Squash, Beans, and Corn: Destabilizing the myth of individualism for actors

(4 minute read)

“The beauty of the partnership is that each plant does what it does in order to increase its own growth. But as it happens, when the individuals flourish, so does the whole.”

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

I’ve known jealousy.

It rises in me like a swelling tsuanmi and threatens to take over me.

I know jealousy is supposedly green – the ‘green eyed monster’ – but mine is red.

Red rises in me and shades all that I see and think and feel and do in its hues.

The tide comes sudden and unexpected. I’ve noticed it’s often triggered by the hell pits of social media scrolling. Ah, the sweet sweet oblivion of disconnection – and then, I see an actor friend of mine who has just landed a major role. A local theater company’s just received glowing reviews for their latest production. So-and-so is directing with a major regional theater.

Like a roar in my ears I can feel the waters of jealousy disappearing from the shoreline, preparing to tower into a tsunami, one that will draw the covers over my head and make me wonder why it’s even worth trying, when clearly everyone else has got it all figured out and I’m a complete and utter mess.

And then there’s the shame for feeling jealousy in the first place. What the hell’s wrong with me? I think, that I can’t be happy for my friend, or thrilled that another theater company is doing well. It feeds my narrative that at my core, I’m a monster. Only a monster would react with jealousy to see others thriving and succeeding.

Ok. Hold that thought somewhere at the back of your mind – and now let’s talk about squash.

Several yellow and green pumpkins lay on the ground, entangled by vines. This morning I sat down with my cup of matcha and read another chapter of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. I know I’m a little late to the party on this beautiful book, but I think books make themselves available to us when we are ready to receive their gifts, and I’m grateful that this was the book who presented herself to me when I wandered my local library, seeking my next read.

In her chapter “The Three Sisters,” Kimmerer describes the reciprocal relationship between corn, beans, and squash. She describes how these plants thrive when planted together: the corn providing a trellis for the bean vine to climb, the bean providing nitrogen, and the squash shading the ground to trap moisture and prevent weeds. This is a wildly reductionist version of her eloquent wisdom, but for today, it will serve.

She writes: “the beauty of the partnership is that each plant does what it does in order to increase its own growth. But as it happens, when the individuals flourish, so does the whole.”

As an actor in training, I was painted a pretty bleak picture of my road to success: a mountain, ragged and cutthroat, dependent on luck nearly as much as my own skill to reach the top, and I was climbing alone, racing against other climbers. I learned that their successes were my failures. If they got the job, it was because they had worked harder than me, sacrificed more than I had, put in that extra grind. And if I wanted to beat someone else to the next job, I better be willing to do whatever it took to make it.

In Acting Professionally, Robert Cohen and James Calleri write: “If you aren’t 100% committed to your career, you will almost surely be surpassed by someone who is.”

I am beginning to understand my jealousy, then, not as a personal failing, but as part of how I have been conditioned in a culture obsessed with individualism, and in a profession where individualism is taught as necessary for survival. Of course I would react with jealousy when I saw other artists, who I have been taught to see as my competition, succeeding. It’s not that I’m incapable of feeling excitement for them, but rather that I have been taught, and therefore have been practicing, that their success means less opportunity, less space, less chance of success, for me. What we practice, we get better at. My reaction is learned, not natural.

A spider's web against a pale orange background. The web is wet with dew.I am more and more convinced of this as I read Kimmerer’s words, and her wisdom helps me to see what I’ve been taught not to see: that “when the individuals flourish, so does the whole.” I imagine sometimes that artists everywhere are connected by a shimmering web, and, like the exchanges made between bean roots and the bacteria which help them to produce nitrogen for all to feast on, when one of us succeeds, all of us benefit.

My brain sometimes needs more concrete examples than ‘a shimmering web,’ so here’s one way I’m thinking about it:

My cousin is in San Francisco running an improv theatre company. I’m looking for work teaching theatre and coaching actors up in Portland, OR. It’s in my best interest for her company to thrive, because I can imagine that as she builds an enthusiastic audience, transformed by the experience of live theatre, the community of supporters for this work grows. That community tells their friends about the brilliant show they’ve just seen, brings their kids, enrolls them in drama classes, and votes on state and federal funding for the arts. The ‘vibration’ between her web and mine might be as direct as someone from her community who moves to Portland and hires me as their acting coach. But plants know, perhaps better than anyone, that sometimes our interconnectedness takes more time to become visible to us. The lives changed and transformed by watching theatre in San Francisco may impact mine, or impact my children’s life, or my grandkid’s lives in ways yet to be seen. Seen from this angle, all artists are part of a deeply interconnected network sharing tips, strategies, support, and wisdom for how to thrive and change a culture that has historically devalued artistic education and expression. When one of us thrives, all of us benefit.

Kimmerer writes: “The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others.”

What I hear in this is the importance of nurturing our own clarity, not only about what our gifts might be, but also about the conditions and circumstances which allow us to feel free enough to give those gifts — or, “how to use it in the world”. I wish the message to me in actor training had been, “Experiment and try things in order to gain clarity on your gifts, and what you need in order to give them, so that you understand how your artistic expression can and is contributing to the collective web.”


A green bean on a vine is peppered with droplets of dew.But I can’t be the bean and the squash and the corn. I can’t be the greatest tap dancer, the funniest clown, the most skillful classical actor, ride a unicycle, juggle fire, and speak four languages. Trust me – I’ve tried – and the only thing waiting for you at the end of that path is burnout….and jealousy.

I can only be one thing – me, and that is enough. My job then, is to get to know her as clearly as I can: to understand the gifts she brings into the world and trust that the web will hold me where I fall short. I may not be tall and firm like the corn, or broad and wide like the squash, but I sure as hell can send out my vines and be grateful that the corn is there to hold me, the squash to shield my roots.


Thanks for coming with me on this journey today. Did this piece spark a question, remind you of something, or prompt a story you’d like to share? Is there additional wisdom you’d like to contribute?

Please feel welcome to share your response to caitlinlushington@gmail.com. With your permission, I may use your question as the launching-point for my next bit of writing.

And so a wee circle of collective wisdom is created and grows!

I look forward to hearing from you.

With love,