today that any subject debated has only two separate sides: black or white. Shadows are banned. Nuanced arguments are dismissed as the meanderings of the weak and the indecisive.

Tanizaki understood that the remedy was to stay in the present moment in the realm of ever-shifting shadows where nothing is permanent and nothing lasts. It’s a mistake to take our Western way of life so seriously, like immortal building blocks that will never change. We could do worse than start reading the romantic poet Percy Shelley again, who displayed the wisdom of an Eastern guru;

Worlds on worlds are rolling ever

From creation to decay.

Like the bubbles on a river

Sparkling, bursting, bore away



1 Chayka, Kyle. The Longing for Less (p. 192). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid. P. 192


4 Chayka, Kyle.  (p. 193).

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Communities have become places to escape


Pittsfield, NH  
CC Jean Stimmell

Have you ever noticed your status in your local community no longer depends so much upon your behavior, character, and reputation. In fact, you may be vilified for just trying to be a good citizen. Look at how poll workers and school board members across the nation are being threatened just for volunteering to serve their community. 

In my lifetime, communities, rather than something we hold dear, have become something to escape.

I first noticed this trend in the 1980s when I took my young family to Disney World because my mother-in-law conveniently happened to live nearby. Over and above the thrill of the Disney rides, participants loved the experience because all the employees were super nice, everything ran on time, and the streets were spotless. There was no trash, graffiti, protests, or dissenting voices. Some claimed it was a perfect world. 

What a missed opportunity, I thought. How much better it would have been if all our families had stayed put back in our communities and devoted, over the course of the year,  the amount of time equal to the vacation—plus the amount of money the Disney vacation cost—to work alongside our neighbors to make our own community better.

Disney was an early example of offshoring local community to corporate interests.

This suspicion that we were being exploited came to the surface again in the 1990s when I saw the movie The Truman Show. It starred Jim Carrey, who played a character unwittingly living on a TV program. As time has gone on, it’s like we’re all becoming like Carrey’s character,  bit actors on a mass media stage.

Things went further downhill when “Survivor” became a major hit after its premiere in 2000. Once again, rather than cheering for our fellow Americans working together against obstacles to achieve a common goal, we were snookered into rooting for them ruthlessly competing against each other—lying and cheating as necessary—until only one was left standing. And that person was declared the winner! While that may be the principle of capitalism, it is a death sentence for a community.

“Survivor” has spawned a swamp full of imitators until today. It's estimated that 80% of adult viewers watch such shows. That’s according to Emily Nussbaum, the author of Cue the Sun,  a history of reality TV.⁠1  While she notes this genre is often written off by its critics as trivial, reality TV’s cultural influence is undeniable. In fact, as the author acknowledges, it is shaping American politics.

And I think that’s an understatement!

While in early programs like “Survivor,” the producers and directors were flying off the seat of their pants, over time, they got more sophisticated. By the time “The Apprendice” came along, they had mastered their craft.

As Nussbaum said in a PBS interview: “The Apprentice” was “a beautifully made season of TV, and it was made by skilled, polished professionals, because at that point it was an industry. Like, people knew what they were doing. It wasn't anymore like the spaghetti-on-the-wall period for reality TV where everybody was making it up from scratch.”⁠2

As such, the spinmeisters behind “The Apprentice” created one of the most successful marketing schemes of all time. But, more ominously, it exposed, as Nussbaum points out,  a dark truth: “They took an extremely rotten product and polished him up and sold him to the world.” Then Trump, rebranded by these marketing whizzes, was able to exploit this scam to propel him to the presidency.

If the Trump story had been published as a work of fiction, no one would believe it. And if he manages to win again, truth and fiction will have switched positions, mass rallies will have replaced community, and democracy will be a thing of the past.




2 ibid

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Returning to an ecological way of life


A sunflower in my garden

I enjoyed doing the research for my gardening essay last week. It enticed me to dig deeper into the essence of gardening. I started reading Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit, a book I had never finished, a frequent failing of mine. I wanted to find out more about how Orwell’s gardening affected his writing and his philosophy of life.

Orwell tells us that working in a garden is the opposite of the disembodied uncertainties of writing. “It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect. At the end of the day if you dug, how much you dug is as clear and definite as is the number of eggs collected from the chickens.”⁠1

Gardens remind us of what is undeniably real. “Gardens are also places in which the inseparability of life and death is apparent in innumerable ways,” Solnit says. Then she leads us deeper into Zen with this enigmatic quote by Wendy Johnson, Buddhist teacher and master gardener: 

“Watching the things of the world come apart and recombine is core Zen work and the fundamental anchorage of every gardener’s life.” She notes that garden fertility comes out of “the discarded waste of our lives.”⁠2

I find this quote profound.

By using gardening as a metaphor, Johnson demolishes our current one-way, linear notion of time. Digging in the earth is a primeval reminder that time is circular: Our greatest insights aren’t original but recycled from “the discarded waste of our lives.”

From the beginning of human evolution until recently, we understood time from an ecological perspective: We knew it was circular because that’s how nature works. One can make a strong case that technology is the culprit that changed our thinking from the natural rhythms of the seasons to a linear trajectory, that has accelerated like a rocket. 

At first, technology was human-affirming, making revolutionary strides to reduce disease and poverty around the world. It has continued to steamroll ahead to today, creating labor savers of every sort, even the iPad I talked about last week. This recent human history of linear, one-way advancement introduced us to the notion of progress.

But with this progress has come hubris, leading to the current delusion that we are more powerful than Mother Nature, so dominant that we can force Her to submit to our every advance. As a result of this ignorance and arrogance, we are on the cusp of wiping out most of life on earth, either through the big bang of nuclear war or the collective death rattle of climate apocalypse.

So much for the wonders of linear thinking.

Gardening, on the other hand, takes us back to what’s primal in us, the timeless wisdom of our indigenous past. As we dig into the earth each spring, sowing seeds to grow plants that will soon die, it is a concrete reminder that our lives are rhymic and circular, from the movements of the sun and the moon to the cyclical rhythms of our very own bodies: “our heartbeat, breath, sleep-wake cycle, or circadian hormone secretion, among others.”⁠3 

Understanding that life is cyclical gives us reason for hope, even in these apocalyptic times. Yes, we are suffering the stench and depravity from this winter of our discontents. But the foul, mud-slinging debacle we are enduring today –“the discarded waste of our lives.”⁠4  – is the fertile ground that will give birth to a new spring, re-incorporating the ancient wisdom of Indigenous peoples around the world.

If we are to survive, we must remember – and take to heart – that we are but one species codependent on a multitude of others on our little blue planet, spinning on its rhymic, cyclic path around the sun. 

Our choice is returning to a sustainable, ecological way of living or having no future at all.



1 Solnit, Rebecca. Orwell's Roses (p. 46). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid. p. 44


4 Solnit, Rebecca. Orwell's Roses (p. 46). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

An Ode to Gardening


After finishing planting my little vegetable garden, I feel great. The rototiller gave me a better workout than the gym, and my new kneeling pad with rails on each side is a godsend to help me get back on my feet. 

It was inspirational getting my hands dirty sowing seeds while breathing in the scent of lilacs on a sparkling spring day. For me, planting a dead-looking seed husk is a sacred ritual. After gestation in the dark soil, the seed resurrects itself, bursting forth as a green shoot, vibrantly alive, full of pulsating cells common to all of us, both plants and animals.

Of course, it is not just me who feels this way: Peck, a good friend of mine now sadly deceased, labored daily into his 80s, wearing his Birkenstocks,  joyfully tending his gardens big enough to feed a village. That’s despite the fact that he had survived 5 heart attacks, he said, leaving him with “only half a heart.”

Oliver Sacks, a well-known author and neurologist, was another true believer, as I learned by reading a just-published posthumous collection of his essays.⁠1 “I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically.”⁠2

When I had my psychotherapy practice, my patients who were gardeners seemed to fare better than those who weren’t. It was even more pronounced with Sack’s neurologically impaired patients: He wrote that for them, gardens were “vitally important,” often more “powerful than any medication.⁠3

In one example, Sacks’ elderly patient with Parkinson’s disease often found herself frozen, unable to initiate movement. “But once we led her out into the garden, where plants and a rock garden provided a varied landscape, she …could rapidly, unaided, climb up the rocks and down again.⁠4

Above all that,  Sachs firmly believed that gardening greased the skids of the creative process. I know it works for me, helping me with my writing: detoxifying the trauma and heartbreak of the daily news, making room for new fresh thoughts to pop up like delicate new flowers in spring.

Maria Popova has collected quotes from artists from across the centuries who have written about the wisdom of gardening.⁠5 The great painter Joan Miro attributed his success to working at nature’s pace: “I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind.”⁠6

The revered botanist and nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer extols gardening in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” while observing that children often dislike gardening. That passage resonated with me because my mother, like Kimmerer, grew extensive vegetable gardens that required my help, a task I often resisted.

Kimmerer writes, speaking of her children, “They complain about garden chores, as kids are supposed to do, but once they start they get caught up in the softness of the dirt and the smell of the day and it is hours later when they come back into the house. Seeds for this basket of beans were poked into the ground by their fingers back in May. Seeing them plant and harvest makes me feel like a good mother.”⁠7 –  just as my mother was, both personifications of Mother Earth.

That completes my ode to gardening except for this warning: When digging in your garden and planting your seeds, don’t wear gloves – particularly those hideous latex ones that doctors use –  because dirt has been found to be good for you. Research now shows “that people who grow up on farms, for instance, have lower rates of Crohn’s disease, asthma and allergies, likely because of their exposure to a diverse array of microbes.⁠8



1 Sacks, Oliver. Everything in Its Place Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


3 Ibid. p. 245

4 Ibid