Sunday, December 9, 2018

An Ode to the Past

Jean Stimmell©2015
Resting peacefully in their cemetery on the family farm
now so overgrown with weeds and the march of time
that their lives seem almost mythic, like a fairy tale.

Who could imagine living such meaningful lives today:
of honest work within the arms of Mother Nature,
raising crops to eat and children to carry on,
without iPhones, Google, or social media?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Out of the blue at age 73

Jean Stimmell©12/4/18
What does tangible mean at age 73
My eyes lock on a bolt, much older than me
at my cousin’s ancestral fishing camp:
I am spellbound

This bolt is more than a rusty headed
metal pin used to connect things :

It is a bolt from a cosmic crossbow:
A lightning bolt shocking me,
 into a waking dream 

In dreams, a lightning bolt can foretell
the crack of a sudden and terrible event,
or a divine message honoring the chosen...

Which will it be for me?

Friday, November 30, 2018

Mary Oliver's Leaf

Playing in the woods behind our house
CC Jean Stimmell: 9/2/15

What Can I Say
What can I say that I have not said before? 
So I'll say it again. 
The leaf has a song in it. 
Stone is the face of patience. 
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story 
and you are somewhere in it 
and it will never end until all ends.
Take your busy heart to the art museum and the 
chamber of commerce 
but take it also to the forest. 
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you 
were a child 
is singing still. 
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four, 
and the leaf is singing still.

~ poem by Mary Oliver ~
(From her book of poetry entitled “Swan")

Thursday, November 29, 2018

What Good are Books and Nature in the Age of Trump

Growing up, we played these woods, which we called  the "Green Forest"
CC Jean Stimmell: 2014
I have been in a blue funk. Last election’s rhetoric was too much for me: the outright lies, character assassinations, dog whistles, violent tirades.
More recently, like an overweight ostrich, the president stuck his head into another sand trap at Mar-a-Lago, stating, yet again, that climate change is a hoax, challenging 99% of scientists, along with the latest report from his own administration.
Then, of course, there is the chilling murder of Washington Post correspondent Jamai Khashoggi. The president continues to side with the Saudi prince perpetrator, thereby breaking every ideal of morality and common decency upon which our nation was built.
Until Trump was elected president, we only associated such mercenary and transactional behavior with gangsters like Al Capone: That swaggering ethic that says, I could kill somebody in the middle of a crowded street and not lose votes — or shoot homeless refugees seeking asylum from south of the border.
Trump’s world was closing in around me. I needed to find a way out!
My first strategy of recovery was to switch from the news, which is essentially “Trump all the Time,” to meditation and quiet walks in woods. Spurred by the grace of nature, I started reading “Thoreau and the Language of Trees” by Richard Higgins. I was quickly rewarded with this gem from John Muir: “Between any two pine trees, there is a door leading to a new way of life.”
I felt my spirit reviving! But not trusting myself to put encouraging words on the page after my recent doldrums, I decided to complete this essay by stringing together the words of others.
I was buoyed by how trees were Thoreau’s cheerful allies in his recurring struggles with melancholy — what we now call depression. To Thoreau, trees represent resilience and renewal:
“In the winter, I stop short in the path to admire how the trees grow up without forethought, regardless of the time and circumstances. They do not wait as man does, but now is the golden age of the sapling. . . . They express a naked confidence.” The human spirit needs such “stimulants of bright and cheering prospects.”
It dawned on me how, in like manner, trees have lifted my spirits, especially my relationships with special trees. Trees have been a fulcrum by which I could lever myself onto a higher plane by communicating with them through writing and photography.
I parlayed the comfort I received from Thoreau by starting a book by Theodore Richards, “Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth”: This book confirms what I have always believed: that we seldom make fundamental changes in our lives as a result of being nagged, threatened, or coerced. Instead we change when we become attracted to a more positive alternative vision.
The alternative reality that Richards is talking about corresponds to Thoreau’s vision of nature and my own inner yearnings:
“If we are to once again experience the cosmos as our womb, to participate meaningfully in the awesome event called the universe, then we must simply walk outside, pause, and look at the shining stars, or see a child being born, or listen to a tree’s rustling in the wind, and be amazed. Until we regain this capacity, no set of ideas can save us from ourselves.”
The conclusion I have reached from my sojourn back into nature and books, is that our only hope is to stay connected to what is really nourishing. It is the only way that we are going persevere in our slog through the polluted waters of today to reach the exciting new world, awaiting us on the other side.
I take stock in Arundhati Roy’s words: Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing — a world that celebrates our interconnectedness, and the realization that, at our deepest level, we are all one.
Don’t give up hope! I can hear her breathing, too. I read in the NYT last week that the Green party is now the second-most popular party in Germany, lagging behind the conservatives by only a few points, and already №1 among women.

Monday, October 8, 2018

A House of Divided Parts

Fallen-in house in fall 2015, along Winding Hill Rd, Northwood
CC Jean Stimmell

I just ran across a passage by Freud about how words were originally magic, and still to this day, retain much of their magical power; he gives this as an example: “By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him [or her] to despair.”⁠1

How can any of us deny the truth of his statement after just being dragged through the hair-pulling, heart-wrenching spectacle of the Kavanaugh confirmation process.

Buddhists remind us that Objectivity is an illusion. But that fact, by itself, does not doom us to polarization and chaos. In fact, our nation, as the very name indicates –The United States of America – has had great success in coming together to find common ground. 

A common thread of our 241 year-old history is that enough of our leaders, along with us as citizens..  have had the ability to see the big picture  and, despite the hot blood of our partisanship, understand the viewpoint of those on the other side and, as a result, come together with a passable, compromise solution that promotes our general welfare.

However, the few times in our past when we lost this ability, like the run-up to the Civil War; the resulting polarization and tribalism lead to us fight the bloodiest war in our history – sadly, against each other.

No doubt, the extreme tribalism of today, the blind anger and distrust, if left to fester into a whole body infection will lead to another such crisis: Abraham Lincoln stated the truth: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

Sometimes in dire times, we need to think outside the box.  Perhaps, Internal Family Systems (IFS), a new model of psychotherapy, can shed light on our current tribal behavior. 

Richard Schwartz, who formulated IFS, understood, as a family therapist, that individuals in troubled families were often trapped in unconscious patterns of behavior that caused conflict. 

He soon discovered that just as a family has individual members with different roles so does the individual  psyche have different parts that could be seen as sub-personalities. In fact, we have a multitude of such parts, including some unwanted, perhaps pushed away, parts that are aggressive and sexual.

He found that most troubled individuals have wounded parts steeped in painful emotions such as anger, shame, fear, and remorse. These sub-personalities are often in conflict with each other and with one’s core Self, a concept that describes the  whole, caring person who is at the center of each of us.

In a nutshell, we are all born with an innate, core Self that is clear, confident, and compassionate with an unspoken spiritual component that resonates with all religious traditions. However, our core self can be over-run by irrational parts, such as those mentioned above.

To my way of thinking, IFS sheds light on our current national polarization and tribal behavior on two different levels:

On the individual level, many of us are being dominated by our sub-personalities of fear, anger, and hate, which are consuming us. These irrational parts have overridden our Self which is at a higher level, the only one capable of clearly and compassionately seeing the whole picture. 

Therapy, whether with a professional or self-directed, consists of first learning to recognize the limited, irrational nature of these exiled parts and then helping them develop a positive role with the framework of the larger, overarching Self.

On the societal level, I guess it’s up to us voters. 

Luckily, over the course of our nation’s history, we have generally chosen well, electing leaders who have at least made an effort to govern from their higher Self: adhering to age-old ethical and moral principles, having  compassion for the a weak among us, and seeking to expand the common ground that unites us into a single people. 

Unfortunately, we are not blessed by higher Self leadership today. Quite the opposite. We now have a president who, rather than seeking to unite us, relishes in dividing us further, in a naked ploy to increase his  power. And we have a craven Republican majority in cahoots with him: Spreading doomsday stories of angst, hate, and retribution in an attempt to overpower our higher faculties, in a bid to seduce us into their Hobbesian, dog-eat-dog world.

Let’s not let it happen. 

In the words of Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high.”


1 Freud, 1915-1917, Vol. 15, p.17

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

A Pretty Picture?

Salem MA Harbor  CC Jean Stimmell: 9/21/18

Psychedelic ecstasy
delusions of grandeur
consumer-driven fantasy

A witch’s brew of
swirling pollution
in Salem Harbor

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Radical Thesis

I have been working on a series of photographs I call Metaphors for our Times.Here are two of my digital images with brief descriptions. followed by an explanation of what they represent to me.

Here’s an image of a skull I found at the dump with an artificial flower stuck in its eye. I photographed it in the snow, while shining light into its flowering eye socket. I call it “Dark Night of the Soul Transformation.”

 The image above is a 6-foot weed, pulled from the edge of my garden. It reminds me of Giacometti’s haunting later works, depicting tall, emaciated bodies, evoking the suffering of WWII and horrors of the Holocaust. Each spring, since the dawn of time, this dead weed has resurrected itself into new life, an eternal return. 
But for how much longer?

Many are turned off by my images, finding them too bleak. Yet I see hope in them and in the future of humankind, despite living in these apocalyptic times. Part of the reason why is because I consider myself a hope merchant, by inclination and by trade.

I am a psychotherapist, who has been successful, in no small part, because I have always had faith and trust in my patients, believing in my heart that every one of them, at some point, no matter how dire the circumstances, will turn the corner, unload some of their burdens, morph more into their higher selves, and move forward lighter and freer.

And I’ve seldom been disappointed.

On the collective level of society, I also have hope despite looming Armageddon events like the rising risk of nuclear annihilation and catastrophic climate change. But I don’t pretend to be Pollyanna. What I see as hope may strike most people as dismal and hopeless Yet it’s difficult to promise that a flawless rose garden can grow from our present toxic waste dump of greed and valueless sludge.

The problem, up to this point in time, is simple: we humans have not suffered enough to change our ways, By the time we have seen the light, it is likely our advanced” civilization will be burned to a crisp like ponderosa pines in California’s ever more frequent, forest fires or washed away like the imminent fate of folks living in low-lying. Polynesian Island states.

But sooner or later, it will have to happen: we will come to our senses, even if civilization, as we know it, is gone –­ burned, radiated, starved, and abstracted to death – and, the few of us who are left, will live in small, scattered tribes inhabiting what is left of Mother Earth. 

That may not sound like hope to most people but it does to me because at least we survived to continue our long-term, romance with Planet Earth. We escaped the worst by not going extinct or turning into a race of mindless, Amazon robots. Most important, we learned how to live simply and sustainably in concert with all our fellow sentient beings – or at least those who survived. 

In other words, after suffering through an interminable dark night of the soul, we were able to walk away from Twitter, Facebook, and Uber driverless cars to start living once again as indigenous people have always lived, present in what is really real: our bodies, nature and a deeply rooted sense of place.

My feelings about indigenous people coincide with what Jason Farago wrote about Giacometti’s haunting sculptures:

“Funny that existentialism doesn’t seem such a downer anymore: When all of us are trailed by inescapable terabytes of data, we can almost envy Giacometti’s slender bronze wraiths: stripped to the bone but still human, stripped of their names but still free.”[i]


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Metaphors for what I feel

With nuclear annihilation ever more probable
 under the unhinged reign of Tyranus Trump 

And climate change like cancer unchecked, 
relentlessly eating away Earth’s bounty

words fail me…

Instead I submit two photos
metaphors for what I feel 

Abandoned bikes in China looking like vast blossoming tulip fields.
Photographer, Mathias Guillin, took this photo with his drone

A Tikuna mask designed by Jean-Baptiste Debret
during the French Artistic Mission (1816-31)
(missing and probably destroyed in the
recent fire at Brazil National Museum)

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Beware of the Blood Moon!

The Blood Moon 1
Most of us missed the dramatic lunar eclipse last Friday  – or “blood moon” as it has come to be known. And those of us who did see it on TV, probably viewed it as a trendy event to chat about on social media.  

But be forewarned!  Since ancient times, the blood moon has been associated with danger, “a rip in the fabric of order.”[2]

Astronomer, Ed Krupp who has studied folklore about the cosmos, found cultures all around the world believe that a red moon eclipse signifies a carnivorous creature devouring a celestial body.

Today it is warning us about a carnivorous creature devouring our own planet. And that creature is us: Humans, who have abused and tortured Mother Earth to the point of no return – but yet still claim no limits on what we may do. 

In response, the gods of the universe are giving us what we deserve – along with, unfortunately, all the other innocent beings who dwell on our little blue planet– by raining down "fire and fury” in the form of raging forest fires, hurricanes, floods, and Donald J. Trump.

I don’t see this is as a declaration of Armageddon, but a final warning shot, beseeching us to change course before it is too late.

The fundamental question we have to come to terms with is: Do we accept limits on our behavior as an essential part of the natural order, or not?

The fight in its present form has been going on since Earth Day celebrations began in the 1970s. On one side we have the conservationists, ethicists, scientists, and traditional conservatives who say we must accept limits as a fundamental aspect of who we are and as a recognition of where we stand in the grand scheme of things.  

On the other side, we have the fossil fuel industry and libertarians who scream that we must have the freedom to do whatever we want.

Unfortunately, our old Earth Day ethic has been consistently losing ground under the onslaught of big money propaganda. Until 2016, that is, when we hit rock bottom.

It was then we elected a man-child as our president who is all impulse with no boundaries, who thinks climate change is a hoax and wants to double down on fossil fuels, particularly the dirtiest of the lot: coal.

At almost 73, I have come to embrace limits, not as confinement but as spiritual liberation, as I learn how to give up the need for control in order to live harmoniously as a tiny cog in the infinitely majestic, interwoven mystery of life. 

Trump, who is my age, has gone the other way, reveling in defying any limits on himself or our country, which he is piloting like an obstreperous, bumper-car driver consumed with road rage.

“On the contrary,” as Wendell Berry has reflected,” our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.”[3]

How much better to see the imposition of limits, not as a drawback but as an inducement to the development of fullness in all our relationships.

This sentiment was perfectly expressed by the Dartmouth professor, Donella Meadows, who wrote the best selling book Limits to Growth; she was also on the Board of Contributors for the Concord Monitor, at the same time I was:

“The ideas of limit, sustainability, sufficiency, equity, and efficiency are not barriers, not obstacles, not threats. They are guides to a new world. Sustainability, not better weapons or struggles for power or material accumulation, is the ultimate challenge to the energy and creativity of the human race.”[4]

In memory of Ms. Meadows, one of the most influential environmental thinkers of the twentieth century, may we recognize this recent blood moon eclipse for what it portends: A final wakeup call we can’t afford to sleep through. 


[1]Photograph of the
 blood moon from,+public+domain&client
[3]Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits by Wendell Berry for May 2008 Harpers Magazine.
[4]Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse: envisioning a Sustainable future by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Rangers. Chelsea Green Publishing Co.: White River Junction, Vermont  ©1992

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Ecological Specter

 Deer #1, a drawing on yupo paper © Kathy Hanson

Kathy’s Deer

This same phantom visits both of us,
though we live in different towns.

I am haunted by her appearance,
her plaintive and anguished look.

To me, she is a living guilt trip 
for our rape of Mother Earth:

Like the Virgin Mary coming back
to remind us what we did to Jesus.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Surging suicide rates are more than a mental health issue

Published in the Concord Monitor 6/17/18
Worlds in Collision
Mural under construction in the Mission District, SF
CC Jean Stimmell: 12/19/16
While I’m a practicing psychotherapist, my hero is the late, great sociologist, C. Wright Mills who made a critical distinction between private troubles – which affect a single person – and public issues – which affect a group of people.

Mills would turn over in his grave if he saw the new Centers for Disease Control report[i], which concludes that the recent surge in suicides in our country is attributable only to an assortment of personal problems, listing things such as strained relationships; life stressors, often involving work or finances; substance use problems; physical health conditions; recent or impending crises…

Reuters confirms the individual emphasis of this report, noting the “spike in suicide rates in the United States has cast fresh light on the need for more effective treatments for major depression…”[ii]

Of course, assuming that everything revolves around the individual is an American tradition: we aspire to be the rugged individual who can triumph over anything, if only we work hard enough and long enough. Or else, be like John Wayne and take out the bad hombre who is holding you down in a blaze of gunfire.  

Our default position is that failure is an individual problem, a psychological maladjustment. Suicide is an admission of that failure. Despite this American obsession, sociologists have long known that suicide is not simply a psychological occurrence but a societal one. 

Suicide rates have long been shown to vary depending on the status of society: rapid changes to the social, economic, or political structures of society cause suicide rates to soar.

The 19th-century sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe this phenomenon. It was his thesis that anomie occurred when the values and norms from one era were no longer valid, but new ones have not yet evolved to take their place.

That’s not to say that our mental health system isn’t in crisis, because it is! It needs to be re-imagined with greatly expanded funding to make help readily available to each and every one of us when we need it. That would certainly help. 

But suicide rates would still be high because the root cause of our surging suicide rate is anomie, a societal issue.  Most observers agree that anomie has been increasing since the sixties and has accelerated markedly under the unethical and normless Trump administration.

Anti-depressant medication won’t fix the problem.

From a sociological perspective, suicide rates will not significantly decrease until people can find meaning in their lives again; this will only happen when we can embrace a new societal vision that is morally and spiritually up-lifting, while restoring, in actual practice, the American Dream that everyone has an equal chance of succeeding.

Right now we in the situation Durkheim described where the values and norms from the old era are no longer valid, but the new ones have yet taken firm root.

We are now caught between eras, divided into separate camps. Here is my impression of the two camps and what I think should happen. Beware: I have a definite viewpoint.

The old camp wants to return to the way things were: where white men were privileged and we could dominate the whole world by force; where as a country we spend more of our discretionary money on the military than on our people; where we can spend a trillion dollars modernizing our nuclear weapons and extract fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow.

It goes without saying that for this camp – with its head stuck like an ostrich, deep in oil drenched-sand – climate change is a hoax and nuclear war is winnable.

In the new camp, we have folks with a fresh vision of our country becoming a diverse, multicultural society without racial or gender bias where we progressively reduce nuclear stockpiles by treaty and guarantee each citizen a livable wage, good health care, and a dignified retirement.

Understanding that the imminent threat of climate change is – in Jimmy Carter’s words, “the moral equivalent of war” – we will mobilize accordingly in a concerted, national push toward a sustainable economy by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

By taking these positive, unifying steps, while empowering each and every one of us to be that best that we can be, will bring a sense of meaning back into our lives and a true sense of patriotism, working together for a cause bigger than ourselves, not only for us but for our children and grandchildren.

These are the structural questions we should be talking about in deciding which vision will best carry us into the future.

Either that or we can continue to re-arrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic by continuing to claim that our societal problems, like surging suicide rates, are only a result of individual troubles and psychological maladjustment.


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

We will not capitulate

A version of this piece published 6/6/18 in the Concord Monitor
One of Ionesco’s rhinos loose on the streets of Concord NH
Photoshop Collage     CC Jean Stimmell Ionesco 

We human beings are such pieces of work. 

Looking back on my life, I can say that I have developed an affinity for almost everyone that I have taken the time to get to know, regardless of their religion, race, ideology, political party, position in society.  I think most of us, as individuals, can say the same thing. 

The trouble comes when we get together in groups.

It is a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of their social group and are quick to criticize those that don’t fit their group criteria. Folks who share our particular qualities become “in-group;” those that don’t become “out-group.”

When things are going well in society and the citizens feel prosperous, we feel like we live under a big tent and tend to be more tolerant. However, when folks feel anxious and threatened as income inequality rises –like in the US and Europe over the last 30 years – the big tent shrinks and we feel more threatened by people who are different:  folks of other races, backgrounds, religions…whoever doesn’t fit in with how we define our in-group.

For millennia, these divisions have been fanned into sectarian flames by would-be authoritarian rulers, seeking to divide in order to conquer.  Today, this process is further enabled by social media outlets, allowing us to effortlessly hang out with only with those that agree with us, to the exclusion of everyone else.

Recently, we have found that this state of affairs is worse than we thought: the social media groups we love so much have been infiltrated by various nefarious organizations (and governments) to discredit groups they don’t like by propagating vile slurs and malignant lies.

The end result is that we are being winnowed effortlessly and often without our conscious knowledge into ever more claustrophobic corals, in the same manner Temple Grandin uses ever narrowing fences and curved single file chutes to herd cattle where she wants them to go, often to slaughter.

Whether the driving force in this disturbing trend is rising income inequality, social media, or fake news, there can be no doubt that totalitarianism is playing an increasingly leading role, both here and around the world. 

Seventy-one countries – more than a third of the world’s total  – saw declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017.  At the end of the Cold War, Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, thought totalitarianism had finally been vanquished but “today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened.”[A]

It may seem strange that there has been no political price to pay for this surge of authoritarian measures.  As Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations has noted: “No one of statue is shaming, sanctioning, or standing up to illiberal behavior and political repression.”[B]

His observations, however, would not sound strange to Hannah Arendt, who wrote the definitive book on totalitarianism, back in1973:

“Totalitarian … leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that … one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism. Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”[C]

Does Arendt’s definition of a totalitarian leader sound like anyone we know?

All of this reminds me of Rhinoceros[D], a well-known play right after WWII, written by Eugene Ionesco, founder of the Theatre of the Absurd. It is best described as a political parable, portraying the struggle of an individual to maintain his integrity and identity in a group-think situation, resembling the rise of Nazism in Germany.

The play takes place in a small town in France. The characters, after seeing a rhinoceros charge through their peaceful streets, start falling ill and turning into rhinos. In short order, turning into a rhino becomes the new norm, which the townspeople justify as necessary in order to “move on with the times.”

Soon, Berenger, a mild-mannered man of some character, finds himself the last human in what is now a rhinoceros herd. Looking into the mirror, he questions what is happening, “After all, man is not as bad as all that, is he?

Although he wavers many times, coming close to joining the rhinos, and despite many personal weaknesses, he comes through in the end.

“I am not capitulating.”

These words by Berenger close the play and transform his character from being indifferent and alienated to committed and human.

In these troubling times when, once again, rhinos are stampeding through our streets, we must do the same.

[D]Ionesco, Eugene. Rhinoceros and Other Plays: Includes: The Leader; The Future Is in Eggs; It Takes All Kinds to Make a World (Evergreen Original, E-259) (p. 15). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition