I’M ALWAYS ASKED
WHERE I AM FROM
After the hundredth
time I knew I’d hear
that question for the rest
of my life. I cried
myself to sleep. Many
times. Many times.
Then I woke up and asked,
Where am I from?
Whose words do you speak,
my Old Church Slavonic mouth?
Who do you long for,
my Sephardic thigh?
Feet, did you walk
all the way from Ur?
Arms, did you build
Hands, did you glean
in foreign fields?
Who did you give birth to, hips,
licked by tongues of
firelight, steep bent shadows
kneeling down? Where
are we from? Let us ask
our mother, the Great She-Bear,
our father, the wolf.
Where are we from? If you start going back in time, then everyone is from somewhere else. We are all immigrants — recent or removed in time. Constant migration has been the law — and constant change. If we go back far enough in time, then we are one with the animals. And if really far enough, then our atoms are scattered in the stars.
Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: Everything else is public relations. ~ George Orwell
Oriana: I’m glad we have Orwell to provide some words of wisdom for our troubled times. Who knew we'd be turning to Orwell! We who'd lived through 1984 triumphantly shrugging our shoulders . . .
THE UNHEARD CRY IN “LION”
Let me enumerate the tragedies and near-tragedies in the movie.
1. a narrow escape from becoming a child sex slave. Little Saroo picks up subtle clues that there’s something insincere about the “kindness of strangeness” who want to sell him to pedophiles; his marvelous survival instinct tells him to run for his life. But this reminds us that many children are not so lucky. It’s simply too horrible to imagine their fate.
2. strong hints at sex abuse and physical abuse at the orphanage — another lucky escape. By the way, the orphanage sequence made me realize that due to the Victorian mores Dickens could not write about sex abuse at orphanages (or anywhere else) — but we need to fill in the blanks. Of course plenty of it was going on.
3. the brain-damaged adoptive brother blights the lives of the adoptive parents, especially the idealistic mother. This is a much needed reminder that some adoptions work out badly, even tragically. The media have begun to publicize this phenomenon. Here is Newsweek: “Many parents share deeply personal details about how they’ve been unable to bond with their adopted children. How they had no idea of the severity of their child’s disabilities when they took him or her home from an orphanage. How no one told them the child had fetal alcohol syndrome or other medical problems.
They relate stories about children who kill animals, harm siblings, set fires. Many seek help from therapists, adoption agencies, or state agencies, but nothing works. They don’t know what to do—they are financially depleted, their marriages are rocky or broken. These children have turned their lives upside down. One man recently wrote: “I just want my life back.” One woman with an 11-year-old adopted son from Guatemala, whose post on the message board was cited in the Reuters article, wrote: “I am totally ashamed to say it but we truly do hate this boy!”
4. the compulsive search for his hometown almost destroys Saroo’s life, and hurts people close to him
The way I understand the adult Saroo’s crazy behavior — his quitting his job and neglecting his health, alienating his wonderfully supportive girlfriend and parents — is that he develops an obsessive-compulsive disorder because basically he can’t succeed. On the face of it, it’s an impossible task. It still seems rather improbable that he did find his native village. But he must have known the odds were solidly against him, and he could spend his whole life just doing Google Earth — which is beginning to happen. And the compulsion is clearly devouring him, the way gambling might.
The longer he does it without success, the more compulsive and emotionally disturbed he becomes — another tragedy in the making for his adoptive parents. In the last moment it is averted, but — as Saroo’s girlfriend warns him: “You could spend your whole life trying to find the place, and never find it.” And that would be a terrible waste of life.
(For me this portrayal of compulsive behavior is actually the brilliant part of the movie. The first part, in India, is everyone’s favorite, and it is magical. You come to love the beautiful brave child. But during his search for hometown the adult Saroo gradually becomes less and less lovable, and we get to see how close he comes to becoming a wreck.)
THE UNHEARD CRY
There is of course a happy ending, but the movie is constantly at the edge of tragedy. And even the happy ending is mixed with tragedy. The lost child’s desperate scream of “Guddu!” — the name of his older brother who was supposed to come back for him — is repeated so many times in the crucial early scenes of the movie that in a sense it haunts the movie. When the adult Saroo starts searching for his native village, it’s as if he resumed calling “Guddu!” again, with growing desperation. Then during the reunion we learn that Guddu didn’t come back for his little brother because he got killed that night, hit by a train. Saroo kept on calling.
But that’s not the only unheard cry in Lion. Saroo knows that Guddu is looking for him, frantically calling his little brother’s name. He imagines Guddu wandering about, calling “Saroo! Saroo!” The adult Saroo actually says, “My real brother has been calling my name every day.” This becomes an even more ghostly cry once we learn about Guddu’s death.
This reminded me of a story I read in my Russian high school class, about a soldier who is sustained by imaginary conversations with his wife and children. Every night he talks with them in his head. When he returns from the war, he learns that his family perished in a bombing raid. He is stunned: “So all those years, every night I was talking with the dead!” He’s completely shaken by that.
We can shrug it off and conclude that both Saroo and the Russian soldier were lucky not to know. The memory of people they loved sustained them, never mind the mistaken certainty that those people still existed. It was ignorance rather than a pathological delusion. It was unquestioning hope. The redeeming factor is that the love the person gave us has shaped us and helped us. Saroo’s memory of his big brother’s loyalty and caring never completely faded. We receive so much love . . . and need to keep giving it.
We know from the start that there’ll be a happy ending — otherwise, let’s face it, the pain would be so overwhelming that there’d be no movie. Especially the first part in India teeters constantly on the verge of a horror story, but we know the adorable little boy is extraordinary — smart and strong beyond his age, his survival instinct infallible. He’ll be saved — somehow. But we need to see just how close this movie comes to presenting precisely an enormity of pain. Saroo’s unheard cry and his dead brother’s imagined cry will resound in the viewer’s mind for a long time.
Yet unless we hear that cry for what it is — a desperate cry for help — Lion will remain merely a superior type of a “weepie.” The novels of Dickens led to a moral awakening and social change, such as laws against child labor. So much needs to be done — post-adoption services, for instance, for adoptive parents who end up with a damaged child. More support when it comes to child care in general, and protection from abuse. These are our children, and everything depends on the quality of nurturing they receive.
Yet Lion is definitely uplifting — though, to me, because of my personal experience with compulsive behavior, not as an example of persistence. Even persistence can become pathological, and yes, there are plenty of cases where it’s best to give up. No, it’s rather an example of how the actions of a single good person can make a difference.
Social problems can be overwhelming — can “better access to mental health services” really be meaningful if the huge underlying issue is poverty? And yet . . . this movie shows us that just one person, for instance the woman who works for the adoption agency, braving the hostility of the orphanage staff, can save a child, and another, and another.
There is a saying in the Talmud: “Who saves one life saves the whole world.” It’s not a crazy hyperbole. We are all part of the great story of humanity. Every act of goodness counts. Even one person willing to sit by you and hold your hand can turn hell if not into heaven, then into an endurable reality, since now you’re not alone. You’re connected. Through one person, you’re connected to all that is good in humanity.
“Envying another man's happiness is madness; you wouldn't know what to do with it if you had it.” ~ André Gide
Andy Warhol by Alice Neel, 1970. He's wearing a supportive corset after being shot by a member of his entourage, Valerie Solanas, in 1968. Solanas was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Andy spent months in a hospital and never recovered completely. The scars are surgical — his surgeons opened his chest and massaged his heart to help restart it. His assailant was out after serving a 3-year sentence (part of it in a mental hospital), and Andy began to suffer from a debilitating anxiety that she would seek to kill him again.
Andy Warhol's grave. I think he'd love the “hands in prayer” — except the image should be replicated at least 20 times. A fan's homage with a soup can is perfection.
The cross is Eastern Orthodox. Warhol’s parents came from Slovakia but were part of the small Lemko ethnic group which identifies more with Ukraine — so this is a *Byzantine* Catholic Cemetery.
WELCOME TO THE POST-FUTURE
~ Come on, read my future for me.
~ You haven't got any.
~ What do you mean?
~ Your future is all used up.
So speaks a fortune-telling madam, played by Marlene Dietrich, to the drunken sheriff of a border town, played by Orson Welles, in "Touch of Evil."
Her words have a sad resonance, because Welles was never again to direct in Hollywood after making this dark, atmospheric story of crime and corruption.” (Roger Ebert, review of Touch of Evil)
Oriana: I do feel post-future. I used to describe myself as "posthumous," but people were put off by it, so let me settle on “post-future.” At long last (a very long last), I really take it a day at a time. I'm in recovery from my past addiction to the future.
Marlene Dietrich and Fred Astaire
IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST
~ “When I first entered the netherworld of corruption and violence in 1993 for a first-time, nonviolent LSD conspiracy, the first two books I read when I hit prison were Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast. I was already a big fan of Mailer from reading The Naked and The Dead in my teens, but as a skinny, 22-year-old, white kid from the suburbs, with multiple decades to serve, I decided that reading Abbott’s book was paramount to my survival.
Being completely ignorant on prison life, besides what I’d seen in the movies, I knew that getting up to speed was crucial to my well being. Abbott’s book became a kind of prison Cliff's Notes for me. A guide on how to act, what to say, and how to conduct myself in any given situation on the inside.
During the writing of the The Executioner’s Song —a book about condemned killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer took Abbott—a New York state prisoner and self proclaimed “state raised convict” who’d served much of his life in prison for manslaughter, bank robbery and forgery charges—under his wing and groomed him as a writer. With Mailer’s guidance and support, Abbott not only became a prison celebrity, but was released in 1981 on parole, despite being prone to violence and having spent years of his sentence in solitary confinement.
Tragically, Abbott committed another murder within six weeks of his release. Mailer was devastated that his protege had reverted to form and ruined his promise of becoming New York City’s next literary darling.
As an aspiring prison author the relationship between Mailer and Abbott intrigued me, as did the fact that I saw my literary pursuits as a route to recognition in the world. A way to redeem myself and make a future for myself so to speak. In a new book, Jack and Norman: A State Raised Convict and the Legacy of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, out Feb 21, Jerome Loving tackles the story of the master, his apprentice, and the terrible conclusion to their story. The Daily Beast chatted with him about what drew him to write the book, how prison dehumanizes people, and how artistic talent shouldn’t trump personal conduct.
Q: How does Abbott’s book, on what he went through in the dehumanizing industrial prison complex, relate to what is going on today in our nation concerning mass incarceration?
It may show that early and long incarceration irreparably damages a person. Probably the worst use of prison is reform school, or whatever they’re calling it these days. In Jack Abbott’s case, his anger—which grew exponentially over the years of his incarceration—turned into what I call “prison paranoia.” I learned from Abbott that prisoners are generally polite to one another because they are so close-quartered that even an assumed slight could result in bodily injury or death. When Abbott went from essentially solitary to the city in 1981, he was disturbed at how impolite New Yorkers could be on the street. He was easily threatened and soon took to wearing a concealed dagger, which he ultimately used to kill a waiter who had refused him the right of a restroom in an all-night restaurant.
How did Mailer feel when he went out on a limb to help get Abbott out and set him up with a literary career and then Abbott fucked it all up?
He was devastated, deeply disappointed and saddened that it had led to the death of an innocent person. Yet, as I said, he still maintained his faith that literary talent trumped personal behavior and sought to get Jack a shorter sentence.
Does this example show that literary or artistic talent shouldn't trump personal conduct? Why or why not?
Yes, I’m afraid it does in Jack’s case. There is a long history to this question. Was it right, for example, for American authors to honor the poet Ezra Pound, an anti-Semite who was accused of broadcasting for the fascists during World War II? The question of the morality of the death penalty aside, should California in 1960 have executed Caryl Chessman, who as a condemned man became a best-selling author? Abbott might possibly have made it if he had gone to the right halfway house instead of the one in the then crime-ridden Lower East Side.
In the Belly of the Beast was published in 1981 and we are still dealing with a lot of the problems with the corrections industry that he outlined in his book. Why has the shady and dehumanizing world of prison been allowed to keep operating as it has been?
That question may be beyond whatever expertise I have here. In my book, I quote from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a classic about the utopia the Puritans envisioned in the New World: “In the chapter entitled ‘The Prison Door,’ he wrote, ‘The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than any thing else in the new world. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era.’ This historical novel is full of the same irony that haunts the American penal system, whose prisons are still called ‘penitentiaries.’”
In other words, it’s not “taxes and death,” but human misbehavior and death that we as a society can’t get away from. I happen to live in a state (Texas) where the prisons are gulags. Fewer than a quarter of its prisons are even air-conditioned. In a recent court case, a prisoner is reported to have died of temperatures approaching 150 degrees.
Prisons are a relatively new phenomenon, existing only since 1800. Before that the punishments were stocks, maiming, torture and death. The first American prison, as I say in chapter 3 of my book, took the word “penitent” literally and limited its sentences to two years. During that time the prisoner saw nobody but guards and was expected to become “sorry” for his crime.” ~
Prisoners become very thin-skinned about the slightest insults to their "honor." It's a deadly "honor culture" where the inmate is to take ruthless revenge for any breach of "respect." So then yes, imagine this abnormally thin-skinned person among the "impolite" New Yorkers . . . and yet it's indeed plausible that a half-way house with the right kind of counseling and training could have prevented the tragedy described here. Btw, Abbott died in prisoner, a likely suicide.
'When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak.’ ~ Erich Fromm
Oriana: Armed with the knowledge of history, we can say, “Not this time.” Perhaps that’s not enough to stop organized greed and hatred, but at least we won’t go down like sheep.
WHY NEWTON PREFERRED THEOLOGY OVER PHYSICS
~ “Seeing everything natural as an object, inert, senseless and detached from us, arose as part of the dualist vision of a split between body and soul. It was designed to glorify God by removing all competing spiritual forces from the realm of nature. It therefore showed matter itself as dead, a mere set of billiard-ball particles bouncing mechanically off each other, always best represented by the imagery of machines. For that age, life and all the ideals relevant to humanity lay elsewhere, in our real home — in the zone of spirit. (That, of course, was why Newton, to the disgust of later scholars, was far more interested in theology than he was in physics.)
But the survival of this approach today, when physicists have told us that matter does not actually consist of billiard balls, when we all supposedly believe that we are parts of the natural biosphere, not colonists from spiritual realms — when indeed many of us deny that such realms even exist — seems rather surprising.
Why do we still think like this? Why can't we be more realistic? McGilchrist's explanation of such oddities in terms of our divided [left and right brain hemispheres] nature is clear, penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating. Though neurologists may well not welcome it because it asks them new questions, the rest of us will surely find it splendidly thought-provoking.” ~
Newton' s Tomb at Westminster Abbey
There is some trend to reanimate nature — hence perhaps various kinds of neo-pagan revival, e.g. in Iceland. Some people want both ritual and closeness to nature.
But the article engaged me most when it provided an explanation for Newton’s preference for theology over physics. “For [Newton’s] age, life and all the ideals relevant to humanity lay elsewhere, in our real home — in the zone of spirit.” What was earthly life compared to eternity? What was the earth compared to heaven? Obviously life and the earth were disvalued by such imaginary comparisons.
Though some scholars see Newton as a deist who rejected an interventionist god, what actually seemed to interest Newton most was prophecies. He thought the world might end in 2060. Other possible dates (arrived at by calculation) were 2034 and 2016. Rome, the seat of the papacy and thus Anti-Christ, would sink into the sea due to volcanic explosion.
All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. ~ Martin Buber
“I NO LONGER PRAY”: MOTHER TERESA’S LETTERS REVEAL HER DOUBT ABOUT HER FAITH
~ "If there be no God — there can be no soul — if there is no Soul then Jesus — You also are not true.” ~ Mother Teresa, 1959, in a letter
"Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear," she wrote to the Rev. Michael van der Peet in September 1979.
(Oriana: I really identify with that. The silence and emptiness, no matter how attentive I was to what might be even the slightest evidence of god’s existence, finally revealed this: I’d been praying to empty air.)
"I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God -- tender, personal love," she wrote to one adviser. "If you were (there), you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.’"
Mother Teresa’s letters nonetheless stand in marked contrast to her public image as a selfless and tireless minister for the poor who was driven by faith.
"I've never read a saint's life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented," the Rev. James Martin, an editor at Jesuit magazine America and the author of "My Life with the Saints," told Time.
"Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead," she wrote in 1953. "It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.'"
Then in 1956: "Such deep longing for God — and ... repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. (Saving) souls holds no attraction — Heaven means nothing — pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything."
And then in 1959: "If there be no God — there can be no soul — if there is no Soul then Jesus — You also are not true.”
At times she also found it hard to pray.
"I utter words of community prayers — and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give — but my prayer of union is not there any longer — I no longer pray."
St. John of the Cross
From another source:
~ "She says in a letter, 'I came to India with the desire to love Jesus as he has never been loved before,'" [her editor] said. "She was a woman passionately in love with Jesus."
Yet no sooner did Teresa start her work in the slums of Calcutta than she began to feel the intense absence of Jesus — a state that lasted until her death, according to her letters.
In a letter estimated to be from 1961, Teresa wrote: "Darkness is such that I really do not see — neither with my mind nor with my reason — the place of God in my soul is blank — There is no God in me — when the pain of longing is so great — I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can't explain.”
Catholic saints typically experience a "dark night of the soul" in the words of 16th-century priest St. John of the Cross, Martin said, but never as long as the "whole working life" Teresa experienced.
Possibly some readers are puzzled by Teresa’s view that her great longing to have faith has been “repulsed.” The fact that she could not feel the presence of god or see any evidence of his existence led Mother Teresa to conclude not that god didn’t in fact exist; rather, he existed and deliberately rejected her. This peculiar conclusion stems from the teachings of the church: faith is a gift that could be granted or withheld by god.
This used to puzzle me: why would god give the gift of faith (and thus the chance to escape eternal damnation) only to some but not to the majority of people (by “faith” the church meant of course the Roman Catholic doctrine)? Furthermore, the most ardent believers seemed to be uneducated elderly women. The poorly educated in general were more likely to have been given the “gift of faith.”
A preface is always bad and a translator’s preface positively immoral. But, sometimes, like immorality, a necessary thing. The only preface of a work is the reader’s brain. ~ Fernando Pessoa
A swamp sunset; Haley Hyatt
HIP-SURGERY PATIENTS RECOVERED MORE SLOWLY WHEN THEY DWELLED ON POSITIVE FANTASIES OF WALKING WITHOUT PAIN
Yes, you read that correctly: they recovered MORE SLOWLY. This is almost as startling as the results of the famous 2006 STEP prayer study, in which those patients who knew they were being prayed for experienced significantly more post-surgery complications. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. We have several studies by now that show that cultivating fantasies of already having accomplished the goal tends to lessen your efforts to achieve the goal. I think it’s related to the phenomenon well-known to writers: “talking out the book” may prevent them from ever writing the book. The drive to write is gone.
What also caught my attention is one of the readers’ comments:
“Positive thinking demands ego, demands your mental hard drive. Not that you shouldn't think -- please, reality test things. But letting go of thinking and willing and pushing can have something to do with activating intuitive thinking, which can be much more powerful and useful.”
Here is an excerpt from the New Yorker article:
~ “Since publishing “The Secret,” in 2006, the Australian author Rhonda Byrne has been writing self-help manifestos based on the idea that people who think positive thoughts are rewarded with happiness, wealth, influence, wisdom, and success.
There’s no denying that many people have found comfort in Byrne’s ideas. Like religion, they offer an appealing, non-technical solution to life’s biggest problems while demanding nothing more of their adherents than faith. (Indeed, “The Secret” features verses from Matthew and Mark, promoting the idea that people receive in life what they seek in prayer.) But while many people give religion a pass because it claims to focus on questions that can’t be answered with science, the same is not true of success. Though Byrne presents her ideas without evidence, we can measure their worth with data.
According to a great deal of research, positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding. In one experiment, the social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences. Those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically. Hip-surgery patients also recovered more slowly when they dwelled on positive fantasies of walking without pain.
Heather Barry Kappes, a management professor at the London School of Economics, has published similar research with Oettingen. I asked Kappes why fantasies hamper progress, and she told me that they dull the will to succeed: “Imagining a positive outcome conveys the sense that you’re approaching your goals, which takes the edge off the need to achieve.” Oettingen and Kappes asked two groups of undergraduates to imagine the coming week. One group fantasized that the week would go as well as possible, whereas the other group conjured a more neutral version of the week. One week later, when the students returned to the lab, the positive fantasizers felt that they had accomplished less over the previous week.” ~
Since I know it may be difficult to accept the idea that “positive thinking” could have bad effects, here is an excerpt from another source:
~ “One of the experiments tested whether water-deprived participants would experience an energy drain from visualizing a glass of icy cold water (a simple but elegant study design) and found that indeed, in even something so basic, the brain responds as if the goal has been reached.
From a "proof is in the pudding" standpoint, the research showed that participants told to visualize attaining goals throughout the course of the week ended up attaining far fewer goals than a control group told they could mull over the week's challenges any way they liked. The positive visualizers also self-reported feeling less energetic than the control group, and physiological tests supported their claim.
So if not crafting positive fantasies of success, what might be a better use of our time and imagination? Kappes and Oettingen suggest we try critical visualization, in which realistic obstacles, setbacks, and other decidedly not-so-positive factors are considered. Even failure itself, in all its rawness, should be thrown in and dabbled with as a possible outcome. As odd as it sounds, this research suggests that even random daydreaming is less deflating than positive fantasizing.” ~
The critical statement seems to be “the brain responds as if the goal has been reached.” Mission accomplished — so energy need not be expended actually doing anything.
This is similar to the formation of false memories. Imagining one’s Ph.D. dissertation as already written could be the worst way to motivate yourself to get started.
Maybe we should let go of these visualizations, affirmations, and other attempts to manipulate the self and the future — and instead open up to the surprises that well up from the unconscious. My guiding principle is simply trusting the unconscious. You don’t have to teach a child how to play, or a dog how to sniff. Likewise, you don’t need to try to “guide” your fantasies. Stop “pushing.” If you like to fantasize, just let it happen.
ending on beauty:
“O, grief hath changed me since you saw me last,
And careful hours with Time's deformed hand
Have written strange defeatures in my face.
But tell me yet, dost thou not know my voice?”
~ William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors
“Defeatures” seems a wonderful combination of “defeats” and “features.” “Seems” is the critical word here — and yet the moment I noticed the word, I felt utter delight. Another example of how the content of poetry can be sad, and yet it’s not distressing — our pleasure in the art prevails.