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Built to Last

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

One of my best friends from college used to have a Volkswagen bus.  He would spend hours tinkering with his engine in the driveway of the house we rented with some friends.  He wasn’t an expert mechanic, but he found great joy in figuring things out.  It was a sort of puzzle that led to a lot of satisfaction when he got his van working just right.  There were a lot of amateur mechanics in the neighborhood who liked to tinker on weekends.  Most of the cars were older, simpler rides.  They were quite different from the complex, computer centered vehicles of today.  They were made to be worked on by regular folks, who had a little training and a willingness to fumble through the process. As technology has advanced, it has become more difficult to work on cars.  Gone are the days when most vehicles were serviceable without a lot of expensive diagnostic machines and specialized parts. While the vehicles of today can offer more comfort and bells and whistles, I feel that we have lost something as we have made the move away from the automotive simplicity of the past.  

In a way, it is similar to the idea of planned obsolescence.  This is the idea that things are purposely built to break or age quickly out of their usefulness.  Companies use planned obsolescence as a way to ensure that customers are required to purchase new items sooner.  If a product wears out more quickly, customers need to replace items more often, generating more business and profits.  The corporations and their shareholders benefit, while the consumers and the environment pay the cost.  It can feel so frustrating when you want to fix something that has broken, only to find that no one makes replacement parts.  I experienced this last month when I tried to replace a lightbulb in an outdoor light at my office.  I was looking for a way to open the fixture, but was confused to find that there was no way in.  It turns out, the fixture itself is disposable.  When the LED light inside burns out, you must replace the entire plastic fixture. 

This approach seems to be spilling into our collective beliefs about many things.  While we used to value consistency and serviceability, we now increasingly have become a society that builds things to be disposable.  We use things for a while and then replace them with the newest model.  This is true with cars and appliances, as well as with relationships and work.  It used to be more common to stay in the same community for much of life, to maintain lasting friendships, to stay with a job for many years, and to nurture lasting marriages or partnerships.  All of these have become less common over time.  Just as it is increasingly common for people to throw away things when they no longer work the way that they would like, we have grown more accustomed to casting off relationships when things become challenging.  When we place less value on the longevity of things, we tend to also see less value in working the process to maintain and improve our connections with other people.  The truth is, many parts of this human experience take a lot of work.  We want things to feel easy and remarkable; to be in a perpetual honeymoon stage.  One thing that is certain in life is that things need tending to.  They go awry and need mending.  The more we believe otherwise, the more likely we are to toss things out, or turn away when we are met with resistance or challenge.  

My friend eventually got rid of his old VW. He grew tired of spending his days off searching for parts that were increasingly harder to find.  He replaced it with a used truck that he kept for a few hundred thousand more miles.  To this day, he continues to value things that are built to last.  I suppose that is why we are still friends after all of these years.

Cracks in the Earth

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

Years ago while traveling in Tibet, I was amazed by the dryness of the climate.  Though the mountains were covered with snow, and the rivers were raging torrents, the ground was largely a dusty wasteland.  There were sporadic fields, where the people grew barley, but much of the land reminded me of stories I had heard about the great dustbowl from the 1930’s. Growing up in the Midwest, I was a stranger to dry air.  The humidity  was so dense that it seems to saturate the skin and soak the spaces inside your bones.  There was a general heaviness in the summer air that felt oppressive at times.  

When life dries out, things begin to harden.  Leaves and stems become brittle; the ground mimics concrete.  In my 17 years in southern Oregon, I have begun to grow accustomed to the cyclical drying out of the land in summer.  What winter and spring have given, summer takes away.  Things grow in the summer, but there is a sense that everything is living on borrowed time.  As the season progresses, the ground loses its give and hardens into a protective shell.  This has a way of locking in the moisture that the ground still holds, but it comes at a cost.  Not only does the hardness in the soil keep some of the water in, it also prevents water from soaking into the ground when a big rain comes.  If you look at the ground when the first big storm comes in the late summer or early fall, you are likely to see a lot of the water running off into the creeks and rivers, instead of down into the earth.  It usually takes a bit of consistent precipitation to loosen up the ground so it can receive the water. 

With the ongoing drought in the west, I have noticed that the ground doesn’t just harden in the summer anymore, it has increasingly begun to crack.  It more closely resembles a desert than the forest floor that I am used to in western Oregon.  There is a sadness that I notice when I think of how much things are drying out, but I am also reminded of one of life’s truths:  When things are pushed to a breaking point, new opportunities arise.  The cracks in the soil allow the healing waters to more easily enter the soil, so not as much runs to the streams.  I witnessed this during the rain we had last week.  The soil had become so dry that it had broken open….it was ready to receive.  

It reminds me of how the past couple of years have broken most of us open.  We keep bending, withstanding, until we tend to harden up to minimize any further pain.  Yet, life has continued to push us even farther.  Most of us feel that we have been pushed beyond our limits.  The hardness of our shells has begun to crack, just as the dry ground beneath our feet has opened.  This splitting apart has created more space to receive life’s grace.

“The wound is where the light enters you.”

Rumi

The poet Rumi knew this truth.  That often we must completely crack open to heal.  We must truly fall apart to know authentic wholeness.  As I continue to do my healing work in the community, I am struck by the immensity of the suffering that have all endured the past couple of years.  I am also in awe of how that suffering can lead to profound change and acceptance.  People are still struggling, but new shoots of growth and understanding are sprouting.  We are coming back to find what is really important, what truly matters.  All we have to do is be willing to let life continue to crack us open and to have the faith that it is leading us somewhere better than we can imagine.  Then the light will enter our lives and illuminate our souls; the rain will nourish and soften our weary bodies.

Be well.

Tree Carvings

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

My father lived on a lake.  Before he built his house near the lake shore, the wooded lot was a favorite picnic and party spot for trespassing revelers.  It had a nice little beach for swimming and its location offered good views of the lake.  There was an giant old beech tree that watched over the place.  It’s smooth bark was covered by the scars of lovers initials, and pronouncements of past visitors.  As is typically the case, one set of carvings beckoned others to follow, and so the majestic old tree was marred by remnants of lovers’ promises.  There was something so sad to me about this beautiful old tree that people chose to cut so deeply.  Though the lovers had come and gone, their markings remained.  In a way this is how many of us relate to the past.  We carve something into a moment and try to keep it from changing.  Though the goal is to have a touch stone to a moment of connection and love, the scars that we create from attachment can haunt us and hinder growth.  How do we honor a moment without holding onto it too tightly?  How do accept the past without having it define us?  I never carved anything into a tree.   I thought that it was somehow an expression of vanity; an insistence that life become stuck in a time that best suited me.  But time doesn’t work that way.  It saunters, it marches, it moves.  We are meant to move with it.  The moment is always right where we are, not where we were or where we hope to be tomorrow.  

When I moved out west I discovered a whole new world in the forests.  I fell in love with madrone trees upon my first encounter.  Their red berries; their strange habit of losing leaves in the summer and holding onto them through the winter; their changing colors, like the skin of a chameleon.  But it is their smooth bark that really captivates me:  It seems so sultry and inviting.  It beckons you to slide your hands over their unashamed form.  One of my favorite madrone trees is an old grandmother that lives beside the trail we follow on our morning walk.  She stands next to the irrigation ditch, so she enjoys plenty of water.  That has encouraged her to grow tall and spread her branches.  One day on my walk, my heart sunk when I noticed that someone had carved their initials into the heart of tree.  It was like a cherished friend had been defiled.  I felt angry and sad that someone could take something so beautiful and change it forever.  I thought about what I would say to the person if I ever discovered who had done such a thing.  But as I watched the tree over the next year, I was delighted to notice that this madrone was gently letting go of the initials.  Unlike the beech tree I grew up with, it was healing the insult without scaring.  It wasn’t defining itself by a moment from the past, it wasn’t stuck in the wound.  Rather quickly the bark again became smooth where the initials had been.  I discovered yet another reason to love this magnificent tree.  The madrone doesn’t seem to hold onto the past.  It exists in each new moment, fresh and alive.  

Sometimes the past is full of pain and disappointment.  Sometimes the past is full of inflated memories that we try to recapture again and again.  Too much attention to either can hold us back, or taint our current situation.  The carvings of the past can be promises of lasting love, or insults and objections.  Either can linger and hijack the present moment.  So how do we let the past inform us without locking us into one set of beliefs or one defined story? Like a tree we are all influenced by our past.  The light coaxes our branches and leaves toward the open spaces, the water and soil nourish our growth.  The wind breaks off branches, and other trees can block our view of the sky.    The structure of the tree is largely determined by its history of sun and rain, but also by what it has let go of.  If the madrone held onto everything that has touched it, it would be like the damaged beech tree from my childhood.  The carvings of life would fester and ultimately rot.  The madrone integrates the past without being a prisoner to it.  It shakes off the scars of being cut by life,  and continues to grow toward the light. The trick is to let life influence our path, but not entirely determine it.  The trick is to notice the past, to welcome its wisdom, but not be a prisoner to yesterday’s experiences.

When I last visited my father’s home I was saddened to find that the old beech tree had reached its end.  It rot from its middle  where the collection of old initials were concentrated. The cuts apparently were too deep and plentiful:  The tree wasn’t able to move past them.  If it could have learned from its madrone cousin how to let life mark on it without holding onto the messages of the past, perhaps it would still be standing tall today.