Thursday, December 16, 2010


[Ladder to Paradise, 12th century icon, St. Catherine Monastery, Mt. Sinai; note the demons trying to pull down the souls]



In heaven, I do not know that there are angels,
but I know there are numbers there, and light.
(Arithmetic and heaven are both uncountably
full of light.) Inaccessible cardinals, there
will lord it over mere infinities;
the naturals will dance among the reals . . .

Apart from numbers, how little we know.

There is no largest prime. The Halting Problem
is formally undecidable. Every subset
of a well-ordered set is well-ordered itself. And so on . . .

Such things are true, even easy to prove.
Are there uncountably more, unknowably other
true things about the world?

I had to go away. A woman I love
(and this is true, too) put an icon
of an archangel into the glove-compartment
of my car. I haven’t looked, but I know it is there,
as I know there is no largest prime.

she said. His numberless wings cloak all of us
poor travelers who do not know, but are not lost.
The angel, she said, of happy meetings, after all.

~ David Dwyer (deceased husband of Kathleen Norris)

“Some people bristle at the suggestion that they be held accountable for their mental states,” Kathleen Norris states in her new book, Acedia and Me: A marriage, monks, and a writer's life. She also quotes Thomas Merton: “It takes real courage to recognize that we ourselves are the cause of our own unhappiness.”

This is not a fashionable attitude. I think that is precisely the core problem in our Age of the Not-Responsible Me, the Age of the Victim. Like Norris, I hasten to exclude the type of depression that has a clear physiological cause, e.g. being severely hypothyroid and/or hypoestrogenic. Likewise, I do not equate depression with “normal grief,” e.g. the process of normal mourning after the death of loved one. I am thrilled that Norris chose the medieval term acedia (from Greek for “torpor” or “non-caring”) to label what I call chronic depression, a “spirit of sadness,” a habit of suffering – a state of mind that can last for decades.

Responsibility for one’s thoughts the Catholic viewpoint, of course – hence, "sinning in thought." I don't mean "dirty thoughts" or occasional feelings of anger, envy, etc – things I used to confess as if they were serious sins. But I do wonder about deliberately indulging in negative thoughts, allowing the downward spiral of depression suck you in.

When I was doing self-loathing, I never saw anything wrong with it. Now I do: I could have used those hours doing something good for myself and/or others, if only just reading. I wish I had all that time back for studying, learning, writing, or even just taking walks. But time wasted doesn't return. Worse: because practice makes perfect, I can easily tick off the worst times in my life, but have to really strain to remember anything good. I KNOW that good things have happened to me, but since I don't think about them, positive memories are difficult to access. That, I think, is a loss.

And I remember a poem by Auden that ends something like this:

On Judgment Day,
God will reduce you to tears of shame
reciting by heart
the poems you would have written
had your life been good.

Now, what matters to a writer is not so much the things that happened, but the things that s/he remembers. Of course I have poems about exquisite moments, for instance about seeing eight or so coyotes run single file in the hills: their grace of movement was ecstatic to watch. But I do wonder about how much I may have missed, overall, due to the great predominance of sad memories. Yet I know it’s possible to practice remembering good things. This is a trivial feat compared with the “mental hygiene” depicted on “A Beautiful Mind.” 

Yet when I say “state of mind,” I am reminded of my own breakthrough discovery: depression is not only a state of mind, but also a set of behaviors. When you change your behavior, your state of mind also changes. The opposite is also true: change your state of mind, and your behavior will change. For some people it's easier to change behavior; others (think of actors) are adept at inducing any emotional state they wish: cheerful or weepy. The point is: we have an amazing degree of control. In control begins responsibility. A scary thought, unwelcome in our age. And Kathleen Norris strongly hints that ours is the Age of Acedia: we would rather wallow in our bed of sloth and uncaring, miserable as that bed feels, than start walking toward healing.  

To experience despair is human; to languish in chronic despair for years on end is pathological. Norris sees similarities between writers and monks, and that includes the susceptibility to depression (the latest Internet survey did find writers and artists highly susceptible to mood disorders, though nursing home and childcare workers place first). “Acedia is a danger to anyone whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value. The world doesn’t care if I write another word, and if I am to care, I have to summon all my interior motivation and strength.”

Labels can be of immense importance. Acedia gradually advanced to the status of Despair, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. As a practicing Christian, Norris got to see acedia as a temptation, something she knew she could resist. I saw acedia as a behavior, and behavior can be changed. Both Norris and I were inspired by the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” in which a brilliant schizophrenic scientist uses the healthy part of his brain function to identify his delusions, which he then chooses to dismiss as they arise. What is critical here is the exercise of the power of volition, not its conceptual framework. “Whatever works” will be a refrain throughout this post.

Naturally, Norris got attacked for what was perceived as an assertion that depression is something a person can snap out of. She walks on eggshells around it, unwilling to assert that at least some of us can snap out of it, just as the exceptional few (Dashiel Hemmet is my idol here) can quit drinking and/or smoking cold turkey, without endless hours of attending AA meetings. Such people are shrugged off. We disturb the experts.

But it does me good to have a tenuous soulmate in Kathleen Norris -- just as it felt good to have a friend talk about his experiences of the volitional element in depression (“I could enter depression at will”) and, at 52, his decision not to be depressed. If only we could hold a convention, collecting I wonder how many people who'd be willing to come out of the closet and say, "I did it without drugs or therapy. Here is what I do instead of depression." Once I opened up, I started meeting people who amazed me by saying things such as, “Around fifty, I went off drugs. Now, if I start not feeling good, I just listen to music, and pretty soon I’m OK.” I don’t care if this is not typical. We exist. What’s even more miraculous, most of the time we live more contented (and conscious – do I dare say “enlightened”?) lives than before the onset of depression.

Initially, my principle was to maintain the "Mask of Normalcy" – first out of literal, irrational fear that if someone saw my depression, I would be involuntarily committed to a mental ward and given shock treatments and toxic drugs; later in part out of habit, but also because I didn't want “trouble.” Thus, if the phone rang while I was in the middle of a crying fit, I had the time window of three rings to blow my nose and normalize enough so that my voice could "pass." I could also claim sinus congestion.

Why this secrecy? I didn't feel that I was among soulmates. The intuition that others would not act in my best interest, but only in theirs, kept me on guard. I felt I had to be strong – which later proved excellent practice for non-depressed behavior. You see, if you practice being strong – even if you fake being strong – you become stronger. The mask becomes the face. In this case, I love it. Whatever works.


For me, the pleasure of delving into this book had nothing to do with Norris’s prayer practice – nor with the struggles of monks with the noontime demon. I wasn’t even interested in Baudelaire’s “spleen” – I already knew too much about that. For me the most fascinating part of the book deals with Norris’s marriage to David Dwyer, a brilliant, unusual person, a writer and a mathematician.

David recovered from his bout of suicidal depression through social interaction with other patients on the mental ward. His psychiatrist miraculously prescribed only a sleeping pill, to be used as needed. Living in a rural community in South Dakota, the couple had to deal with isolation. Kathleen found her community of soulmates among the Benedictines. David, a lapsed Catholic who didn’t care for the pedestrian post-Vatican II liturgy, had a more difficult time – yet ultimately more social interaction turned out to be his equivalent of prayer practice, yoga, hiking or the like activities that serve others.

Whenever Kathleen Norris writes about her husband, who died of lung cancer (the kind that feels particularly unfair because it’s not caused by smoking) at the age of 57, the mixture of humor and love works wonders to engage the reader. The deathbed scene is so charming in an unusual way that instead of a quick paraphrase, I want to quote it:

“David’s pulmonologist . . . authorized the nurse to stop administering anything but pain medication, which allowed David to die on Friday morning, a good Catholic goy to the last. Before he died I had more than an hour alone with him, except for a nurse who came in occasionally to read the monitors registering his vital signs. I spoke to David and recited some poetry. He responded only once, when I said the Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy, indeed. I could not recall the Latin for the requiem hymn “In Paradisum,” which David had told me he loved, but hoped that the English would do: “May the angels lead you into Paradise.” David muttered something incomprehensible, and I felt a faint pressure on my hand.

I watched the monitors as his heart rate slowly declined.  . . . I hadn’t requested a chaplain, but one appeared at the door and asked if he could pray with us. I couldn’t refuse, and was grateful that the man had a gift for spontaneous prayer. He asked whether there was a Scripture passage I’d like him to read, and I said Psalm 27. But, casting a suspicious eye on the Bible in his hands, I asked, “What translation is that?” It was the New International Version. “That’s not acceptable,” I told him, and explained that my husband was a poet and needed more beautiful language. As I did not want to let go of my husband’s hand I asked him to dig out the Book of Common Prayer from my purse. It had been a gift from David, many years before. Hospital chaplains must receive many odd requests, but the man proved reluctant to root around in a woman’s handbag. This is becoming quite a spectacle, I told David, but I am only trying to find you a decent translation. I am certain that he heard me. I would not let go of his hand, but I did take my eyes off him for a moment as I attempted a one-handed retrieval of the book from the depths of my bag. While I was thus occupied, the nurse told us, “His heart has stopped.” I could only sigh and say that David was always doing this to me in airports, too. The minute my back was turned, he’d be off somewhere, and I’d have to go look for him. “See,” the nurse replied, “he was being himself, right up to the end.”

I totally agree about the need for the best translation. After reading this I thought that dying is almost worth it if you can have Kathleen Norris to describe it.

Some of you may find it difficult to believe that, with her husband sinking fast, Norris would quibble about which translation of the Psalm was acceptable. O ye of little faith! Beautiful language comes first. It is what poets worship. At her husband’s deathbed, Norris proves that she is a true poet.


For me another jewel in the book was the reference to the story in John, 5:1-18, about the lame man at the pool of Bethesda. This was the pool that at a certain season was "troubled" (I love the word in the KJ version) by an angel, and whoever among the blind, the lame, and the paralytics got into the pool first would be healed.

The wonderful part is that Jesus asks the lame man if he wants to be healed. And the man does not say Yes. He says that he has no one to help him, and by the time he gets to the water, “another steps in before me.” This has been going on for 38 years The man’s belief is that he can’t win; someone always beats him to it. Even though this reason sounds legit, the fact that the man does not start the reply with "Yes" suggests that he’s found a perfect excuse.

What is even more interesting is that Jesus does not insist on a Yes. He does not berate the man for not being motivated enough, or not having enough faith, or past sins that may have caused the lameness. Nor does he analyze the sins of the man’s parents. He says, "Pick up thy bed (other versions say "mat") and walk." And the man picks up his bed/mat and walks.

Jesus does not go into arguments about motivation and faith and the sins of the past. He refuses to play either theologian or therapist. No cogitating – presumably enough of that has been going on for 38 years. He orders action. I imagine him playing a drill sergeant: Rise! Pick up your bed! Walk! One-two, one-two .  . . 

And the lame man walks.

Need I even say how thrilling this story is to me, coming back after so many years? It meant little to me when I was a child and a young teen – it was just another healing, made memorable only by the location. Only now I see the connection to depression, and one way it can be overcome – not by everyone, no, but I bet by quite a few people. Don't sit or lie there, thinking about your problems -- do something! Action, action, action. A commitment to activity, to work, to staying active. It's so simple, I want to laugh.

Actually, just as I love the angel's troubling the water, I love the word bed rather than mat. Even a small, portable bed would be more effort to carry than a mat, and I think an activity that requires effort is more healing than strolling about with a light mat. Right away you’re proud of yourself for having enough strength. Greater effort means better focus.

(Also, it’s easy for me to imagine merchants sprawled for blocks around Bethesda, hawking poolside supplies to the handicapped – including, of course, the Port-a-Bed, since the wait both for the angel and for winning the race to the pool could be a long one.)

(Note the angel swooping down to trouble the water. Presumably it’s Raphael/Israfil, the angel of healing. Alas, the name of the painter was not provided, but my guess is someone influenced by Murillo.)


Now, given how I rejoice in my conscious decision not to be depressed, it may seem contradictory that I also rejoice in the story that seems to say, you don’t have to want to be healed; just start doing something. Let me explain. In my case, at this stage of my life, the motivation was important. So important that without my sudden disgust with depression, which had become repetitive and non-creative, and my desire to be done with it, I would probably still be stuck in the bog of sullenness that Dante describes in the Inferno. But I also remembered an earlier time when I was not depressed even though I was by no means ready to close that door. At the time, life kept me so busy that my lack of commitment to not being depressed simply did not matter.

In a nutshell, I was too busy to be depressed. I was teaching, I was writing, I was traveling as a reporter to conventions and conferences. Remembering those busy years and my freedom from depression during that time, I had the answer about what to do after making my decision: work. Work, not religion, turned out to be my salvation. It wasn’t any new activities. I played with an idea of exploring some new pursuits, but introverts don’t like novelty. I was happy enough to do what I was doing, just with more intensity and commitment. In fact, my goal is LESS:  to do fewer things, but do them better.

An introvert’s paradise: LESS. My dream of a “zero room” with nothing in it except winter light. Shed, shed, shed the distractions, the non-nourishing people and activities. Music, yes, but the most wonderful music is silence. Then my whimsical brain can start playing a violin concerto in my head. Itzhak Perlman. Only the best.

I fully agree with Norris’s advice: “Perform the humblest of tasks with full attention and no fussing over the whys and wherefores.” I used to discourage myself from writing, because what sense did it make? Who would read it? Then I understood that I simply can’t afford to ask certain questions. And an aphorism was born in my heart: A happy life is as meaningless as a cloudless sky, but it can still be enjoyed. This may not works for others, but for me, who used to despise happiness as a mark of idiocy (recently I’ve been told that this is a European view), it marks a revolutionary change in attitude. 

Likewise, I can’t afford to think either of the remote past (I mean mainly my youth, the time of the shattering of dreams) or the remote future. The potential to activate debilitating suffering is too great. But I don’t insist on being strictly in the Now. That has become one of the holy cows of New Age. Some planning for the near future is perfectly in order. I can’t afford to Dream Big (another disastrous precept that leads to a collision with the iceberg of reality), but I love to dream small, in terms of “attainable felicity.” Better a small step toward an attainable felicity than a giant leap in the wrong direction. And since life works by paradox, it’s often by concentrating on the small, the “narrow slice,” that we find something immense.

By the time I made my commitment to non-depression, all the mood-supporting activities were in place: getting up early, intense exercise, listening to music. I have also already made the mood-friendly diet discoveries: flax-seed oil (Flora – other brands are rancid), fish oil (Coromega and Life Extension; other brands are rancid), and of course lots of protein (to increase dopamine production) were also in place. More frequent meals, to stabilize blood sugar. Who knew that two eggs a day builds character? Who knew that intense exercise remodels your brain and increases stress resistance?

Well, I knew. I knew almost all of it for years – though not quite the thirty-eight years that the lame man waited. A true depressive loves the uncomfortable bed of depression, and is completely uninterested in anything as shallow and meaningless as happiness. Fortunately, it’s not happiness that is the opposite of depression; it’s vitality (thank you, oh wise Andrew Solomon; thank you also for your rare courage in admitting to loving depression).

To my fellow introverts: Rejoice! We don’t have to be happy! We can keep our creativity and be vital!

Here are some jingles I developed as the fun part of my knowledge of various incidentals that help preserve vitality – meaning a good-enough mood and lasting energy.

Early to rise, early to bed
keeps the Muse singing in your head.

Flax seed, fish oil, olive oil
against demons make a foil.

Why risk depression at Denny’s?
Sardines and tomatoes cost pennies.

Two eggs a day
keep the anti-depressants away.

And when troubles come our way,
let us tango them away.

Don’t cry for me Argentina
taking action is my coffee suprema.

Overthinking a disease?
Happy bee that sails the breeze.

Overcome with blues and blahs?
Wait no more – clean the house.

For self-loathing have no heart –
many others are worse than thou art.

An avocado will keep you merry
while you write better than “Brooklyn’s Ferry.”

With exercise do not delay.
Rise up and shout olé! olé!

(I could go on, but this exercise is hazardous to my credibility as a poet.)

You may not yet know about intense exercise – that is a recent study. But I knew the rest, and simply wasn’t motivated enough to put it into practice. What finally did motivate me was the humbling fact of getting older. Too late, I thought. Too late to waste what life remained. Too late for suicide. Too late for depression. Jack Gilbert goes further: it’s too late even for discontent (true, I’ve done enough grumbling for several lifetimes).

And besides, quite suddenly, after so many years, I was out of love with depression. I saw that it was boring – so repetitious, it just wasn’t fun anymore. And there were those ominous studies showing that depression is a risk factor for just about every nasty disease. The health nut in me could not sustain cognitive dissonance forever.


Kathleen Norris relies on prayer, and that’s fine with me. Whatever works. As soon as my mother saw that I left the church, she told me, “Never try to convince a believer that there is no god. For all you know, faith is all that keeps that person alive.” I never forgot that admonition.

Personally, I can’t easily dismiss David’s often repeated question to Kathleen Norris: Doesn’t it bother you that none of this is true? My intellect will not be muzzled simply with the invocation of mystery. The cosmic mystery is certainly there – no one is more acutely aware of it than scientists, who know how little they know. But that mystery does not point to anyone’s having died for our sins. However, as a writer and a reader, I know about “suspension of disbelief.” What is not literally true may still be metaphorically true. I can enjoy various Gospel stories on the metaphorical level and I love finding personal meaning in them.

And the sheer loveliness of angels, the nativity story, the gentle face of Mary – I can delight in the beauty of it all without the intellect-violating baggage of archaic beliefs and the pedestrian language of the post-Vatican II services. I can even speak of heaven and hell, not as places, but as states of mind. I love being lapsed – I can have the beauty without intellectual self-mutilation.

Recently I talked with an acquaintance about how some people can believe and others can’t. She even knew a scientist who was a believer. “It’s because of the great need some people have to turn to someone in distress,” she said. “I understand that,” I said. I’ve witnessed need-based faith – in recovering addicts, for instance. For me the need declined as contentment grew, and as I was lucky enough to be able to build my small but immensely important “community of affection.” And my acquaintance agreed that the more contentment, the less the need for an invisible helping hand. We have real hands to do good with, right here on earth. We may no longer have the comfort of old-time religion, but we have one another.

Norris puts great emphasis on caring relationships with others. The opposite of every deadly sin is a cardinal virtue. The great task, Norris explains, is not run away from sin, but to work your way through to the virtue on the other side. Thus, the way to deal with greed is to work through to generosity. With acedia, the point is not to repress it, but to work through to its “virtue side,” which is caring.

Amid hundreds of quotations – I can’t decide if this is the book’s vice or virtue – the author quotes from Stephen Spender’s introduction to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. “The Consul’s despair is really acedia . . . His errors are theological: refusal to love or be loved. Ultimately his sin is pride.” Consequently, besides caring, the other virtue on the other side of acedia is humility. Paradoxically, it’s humility that precludes a depressive’s self-loathing; you know you are simply not special enough to be that bad.

The Catholic Church that left an indelible imprint on my psyche no longer exists. But beauty still exists everywhere around me. All poets are mystics anyway, just in their own fashion. I revere kindness and beauty. For me, that is religion enough. I know it may not be enough for others.

Kathleen Norris quotes Chaucer: “A great heart is needed against acedia, lest it swallow up the soul.” To me, “heart” means the ability to love. There is no doubt that Norris has a great heart. Yet she is tough, too, bringing up self-discipline again and again. For me her message is, once more, “love and work.” Also, all that goes with work and love: commitment, engagement, being fully present, dedication, persistence even when the going gets rough. But this is not a prescription for others. For one person, the foundation of a fulfilling life may be communion with nature; for another, parenthood; for someone else, religious faith; for yet another, great music. Or a combination of some or all of these. Whatever works.

In honor of Kathleen Norris’s spiritual practice, let me close with two versions of Psalm 1, the traditional and the “updated.” I lean toward the King James version with its hypnotic language, and its warning against sitting in the seat of the scornful.

Psalm 1, King James Version

 1Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
 2But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
 3And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
 4The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
 5Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
 6For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

Psalm 1 (modernized version by Stephen Mitchell)

Blessed are the man and the woman
who have grown beyond their greed

and have put an end to their hatred
and no longer nourish illusions.

But they delight in the way things are
and keep their hearts open, day and night.

They are like trees planted near flowing rivers
which bear fruit when they are ready.

Their leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.


(A Russian icon showing the Archangels: Raphael is on bottom right)


Holy cow! 

Pick up our beds and walk to our healing.

I have an extraordinary dream about exactly that, and your reference to the Pool of Bethesda put it together for me. Of course I heard the story deep in my Catholic childhood. Never realized it was the key to the dream. 

In Jungian psychology the bed is the unconscious . . . pick up your bed and walk, carry it rather than lying on it. In depression we are still asleep and do not want to wake up fully into our adult lives and our present reality, and it's tempting for artists, because our unconscious is so rich and inspiring. We don't have to leave our beds behind when we get up and start walking . . . we carry them with us. 


The bed can also be simply the inner life, and for depressives that inner life (which is their true life, and not what they do in the outer world) is heavily tinged with melancholy. Since most poetry is about loss, poets are afraid to let go of their sadness, even if they suspect they have outgrown it. Cheerfulness is not compatible with lyricism. As Hyacinth put it, “Depression strokes the feathers of the Muse.”

But there is so much evanescence in life, so much opportunity to mourn even as we celebrate beauty, that we don’t need to worry about running out of material.

Staying in bed also symbolizes withdrawal from engagement with the world. Depression is easy; active engagement takes effort. It’s one thing to stay in bed when we need rest, and another to use it as a refuge from life in general. But as Lilith wonderfully observes, we can carry our bed with us – that inner space of calm we can enjoy simply when we close our eyes.


That you used my word "cogitating" was funny. An interesting deduction of the Yes. We are always saying we have to accept people where they are, as is, before they can change. I like the concept: to get up and do something, even if it means wash your face!!

I miss the music and the art of religion, especially the hymns. There is much to love in spite of all the harm done in the name of religion. Man is territorial like all animals and it seems to me that this demand that we all accept a certain religion is a territorial dispute for our minds.

My motto has been for some time now Simplify, simplify. Dear old Thoreau.


For me "simplify, simplify" ties in with not overthinking. I discovered that I can't afford to ponder the meaning of life. Nor can I keep asking whether my writing makes sense, given the tiny audience. I am blessed to have even a tiny audience. As John Guzlowski recently said, "I write for friends and people I love." Yes, it’s that simple. 

I am glad that you zeroed in on the gospel story and the message "Take action." I heard a psychologist argued that while for him, an extravert, it was all right to work out his problems by playing the guitar, an introvert needs to keep a dream diary and do a lot of "inner work." In my experience, it is particularly an introvert who needs "outer work." He/she needs to take action rather than continue to obsess with himself and his/her supposedly gigantic problems. Rise up, pick up your bed, and walk! Or, as you say, at least wash your face.

The pool of Bethesda can also be the pool of Narcissus. Norris says, “For contemporary monks suffering from acedia, the cure is much the same as in the fourth-century desert. When a monk says, “I can’t bear to live this way for the next forty years of my life,” the answer is still that he need be concerned only with today. “I recommend physical labor,” one abbot has said, “wood working, gardening, even mopping the halls, anything to get them out of that closed circle of the self.” 

Angie Vorhies:

As a writer, poet, translator, I can certainly understand Norris’s insistence on having the right words at her husband’s deathbed. She was certain that he heard her. But I wonder, at that moment, was it more important for him or for her? She would be the one to remember this scene, to write about it later. Of course the words mattered. 

Reading your post sent me to my bookshelves to look up Psalm 27. I keep two copies of the bible next to my desk for occasions like this where I want to look up something that has been referenced in a literary context. 

One was my dad’s bible, given to him in 1959. He wasn’t particularly religious, but his mother was and she kept it long after he graduated from high school and left home. I wonder if my dad ever opened it. It was given to me after he died and I keep it, not because I think it was important to him, but because it connects me to my dad through my grandmother. It’s a Revised Standard Version, published in 1952, “an authorized revision of the American Standard Version, published in 1901, which was a revision of the King James Version, published in 1611.” Like the sons (and daughters) of Noah, it’s fascinating to me how the bible evolves and is passed down through generations. 

The second copy I have is the King James Version. I keep this on hand because the language is so beautiful and because I think any writer writing in English has to acknowledge the influence this book has had on the language. Whenever I need to look up a passage I go first to the Revised Standard, then to the King James for comparison. I always prefer the latter. 

Here are the closing lines of Psalm 27 (“A Psalm of David”) from the New International Version, the one the hospital chaplain wanted to read: 
2 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, 
   for false witnesses rise up against me, 
   spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: 
   I will see the goodness of the LORD 
   in the land of the living. 
14 Wait for the LORD; 
   be strong and take heart 
   and wait for the LORD.                          
And the same lines from the King James:

 12Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty.
 13I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
 14Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD.
I’m with Norris on this one. What do you want to hear when you die? Wait, I say, wait for the right words.

But you don’ have to be a writer to understand this. Any music or food lover could relate to this, too. Even prisoners on death row get to choose their final meal. 

This is not a bad thing to start thinking about, actually. I should write this into my will. When my time comes, whatever else you do, please do not play smooth jazz at my funeral.  Or, God forbid, serve fat-free cheese at the memorial service.  If you do, I will come back from the grave to haunt you.

A good suggestion: have a clause against it in your will, or the minister will use the wrong translation, and non-fat Velveeta will be served. I don’t mean this as a joke. I think your point – which is of course Norris’s as well – is excellent. Beauty means so much to you and me, and to those who might come to our memorial services.

A friend expressed distress and disgust because the ashes of a local poet got buried in a plastic container. This poet, Linda, was very much into beauty and had a lot of art in her house. Some might argue, what does it matter, why waste money on a nice-looking container? She isn’t there to see it. No, she isn’t, but the living are there, her friends who expect something that would honor this person’s love of beauty. They were hoping for a beautiful last image connected with Linda. Funerals are really for the living.

I too prefer the King James Version. It basically engendered literary English. It’s the matrix, the source. Those who think that “the angel stirred the water” is “more clear” than “the angel troubled the water,” or that “mat” should be substituted for “bed” seem insensitive to the richness of meaning in KJV, and how much more memorable those unusual phrases are. But of course the sudden presence of an angel would trouble us, or water, or anything you might think of. “Pick up your mat” –that would be fine after a yoga class, but as anyone who reads Lilith’s response can see, we would lose that suggestive richness, that possibility that yes, we are walking with our beds, we are carrying a lot as we go about our business (I think some women are carrying their whole remodeled kitchens). 


A high school music teacher told me, "It isn't true what you've been told. Practice doesn't make perfect." Then he smiled and winked, "Practicing the right things does." But what I first took to be clever insight fizzled when I began wondering, What are the right things? and could find no answers.

I would have been better off with Whatever works, which is a wonderful and true (in the way of experience) mantra, as long as one understands that any project in the soul will never be completed, the work always goes on (knowing that life is in the doing, not the done). I applaud any effort to flee dogma and orthodoxy related to the ways of the soul. In this realm, the word truth (or the phrase one right way) doesn't belong. We can only talk of knowledge and experience and this talk is best visualized as travelers chatting along the way, swapping stories and insights and news of great vistas and the next best restaurant. Run from the traveler (whom we've all met) who knows everything about a people and country. This person travels a path we can ignore. No need to travel there. Thus, flee the person who has an instruction manual for the soul. Soul thrives in conversation, not lecture, where it is lured, not driven.

My own story – I had an off-and-on, love-hate relationship with anti-depressants, a padded holding cell while waiting and looking for a better world. The waiting and looking are key, we wait, we look. But why? I think it was Aristotle who spit out his breakfast gruel and sputtered the word entelechy – the force, or drive, or motivation, for life, the instinct to thrive. This ten-gallon word is built-in, standard equipment. But it left me as frustrated as my music teacher's advice. OK, I want to thrive, I feel the call, what now?

These are the pieces that worked for me: consciousness, naming, and accepting. In that order, not in that order, circling, spiraling up and down, mostly a cauldron, with Shiva stirring. I became aware of what came before my behavior (the archetypes forming my complexes), I learned to name the parts of the soul and its processes, and best of all, learned to accept the entire mix as beautiful and tragic. I once said, I am not repulsed any longer by the landscape of my soul. Later I said, I can accept the landscape of my soul. Still later, I love the landscape of my soul. It was then I declared depression a friend (though one I'm very careful around), and this apparently disgusted him because he doesn't come around much anymore. I think he doesn't like me using him in the way he used me. 

Still, I am careful around cracked sidewalks, dirty window panes, peeling paint, boarded up buildings, and too little sun, too much sun . . .

Isn't this what is meant by Know Thyself?


Thank you, Michael, for the unexpected gift of bringing Aristotle into the discussion. Entelechy is a word as ugly as gruel, but when you look at the Greek, it’s sheer music: entelecheia. Aristotle made it up as a pun on endelecheia, meaning persistence. Punning on persistence, Aristotle inserted telos, meaning end or goal.  And working toward a goal, when it is done daily, with persistence, can be a powerful antidepressant. I remember how happy I was when I was working hard to learn English. It was my last year in Warsaw, and the happiest year of my life. That hard daily work was a major reason I felt so strong. I soared.

Aristotle also gave us eudaimonia, which is generally translated as happiness or well-being. Now, one expression I picked up from Norris’s book is “Let scholars howl.” Let scholars howl, but what I see in that word is a “good daimon.” A daimon was a guardian spirit, but literally it means “destiny.” Listening to one’s daimon is a way to discover one’s own path to fulfillment. (Listen closely, because you’ll be given orders that at first may make little sense.)

For one person, that might be playing the cello every day; for another, weight-lifting. Music may strike us as more lofty than weight-lifting, but for the body builder, it would be a torment – just as dumbbells would be an instrument of torture to the cello player. I am thrilled that you zeroed in on the most important part of this post: whatever works.

Happy are those who have found their path to contentment – without trying to impose it on others. I agree that we must flee the fanatic who thinks that there is only one path to healing. (True, when my mother saw the way I studied English, she said, “You are a fanatic.” But I never tried to force others to follow my example.)

A physician once offered me a free sample of Zoloft, a two-weeks’ supply. A friend of mine who is a therapist warned me, “All you will get is side effects.” I googled the side effects and tossed the pills. By the way, neither the cello nor the weight-lifting will cause side-effects such as weight gain, insomnia, tooth-grinding, and impotence. The same goes for poetry, journaling, meditation, prayer, organic gardening, volunteering for s soup kitchen or animal shelter, acting in a community theater, gourmet cooking, ceramics, and a myriad other ways  that people have discovered as their own path to contentment.

My daimon whispers that for me, there must be a strong commitment and daily practice. Any time I have a specific goal, I work toward it every single day, no excuses. It’s so simple, and the results amaze me every time. Yet, before I put on my prophet’s robes and proclaim that this is The Way, that wise spirit also whispers that for someone else, twice a week may be enough.

But – and this is a huge but – while having a goal is energizing, once the goal is achieved, a crash into emptiness and depression may follow. Luckily, some of us have discovered that it’s best to hold the goal loosely – or to choose the kind of goal that will never run out, and concentrate on the daily practice without thinking about the results. It’s the work and the persistence that have a marvelous mood-stabilizing effect. But if you happen to be someone who needs a clear goal, that’s fine too – whatever works.

I love your second paragraph so much, that I want to repeat it:

Whatever works . . . is a wonderful and true (in the way of experience) mantra, as long as one understands that any project in the soul will never be completed, the work always goes on (knowing that life is in the doing, not the done). I applaud any effort to flee dogma and orthodoxy related to the ways of the soul. In this realm, the word truth (or the phrase one right way) doesn't belong. We can only talk of knowledge and experience and this talk is best visualized as travelers chatting along the way, swapping stories and insights and news of great vistas and the next best restaurant. Run from the traveler (whom we've all met) who knows everything about a people and country. This person travels a path we can ignore. No need to travel there. Thus, flee the person who has an instruction manual for the soul. Soul thrives in conversation, not lecture, where it is lured, not driven.

I wonder how many people actually realize that not being depressed -- I mean chronic depression now, not the acute grief that's situational -- is a choice that's under their control. And even then, to act on that knowledge -- it took me decades before I even wanted to be done with depression. The decision took care of everything; everything else, i.e. practice, followed.

In defense of your teacher who said that it’s practicing the right things that works, he may have been on the right track; it’s just that a young person typically does not yet know his or her own right thing(s) to practice. Those who do are the lucky ones; if they do the practice, they are on a path to excellence as well as contentment.

But the late bloomers among us need not weep. Whatever our practice is, the best is yet to be. 


Lincoln said, People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.


Imagine the panic of Big Pharma if Lincoln's statement became widely known.

True, we may know that we can be just as happy as we choose to be, and yet not be motivated to choose being happy (or at least contented, grateful, amiable, not depressed). For me, motivation was the missing link, until the fact of getting older really registered on me.

At the Burlignton airport, I saw a message chair and the sign that said, Relax in a hurry. Funny, yes, but in fact, you can learn to relax in seconds (no need for a massage chair). My decision not to be depressed also took a second or so . . . but I realize that I had all the tools that I acquired over the years, and all the supportive memories and experiences I could draw on.


Here is another quotation for you:

An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn't know why they choose him and he's usually too busy to wonder why. ~ William Faulkner


The ancient Greeks would have said not “demons,” but a daimon, the guardian spirit that was that person’s destiny. It’s so true that we don’t really know why we write (or paint, or create any kind of art). But we better surrender to that compulsion, or call it destiny, and be too busy doing our task to wonder about the whys and wherefores. Leave those questions to philosophers – they’ll get it all wrong anyway.


Rilke’s comment on therapy:  “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

Though some degree of manic-depression may be common to creative people, it’s possible to have this disorder without being creative and that’s a real tragedy.  Can people talk themselves out of a depression?  You can certainly talk yourself out of a blue mood.  You can go outside for a walk, set yourself some task that will give you a sense of accomplishment, have lunch with a friend, put on some music you love, look at beautiful pictures, read something uplifting, etc.  And what causes one person’s mood indigo may not cause that at all for another person.  My brother and I discovered, as adults, that we both felt happy on chilly gray days because we associated this kind of weather with a fire in the fireplace and hot cocoa—in other words, what we had experienced at home as children in such weather. (And what artist doesn’t like gray?  It’s the perfect ground onto which you can project anything, and any color, you like!)

Conversely, though, I think it’s really hard to talk yourself out of the depths of a major depression, because this is chemically caused and not just a “downer” because of gray skies, a drop in the Dow, or a tiff with a friend or loved one. A chemically caused major depression is a terrible thing to witness (no doubt even worse to have), and I have seen this in someone close to me.  There was absolutely nothing I could do to “cheer her up.”  She had lost interest in everything. 

During the 4 months in the 1960’s in which my marriage was breaking up, I think I also had major depression—although this was what’s commonly called a reactive depression and doesn’t come on because of a lack of serotonin in the brain that occurs for no ostensible external reason. However, I lost 10 pounds in two weeks, going from 106 pounds to 96 pounds, before I got hold of myself and began pulling myself up by my bootstraps, so to speak.  At one point, my husband suggested that a week or two at the beach would do us both good.  I knew that if I ever allowed myself to lie down on some beach, I’d be a goner.  I absolutely refused.  I fight standing straight, with my back to the wall.   

I wasn’t depressed when I lost my mother midway through 2002.  She was 99-1/2 and had been suffering for about 5 years with multi-infarct dementia, macular degeneration, and severe hearing loss.  And the last thing she said to anyone was when she told me, a week before she died, that she loved me—albeit in slightly garbled speech without her usual very clear enunciation.

Oddly, I don’t recall being depressed even after my younger daughter, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004.  I didn’t even have my usual chemical sensitivity problems.  (I have MCS, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, developed in 1985 during renovation of the high-rise office building in which I was working.)  I think I was running on adrenaline then.  I spent the next 3-1/2 months until Amy died flying back and forth between Carlsbad and Denver—between home and Amy.  I had the odd idea that Amy couldn’t die as long as I was there, sleeping in the bedroom above her.  And I busied myself searching the Internet for anything that could help her—if not a complete cure for the very rare and extremely aggressive, intractable kind of lung cancer she had.  Numbness got me through the two weeks after her death.  And then things got very hard, because that was when I realized I was never, ever going to see Amy again.  For the next three years I wrote poem after poem about her and the experience of losing her. To be in pain is different from being depressed. People deal with loss in all sorts of ways, but I know it was writing that saved me this time around.


Let me address the demons/angels issue of creativity first. There is no question that I’ve produced less poetry since I closed the door on depression. But it hasn’t been down to zero – I have written two strong poems, and several minor pieces. I have been writing a lot of prose, but that’s because of the blog. But then prose has never been a problem – I wrote pages and pages of prose when depressed, too.

For poetry, I need to slow down to a pensive mood. I need to let go of the cheerful go-go-go energy and listen to slow music, and slowly read poetry, and muse over it – then a new poem may happen. Or I need to have a vivid dream.

When I read a lot of poetry, I get the rhythm of it, and that also increases the likelihood that a poem will be born. But it is a tricky matter. Prose flows from me any time I sit down at the computer. I wouldn't say that poetry requires a certain degree of depression, though some sadness helps. I enjoy energy more, and know how to energize myself, so maybe my challenge now is to learn how to become calm and slow. Without some degree of depression, this is indeed not as easy. No wonder so much poetry is about loss. Loss is the mother of poetry.

Speaking of loss, I have experienced reactive deep depression several times. The second time (I think I was 22) I went down all the way into stupor. Making the bed was such an exhausting chore that afterwards I had to lie down. Then I’d sit up, and stay that way for hours, staring at the wall but not seeing it. My mind was empty of thought.

I realized that this was not normal, and did go to a counselor, barely able to speak. He correctly guessed at one of my losses, to which – this amazes me now – I responded with infuriated denial. From zero I went to anger. I left the office before the session was over, and tried to crawl back into stupor, but couldn’t. I was too full of adrenaline. This upset me even more; eventually I managed to calm down to a certain level of depression, but not the shelter of nothing I had before. And pretty soon I had to begin an internship, and luckily received affectionate interaction. This also showed me something unexpected: that depression could end (for instance, if I was busy with work and had enough positive social interaction) even though the causes of it remained unresolved.

Over the years those specific causes became irrelevant, though new losses happened, new sorrows. During the period when I had no friends and no work stimulating enough to engage me, I noticed something extremely interesting. With absolutely no drugs or any other intervention, after a while the deep depression would lift on its own. One sign was the return of my menstrual cycle. Appetite would gradually increase, the sky become more blue (color perception is diminished during deep depression). There was a kind of rebirth. So I learned that the brain knows how to heal itself. I also learned that life has a way of changing, and that in itself was interesting – in some ways it kept me alive.

But chronic depression could last and last, now agitated, now more slow and de-energized. That’s how I discovered the power of music – not yet to heal, but to be a lifeline. The beauty of nature – which I didn’t notice during deep depression – also helped greatly. The palm tree in front of my window became my best friend. I felt connected even to the rats that lived in palm trees – what did they eat? I admired their survivorship.

And there were books. I could still respond to interesting books, whether The Magic Mountain or good non-fiction. Nevertheless, I was experiencing a lot of suicidal imagery. Once I had a dream in which I was walking around a generic sort of campus, having decided to commit suicide and saying goodbye to people, even strangers (this reminds me of the story of someone who jumped off a bridge – but before he did, he waved at a stranger; the most heart-wrenching of such stories is that of the condemned man who said I love you to his executioner). So in the dream I’m walking around a college campus, saying goodbye, when I come in front of the library. It’s all lit up, and through the glassy walls I see stacks and stacks of books. I stand in awe and keep saying, So many books! So many books!

I see this as one of the most beautiful and meaningful dreams I ever had. The paradise of the mind that’s always there for me.

At this stage of life, as you point out, I have plenty of resources. I look out the window, or drive somewhere beautiful, and can’t help thinking that I live in paradise. So there is both inner and outer beauty I can access. True, I also know that any moment we could have the Big One. The fragility of all we have makes it all the more precious.

I haven’t yet experienced a deep pain that wasn’t depression, aside from very intense post-surgical pain that made me want to die. But that didn’t last long.
I know such pain may come, and I hope I can rely on the new thought that started occurring to me: That’s OK. I can cope. Once falling apart and crawling into depression cease to be an option, something has to come in their place. And generally something can be done. If not, the situation must and can be endured. I’ve endured enough to call myself a survivor.

And writing, yes. For a writer, “even the bad is good,” as Jackleen wonderfully put it. It’s all material, but awful experiences are particularly good material. Journaling doesn’t do much for me, and I know how easy it is to write enough into despair. But the moment you start transmuting experience into art, you gain distance, and that seems healing. Even writing about yourself in the third person (thank you, Jack Gilbert) is already more interesting, a step out into the world. 

By the way, when a bad mood threatens, I don’t “talk myself out of it.” I turn to my favorite music for rapid transport into bliss. Self-talk can come later, after a dose of pleasure has reset my brain. 

John Guzlowski:

I am a gloomy person.  If I allow my thoughts to drift, they turn toward sad memories, sad histories.  I have to shake myself loose from such thoughts.  I know they do me little good, and I know that they don't do my family or friends any good.  

One of my favorite writers is Isaac Bashevis Singer.  As you know, he was a man who had seen terrible things.  Much of the old Polish and Jewish world he loved got burned up in the Holocaust and World War II.  His mother and brother froze to death going to Stalin's concentration camps.  He once said that history was made by madmen and murders, that the world was a brothel and a slaughterhouse.  Singer was a man with a sense of life's dark side, everyone's dark side.  Once he was asked how any of us could live with this knowledge.  He said something like: "We have to live as if none of these terrible things are true." 

By this I think he meant, we have to accept that the world is flawed, but we have to act as if it's not. 

Is that possible?

We can only hope.


Thank you, John, for a very thought-provoking comment. I know that story by Singer (I think it’s “Pigeons”) where he says that history is made by the wicked. And who can deny that?

I used to take perverse pride in my “immense sadness,” as one friend put it. The sin of pride truly takes every disguise, including self-loathing, and is the parent of all other sins. By “sin” I don’t mean anything theological, just “wrong, self-or-other-destructive, unproductive thoughts and acts.” Now I feel rather ashamed of  how I deliberately persisted in gloom, how I avoided the music or books or listening to the birds – anything I knew could give me pleasure. The type of depression I remember with most fascination was stupor – a silence inside my head, a resignation so deep that it was peaceful. No wish to do anything, no suicidal urges. The shelter of nothing.

One reason for my unease about that quite recent self is precisely the comparison with what my parents and grandparents went through – and with my grandparents, we are talking about three wars, not only WWII, though that one was of course the utmost in bestiality. Just the way the Nazis liked to amuse themselves is enough . . . even if we didn’t know anything else.

And yet – though my parents suffered from PTSD for the rest of their lives, and after what they saw and lived through, they could still laugh and joke (there was of course a sort of strange humor even in Auschwitz), they could still feel happy. I have no explanation for this except the strength of the human spirit.

In religion classes I was taught that despair is a sin against the Holy Spirit. But now I think it’s a sin against the human spirit. 

Also, I came to realize how selfish depression is, how terribly self-centered, how puffed up on being “separate, different, and superior” (since feeling so inferior somehow showed how superior my sensitivity was, how realistic my intelligence as opposed to that of the optimistic ninnies around me, etc.)

So I have decided to fight against my tendency to drift toward unhope. Of course you realize that what I am saying is in no way a judgment against you, whom I know to be one of the best and kindest human beings around. Please give yourself credit for the radiant self that is your essence, for your courage to be as kind as you are.  

I came across an interesting statement in a book on the Gnostics (whose beliefs otherwise completely turn me off): that the point is not to be a Christian, but to become a Christ. That’s what your father was at his best. Like father, like son. Not every moment, 24/7 – nobody is that. But at your core. And it’s because of people like you, those with Christ consciousness, Buddha consciousness, the Just Ones, whatever we call it – that we don’t have to give up on the world.


  1. Amazing how a poet, Oriana has such deep understanding of religion, psychology and the human soul.

  2. Well, well, whatever understanding I have has been hard-earned. In fact, in life I've been a slow learner.

    For posts like this one, I have to thank the pre-Vatican II Catholicism for its ruthless insistence on individual responsibility for sin -- of which despair, the sin against the Holy Ghost, was actually regarded as the worst one.

  3. Just beginning to work my way through this exhaustively beautiful entry. I love the part where Norris' husband is dying and the hospital chaplain comes in and she askes him to read the Psalm--but not before finding out which translation he planned to read from. She insisted that her husband needed more beautiful language than his NIV provided. We need to beauty to die!

  4. Thank you, Leonard, for coming back! Yes, I know my posts have gotten long -- perhaps a mistake.

    The deathbed scene was my favorite part of the book. The theoretical parts, overstuffed with quotations, might be of some interest to scholars, but basically Norris doesn't seem to have guts enough to come out strong and clear about individual responsibility and control,and how yes, for Catholics there is such a thing as sinning in thought. The word "sin" makes her squirm, so she defines acedia first as a "vice," but that too makes her squeamish, so she settles on "temptation." Well, if that works for her . . . But in the deathbed scene, her worship of beauty and beautiful language becomes clear, and she is so beautifully if absurdly a true writer. We need beauty to live, and ideally, we also need beauty for dying. Thanks for putting it in such delightfully strong terms.