Monday, November 20, 2023

Are Stones and Stories Alive?

I was a hardscape stonemason for twenty years, building walkways, terraces, and dry-laid stonewalls. My favorite task was building natural-looking ledges to integrate a new home perched awkwardly on a bulldozed dirt mound, back down into the natural rhythms of nature. I would first conceive what I wanted to build, gather likely-looking stones with my backhoe, and load them in my dump truck. Inevitably, however, the stones rebelled on the trip back to the job site, shapeshifting into forms that stymied my original plan of action. 

I had to start all over again. What is it with those rocks? I agree with Mark Peter Keane, who worked with stone masters in Kyoto, Japan, for two decades. He always claimed that rocks had a mind of their own. We also understand that setting the first stone is the most important because it determines the path of all who follow.

That's where the rubber meets the road. 

After the first stone is set, Keane explains,“From here on, the placement of the other stones will follow the precedent of the first one. The ancient nobles wrote … ‘follow the request of the stone.’ … because for them the stone was animate. It had desires, natural dispositions, requests, the fulfillment of which was essential.⁠1

Indeed, I discovered by trial and error, I had no choice but to honor Keane’s ancient mentors. If I tried to think through which piece of ledge should go next, it would stand out like a sore thumb. If I tried to measure which rock should go in the next in a wall, it would refuse to fit. 

Inevitably, whenever I tried to think myself through the day, things went haywire. Conversely, when I wasn't thinking, I often had magical days when rocks fit perfectly and looked fabulous.   

We've all experienced it: being wholly absorbed in the activity at hand, being so involved that we lose our sense of time or even our sense of self. This state of being is what folks describe when they say they're in the zone or groove.

In his ground-breaking work on creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi⁠2 called this state of being "flow," describing it as being totally focused, "completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz."

We’ve all felt it: "Talking to a friend, reading to a child, playing with a pet, or mowing the lawn can each produce flow, provided you find the challenge in what you are doing and then focus on doing it as best you can."⁠3 

It's not a conscious process; it's more akin to Eastern spiritual practices, where the core idea is not to force or grasp our way through life but to live spontaneously in harmony with the natural order of the cosmos. 

Finding flow is my secret sauce, not just in stonework but in writing. In both pursuits, setting the first piece determines what will follow. Words like rocks don’t dutifully report for duty just because they have been asked; instead, they volunteer when summoned by their comrades who came before.

In closing, I want to poise a larger question, so far left unsaid: Where does our ability to think come from? For most of our existence on earth, humans have believed our thoughts originate from a greater reality outside of ourselves, not from our tiny, three-pound brain.

Maybe it's time to revisit this question because some facts speak for themselves: while cultures rise and fall, stones and stories persist.



1 Keane, Marc; Keane, Marc Peter. The Art of Setting Stones (p. 105). Stone Bridge Press.

2 1 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row


Wednesday, November 15, 2023

What's in a Picture


Taking pictures has been part of my life since I was a teenager. I have included a photo, deteriorated by age, that I took in Vietnam when I was nineteen. The scene looks so peaceful and pastoral it is difficult to believe a war is raging nearby. One might wonder why I reached for my camera at that moment. 

James Agee, novelist and poet, believed that the camera was 'the central instrument' of his age.' He believed photography could transmit, as no other art could, "the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real  thing.”⁠1  Dorothea Lange, the renowned documentary photographer, often said, "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a  camera,”⁠2  

These two leading lights would have understood why I took that picture. Unfortunately, their high expectations for the camera have become marginalized and diluted over time.

In her classic treatise, "On Photography," Susan Sontag⁠3 complained that taking photos could be too much of a good thing – and for the wrong reasons. "It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing." Indeed, high-tech devices like the iPhone have undoubtedly led to overkill. 

Margaret Renkl, the superb essayist, is spot on in railing against such excess: “The ordinary world would take our breath away if only we paused our podcasts, took our earbuds out and listened to the wind in the pines.”⁠4 She advises us to stop substituting the physical act of taking a photo for the thrill of experiencing the grandeur of our surroundings. 

I admit to taking a horde of thoughtless pictures when I started out, despite the long hours it took to develop my work in the darkroom. Against all conventional logic, now that technology has made shooting countless images effortless, I take far fewer. No longer am I attempting to capture the moment but looking, instead, for the essence.

However, even when I was young, I could occasionally rise to the occasion. I took this photo shortly after dawn, about to embark on my first river mission in Vietnam. Soon, we would be at battle stations, and I would be manning a 50-caliber machine gun.

Capturing a pretty sunrise was the furthest thing from my mind when I snapped this photo. Instead, I was attempting to steady my nerves. By looking through the viewfinder, I was connecting to a deeper reality that encompassed Mother Nature and the soothing rhythms of everyday life in the form of the two ships, one small and one large, tied together, going about their mundane, peacetime duties. 

Merely snapping the shutter doesn't enlighten us about what we see: we must attend deeply to what we view. It's similar to how we only get to know someone by deep listening, not self-centered talk.

 My conclusion is that despite our many high-tech gadgets, we can only perceive what's real through our physical eyes and human heart. Luckily for us, our human senses are magical! 

As the great visionary William Blake has written, if we look deeply enough, everything will become visible: We will then be able to see "a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower" And"  'hold Infinity in the palm of your hand."



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Thursday, November 9, 2023

Sorrow, grief, and trouble sit like vultures on my psychic fence⁠1


Sorrow, grief, and trouble sit like vultures on my psychic fence⁠1

A few years ago, I photographed five vultures attempting to warm up on a cold winter morning by spreading their wings toward the sun. I am using it to illustrate this rant.

The title reflects how I feel. 

I can't get images of maimed and bloody bodies out of my mind, first in Ukraine and now doubling down in Israel and Palestine. They are broadcast nonstop on the news and haunt my dreams.

Especially disturbing are the corpses of dead babies. As I write this, just in Gaza, 4104 children have been killed so far in this war,  according to the United Nations.⁠2

Seeing their bloody, lifeless bodies was the final straw that broke me, stacked, as they are, on top of a cacophony of other pre-existing existential threats and mind-numbing dysfunctions that we already face. Let me name a few:

 Congress is fiddling as the world burns while Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene blathers about conspiracies like Israel using “state-of-the-art Jewish space lasers” to shoot down Santa Claus. Closer to home, our neighbors in  Lewiston Maine are burying their dead struck down by a deranged mass shooter.

Not that NH has been a guiding light.

 Our "Live Free or Die" state is proud to reject all restrictions on assault weapons and reject any red flag laws that might prevent crazy people from getting them. Having no mercy is the NH way: We tax working people at a rate three times that of the rich, rejecting any broad-based taxes indexed to a person's ability to pay. And to complete the trifecta, we have a governor who privileges fossil fuel over the dangers of climate change.

Meanwhile, on the national scene, our leading Republican candidate for president is a crook while the democratic one shuffles around, muttering like an old man. Many Republicans want to move on from Trump but don't dare because they think he is the only one who can win. Sadly, Democrats are doing the same, knowing Biden is not the best candidate but, like the Republicans, supporting him nevertheless.

Looking around at the climate disasters, escalating war, and growing inequality around the world, it's natural for folks to wonder why God puts up with all this suffering. Jim Palmer, the founder of the Center for Non-Religious Spirituality,⁠3 says we have it backwards: What we should be asking is, why do we put up with it?

That’s an excellent point.

If we are ever going to act, now is the time to pull our heads out of the sand, stand up, and demand change. After all, in so many areas, we, the people, are ahead of the politicians. And what we want most in our hearts is for our children to prosper.

Ayman Odeh wrote recently in the NYT,⁠4A nation is defined as a group of people with a common language, a common past and common dreams.” By this definition, paraphrasing  Odeh, any parent will tell you babies are children of a single nation, not a Trump or a Biden one. 

But Odeh is not speaking about particular babies.  As an Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel and a member of Israel’s Knesset, he is talking about all babies. Due to his unique position, he is able to see a higher truth.

Babies, he says, "have a common language, a common past, common dreams. They speak the same, get angry and cry at the same things, laugh the same way… communicate effortlessly with other babies, no matter the language of the lullabies their parents sang them at night."

The entirety of this nation of infants – including those who are Jewish, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, American, Ukrainian, and Russian— "want just one thing: to grow up to a good life. It's a simple dream. Our role as leaders is simple too: to make that possible." 

For the sake of our babies – all our babies – let us wake up before it is too late.



1 My apologies for amending a line from Winnie Gravitt's poem "ippokni Sia" She was a Native American  poet of Choctaw descent, who was born in 1895. You can read it here:




Monday, October 30, 2023

Dying can be a dance, not a battle


CC Jean Stimmell

Why do so many obituaries praise the dead for waging a heroic battle against their fate? Why does death have to be described as such a heavy-weight brawl when, in the big scheme of things, death is part of the circle of life? 

Like it or not, we’re all part of nature. Why can’t we view our death like a falling leaf in autumn, not as a desperate ending but as the promise of rebirth in the spring? Or, for religious-minded people, serenely entering into the Kingdom of heaven.

Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in near-death studies, wrote, “Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of a million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever.⁠1

I’ve always had an interest in understanding death but don’t consider it to be a morbid subject. Quite the contrary: I believe you can only understand life if you first pick apart your attitudes toward death. I am now reading another book about it recently on the NYT Best Seller list: The In-Between: Unforgettable Encounters During Life’s Final Moments by Hadley Vlahos. 

Vlahos is a hospice nurse. I found her portrayal of eleven of her patients, while sometimes sad and tragic, to be comforting on the whole because their last hours were often mundane and peaceful without hand-wringing hysterics. 

But, beyond that, the author explored an intervening spiritual element!  Death was not black and white as she had previously believed. “There was certainly an in-between…Patients from all different religious and non-religious backgrounds were having spiritual encounters that I couldn’t ignore.”⁠2

Vlahos describes herself as spiritual but not a member of any religion. 

One of her observations stuck close to home for me. When her patients have these in-between experiences, she’ll ask what they are experiencing. They might say something like: “‘Oh, I’m going on a trip,’ … So the conclusion I’ve come to is whatever is next cannot be explained with the language and the knowledge that we have here on Earth.”

I had a similar experience with my mother when she was dying. While sitting with her, I saw her eyes moving and asked what she was looking at. She said she was transfixed by the flickering candles on the mantle, but the candles were merely standing there, motionless and unlit. She hesitantly confessed to me that she felt like a little girl waiting at a bridge for someone to come to take her hand and take her across.

Like Vlahos, I am spiritual but not a member of any organized religion.

My mother was an Episcopalian and did a lifetime of terrific work through the church to help others. But she was a hard-headed Yankee who would never buy into any New Age woo-woo. While I could see her vision transported her, I had to prod her to tell me what she was experiencing because, as she sheepishly confided, it seemed like such a silly idea.  

A silly idea or not, she passed shortly after that. 

To me, my mother’s death experience, like that Vlahos writes about, points to the likelihood that the universe is way more profound than we can ever imagine. A reality that has always been self-evident for practitioners in the spiritual realm. Now, at last, it is becoming true for scientists.

Working with Complexity Theory– one of the three most important discoveries of the 20th century – along with Quantum Physics and Relativity – scientists have discovered that, as human beings, we have more in common with each other, living or dead than we ever could imagine.

Rather than priding ourselves on being the dominant force on Earth above all others, it would be more accurate to see ourselves as part of the “Earth itself, whose atoms have self-organized to form these transitory beings that think of themselves as self-sufficient and separate from each other, even though they only ever arose from and will inevitably return to the atomic substance of the planet?”⁠3

I know this is extremely difficult for us to understand – like trying to comprehend Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But if these scientists are proven correct that consciousness resides in every atom in the universe, not solely in our separate brains, then, truly, we are all connected as one.

And, if that’s the case, talking about life after death should be a piece of cake.



1 On Death and dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. The MacMillan Company, New York: 1969. Page 246-7.

2 R.N., Hadley Vlahos . The In-Between (pp. 36-37). Kindle Edition.

Page 53

3 –Theise, Neil. Notes on Complexity (p. 73). Spiegel & Grau. Kindle Edition