Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Advantages of Being Useless


Jenness Pond: A constant companion in my  life
CC Jean Stimmell: 2014

This essay is about learning  how to be useless. As such, it dovetails nicely with a recent piece I wrote on these pages about striving for idleness.  I agreed with Mark Taylor’s Buddhist notion that idleness allows time for the mind to wander to places never before imagined and to return transformed.”⁠1

Being useless, like idleness, is often equated with being old. And, indeed, that is what I am. I spend a lot of time in reverie, which most would call idleness. I have to keep pulling myself back to the present. However, I’m not meditating but practicing what has been called the curse of the old.

I forget where I put my keys. I can’t remember where I left my glasses.  I walk into the kitchen from my office and then stand there perplexed, wondering: what was it I came here to do?

Barry Magid suggests that’s okay in a piece called “Uselessness: The Koan of just sitting.”⁠2 His take is, rather than racking your brain to remember what you you think you’re supposed to be doing, just kick back and enjoy the moment. He writes that feeling useless can be a profound experience that we Americans rarely have. Instead, we feel compelled to keep busy doing things: Racing around earning money, having fun, helping others, whatever it may be.

We are convinced that everything must have a purpose. It doesn’t.

To just be – what modern society calls uselessness – means forgetting what we are doing, or in the words of the artist Robert Irwin, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” According to Magid, this kind of seeing “involves a loss of boundaries” and a letting go of ourselves as separate observers, “placing us within the midst of the the very landscape” we usually feel separate from. Buddhism calls this intermixing of self and world: “being actualized by myriad things.”

By dissolving these boundaries, we become whole, developing a personalized sense of place,  within a community of neighbors, geographical topography, and the more than human world around us. We overcome the curse of our Western heritage that artificially separates our thinking mind from the outside world. That, to me, is the essence of what it means to be alive. Charlene Spretnak in “The Resurgence of the Real,” reinforces this notion, warning us that our hypermodern world  is robbing us of our three most critical birthrights: our bodies, nature,  and our sense of place.⁠3 

As I sit here on my deck writing this, breathing in deeply the almost erotic, earthy scent of spring, I feel one with my body within my sanctuary of place. Meanwhile, so many around me spurn the only flesh and blood body they will ever have, yearning instead for the perfect body projected on the screen of their mind by advertisements and social media. Nature becomes just another accessory, a movie reel backdrop to soap opera lives. Worse yet, as more and more of us scurry around, always looking for the next best place, we are chopping off the roots that make us human.

Indigenous people have always understood that sense of place is the sacred scaffolding upon which one builds a meaningful life. Perhaps, like it  or not, that will be the final rallying cry of us Baby Boomers: To promote the importance of sense of place while perfecting the art of being idle and useless.





3 “The Resurgence of the Real” by Charlene Spretnack: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: 1997.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Living in Ghost Land


Memorializing dead barred owl with resin replica of human skull
CC Jean Stimmell: February 2021

I recently got back from two months in San Jose, supporting Russet, whose son, Austin, succumbed to a malevolent brain tumor in January. It has been an extremely taxing, long haul for her, caring for him as he went downhill over the last year.

After returning home, I've been dislocated in time and space, yanked around by a profusion of emotional climates as erratic as the weather, both here and there: From the frigid winter winds blowing across the stark whiteness of Jenness Pond to the feminine softness of mournful, foggy mornings in the Los Gatos mountains.

It didn't help when Coco discovered a dead barred owl behind the house, devoured except for her wings, feet, and head. If owls are prophets, what kind of omen is this?

Then,  stranger yet, walking with Coco along Jenness Pond road, the past and present melded together in a surreal collage. It came to me that what journalist Ella McSweeney recently said about Ireland perfectly described what was happening to me: "we live in ghost-land, marked not by what is around to see and hear, but what is not."⁠1 

Coco and I inspect the ice-fishing houses out on the pond, soon to be endangered species when the ice melts. When the ice froze last December, Austin was still alive, and barred owl still patrolled my land. We walk further by the little graveyard where my grandparents rest. I am named after my grandfather, who wrote letters in triplicate with carbon paper to his sons when they were serving overseas during WWII. 

In one of his letters, Grandfather Jean, who had a gift for words, wrote about Jenness Pond freezing over in December 1942, three years before I was born: "During the night, the Pittsburg Plate Glass Company arrived and laid a solid piece of plate over Jenness Pond, so slick one's eyeballs slide when looking at the pond in the sun…"

Walking along, the dog and I soon come to a beach near where an old colonial used to stand. According to legend, as told by my father, long-ago the farmer who lived there took his two oxen, still yoked together, down to the pond to cool off on a sweltering August day. The cows waded in up to their chests, where they got stuck in quick-sand and sank, in slow motion, to their deaths. According to the story, their bodies were never recovered.

We now pass majestic, dead ash trees, pock-marked by what look like bullet holes fired in a mob boss execution. However, the holes are the handiwork of invasive Emerald Ash Borers, which are pushing the species toward extinction. Sugar maples and hemlocks may soon follow. A new study predicts that in the next 50 years, we will lose one-third of all our animal and plant species.

A little further down the road, we come to a place along the edge of the pond that used to be a gathering spot for local indigenous people in the summer. As kids, we found arrow-heads there. It was also rumored to be the site of an Indian mound, which we could never find. If it still exists, it is now covered up by a palatial new house.

What would these Native Americans think about all the changes the white man has wrought. Could my barred owl be the messenger? According to their legends and myth, the owl is often a symbol of death. In fact, the circles around the eyes of an owl were believed to be made from the fingernails of ghosts.⁠2

Owls were also believed to be messengers from beyond the grave who deliver warnings to people who had broken tribal taboos. I know I have broken taboos my whole life by not living sustainably and in harmony with Mother Earth. Most of us have. We have upset the balance of nature, and now, I'm afraid, we will have to pay the price.

Paraphrasing the refrain from Pete Seeger's acclaimed song about where all the flowers have gone:

"When will we ever learn?"