Wednesday, February 23, 2022

E. B. White on My Mind


"E B White quote" by Kathleen Tyler Conklin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I sometimes berate myself for the amount of time I spend trying to write. I have no trouble coming up with an idea, but as I write, another thought pops up, and then another, until pretty soon, I've composed a jumbled and inarticulate mess. It takes a lot of time and many revisions to distill the piece down into something smooth and easy to read – that actually says what I want to say.

Recently, I had an insight, after observing what pleasure older folks get spending hours assembling jigsaw puzzles at the medical residence where I am staying. They told me it was relaxing, making time fly by. That struck a nerve with me because that's precisely what writing does for me.   

Rather than berating myself for wasting so much time, I should be rejoicing that I have such an all-consuming passion  - even if all I ever did with my writing was delete it when I finished, like puzzle solvers do when the game is over, putting the pieces back in the box.

But more than that, writing helps to organize my thoughts. In the process of rewriting, I am able to distill vague thoughts and feelings into clear articulations, previously only indistinct whispers, like the sound of the sea lapping up against the beach. I’ve always considered my writing a personal pursuit. But E. B.White, my favorite essayist, believed writers have a responsibility to society.

White is best known for writing iconic children’s books like “Charlotte’s Web.” But he was, first and foremost,  a celebrated writer for adults, considered one of the finest essayists of the 20th century. The Christian Science Monitor praised him for crafting personal essays that, more than three decades after his passing, endure as exemplars of the form.”

Here's a quote from one of my favorites, "One Man's Meat," a collection of his essays about life at his beloved saltwater farm in rural Maine, where he resided a good part of the year.


“Old stone walls ran into the woods, and now and then there would be an empty barn as a ghostly landmark. The night grew frosty and the ground underfoot was slippery with rime. The bare birches wore the stars on their fingers, and the world rolled seductively, a dark symphony of brooding groves and plains.”⁠1 

But I digress. As I started to say, writing was more than a craft for White; it was an obligation, which he described this way: while “a writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy…I do feel a responsibility to society because…a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”⁠2

He felt “a writer must reflect and interpret his society… [providing] inspiration and guidance and challenge.” He was a sage ahead of his times, who recognized, over 50 years ago, the rise of a disturbing trend in social media. And he didn’t like it: "Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry.”⁠3  

I appreciate E. B. White in many ways: He was an optimist: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” He was kind: “By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” (From Charlotte’s Web). He was a philosopher: “Life’s meaning has always eluded me and I guess it always will. But I love it just the same.”⁠4 

And most of all, he understood my muddled method of writing: “A great deal of writing is not "plotted"—most of my essays have no plot structure, they are a ramble in the woods, or a ramble in the basement of my mind.”⁠5 



1 One Man's Meat by E.B. White


3 Ibid.



Sunday, February 20, 2022

Befriending My Winter of Discontent

Sunset on Jenness Pond
CC Jean Stimmell: 11/28/14

Wandering through life for the last 76 years, I've wintered in various places:  from cruising the rivers of Vietnam to laying water lines in the frozen sand of Cape Cod to vacationing off-grid in New Mexico at 7200 feet. But this Winter has been unique, spending six weeks at the Hope Lodge in Boston, an excellent refuge run by the American Cancer Society, accommodating folks like me undergoing chemo and radiation treatment. Here at Lodge, we are quite a club: forged by our common affliction, we combat the noxious side effects of cancer treatment with humor and compassion.

Due to the combination of Covid, plus our lowered immune system, we stay locked down with no visitors allowed, which is fine with me. Hibernating in winter has long been my choice, like the bear in Finnish  mythology, who hunkers down in winter hoping to be reborn in the spring.⁠1

That coincides with what Katherine May says in her well-received book, “Wintering:” If I befriend this cyclical rhythm, I can “emerge from the coldest season of the soul not only undiminished but  revitalized.⁠2  Rainer Maria Rilke wrote similarly about winter as the season for tending to the inner garden of the soul: “Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing,”⁠3 

While it's fine and dandy for Rilke to putz around in his literary garden, my flash and blood garden feels like it has been plowed under by a John Deere tractor. Of course, it's all for a good cause: the proton radiation machine combined with toxic chemicals is designed to break up and kill the malignant clots in my soil, the first step in promoting healthy new growth.

No one said it would be easy. According to May: ‘wintering’s not  just a cold season, but “a fallow period in life when you're cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider." 

For May, her winter of discontent began after a series of family crises piled on top of a long history of depression. The only way she was able to pull through – while, at the same time finishing her book – was by recognizing winter for what it was:  “Winter is the time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources… and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”⁠4

She had some tricks up her sleeve: “When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love…I kept myself well fed and made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me.”⁠5 I’m doing the same. Plus, having Russet here to tend to me has been a godsend. 

But it is no cakewalk. In Day’s words, "wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful." It's about riding on the roller coaster of nature's whims. Sometimes I live up to my aspirations, mindful as a yoga meditating by a still pond under a clear sky. But other times, I lose it altogether; my brave words swept away in a tsunami of pain, diarrhea, and numbing fatigue.

I keep in mind what wise woman, Pema Chodon, has written: "when things fall apart," we have a real opportunity for transformative change, but without reflection, it may be squandered." May tells us: "This is a crossroads… a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you'll expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so raw that you'll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don't, then that skin will harden around you."⁠6

Once, after taking pain-killing drugs, I had a nightmare about accruing bad karma, payback for those psychological experiments I conducted at Columbia, studying stimulus and response by shocking white rats. But mostly, I daydream about escaping from these invasive medical interventions, along with the hubbub of the big city, to return home to blossom anew amidst the lady slippers and trilliums.






4 May, Katherine. Wintering . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. P.13

5 Ibid. Page 237

6 Ibid, page 14


Friday, February 11, 2022

Born of Uncertainty a New Day is Dawning

Approaching Storm
CC Jean Stimmell, Fort Foster
Kittery, Maine: 2013

No wonder we are beside ourselves, confronting a whole menagerie of 800-pound gorillas: the never-ending Covid pandemic, impending war with Russia, climate change disaster,  and fundamental challenges to our democracy, just to name a few. When subjected to this never-ending horror show, our first instinct is to stick our heads in the sand.

No one likes doomsday tales, especially me – and I try not to write them. Still, it is imperative to acknowledge the enormity of what we are facing so we can make necessary adjustments. While it is society's task to reduce greenhouse gases, provide vaccines against Covid-19, and deal with other dangers of that ilk, it is our role as individuals to acknowledge we are entering uncharted territory that require course corrections.

Professor and author Timothy Morton calls these looming perils, bigger than human beings can comprehend, ‘hyperobjects.’ He says the first step in conquering our fear is admitting that these threats are real. By doing so, rather than paralysis, we will find catharsis. "Our sense of “the world” might be ending, but humans are not doomed. In fact, the end of this limited notion of the world may also be the only thing that can save us from ourselves.”⁠1 

He writes that learning to cope with these momentous perils will force us to move beyond our individualistic society, which “alienates us from each other and leave us ill-prepared to cope with hyperobjects.” Instead, we will discover that our fates and our suffering are defined in large part “by invisible, systemic forces pressing down upon us.” Out of that crucible, Morton concludes, ‘We’re being born now’—standing on the precipice not of becoming post-human, but of becoming truly human for the first time”.⁠2

As a former psychotherapist, the last thing I want is to cause pain. That's why I have been transitioning my columns from being a Paul Revere, calling out the alarm, to a stance more philosophical and therapeutic. My writing now is more directed toward how we can achieve the most out of our lives during these trying times. I frequently cite the Tao Te Ching written by Lao-Tzu in the 4th or 5th century BC and Michel de Montaigne's essays, published in 1580. Despite living through periods of chaos and terror far worse than our own, both men offer timeless wisdom on how to live satisfying and meaningful lives.

I have also been transformed by reading Buddhist authors, like Jon Aaron, on ways to go with the flow. Now, when stressed, I recite 'embrace uncertainty' like a mantra; it lifts from my shoulders the dead weight of all those things I can't control, flooding me with a sense of serenity, similar, I think, to what  long-term AA members get from reciting 'Let go, let God.'

Kaira Jewel Lingo, who worked closely with the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, practices a similar approach in her personal life: “By slowing down, by choosing to rest back into the uncertainty rather than fighting it, I was able to touch into a sense of space, precisely in moments when it felt like there was no way to keep going and I would be totally overwhelmed.”⁠3

I will close by quoting Lingo, who, while not sugarcoating the magnitude of what is rushing madly toward us, explains, once again, why we must surrender to the process to come out the other side:

“In a sense, our culture, our society is dissolving. We are collectively entering the chrysalis: structures we have come to rely on and identify with are breaking down, and we don’t know what the next phase will be like. We are in the cocoon. Learning to surrender in our own lives is essential to our collective learning to move through this time of faster and faster change.”⁠4 




2 Ibid.


4 Ibid.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

The Embodied Mind: A New Way of Thinking


I took this photograph at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. If you look carefully,
you can see me at the instant I took the photo in the upper right hand corner of the
image. But it is not really me but a reflection, reflecting not reality but a digital
image. That makes sense in Eastern philosophy where self is considered an
illusion: Nothing in and of itself but merely a reflection of all that surrounds us.

In America, we place individual rights over the needs of society, probably more than any other country. We place human beings over nature. We place mind over body. And we worship our free-market economic system requiring perpetual growth – which exists nowhere else in nature except in cancer. 

That’s the paradigm we live under. But what if none of it is true?

That was the position Gregory Bateson took, whom I became enamored of while in graduate school; he was an acknowledged genius across multiple disciplines, as well, at least for a while, Margaret Mead’s husband.  According to him, the mind isn't locked inside our bony skulls but extends out into our bodies, the objects we use, the people we know, and, ultimately, into all of society and nature beyond. He spelled out this thesis in  “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.”⁠1

Bateson’s vision was considered wacky when he proposed it in the 1960s, but it is going mainstream today: “The idea that our stomachs and heart have a say in how we think and feel and that Google is now part of our brains may not seem that controversial. However, most of us aren’t ready to swallow the notion that when a mathematician solves an equation using a whiteboard, that his thinking actually takes place on the whiteboard itself.”⁠2

Nevertheless, according to the philosopher Andy Clark, now a leading light in this field, the tools we use to help us think, whether language, smartphones, or whiteboards, are all the same: they are part of thought itself.⁠3 He contends that these props are what sets us apart from animals, whose brains are quite similar to ours. “The difference is due to our heightened ability to incorporate props and tools into our thinking, to use them to think thoughts we could never have otherwise.”⁠4

What Clark does find ridiculous is the notion that pure thought is possible. He asks us to remember what role our brain’s intelligence played at the beginning of human evolution: it wasn’t abstract thinking, but to assist us in “running away from predators and toward mates and food. A mind’s first task, in other words, was to control a body.” 

Clark is one of the most-cited philosophers alive. He has inspired research in  neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and other disciplines more distant. The Extended Mind has become a hot topic, now renamed “The Embodied Mind” because, in essence, the body is the mind.

Academics across all these fields have found, quite unexpectedly, that their research coincides with the core teachings of Buddhism: both the idea that the independent self is an illusion, and that nothing on earth stands complete, in and of itself. Instead, all things arise in relation to other things: "if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to  exist".⁠5

That concept is beautifully expressed in the Buddhist metaphor “Indra’s Net,” first referenced in India over 3000 years ago.

There is an endless net of threads throughout the universe…

At every crossing of the threads there is an individual.

And every individual is a crystal bead.

And every crystal bead reflects

not only the light from every

other crystal in the net

but also every other reflection

throughout the entire universe.⁠6

The embodied mind thesis may sound like pure woo-woo, yet it may be a necessary paradigm change if we are to survive as a nation – and, perhaps, as a species.

Put into practice, it would upend our current worldview where we are pigeonholed as separate, independent actors, solely responsible for our own lives: forced to play the game of survival of the fittest, competing against our neighbors for scarce resources. Instead, by taking off our blinders, we can aspire to who we really are: Each of us, a precious jewel reflecting all our fellow beings, animate and inanimate, in earth's vast ecosystem.



1 Gregory Bateson. Steps To an Ecology of Mind (1972).