Saturday, September 23, 2017


photo: Ira Joel Harber


There was a church in Umbria, Little Portion,
Already old eight hundred years ago.
It was abandoned and in disrepair
But it was called St. Mary of the Angels
For it was known to be the haunt of angels.
Often at night the country people
Could hear them singing there.

What was it like, to listen to the angels,
To hear those mountain-fresh, those simple voices
Poured out on the bare stones of Little Portion
in hymns of joy?
Perhaps it needs another language
That we still have to learn,
An altogether different language.

~ Anne Porter (1911-2011)

from Wiki:

Porziuncola, also called Portiuncula (in Latin) or Porzioncula, is a small Catholic church located within the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels in Assisi in the frazione of Santa Maria degli Angeli, situated about 4 kilometers (2.5 mi) from Assisi, Umbria (central Italy). It is the place from where the Franciscan movement started.

The name Porziuncola (meaning “small portion of land”) was first mentioned in a document from 1045, now in the archives of the Assisi Cathedral.

The original name of Los Angeles was “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula.”


The Miracle of Porziuncola seems to refer to how St. Francis once resisted a temptation by throwing himself onto thorns. This transformed the thorn bush into a thornless rose bush.

Zbigniew Herbert ended one of his poems with these lines

thorns and roses
roses and thorns
we pursue happiness

I admit that what attracted me to this poem was precisely “Little Portion.” But it’s high time to address the poem itself.

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the legend of the Little Portion being the “haunt of angels,” heard singing by the country people of Umbria. Still, I strongly disagree with the need for “an altogether different language.” Angels are projections of our idealized selves. They are always kind and soft-spoken. Their speech and singing sound oh so sweet, we imagine.

And this leads me to a memory of something I experienced at the Frankfurt Airport on my way to the US when I was 17. I knew a bit of German. Since earliest childhood I could recognize German, one of the languages around me — Poles commonly described it as “barking.” Primo Levi called it “subhuman barking.” A famous Polish poet who shall remain unnamed said that it sounded “really vulgar.”

I didn’t have my first German lessons until I was 16. My very eccentric teacher decided to skip most of the grammar and mundane vocabulary, and proceeded to Goethe and Heine. Soon I was mesmerized by Erlkönig and Lorelei, even if I understood only half the words.

Bear with me. Having grown up with the belief that German was “barking,” it actually took me a while to admit it was a beautiful language — or at least it had many beautiful words. Strangely, it seemed both the ugliest and the most beautiful language I ever heard. Forward to the Frankfurt Airport. Near me sat a German woman and her little daughter. The daughter was a bit pouty. The mother seemed to try to soothe her. She spoke to the child in such a soft, singing way that I was in awe of that music. I didn’t know that, spoken with affection, German could sound *that* beautiful. I was listening to the singing of an angel.

Yes, German has those gorgeous umlauts and long vowels, but my guess is that any language sounds like the singing of angels when spoken softly to someone we love. So we don’t need an “altogether different language.” Any human language will do. Just add love. 

The chapel of Porziuncola, "Little Portion" -- originally a small church that St. Francis restored from disrepair.

I feel very attracted to the phrase “Little Portion.” Chide me if you want for “diminished expectations,” for my constant praise of Less, and Think Small. Settling for the “Little Portion” has been my personal salvation from bitterness and depression. Nor is there any feeling of deprivation or scarcity. On the contrary, it’s only thanks to Little Portion that I have fully experienced the richness of enough.


~ “Stanislav Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union's Air Defense Forces, and his job was to monitor his country's satellite system, which was looking for any possible nuclear weapons launches by the United States.

He was on the overnight shift in the early morning hours of Sept. 26, 1983, when the computers sounded an alarm, indicating that the U.S. had launched five nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word 'launch' on it," Petrov told the BBC in 2013.

It was already a moment of extreme tension in the Cold War. On Sept. 1 of that year, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines plane that had drifted into Soviet air space, killing all 269 people on board, including a U.S. congressman. The episode led the U.S. and the Soviets to exchange warnings and threats.

Petrov had to act quickly. U.S. missiles could reach the Soviet Union in just over 20 minutes.

"There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike," Petrov told the BBC. "But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union's military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn't move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan."

Petrov sensed something wasn't adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn't completely trust it.

After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn't send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.

He had guessed correctly.

Petrov died on May 19, at age 77, in a suburb outside Moscow, according to news reports Monday. He had long since retired and was living alone. News of his death apparently went unrecognized at the time.

His story was not publicized at the time, but it did emerge after the Soviet Union collapsed. He received a number of international awards during the final years of his life, and was sometimes called "the man who saved the world."

But he never considered himself a hero.

"That was my job," he said. "But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”

 from another source:

“It was later determined the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight reflecting from clouds, which was mistaken for a missile launch.”

If the world seems insane nowadays, it may be some slight consolation to remember that it used to be even more insane.

We know of yet another hero who averted a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis: Vasili Arkhipov.

from Wiki:

~ As flotilla commander and second-in-command of the diesel powered submarine B-59, only Arkhipov refused to authorize the captain's use of nuclear torpedoes against the United States Navy, a decision requiring the agreement of all three senior officers aboard. In 2002 Thomas Blanton, who was then director of the US National Security Archive, said that "Vasili Arkhipov saved the world”.

On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered, nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping signaling depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine's crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic. Those on board did not know whether war had broken out or not.[6][7] The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided that a war might already have started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.[8]

Unlike the other subs in the flotilla, three officers on board the B-59 had to agree unanimously to authorize a nuclear launch: Captain Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second-in-command Arkhipov. Typically, Russian submarines armed with the "Special Weapon" only required the captain to get authorization from the political officer to launch a nuclear torpedo. However, due to Arkhipov's position as flotilla commander, the B-59's captain also was required to gain Arkhipov's approval. An argument broke out, with only Arkhipov against the launch.[9]

Even though Arkhipov was only second-in-command of the submarine B-59, he was in fact commander of the entire submarine flotilla, including the B-4, B-36 and B-130, and equal in rank to Captain Savitsky. According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov had gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year's Soviet submarine K-19 incident also helped him prevail. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface and await orders from Moscow. This effectively averted the nuclear warfare which probably would have ensued if the nuclear weapon had been fired. The submarine's batteries had run very low and the air-conditioning had failed, causing extreme heat and high levels of carbon dioxide inside the submarine. They were forced to surface amidst its U.S. pursuers and return to the Soviet Union as a result.” ~


Shouldn’t we have statues to honor Arkhipov and Petrov, and who knows how many American heroes like them (probably still classified info). Imagine — statues to those saviors of humanity rather than to Confederate traitors . . . 


~ “Stairwells were often very carefully designed in medieval castles. Stairwells that curved up to towers often curved very narrowly and in a clockwise direction. This meant that any attackers coming up the stairs had their sword hands (right hand) against the interior curve of the wall and this made it very difficult for them to swing their swords. Defenders had their sword hands on the outside wall, which meant they had more room to swing. Another ingenious design of stairs was that they were designed with very uneven steps. Some steps were tall and other steps were short. The inhabitants, being familiar with the uneven pattern of the stair heights could move quickly up and down the stairs but attackers, in a dimly lit stairwell, would easily fall and get bogged down in the stairwells. This made them vulnerable to attacks and slowed their attacks down significantly.” ~


This is fantastically clever — but how tragic that human genius had to be applied to such problems.

By the way, the main function of the moat was to prevent digging tunnels under the walls.

And the bride on the left side so the man’s “sword hand” would be free for action, if required. Brilliant, yes, but just tragic.

Not even angels were exempt from military duties

angel statue by Raffaello de Montelupo, 16th century, Castel Sant'Angelo — note the elementary armor; originally there was probably a sword or a lance in the angel’s right hand — the military-religious complex


~ “The questions, as it turned out, were unsurprising. Did I have a bucket list, had I considered suicide, had I become religious, was I scared, was there anything good about dying, did I have any regrets, did I believe in an afterlife, had I changed my priorities in life, was I unhappy or depressed, was I likely to take more risks given that I was dying anyway, what would I miss the most, how would I like to be remembered? These were the same questions I’d been asking myself ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, back in 2005. And my answers haven’t changed since then. They are as follows.

No, I don’t have a bucket list. From the age of fifteen, my one true ambition in life was to become a writer. It is my bliss, this thing called writing, and it has been since my school days. It isn’t just the practice that enthralls me—it’s everything else that goes with it, all the habits of mind.

Writing, even if, most of the time, you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. As a schoolgirl, I thrilled at the power of poetry to exclude everything other than the poem itself, to let a few lines of verse make a whole world. In fiction, for much of the time you are choosing what to exclude from your fictional world in order to make it hold the line against chaos. And that is what I’m doing now: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.


Yes, I have considered suicide, and it remains a constant temptation. If the law in Australia permitted assisted dying I would be putting plans into place right now to take my own life. Once the day came, I’d invite my family and closest friends to come over and we’d have a farewell drink. I’d thank them all for everything they’ve done for me. I’d tell them how much I love them. I imagine there would be copious tears. I’d hope there would be some laughter. There would be music playing in the background, something from the soundtrack of my youth. And then, when the time was right, I’d say goodbye and take my medicine, knowing that the party would go on without me, that everyone would stay a while, talk some more, be there for each other for as long as they wished. As someone who knows my end is coming, I can’t think of a better way to go out. Nor can I fathom why this kind of humane and dignified death is outlawed.


No, I haven’t become religious; that is, I haven’t experienced a late conversion to a particular faith. If that means I’m going straight to hell when I die, then so be it. One of my problems with religion has always been the idea that the righteous are saved and the rest are condemned. Isn’t that the ultimate logic of religion’s “us” and “them” paradigm?

Perhaps it’s a case of not missing what you have never had. I had no religious instruction growing up. I knew a few Bible stories from a brief period of attendance at Sunday school, but these seemed on a level with fairy tales, if less interesting. Their sanctimoniousness put me off. I preferred the darker tones of the Brothers Grimm, who presented a world where there was no redemption, where bad things happened for no reason, and nobody was punished. Even now I prefer that view of reality. I don’t think God has a plan for us. I think we’re a species with godlike pretensions but an animal nature, and that, of all of the animals that have ever walked the earth, we are by far the most dangerous.

Cancer strikes at random. If you don’t die of cancer you die of something else, because death is a law of nature. The survival of the species relies on constant renewal, each generation making way for the next, not with any improvement in mind, but in the interests of plain endurance. If that is what eternal life means, then I’m a believer. What I’ve never believed is that God is watching over us, or has a personal interest in the state of our individual souls. In fact, if God exists at all, I think he/she/it must be a deity devoted to monumental indifference, or else, as Stephen Fry says, why dream up bone cancer in children?


Yes, I’m scared, but not all the time. When I was first diagnosed, I was terrified. I had no idea that the body could turn against itself and incubate its own enemy. I had never been seriously ill in my life before; now suddenly I was face to face with my own mortality. There was a moment when I saw my body in the mirror as if for the first time. Overnight my own flesh had become alien to me, the saboteur of all my hopes and dreams. It was incomprehensible, and so frightening, I cried.

“I can’t die,” I sobbed. “Not me. Not now.”

But I’m used to dying now. It’s become ordinary and unremarkable, something everybody, without exception, does at one time or another. If I’m afraid of anything it’s of dying badly, of getting caught up in some process that prolongs my life unnecessarily. I’ve put all the safeguards in place. I’ve completed an advanced health directive and given a copy to my palliative-care specialist. I’ve made it clear in my conversations, both with him and with my family, that I want no life-saving interventions at the end, nothing designed to delay the inevitable. My doctor has promised to honor my wishes, but I can’t help worrying. I haven’t died before, so I sometimes get a bad case of beginner’s nerves, but they soon pass.


No, there is nothing good about dying. It is sad beyond belief. But it is part of life, and there is no escaping it. Once you grasp that fact, good things can result. I went through most of my life believing death was something that happened to other people. In my deluded state, I imagined I had unlimited time to play with, so I took a fairly leisurely approach to life and didn’t really push myself.


Yes, I have regrets, but as soon as you start rewriting your past you realize how your failures and mistakes are what define you. Take them away and you’re nothing. But I do wonder where I’d be now if I’d made different choices, if I’d been bolder, smarter, more sure of what I wanted and how to get it. As it was, I seemed to stumble around, making life up as I went along. Looking back, I can make some sense of it, but at the time my life was all very makeshift and provisional, more dependent on luck than on planning or intent.

Still, as the British psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips says, we are all haunted by the life not lived, by the belief that we’ve missed out on something different and better. My favorite reverie is about the life I could have led in Paris if I’d chosen to stay there instead of returning home like I did. I was twenty-two.

The problem with reverie is that you always assume you know how the unlived life turns out. And it is always a better version of the life you’ve actually lived. The other life is more significant and more purposeful. It is impossibly free of setbacks and mishaps. This split between the dream and the reality can be the cause of intense dissatisfaction at times. But I am no longer plagued by restlessness. Now I see the life I’ve lived as the only life, a singularity, saturated with its own oneness. To envy the life of the alternative me, the one who stayed in Paris, seems like the purest kind of folly.

Van Gogh: Olive Orchard, June 1889


No, I don’t believe in an afterlife. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes sums it up for me. We come from nothingness and return to nothingness when we die. That is one meaning of the circle beloved of calligraphers in Japan, just a big bold stroke, starting at the beginning and traveling back to it in a round sweep. In my beginning is my end, says T. S. Eliot. Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth / Which is already flesh, fur and faeces / Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf. When I first read “Four Quartets,” at school, it was like a revelation. The world was just as he described it and no other way, a place where beauty and corruption cohabit and are often indistinguishable.

I’m much more drawn to all of the ordinary ways in which we cheat death. It might be through the evocative power of the objects we leave behind, or it might be in a form of words, a turn of the head, a way of laughing. I was sitting at dinner the other night with some very old friends of ours. They’d met my mother many times, back when she was still herself, before she became ill. The wife looked hard at me for a while.

“You get more and more like her,” she said.

It felt for a moment as if my mother had joined us, that us all being together had conjured up her presence at the table. It was only a fleeting thing. But then I can’t imagine an afterlife that consists of anything more than these brief and occasional visits with the living, these memories that come unbidden and out of nowhere, then vanish again into oblivion.


No, my priorities remain the same. Work and family. Nothing else has ever really mattered to me.

To say that family has been my other chief priority in life is to understate the case. Marriage, children, the whole catastrophe, as Zorba called it. To become a mother is to die to oneself in some essential way. After I had children, I was no longer an individual separate from other individuals. I leaked into everyone else. I remember going to a movie soon after Nat was born and walking out at the first hint of violence. It was unbearable to think of the damage done. I had never been squeamish in my life before, but now a great deal more was at stake. I had delivered a baby into the world. From now on my only job was to protect and nurture him into adulthood, no matter what it cost me. This wasn’t a choice. It was a law.

That makes it sound like a selfless task, but it wasn’t. I got as much as I gave, and much more. The ordinary pleasures of raising children are not often talked about, because they are unspectacular and leave no lasting trace, but they sustained me for years as our boys grew and flourished, and they continue to sustain me now. I can’t help but take pleasure in the fact that my children are thriving as I decline. It seems only fitting, a sure sign that my job in the world is done. It’s like the day Dan, then in the fourth grade, turned to me twenty yards from the school gate and said, “You can go now, Mum.” I knew then that the days of our companionable walks were over, and that as time went by there would be further signs of my superfluity, just as poignant and necessary as this one.


No, I am not unhappy or depressed, but I am occasionally angry. Why me? Why now? Dumb questions, but that doesn’t stop me from asking them. I was supposed to defy the statistics and beat this disease through sheer willpower. I was supposed to have an extra decade in which to write my best work. I was robbed!

Crazy stuff. As if any of us are in control of anything. Far better for me to accept that I am powerless over my fate, and that for once in my life I am free of the tyranny of choice. That way, I waste a lot less time feeling singled out or cheated.

As I told the young psychologist, I rely on friends to divert me from dark thoughts. I don’t have a lot of friends, but the ones I do have are so good to me, so tender and solicitous, it would seem ungrateful to subside into unhappiness or depression.


No, I’m not likely to take more risks in life, now that I know I’m dying. I’m not about to tackle skydiving or paragliding. I’ve always been physically cautious, preternaturally aware of all the things that can go wrong when one is undertaking a dangerous activity.

The irony is that, despite my never having tempted death the way daredevils do, I’m dying anyway. Perhaps it is a mistake to be so cautious. I sometimes think this is the true reason for my reluctance to take my own life. It is because suicide is so dangerous.


I will not miss dying. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever done, and I will be glad when it’s over.” ~


Cory Taylor, an Australian writer, was the award-winning author of “Me and Mr. Booker,” “My Beautiful Enemy,” and “Dying: A Memoir.” She died of melanoma on July 5, 2016. She was 61.


It’s been a strange summer. It started with a major surgery that I thought might be the end of me: I was haunted by an automatic imagery of having a heart attack in the middle of it, hearing the anesthesiologist say, slowly, “We’ve lost her.” Those words like a tolling bell, for lack of a tolling bell. But I did wake up, realized I’d made it, and smiled a big smile. Toward the end of July, though, a neighbor I’d known for thirty years, and who seemed like the kind who’d live to one hundred — so fit and lively, curious, always active — died of a sudden heart attack. He never recovered consciousness. The first week of September, a friend who was only 60 died of a ruptured aneurysm. She fainted and never regained consciousness.

And, as always, but perhaps more intensely than “always,” the news with apocalyptic overtones. A summer saturated with mortality. Would I want to cease suddenly, in midst of ordinary life, or slide away slowly? Of course there won’t be a choice. That’s the good part.

My neighbor’s last words to me — what in effect became his last words — were: “So, are you planning to travel?” And Jordan: such a rich, daring life. I feel timid by comparison.

And yet, always the same consolation: I have written some fine poems. They will eventually be forgotten, but I like to say, with Hölderlin:

Once I lived as the gods.
More is not needed.

What a gift, those two luminous lines, worth more than volumes written about creativity.

And also these two lines by Milosz:

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.

And the most recent gift, this beautiful statement by Cory Taylor: “Now I see the life I’ve lived as the only life, a singularity, saturated with its own oneness. To envy the life of the alternative me, the one who stayed in Paris, seems like the purest kind of folly.”

Insert Warsaw for Paris, and that’s me. Am I entirely done envying the life of “the alternative me, the one who stayed in Warsaw?” I hope I am, though some regret flickers now and then, perhaps out of sheer habit. But it’s too late for regret. And besides, that wouldn’t be “me.” I would have become a different person — one who’d regret not having acted on the chance of going to the U.S. The symmetry of this irony (I typed “agony”) is a bitter delight (I typed “delete”). Like strong coffee, it wakes me up.


"One world at a time." ~ Henry David Thoreau, on being asked about the afterlife

“Never fear that your insights are wrong. Many are. It’s a percentage game. Be intrepid.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Some people strangely believe that intuition can never be wrong -- as if they never had a premonition that didn't come to pass. Many of us "intuitively knew" that Trump would never become president. Maybe that's part of the reason it hurt so much -- that cherished if tacit belief in the infallibility of intuition was dealt a huge blow. And when it comes to insight, it's all the more so -- how could this eye-opening, sometimes even life-changing moment be off the mark after all? But you are absolutely right -- human, all too human.

But it’s impossible to live without relying on intuition to a huge degree. And it would be a sad life if we were to be deprived of those marvelous flashes of insight. So yes, a percentage game. Intrepid, we carry on. But we would be wise to remember our fallibility.

One of the thousands of toppled Lenin statues in Ukraine


I was visiting a friend who lives in a semi-rural area near Monterey. She was sitting outdoors, in her spacious woodland-like yard, at an old wooden table she was using more like a desk, were through a magazine. She pointed a photo of a long purple cotton skirt to me, the breezy kind that started as a summer skirt but later became all-season in California, somewhat bohemian but nothing extreme. “Remember the time when we all wanted skirts like that?” she said. “I’d still want a skirt like that,” I replied.

And off I went for a walk (unsupported — no walker, no cane, no walking sticks) through the woodland, and walked without pain until I came to a place where a rushing stream split off into two “young rivers.” Most people would call them mountain streams — rushing onward, fast and loud, full of boulders. I was so excited by the sight that I hurried back to my friend and suggested we both walk to see the rivers— though it was getting late in the day, the first signs of dusk already apparent.

The dream ended with me, impractically, urging her to come along — I couldn’t wait to see the magical place again! She was comfortably ensconced at her table, it was getting late, but I was just so enraptured. And no pain! Alas, that wasn’t completely true when I woke up, but the kind of pain I experience now could be called mere “discomfort” compared to the pain of the first two months, and during my two agonizing setbacks.

After waking, it occurred to me that both the skirt and the rivers were symbols of youth. I tend to think of mountain streams as “young rivers” — and in my dream, I was naming the streams “rivers.” It was a dream of two rivers, but above all of “young rivers.”

We speak of “second childhood,” but obviously no one wants that. On the other hand, I'm not the only one who has spoken of the “second youth.” Why two rivers? Maybe precisely to indicate the first youth and the second youth.

I love your dream. Water is always such a healing image. I have had several dreams about walking in a river, in the shallows near the shore, but for miles and miles. The sense of freedom and wonder in these dreams is healing in itself. When my father was dying I dreamed of walking in the river with him, toward the sea, where I knew he would go on and I would not.

JESUS AS AN APOCALYPTIC PROPHET (“heavenly forces joined by human forces”)

~ “The biblical books of Mark and Luke both state that at least one (and probably two or more) of Jesus’s followers was carrying a sword when Jesus was arrested shortly after the Last Supper, at the time of the Jewish festival of Passover. One disciple, Simon Peter, even used his sword to cut off the ear of one of those arresting Jesus, according to the Gospel of John.

Why were Jesus’s followers armed at all, especially during a religious festival?

Dale Martin makes the case that Jesus and his followers were likely expecting that an apocalyptic showdown was on the horizon, one in which divine forces (in the form of angels) would destroy Rome and Herod’s temple and usher in a holy reign. And this might require some fighting by Jesus’s disciples, he adds.

It sounds pretty far-out, but a similar scenario is described in parts of the Book of Revelation. And this scenario of “heavenly forces joined by human forces...was an expectation in a central document of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” a group of texts that shed light on the thinking of various Jewish peoples around the time of Jesus, Martin adds.

Indeed, many academics who study the historicity of the Bible believe “that Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish prophet who was expecting an imminent arrival of the kingdom of God on Earth,” Martin says.

The paper also suggests that Jesus may have been in favor of fighting, at least in this apocalyptic instance, Ehrman tells Newsweek.

“It’s making me rethink my view that Jesus was a complete pacifist,” he says. “And it takes a lot for me to change my views about Jesus.” ~


The view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is especially inspiring to the lunatic fringe — people who for some reason wish for mayhem so that a chosen minority may enter paradise.

Islam too has its apocalyptic school. Isa (Jesus) is supposed to descend from the clouds, leading a heavenly army that will defeat the armies of Rome (Rome = America and the West in general, but chiefly America).

Failed prophecy never seems to deter a true believer. Prophets are like Trump — they can proclaim any absurdity, and never lose credibility among their followers.

And prophets never apologize -- again, like Trump. Perhaps prophets were Trump's secret role models — no absurdity is too far out, no need to provide convincing evidence. Just assert, assert, assert. We live in an era of Trumps and Trumpets.

The newest prediction is already getting out of date: Rapture was supposed to take place this Saturday, 9/23/2017.

Scientists have known since the 1930s that calorie restriction helps mammals stay healthy and live longer. But the mechanisms behind this have been a mystery, until now. Researchers, in a groundbreaking study out of Temple University in Philadelphia, found it has to do with an epigenetic phenomenon known as “methylation drift.”

DNA methylation is the process by which genes are expressed or suppressed. These are chemical markers that essentially activate certain genes by tagging them. The tags will tell a cell what type it will become, whether a blood or skin cell, or what-have-you. They also tell it what operations it will perform and when to perform them.

It’s important when DNA is replicated whether the right genes are turned on or off. Normal methylation is important for our growth and development. But abnormal methylation can cause certain diseases such as lupus, muscular dystrophy, and cancer. As we grow older, methylation begins to drift. Also called epigenetic drift, this is when a buildup of tags occurs within a certain gene, making its expression less pronounced.

Methyl tags "tell the cell what to do and when to do it.” If they’re missing or changed, the identity of the cell erodes. “Methylation 'drift' is a composite measure of how much these tags have changed," Dr. Issa said.

The scientists looked at the “gains and losses of DNA methylation,” along each subject’s genome. While younger subjects had more gains in certain locations, older ones had more losses. Researchers found that the more times a gene was tagged through methylation, the less the gene was expressed. Conversely, the fewer times it was tagged, the more it was expressed.

Next, scientists wanted to see if a restricted calorie diet might increase a mammals’ lifespan. They reduced the caloric intake of mice by 40%. These were almost three and a half months old. The mice stayed on the diet until they were two to three years-old.

Rhesus monkey subjects were between ages seven and 14 and their caloric intake was restricted 30%. The monkeys stayed on the diet until they were between 22 and 30. Though the mice made modest gains, the monkey’s methylation age turned out to be seven years younger than their chronological one. Methylation changes in both species resembled that of younger animals.


Intensive exercise also affects methylation -- as does strong coffee. We are barely beginning to understand the mechanisms of aging: what hastens it and what delays it. 


Ending on beauty:

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
The passing light over the water
And I heard the voice of the world speak out
I knew then as I have before
Life is no passing memory of what has been
Nor the remaining pages of a great book
Waiting to be read

It is the opening of eyes long closed . . .
Opened at last
Fallen in love
With Solid Ground.

~ David Whyte

photo: David Whyte

Saturday, September 16, 2017



 . . . I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
. . . and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee.

~ Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

Wordsworth’s last name never ceases to astonish me — words’ worth, the worth of words. Which words have the most worth here? Probably these:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

The Romantics were intoxicated with awe, almost always elicited by nature (for the Romantics, it was Nature with a capital N, suffused with “Spirit”). They were forming a new spirituality. That vague Spirit that “subtly interfused” nature had nothing to do with the vengeful, calamity-sending ‘guy in the sky’ or ‘dude in the clouds with a white beard’ (I'm passing on phrases I’ve run across in our blasphemy-loving times).“Jehovah and his thrones, I pass them unalarmed,” Wordsworth writes. Imagine, no fear of archaic god, still quite alive and scary at the time the poet wrote this. No fear! Imagine a religion — perhaps “spirituality” is a better word here — not based on fear, daring to deny that the fear of god was the beginning of wisdom.

Instead, an alternate, benign theology was emerging, built around the idea of human dignity rather than depravity, and a loving god. “Jehovah and his thrones, I pass them unalarmed” — what is this if not liberal Protestant Christianity? Wordsworth was in effect a “cultural Christian” and an example of what William James would later (quoting Francis W. Newman) describe as the “once-born”: “They see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.”

(Am I obsessed with the theme of a loving, nurturing god versus a punitive one? I'm afraid that to some extent I’ll mourn for the rest of my life the fact that my childhood was poisoned by backward, fear-based Catholicism.)

(For whatever it's worth, note that, except for the title, Wordsworth never mentions the Abbey in the poem.) 

Tintern Abbey, William Turner, 1794

The great Romantics basically created their own unconventional religion of Spirit and Spirit-suffused nature:

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

A motion? What first comes to mind is simply the wind, invisible in itself but visible in its effects.

Coleridge, certainly a believer in the Universal Spirit, came up with the wind harp analogy — each of us, along with all sentient beings, is a kind of wind harp, and the Wind/Spirit/Logos sweeps over the strings:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Romanticism is regarded as a reaction against the Enlightenment’s enthronement of reason and the emergence of deism, which posits a creator who set the universe in motion, and then turned away, never interfering in human affairs (science wasn’t yet advanced enough to get around the need for a “Prime Mover”). It was inconceivable that the deist god would violate the laws of nature. Nor would the Universal Spirit — but then that Spirit “suffused” and animated Nature. And it was possible to sense it and be consoled and inspired by it.

The indifferent deist Prime Mover struck the Romantics as too cold-hearted, but they did not try to go back to the bad old-time religion. They turned to mysticism. Shelley described himself as a mystical atheist precisely to accommodate the feeling of awe as he gazed on Mont Blanc. The American Transcendentalists claimed that the divine resided in nature but also within each human being. They rejected the more Judaic idea of god as the ultimate Other, an alien and incomprehensible presence outside time and space — with occasional incursions, frequent in the first and most mythological books of the Hebrew bible, then, in the later books, dwindling to absence and silence (In “The Disappearance of God,” Richard Friedman shows this gradual withdrawal in meticulous detail).

I think this is Blake's image of Yahweh’s hiding his face.
Shelley, expelled from Oxford for his atheism, wrote these mystical lines in his “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats through unseen among us — visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower —
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance

The Romantics didn’t want an absence of the divine; they wanted more of the divine. They wanted an intimacy with the Universal Spirit (or, more vaguely, “some unseen Power”). In a way, centuries ahead of time, they were basically saying Yes to Einstein’s question: Is the Universe friendly?

Friendly or indifferent, if we can have such beauty on this earth, and a spirit that’s universal rather than tribal, who needs an archaic god? A vengeful and punitive deity is the very opposite of what a sensitive person wants — especially if that sensitive person happens to be a Romantic poet. A radically different idea of the divine is needed.

As Harold Bloom observed in The Visionary Company: “There is no more important point to be made about English Romantic poetry than this one . . .  Though it is a displaced Protestantism, or a Protestantism astonishingly transformed by different kinds of humanism or naturalism, the poetry of English Romantics is a kind of religious poetry.”

A totally loving god, then? (Let us, for the moment, forget about earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters; in England, it was relatively easy to see nature as benign.) If we want to do away with the archaic baggage, a word such as “Spirit” is more agreeable. And ultimately, beauty itself might be enough; beauty itself can nurture us. It’s a kind of love that we receive from the world. This seems to me to be one of the main messages of the Romantics: for the most fulfilling kind of life, open yourself to beauty and awe.

And there is no need to travel to the Alps or the Andes (though it would be wonderful). A single flower in a proverbial crannied nook is an unexpected gift, an answered prayer.


Trying to settle down after the hurricane scare and our flight and return to home (luckily finding only minor damage, but I am mourning the loss of our river docks, which will be replaced). With these current storms in mind it would be difficult to see nature as benign: the indifference of these enormous forces is here for all to see. Some spent their time praying, and, surviving, felt those prayers answered. What does that say then about those who did not survive, or whose homes were destroyed? They were not worthy? They did not pray enough, or use the right words?

Those thanking God for their own deliverance don't want to go that far, but also don't want to admit survival and destruction may be purely luck, disorganized, indifferent, undirected, a crap shoot without universal meaning or intent. Although always sustained by the natural world's variety and beauty I don’t think I ever had much of that romantic vision. I could see, and sometimes intensely feel the integrity and continuity, the almost overwhelming beauty of the physical world, and at times felt an almost ecstatic connection running through all things, but I never felt it was personal, in the way people speak of a personal God. I never saw myself, or humanity, as the center of any focus in or beyond the universe. We are not the apple of any spiritual eye, the culmination or strategy of any supernatural plan.

Oddly, there may not be much romance in such vision, but there is magic. The old rules of magic say “as above, so below.” And what do we find in science as we uncover more and more of the basic structures of the universe — ordered and measured sequences and patterns: the fibonacci ratio, fractals, musical intervals, the geometry and mathematical order we find not only present throughout nature, but aesthetically pleasing, whether observed in ice crystals and the chambers of a nautilus shell, or in a painting by Leonardo. Do these orders define and produce beauty, or do we find them beautiful because we recognize in them the kinds of order we share in the organization of our own atoms, cells, tissues and chemistry?

Oriana, I hope I have not become too fuzzily mystical here. In many ways I feel science is the most sublime poetry, the periodic table and the Krebs cycle as beautiful and satisfying as a Mozart concerto or a perfect sonnet.


Wordsworth, an educated man, no doubt knew that hurricanes happened, but his knowledge was purely theoretical. I have never experienced a hurricane, but these days the media saturate us with images and reports. It’s no longer possible, that Romantic kind of innocence, almost, about how randomly destructive nature can be. And I wonder how different poetry might be if most of Europe didn’t happen to be so relatively free of natural disasters. Would a benevolent Universal Spirit still be perceived as permeating and governing nature? 

So your hurricane comment goes straight to the heart of things, i.e. that notorious indifference of nature so amply evident these days. And the argument that it’s our fault because we have messed up nature (or because we legalized gay marriage) doesn’t seem to address past natural disasters. If Spirit cares for us, hurricanes should never happen, or any other “acts of God” (a legal term still to this day!)

But that random destruction may only increase some people’s religiosity. It’s the poorest countries, the ones with the most natural disasters, that show the highest religiosity. You are absolutely right: randomness is hard to accept, so many tend to believe that the people who got wiped out probably deserved it (people are always making excuses for god or the “just universe”).

At the very least, they didn’t pray hard enough. And if not that, it’s all part of the divine plan to provide us with objects of compassion. And, once the belief in hell declined, but the belief in heaven has remained at a pretty high level (talk about wishful thinking), there is this unanswerable argument: “Don’t forget that those who got killed are now in a better place” — or, if the victims are alive but in bad shape, “God never sends us more suffering than we can endure.” (Really? Is that why we have so much suicide and stress disorders of all kinds?)

It’s randomness that we find very hard to endure — perhaps hardest of all. We evolved to seek patterns, and will find them even where there are none. We see faces and shapes in clouds and the bark of trees — or in ink blots, for that matter. Not only that, it’s been shown that a human can’t even produce a table of random numbers — it takes a computer.

And there are certainly patterns that strike us as beautiful — such as all those spirals, including hurricanes. But beauty is not a proof that a “Universal Spirit” exists. The existence of beauty proves only the existence of beauty — and the human ability to be delighted by beauty. A dog, alas, can’t appreciate a sunset. And neither can a toddler — the brain has to develop that capacity.

Now, there are those who claim that the universe is conscious — that “consciousness” is all around us, and we just partake of it. Again, unless we exclude benevolence, that doesn’t explain hurricanes.


At twilight, nature is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets. ~ Oscar Wilde

Oriana: Wilde said it about the relatively domesticated European landscapes. West Coast has such splendor that words crumble and are blown about like tumbleweeds and dust-devils. The sunsets are too intense, the sheen of water too blinding. We are face to face with the unnamable.

VICTORIAN SOCIALISM WAS CLOSER TO THE ROMANTIC POETS THAN TO KARL MARX (What Marx didn’t seem to realize was that England was the most democratic country in Europe, and the least prone to violent revolution.)

The word 'socialism' was first used in the English language in 1827 in the working-class publication, the Co-operative Magazine, and it meant co-operation as opposed to competition. (Garner et al. 115) In the 1830s, the word socialism was used interchangeably with the word Owenism, and Robert Owen (1771-1858) became the central figure of British socialism in the first half of the 19th century.

Victorian socialists drew heavily not on the works of Karl Marx, but on the legacy of authors who held romantic, radical and even conservative views, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Disraeli, and John Ruskin. However, the roots of British socialism can also be sought in more remote times. Some of the distant forerunners of Victorian socialism include William Langland, John Wycliffe, John Ball [leader of a peasant revolt], and Thomas More.

British socialism emerged in the time when Victorian society began to overcome the principles of classical economics, the laissez-faire system, and was immersed in faith crisis. Traditional British liberalism and radicalism played a far more important role in shaping socialism in Victorian Britain than the works of Karl Marx. Although Marxism had some impact in Britain, it was far less significant than in many other European countries, with thinkers such as David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and John Ruskin having much greater influence. Non-Marxist historians speculate that this was because Britain was amongst the most democratic countries of Europe of the period, where the ballot box provided an instrument for change, so parliamentary reforms seemed a more promising route than revolutionary socialism advocated by Marx. As Sir Ivor Jeggins put it, “British socialism has always been as much British as socialist.”

The first political movement of the working-class was launched by the London Corresponding Society, founded in 1792, by Thomas Hardy (1752-1832), a shoemaker and metropolitan Radical. The Society, consisting mostly of working-class members, agitated among the masses parliamentary reform, universal manhood suffrage and working class representation in Parliament. The Society met openly for six years despite harassment by police magistrates and arrests of its members, but was finally outlawed in 1799 by an act of Parliament as a result of fear that it made a dangerous challenge to the established government.

Robert Owen (1771-1858), who was a textile mill owner, philanthropist, social and labour reformer, is considered as the father of British co-operative socialism. He and his followers founded several co-operative communities in Britain and the United States which offered workers decent living conditions and access to education. Although all Owenite communities eventually failed, the communitarian tradition persisted in Victorian England and elsewhere. Owenism exerted a significant influence on various strands of British socialism, including Christian socialism, ethical socialism, guild socialism, Fabianism, and socialist labour movement. Co-operative socialism was perceived by these organizations as a replacement for the unjust competitive capitalist system.

The British socialist movement re-emerged in the 1880s. A strong critique of capitalism, which was voiced by various groups of social critics, literary figures and working-class militants, led to the formation of three distinct strands of late Victorian socialism.

The term socialism was generally synonymous in Victorian Britain with social reform, collectivism, communitarianism and improvement of living conditions of the working class and it did not bear strong Marxist connotations. In fact, few people were interested in socialist revolution in Victorian Britain, but quite a great number were fascinated by the mystical features of socialism. Unlike Marxism, which criticized liberal democracy and advocated revolutionary class struggle, the main strands of Victorian socialism can be characterized by ethical, non-Marxian, anti-capitalist outlook which combined traditional English radicalism with traditional English respect for democracy.

The statue of Robert Owen in Manchester

MILLENARIANISM: RELIGIOUS ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIAN MOVEMENTS (P.S. Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” lasted only eleven years instead of the predicted one thousand)

~ This happens to throw a light on Trump’s followers: ~ “The most fervent followers [of the medieval millenarian prophets] were the marginalized poor whose place within the social structure and whose very survival were under threat. A prophet, who assumed the role of messiah, offered the poor a chance to be among the select, or the elite.

Norman Cohn's topic is Millenarianism in the Middle Ages, or the recurring emergence of a collective of “faithful” under the leadership of a charismatic prophet or prophets who believe that the world will imminently be transformed into an earthly paradise inhabited by the "select" (i.e., themselves). This Edenic existence will last 1,000 years and then the Last Judgement will forever sort all mankind into the camps of Heaven and Hell. The basis of the millennial paradigm is rooted in the Book of Daniel (Ch. VII: Daniel's Dream) and the Book of Revelation (Ch. XX), as well as the enduring legend that there could be a return to what was wishfully assumed to be mankind's original egalitarian and plentiful existence.” ~

~ from a reader’s review of The Pursuit of the Millennium, by Norman Cohn (first published in 1957, expanded in 1970)

~ “At the end of the first millennium A.D., itinerant preachers crisscrossed Europe warning that the end of the world was nigh. Hundreds of thousands of people took heed, joining religious cults and anti-governmental militias in preparation for the coming war between good and evil. (If this sounds familiar, it is proof only that history is cyclical.) During this heady time, Europe exploded in religious war, peasant revolts and sectarian strife, marked by the first large-scale massacres of Jews and gypsies, the first inklings of inquisitions and holy crusades. Norman Cohn, a masterful writer and interpreter, carefully explores this extraordinary period in European history in a book that bears rereading as our own millennium approaches its end.” ~ capsule review by Amazon

“Absolutely astounding... when people fantasize about ideal worlds and the "end of days", their thinking usually get disjointed rather fast. Never did this form of thinking run more prevalent and have such catastrophic consequences than between the 11th and the 16th centuries. This is a collection of some of the most obscure peasant cults and peasant wars that afflict mankind during the middle ages. The results were usually bloody, such as the rebellion of Thomas Müntzer in early 1500s. But what is more interesting is how such thinking of millenarian societies can be extrapolated into the 20th Century (Hitler & Stalin) and latterly, the an altogether less emphatic form, the Fukuyama thesis that “History has Ended.”

It is interesting that Cohn's book serves as the seminal study of millenarian thinking in general and is often used as a counterpoint in the studies of Marxism, Fascism, and the millennial dreams of the neocons and infantile understanding of the New Agers, and conspiracy theorists... it's all here. A warning what happens when man and women lose their common sense and believe that the ideal is possible.

A good warning for the present times when ideologues and conspiracy theorists and their ignorant ilk seem to be all around us….” ~ a reader’s review

 ~ “The book was triggered by conversations among captured Nazis on which the author had eavesdropped as part of his work in intelligence during the Second World War.

Though they knew their cause was lost, these Nazis took perverse comfort from a kind of negative eschatology. They had failed to create their racist utopia; but through their crimes, they believed, they had brought the old world to an end.
In later books, notably Warrant for Genocide: the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1966) and Europe's Inner Demons (1975), Cohn showed how this kind of eschatological thinking mixed with Christian demonology led to the great witch-hunts of early modern times, and eventually to the supreme crime of the Holocaust.

It is impossible to understand 20th-century politics unless Cohn's insights into the religious origins of totalitarian movements have been fully absorbed, but the importance of his work extends well beyond totalitarianism. Eschatological thinking can have a malign effect in liberal democracies. To take only the most obvious example, an eschatological turn of mind lay behind a good deal of the support for the Iraq War. Sometimes this thinking was explicitly religious, as with the American Christian fundamentalists who supported the war as a prelude to Armageddon; but the same mentality was expressed by neoconservatives who saw regime change as the start of a "global democratic revolution", and by liberal interventionists who imagined that toppling Saddam Hussein would inaugurate a new world order ruled by human rights. In each case, the particularities of Iraq - its status as a composite state, created in colonial times and divided by deep-seated enmities - were ignored, and the risks of civil war and anarchy discounted. The warnings of history were lost in an epiphany of a new world.

Thomas Müntzer


~ “A frequent theme is for millenarian sects to believe that since they were the saved, they could treat the unsaved as the source of wealth and food for their survival. Frequently this meant targeting the established church, for, as Cohn explains, the Church had its own interests too. It was "a powerful and prosperous institution, functioning according to a well-established routine; and the men responsible for governing it had no wish to see Christians clinging to out-dated and inappropriate dreams of a new earthly paradise."

But there was a contradiction, for "In Christian apocalyptic the old phantasy of divine election was preserved and revitalised; it was the body of literature inaugurated by the Book of Revelation which encouraged Christians to see themselves as the Chosen People of the Lord - chosen both to prepare the way for and to inherit the Millennium. And this idea had such enormous attraction that no official condemnation could prevent it from recurring again and again to the minds of the unprivileged, the oppressed, the disoriented and the unbalanced."

The reality of feudal exploitation and oppression coincided with a ideology that meant "For medieval people the stupendous drama of the Last Days was not a fantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfillment.”

The 1251 "Crusades of the Shepherds" began at Easter when three men began to preach a Crusade in Picardy and within days their preaching had reached far beyond France. One of them was Jacob, a renegade monk, who (in common with many similar movements) claimed to have a letter from the Virgin Mary which called on shepherds to make a crusade. Hundreds flocked to the call, and thousands more joined them. A contemporary estimate (that is likely to be exaggerated) suggests 60,000. The army

“was divided into fifty companies; these marched separately, armed with pitchforks, hatchets, daggers, pikes carried aloft as they entered towns and villages, so as to intimidate the authorities. When they ran short of provisions they took what they needed by force; but much was given freely for.. people revered the Pastoureaux as holy men."

According to contemporary reports, it was precisely because the Pastoureaux had a habit of "killing and despoiling" priests that they had much popular support. The movement however over-reached itself. At the town of Bourges, Jacob preached against the Jews, and his army pillaged houses and plundered the churches. Despite having earlier gained the trust and support of the French Queen Mother, she now realized her mistake and the movement was outlawed. This caused a crisis within the ranks and allowed local forces to smash Jacob’s followers. Some escaped and one even made it to England were he continued to preach and gathered a following of hundreds of peasants and shepherds around Shoreham until troops sent by Henry III led to the movement’s final destruction.

One of the interesting aspects to the movements discussed here, is the parallels. For instance, in 1381 a movement in northern France took the form of a popular uprising in a number of towns. Here, "the first objective of these people was always the tax-farmer's office, where they destroyed the files, looted the coffers and murdered the tax-farmers; their next, the Jewish quarter, where they also murdered and looted their fill." Anyone who has read about the 1381 English Uprising will note that the first target of the Rebels over the Channel was to burn records of taxes and serfdom and immigrant laborers from Flanders were also massacred.

Another theme is the way that many movements broke apart traditional notions of sexuality. Take the "Free Spirit" movement. It's doctrine was that the person who has "become God" must use all things.

One expression of this, says Cohn, was a "promiscuous and mystically colored eroticism." Women were created to be used by the "Brethren of the Free Spirit. Indeed by such intimacy a women became chaster than before, so that if she had previously lost her virginity she now regained it.”

In 1476 another mass movement developed around a shepherd Böhm. His vision was of a world turned upside down. One Abbot commented on Böhm's movement: "What would the layman like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master's yoke.” 

Frequently those at the heart of these events would be so convinced of their divine inspiration that their actions led to their own deaths and the destruction of their followers. But it would be wrong to suggest that this means these self-declared messiahs were insane. Whether it was the small scale sects, or the mass followings of Thomas Müntzer or the extraordinary tale of Jan Bockelson and the Münster Rebellion, their ideas and preaching inspired tens of thousands and frequently shook the medieval world to its foundations.” ~


Fascinating: “The book was triggered by conversations among captured Nazis on which the author had eavesdropped as part of his work in intelligence during the Second World War. Though they knew their cause was lost, these Nazis took perverse comfort from a kind of negative eschatology. They had failed to create their racist utopia; but through their crimes, they believed, they had brought the old world to an end.”

Eschatology = the theology of the "last days" — the final stage of history, or End Times. It often includes the doctrine of the Thousand Years of Earthly Paradise. More loosely, it’s a belief in a future Golden Age of peace and prosperity.

Interesting, how the Antiquity’s myth of the Golden Age in the remote past got transformed into the myth of the Golden Age in the future, and how the roots of that transformation lie in the Book of Revelation and Daniel 11. To think that such ancient ravings have inspired mass murder through so many centuries . . .

Jehova's Witnesses are an example of Millenarians — fortunately non-violent. But there is an uncanny echo among the Neo-Nazis (Steve Bannon, let's face it) who want a restoration of the "traditional" world order through an apocalyptic slaughter first (e.g. war with North Korea).

It now strikes me as almost uncanny that I took a huge interest in the Reformation back in high school — including Thomas Müntzer's Peasant Uprising, and how this radical egalitarianism was condemned by Martin Luther, even though Luther believed the Second Coming was imminent.

~ “A man who is unable to despair has no need to be alive,” Goethe wrote; and that may very well be true, at least from the standpoint of people like most of us, who believe (without quite knowing so, perhaps) that one needs to have a need to be alive; but is unlikely anyone unable to despair has ever felt the need to read a single line of Goethe.” ~ M. Iossel


But I wonder, psychopaths aside, if any human being is unable to despair . . . if anyone is spared. Having done a lot of despairing myself, I’ve concluded that in my case it's ungracious. I am a child of intellectual privilege, I've read some Goethe in the original (mesmerizing music), I have access to great literature, great music, great visual art — and I live near the Pacific ocean, yes, with those sunsets. Next to such blessings, to complain about what life has not given to me would be petty. If only I had this perception earlier in life . . .

M. Iossel’s reply:

~  ... no, of course it is not possible for any sentient human being to go through life without despairing at least just as frequently as one would be feeling happy; that's just the essence of human condition: if you are capable of rejoicing, you should be familiar with despair as well. But then again, it's true too that extremely stupid people often are irrepressibly upbeat, and idiots tend to laugh a lot. ~

Oriana: Yes, it’s a common finding that higher IQ correlates with less happiness and more depression. But the chief reason may be that it also correlates with ambition and the struggle for achievement, which brings its inevitable strains and disappointments. Despair? I’ve never met an intelligent person who wasn’t well-acquainted with despair, even suicidal despair. “It’s just an intelligent person’s response to the realities of adult life,” a friend said. One of my favorite quotations is that genius is how we invent ourselves out of despair (a paraphrase).

orange oakleaf butterfly

It’s not the humidity, it’s the self-hate. ~ Michael Andre

~ to which one person replied: I prefer self-hate to humidity. 

saguaro; photo: Jack Dykinga


“The first few passages of Genesis weren’t written to explain the mechanics of how the world was made. They were written as a polemic against neighboring cultures (and perhaps against its own earlier forbears) in order to posit that one single God, rather than many, was responsible for creating the world.”

~ “. . . But this word for God — ELOHIM —  is strange because its form is plural. In ancient Hebrew, nouns that end in the suffix -im are typically plural. If we didn’t know any better, we would conclude this religion at one point in time believed in multiple gods, not just one.

    In the beginning, gods created the heavens and the earth…

That would certainly comport with the Ancient Near Eastern context out of which the Abrahamic religion originally emerged. Other religions of the region were polytheistic, and taught that universe was formed out of a cosmic battle between competing gods. Many of those religions taught that each competing god ruled over a particular sphere or category of the world (sky, ocean, crops, weather, fertility, the sun, etc).

What makes this religion unique among its competitors is that it ascribes authority for each and every one of those spheres to the same god. In a way, that’s the whole point of this creation narrative. It wasn’t told and retold (and later written) in order to lay out a technical description for how the world was made. It was a reworking of a very old (but, to them, very familiar) genre of origins with a polemical twist that set them apart from their neighbors: They had one single god in charge of everything, not just one particular category. This god was in charge of the sky, and the water, and the land…in other words, pretty much everything that they knew there was.


Despite the monotheistic innovation of Abrahamic religions, we still see signs of earlier influences all over the Old Testament. For one thing, right here in the first chapter of Genesis, we read God speaking to, presumably, himself.

    Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

Evidently being “in the image of God” means ruling over everything the same way that God rules over everything (the sea, the sky, the ground). That will become relevant in later passages in the Bible, but for now I have to stop and point out the obvious: It says let US.

When I was a kid, I was taught to read this as a prooftext for the doctrine of the Trinity. Christian theology teaches that God is somehow one “being” but still three different “persons” (as if that makes sense in any way, shape, or form). But that aside, it strains credibility to maintain that the ancient Hebrews, who were decidedly monotheistic, told and retold this story for centuries with a trinitarian reference woven into the text.

I’m still just marveling that traces of an earlier polytheism are preserved right there in the text for us.

There is even evidence that earlier iterations of the God of Abraham had a wife (or at least a consort) named Asherah. From time to time the prophets had to get onto the people of Israel for setting up “Asherah poles” alongside their officially approved worship paraphernalia. When I was a younger reader (and still committed to a belief in divine inspiration), I assumed the Israelites absorbed this perversion of their religion through osmosis, as it were, by virtue of their mixing and mingling with the surrounding Canaanite cultures.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that most of the stories of early Israel were completely made up, and that prior to their emergence from Canaanite culture, there was no Israel to speak of.

I am a thoroughgoing mythicist where pre-Canaanite Israel is concerned, and I do not believe anyone resembling Moses ever existed. The reality is that the Hebrew people seem to have first emerged from Canaanite culture in the tenth or eleventh century B.C.E., quite a number of centuries after the supposed Egyptian captivity, wilderness wanderings, and conquest of Canaan. We find no evidence of violent conquest, nor do we see any historical support for their existence as a people prior to their gradual cultural differentiation at that time.

[The monotheistic religion] took from the stories around it and refashioned them into a separate identity in which one god in particular, Yahweh (who was likely a god of war), ruled over them all. This god (or God) wasn’t in charge of just one arena or sphere, he was in charge of all of them. And more to the point, everyone else’s gods have to bow to this one, even if it means killing off anyone who disagrees. Bonus points if they happen to live on farmable soil, because that really belongs to Yahweh as well. Isn’t that convenient?

    “As long as there has been one true God, there has been killing in his name.” –The DaVinci Code


As an atheist, I no longer subscribe to a belief in supernatural books. Letting that go was a freeing development for me. Now I am able to consider so many competing viewpoints and perspectives on religion and on the Bible without feeling so emotionally invested in protecting the book from, well, itself.

But even a supernaturalist can appreciate that the Bible, even if it were inspired by God, should be taken on its own terms. And as such, it doesn’t really do a service to the Bible to superimpose onto it an expectation about which questions it should answer. It doesn’t really help anybody to try forcing the Bible into addressing questions it was never designed to answer.

The first few passages of Genesis weren’t written to explain the mechanics of how the world was made. They were written as a polemic against neighboring cultures (and perhaps against its own earlier forbears) in order to posit that one single God, rather than many, was responsible for creating the world (however it was that he did it). It was also borrowing heavily from its own temple cultus in order to structure the narrative development, laying out each phase of creation according to the design of the temple itself.

It wasn’t written as a scientific or technical explanation for how the universe or the planet earth or the plants and animals and people on it came to be. That interpretive grid only showed up a few decades ago in response to the rise of Darwinian thought among the sciences, and it has produced some laughably absurd results.

Blake: The creation of Adam

Monotheism had a hard struggle not only against competing religions, but against its own roots -- that's the fascinating part.

Of course once you declare that your tribal god is the only real god and all the other gods are made-up, you've opened wider the gates of hell of us-them.


“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” ~ Plato

“We don’t need no edoocayshon” — the motto of one of the states of the Union (that, pre-Trump, loved to threatened to secede, but they never secede when you want them to).

(I just realized this can be sung to the tune of "I can't get no satisfaction":

We don’t need no edoocayshon,
We don't need no teacher action.
Who needs spelling? Not this nation.
Who needs ammo? Check my suction.)

OK, the last word is dubious, but I needed a rhyme, and don't happen to possess a rhyming dictionary (though I've been secretly lusting after one for years). 


~ “It seems the list of animals that menstruate is quite short: humans, apes, monkeys, bats and elephant shrews. What do these seemingly disparate animals have in common?

It all comes down to how much control the mother animal has over her own womb, according to Deena Emera of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In a paper published in 2011, Emera and her colleagues pointed out that in menstruating animals, the transformation of the womb wall is entirely controlled by the mother, using the hormone progesterone.

Embryos can only implant in the womb wall if it is thick and has specialised large cells, so this means the female is effectively controlling whether or not she can get pregnant. This ability is called "spontaneous decidualization”.

In most other mammals, these changes to the womb are triggered by signals from the embryo. In effect, the womb lining thickens in response to pregnancy.

"There's a nice correlation between species that menstruate and species that exhibit spontaneous decidualization," says Emera.

"We argue that spontaneous decidualization likely evolved because of the conflict between the mother and the foetus," Emera says.

"We put forward two possibilities, especially in primates." The first is that spontaneous decidualisation may have evolved to protect the mother from an aggressive fetus.

All fetuses burrow into the linings of their mothers' wombs, in search of nourishment. But some do this more than others.

In horses, cows and pigs, the embryo simply sits on the surface of the womb lining. In dogs and cats, the fetuses dig in a little more. But in humans and other primates, a fetus will dig through all the womb lining to directly bathe in its mother's blood.

That's because mothers and babies are engaged in an "evolutionary tug-of-war", says Elizabeth Rowe of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The mother wants to ration how much nutrients she gives to each baby, so she has some left and can have more babies. On the other hand, the developing baby wants to get as much energy from its mother as it can.

"As the fetus became more aggressive, the mother responded by putting up her defenses before the invasion actually began," says Emera.

The second possibility is that spontaneous decidualization evolved to get rid of bad embryos.

Human embryos are very prone to genetic abnormalities, which is why so many pregnancies fail in the first few weeks. This might because of our unusual sexual habits, says Emera.

"Humans can copulate anytime during the reproductive cycle, unlike many other mammals that copulate right around ovulation," says Emera. This is called "extended copulation". Other menstruating primates, some of the menstruating bat species, and the elephant shrew all engage in extended copulation.

As a result, an egg may be several days old by the time it gets fertilized, says Emera. Aging eggs may result in abnormal embryos.

Once the womb lining has thickened and changed, its cells develop the ability to recognize and respond to defective embryos. So spontaneous decidualization may be a way for the mother to save her resources, says Emera. "It prevents her from investing in a bad embryo, lets her get rid of it right away, and primes her body for another successful pregnancy.”

In line with this idea, a study published in 2008 found that rhesus macaque embryos are also prone to genetic abnormalities. But we don't have similar data for many other species, says Emera, so this idea can't be properly tested.” ~

from Wiki:

~ Decidualization is a process that results in significant changes to cells of the endometrium in preparation for, and during, pregnancy. This includes morphological and functional changes to endometrial stromal cells (ESCs), the presence of decidual white blood cells (leukocytes), and vascular changes to maternal arteries.

In humans, decidualization occurs after ovulation during the menstrual cycle. After implantation of the embryo, the decidua further develops to mediate the process of placentation. In the event no embryo is implanted, the decidualized endometrial lining is shed or, as is the case with species that follow the estrous cycle, absorbed. ~


Let’s face it, this is not intelligent design. Decidualization? No thanks. Who profits? The makers of “feminine hygiene” products and blood stain removers and anti-cramp meds. But no, I'm not implying that they had anything to do with creating this mess — this is where evolution has failed women, big time. Well, at least women get to live past the mess. 


The intelligent design argument collapses when you look closely at all the horrible possibilities embedded in that design. Take the human female reproductive system. The placenta, that marvelous organ that negotiates between mother and fetus can fail in spectacular ways. In placenta previa the placenta is positioned incorrectly, partially or completely over the cervix, and can cause bleeding , threatening the pregnancy, and requiring a c section. The true horror comes with something called placenta accretia. Here the placenta does not simply attach to the uterine wall, it continues to grow into and even through the wall into the peritoneal cavity, and even on or into other organs. This particular design flaw is a catastrophe. The birth followed by massive hemorrhage which, if not immediately controlled, and hysterectomy done, results in death. It is rare, and was almost excluded in the curriculum when I was in nursing school, because it was so rare. However, one of my friends suffered this complication with her second pregnancy — the sudden massive hemorrhage was unexpected, and only the quick response of the surgical team saved her life with a hysterectomy. The intelligence of such failures in design is unimpressive at best.


The system is so complicated that endless things can go wrong. But first of all, no woman would ever design for menstruation. That’s a failure right there.


I think there comes an age when a woman just doesn't care what she looks like. Just to be alive is ecstatic. (I think. I hope.) Photo: Donato di Camillo
Ending on beauty:

“The wind came with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” ~ Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937.