Sunday, December 20, 2020

Finding Clarity and Catharsis through Writing Essays

Rising sun cutting through smoke from Bow Power Plant
CC Jean Stimmell: 12/15/15

I wish to expand the conversation about writing, started by Nancy Steenson in her Concord Monitor column (12/16/20), warning us about how today’s students can’t express themselves in writing because they haven’t been taught how.  

It doesn’t surprise me. I’d go further and hazard a guess that all of us, no  matter what our age, have seen our writing skills deteriorate with the advent of computers., smartphones, and the whole digital age.


Ms. Steenson advocates returning to the old days when students learned what good writing was and practiced doing it. Indeed, back in the 1950s and 1960s, when I went to school, we wrote a lot and were drilled in grammar and punctuation, but it was an arduous task. While the practice that came from composing term papers and book reports helped organize my swirling thoughts, putting down words on the page was always an ordeal, like going to my childhood dentist who didn’t use novocaine.

That changed after I got back from Vietnam. It turned out that many of us returning veterans had problems with anger and acting out. More of us were dying from suicide than had from combat. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not yet a diagnosis, opening the door for a crescendo of news reports, labeling us as “crazy Vietnam vets.”

 I stewed for days about this media feeding frenzy until finally, after a hard day of building stonewalls, I sat down at the kitchen table and started to write and write; I wrote all night. The result ended up becoming the cover story in the old New Hampshire Times. 

That was my real introduction to writing. The subject matter commanded me to write because it was so personal and close to my heart. Writing has never been easy for me. I still need to be inspired by an idea and then, after much procrastination, force myself to sit down and write disjointed crap. Finally, if I’m blessed, I  find a rhythm that overcomes my internal censor, allowing me to spit out what –although I wasn’t aware of it beforehand – I wanted to say. 

Of course, in a real sense, it is not true that we no longer know how to write: We have all become experts with texts and Twitter.

The rub comes when we have to address complex issues. Essays can be an excellent tool but fell out of favor, as a consequence of what sociologists call modernity (or the modern age), which crested in the middle of last century: Modernity downplayed our subjective feelings and our ethical concerns, in favor of glorifying impersonal, objective reality. 

During that time, science was next to godliness; we wholeheartedly supporting 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.” 

Democracy was so ascendant by the time the Berlin Wall fell that Francis Fukuyama, a prominent theorist, confidently predicted we had reached the end of history: “the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy.”⁠1 

Under these circumstances, the influence of personal essays withered, blinded by the allure of a single, dispassionate, all-knowing truth. Essayists were replaced by experts who pontificated about ultimate reality in grand treatises and scientific equations. 

However, as we now know, the experts were wrong.

 Rather than the whole world sailing off into the sunset in a single, blissful ark of shared reality, the opposite happened: a splintering of reality into multiple truths, depending on who you are and where you stand in society.

As a result, essays are regaining their clout. Rather than claiming objective truth – which is an illusion, according to many – they present individual perspectives, based on available evidence, specific to time and place. 

They erase walls between subject and object, making no attempt to separate our inner feelings from the outside world. As Robert Musil observed: “Man and the world are together like the snail to its shell: the world is part of man.”⁠2

As such, an essay is not a formal proclamation but reflections based on personal experience. Fundamental to the essay, Alan Wall tells us, is “the notion of uncertainty, the endless seesawing possibilities of proof and disproof. An essay is a testing”⁠3

The “my turn” columns in this newspaper are an excellent example of such works in progress. Each column is a valuable thread, in and of itself.  But when woven together over time, they transform into a rich tapestry, illuminating the soul of our community.

Writing a column for the Monitor is a way to get back in the fray. It can help us discover our voices. It’s hard work, like going to the gym. But if we persevere, we can find clarity and catharsis. 

And, shucks, all together we may change the world.






Friday, December 11, 2020

Thursday, December 10, 2020

We are the first de-indigenized culture on earth – and the last

Indigenous rock art along the Columbia River
CC Jean Stimmell 2013

 We are the first de-indigenized culture on earth – and  the last

 We take pride in our modern civilization for being advanced and forward-thinking while judging indigenous people as primitive and backward. According to Anthropologist Wade Davis, what we have accomplished is a “stunning innovation in human affairs, the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom⁠1.” 

For the first time is history, we have created  “a new and original culture” that celebrates personal freedom over community and consumption as a way of life over sustainability. Our stunning innovation is an illusion compatible to looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope.

As the world’s first de-indigenized culture, we have broken with all human history, according to this 2013 article in Yes Magazine. But it has come at an exceptional cost. Utilizing the external muscle of fossil fuels while extolling selfish individualism, we are the first society on earth not to be “enmeshed within networks of communities and relations with the land.” 

Unfortunately, the consequences of our ground-breaking experiment are now coming due. Radical individualism has now reached the point where it has paralyzed our government and endangered our citizens; we can see this in our deadlocked Congress that is unable to agree upon a desperately needed Covid rescue package while, at the same time, in the name of freedom, hoards of demonstrators are protesting government mandates to wear masks, one of the few proven methods to slow down the corona carnage until a vaccine arrives.

Our roads and bridges and public transportation have decayed until they resemble that of a third world country. Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is catastrophic climate change, which our president, a fitting one for a de-indigenized nation, calls fake news.

Human greed and selfishness has corrupted our democracy and plundered our planet of its precious living resources.  We are becoming a huge blazing meteorite, lighting up the sky in technicolor, still puffed up with how great we are, until, in one last colossal blast of fireworks, we will plummet through the atmosphere to our death and that of our beloved spaceship Earth.

What can be done? In  my grief, I turn to Joan Halifax, born in Hanover, NH in 1942. She is a wise women who has earned her spurs in celebrated careers as an anthropologist specializing in indigenous cultures, hospice caregiver, ecologist, and Zen Buddhist teacher.⁠2 

She offers an antidote to our de-indigenous culture, which has stolen our soul, replacing it with a computer algorithm on a chip, programming us with a single task: shopping until we drop. Our only hope, she says, is to regain our  indigenous wisdom. 

Indigenous people, along with Buddhists, reject the notion that we are separate, isolated atoms. Instead, they assert we are all connected souls, immersed in a great, flowing river going back to the beginning of time: “Just as our mother and father live inside us, so do generations upon generations of mothers and fathers before them. “

The root of the problem we face today is that we have lost touch with the souls of our ancestors and, in the process, lost our own.   Our survival and our sanity depend on learning to honor where we came from, not only venerating our human ancestors but all life forms.  As Halifax poetically describes it:

“We are connected to the dead in ways not commonly remembered. The bones of the ancestors lie in the body of Earth and are transformed into the bodies of plants and creatures, including ourselves.”  

“The great trees of tropical and temperate forests, by feeding on the decaying remains of countless plant and animal species, literally translate the past into our atmosphere…[supplying us] the very air we breathe.”   

Indigenous people venerate their ancestors because they understand  all beings are integral parts of our existence – past, present, and future –  interconnecting and interpenetrating in the great river of life.

Halifax says that until we get out of our heads and give birth to our ancestors, Earth cannot be redeemed from its suffering. “To exclude, consciously or unconsciously, any species from the continuum of existence is to deny a part of ourselves.” And spell our doom.

Benjamin Franklin expressed this wisdom with a different metaphor during our American revolution: “We must, indeed, hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”





Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Breaking Bread with the Dead

           A  strange, Van Gogh "Starry Night" Moon rising over our home 11/30/20
   CC Jean Stimmell

Once upon a time, on Sunday afternoons, families would take picnics down by the peacefully-flowing river in their town, both for respite and renewal. But for some time now, the water has been rising  until now it has exploded over its banks., plummeting us into a raging torrent, clogged with massive information overlord  and deadly whirlpools of competing narratives about what is true. We find ourselves fighting with all our might to hold our head above the maelstrom, just to keep from drowning. 

How do we escape this  information tsunami? As the title of his latest book suggests, Alan Jacobs has a thoroughly unique answer: “Breaking Bread with the Dead.” He contends that expending all our energy confronting this deluge of information has caused us to lose perspective, throwing us into a shifting moment by moment, fragmentary existence.

Jacobs warns us that we can’t understand our time and place by such immersion; instead, the opposite is true. To gain perspective, we have to step out and away from the present moment and do it on a consistent basis. After that, you step back into the fray “and say: Ah. That’s how it is.”⁠1

Using another metaphor, Jacobs says our bandwidth has been reduced to zero from constant swimming in the here-and-now. He quotes Simone Weil, who doubted our ability to think into the future because of our “deficient imagination.” Therefore, our only recourse to gain bandwidth is to look to the past. And the way to do that, Jacob says, is by reading old books: “to sit at the table with our ancestors and learning to know them in their difference from, as well as their likeness to, us.”⁠2

He quotes Horace, the ancient Roman poet, who exhorts himself, and us to “interrogate the writings of the wise.” Because they are wise, they can “draw us out of our daily, our endlessly cyclical, obsessions with money and with “trivial things”—the kinds of obsessions that “harass” us, that “torment” us, that make us jump from thought to thought, or rather emotion to emotion, in “anxious alternation.”⁠3

I was an easy convert to Jacob’s argument that old books are a gift that can change your life because it happened to me: I got a scholarship out of Pittsfield High to attend Columbia University in the Big Apple, immersing me in old books.

 Half the course content in my freshman year consisted of two courses taught in intimate, oak-lined seminar rooms: one on contemporary civilization, starting with Plato; and the other, an overview of the humanities, starting by reading both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The pace was grueling, reading hundreds of pages, along with submitting a two-page paper, in each course every week.

I had to work hard to catch up with  many of my classmates who had attended private school. But I preserved, inspired by these brilliant intellects and big ideas from the past.

My other courses were less inspiring. I had gone to college, excited to major in psychology, following my interest in Freud and Jung. But Columbia’s required, year-long introductory course was a laboratory class based on the methods of B.F Skinner, a radical behaviorist. We had to perform experiments around stimulus and response, using long-suffering white rats, some of whom went crazy and had to be put down, the result of giving them electric shocks  to ‘teach them avoidance.’ 

It was both traumatic and bad karma: a taste of what was to come. I dropped out of Columbia my third semester, disappointed with psychology, in addition to feeling lost in the big city. 18 months later, I found myself doing my sabbatical in Vietnam.

Yes, in the confusion of youth, I ignored the wisdom of those great minds like Robert Musil, who counseled his readers to “live in the history of ideas instead of the history of the world”which is circular and repeats its same mistakes).⁠4  But, in the end, Columbia passed on to me that great gift: introducing me to the pleasure and profit that comes from connecting to the works of great minds and their impactful ideas.

I still read old books today. They expand my wavelength, giving me the space to build a sturdy lifeboat to safely navigate the current tsunami of flotsam and jetsam surging all around us.



1 Jacobs, Alan. Breaking Bread with the Dead (p. 23). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid. (p. 27).

3 Ibid. (p. 5).

4 Robert Musil, “The Man Without Qualities”