Sunday, February 19, 2012



It happened on Valentine’s Day, or rather night. I “laid me down to sleep” and experienced a wave of total bodily delight just stretching out and feeling the coziness of being cocooned in my comforter. (Comforter! I love the word. Not the Holy Ghost, but something light and fluffy that keeps you warm.)

It was perhaps as close as I can ever come to mystical ecstasy. The revelation, alas, was modest: my favorite place in the world is my own bed. Not original, I know. Not even new to me, though for the first time confirmed by the feline pleasure of the body. But every bit of clarity counts. Old grudges against life have been falling into oblivion, the way one kind, supportive lover can heal the wounds caused by a number of previous narcissists.


A more original insight was that “God is affection” is something I could buy, were I to redefine God as well. I never cared for “God is love” – not only because it’s a cliché, but because love carries so much darkness. Even parental love is not free from narcissism and possessiveness, or from the desire to punish when expectations are not met and the child’s values and interests turn out to be “wrong.” Even when a parent tries to be tolerant, the disappointment in a mother’s or father’s face still shows and weighs on the child (regardless of the child’s age). Affection, on the contrary, seems entirely positive. Only affection can forgive and forget (love may forgive, but does it ever forget?) Only affection is not “ego-invested.” Tell me that God is affection. I could run into the arms of affection.


I’m going over Tranströmer again, in Bly’s marvelous volume, The Half-Finished Heaven. Just the title should alert us that a lively poetic sensibility has presided over this selection. Here is a passage from “Below Freezing”:

One can’t say it out loud, but there is a lot of repressed violence here. That’s why the furniture seems so heavy. And why it is so difficult to see the other thing present: a spot of sunlight that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces, a biblical saying never set down: “Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you.”

If only we had such an honest biblical saying. If only we stopped yearning for blind submission to a “great cause” and noticed the wonderful small beauties of a spot of sunlight slipping over the flickering faces. Now that is an image of affection.


One of the things I’ve learned by living and making mistakes (like posting on Facebook) is that I don’t want to spread myself too thin. I enjoy doing just a few things, but doing them well. I’ve just re-read the marvelous New York Times article on the benefits of concentration:  Let me just toss some quotations your way:

William James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” You can lead a miserable life by obsessing on problems. Or you can recognize your brain’s finite capacity for processing information, accentuate the positive and achieve the satisfaction of . . . THE FOCUSED LIFE.

People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money. Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endlessly Twittering, [posting on Facebook], or Net surfing or couch potato-ing? You are constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience."

Why is the focused life so conducive to happiness? Because it’s much more likely to include periods when we are in FLOW. Flow is also known as being “in the zone”; I prefer flow, a beautiful, liquid word that suits this state of being so immersed in what we are doing that we cease to be aware of time, self, and other such childish things.

It is a truth universally accepted that you can achieve flow even if you never learn how to pronounce Mihaly Tsikszentmihalyi.

Flow, like heaven and hell, is a state of mind. Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”


On and off I’ve been reading a biography of Leon (or Lev, the Russian variant) Trotsky (real name: Leiba Davidovich Bronstein; a Moscow rabbi remarked, prophetically as rabbis seem to, “It’s Lev Trotsky who signs the mortgage, but it’s Leiba Davidovich Bronstein who will have to pay the price.”). No prophet of the ironies of history, it was Trotsky who said, “We want to create on this earth a real paradise for people.” The author of the biography, Robert Service, is hostile to Trotsky. Yet in the Introduction he also says, “More than any other leading Bolshevik he conserved in his head a vision of a future world where each man and woman would have the opportunity for self-fulfillment in service of the collective good. He proclaimed this with passion to the day he died” [assassinated in 1940 by a Stalinist agent].

The idea of that paradise on earth included free or nearly free access to education (including university education) and cultural life (by “nearly free” I mean that anyone could afford to go see an opera, for instance, and not just in terms of having to be content with the worst “student seats”). Now, I’d be the last to praise the Soviet system just because in Warsaw I could afford to go to the opera – or even because of free higher education and free medical care and other well-known features of socialism (which in its moderate form is not totalitarian, but can, and does, co-exist with democracy). Yes, that spoils you, but for the whole Eastern bloc the word became tainted with dictatorship.

It gives me a melancholy pause, the fact that the dream of the kind of paradise of earth that isn’t just the elimination of hunger and poverty, but also “the opportunity for self-fulfillment in service of the collective good,” is no longer spoken of. Oddly enough, the last time I read about it was in a class on Victorian literature, where I did a paper on Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891).

In it, he says, “Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” Wilde imagined a system that would make it possible for everyone to realize their talents. Who, then, would do menial work? Wilde assumes that in the future, machines would: “The fact is that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.” (To this a woman writer replied that there will never be a machine that can change a baby’s diapers.)

Let me swerve even more and give you this little-known Wilde quotation: “Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

A quotation from Trotsky’s Autobiography that I can’t resist – its opening paragraphs:

Childhood is looked upon as the happiest time of life. Is that always true? No, only a few have a happy childhood. The idealization of childhood originated in the old literature of the privileged. A secure, affluent, and unclouded childhood, spent in a home of inherited wealth and culture, a childhood of affection and play, brings back to one memories of a sunny meadow at the beginning of the road of life. The grandees of literature, or the plebeians who glorify the grandees, have canonized this purely aristocratic view of childhood. But the majority of the people, if they look back at all, see, on the contrary, a childhood of darkness, hunger, and dependence. Life strikes the weak – and who is weaker than a child?

My childhood was not one of hunger and cold. My family had already achieved a competence at the time of my birth. But it was the stern competence of people still rising from poverty and having no desire to stop half-way. Every muscle was strained, every thought set on work and savings. Such a domestic routine leaves but a modest place for the children. We knew no need, but neither did we know the generosities of life – its caresses.

(I’m thrilled by the phrase “life’s caresses.” I feel infinitely grateful to my mother for flowers on the table. And for taking me to the High Tatra mountains during the Easter break, once, just to show me the wild crocus blooming in the snow.)

The passage by Trotsky is a translation from Russian, and an imperfect one, to put it mildly (I assume “competence” means “financial security”) – and yet Trotsky’s intelligence shines through. He was a born writer – later pages show a gift for vivid detail as well. He was a stylist; he could not bear writing an ugly sentence. If only he’d confined himself to writing, becoming a harmless novelist and/or essayist. I’m coming to the strange conclusion that an education in the arts might serve to keep the gifted from going into politics, where they could do real harm. But get a young man seriously interested in poetry, and he’ll be harmless. Poetry will keep him off the street, including Wall Street.

Trotsky before he became Trotsky. If only he’d become a poet instead.


As for what Trotsky says about childhood, I don’t remember ever believing that it was the happiest time of life. Indeed, to quote Trotsky, “who is weaker than a child?” Has any child ever completely escaped bullying or being otherwise hurt by those bigger and stronger? There are wonderful moments in childhood, but the nightmarish part stays with us. People may want to be young again, but never to be a child again.

Incidentally, Lenin seems to have had the kind of affluent “happy childhood” that Trotsky mentions as the privilege of the few — including summers at his [Lenin’s] grandparents’ country estate.  

I grew up with the myth that youth is the happiest time of life. My parents and others gladly reminisced about their youth (until its sudden end with the outbreak of WWII). In novels and most movies, the protagonists were usually young, beautiful, and in love. Love songs were almost all about young love, before marriage (no song ever advised, “All you need is marriage”). Since I had a miserable youth, I thought I was a pathological exception. The confidences of women friends eventually made me see that a lot of us were “exceptions.” 

By now scores of studies have established that older adults are happier than younger adults. The older = happier relationship holds until the “elderly” stage sets in, with its accelerated aging and sickness. Thus, new research indicates that, on average, the years past fifty are the happiest time of life — and the seventies tend to be happier than the fifties. When time starts running out, people begin to revel in life. Seeing that the future is not what it used to be, they begin to live for the moment. This, maybe, is the happy second childhood, without the derogatory overtone. Or a kind of second adolescence, the way it should have been. Happiness! Not for pigs after all, but a sacred calling. Let’s enjoy it while we can.



Another beautiful blog, effortlessly written.


Thank you. I’m glad it seems effortless. This one essentially was. I scribbled down “thoughts from all over,” and realized that they were all related to happiness in some way. One of those mysteries of how writing comes together. The less conscious effort, the better it is.

Another reason for the effortless feeling is that my mind has grown richer, I feel. I’ve gained clarity about my values, my real interests.  For me the danger is that I have such an abundance, I have to restrain myself from writing on and on.

Here is what Rilke says in his letters (My thanks to Lois Petit for posting this): For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey. 


You've said about what I would have said. I did find among my notes this: well-being equals happiness for me. An out of body experience I get from music or nature and art, as if I'm looking down on myself from an elevated place.

About childhood:

Childhood is so brief a thing

a time of crayons and comics and fireflies against
a blurred background of war, polio, breadlines; against

the undertow of fear, nightly shouting, thuds, the final
snores. Some childhood memories should be burned,

with respect, like a flag, full of stains and tears. And even
then we’d carry around the ashes. The end of childhood

is sudden. No longer scuffing through
the fragile architecture, now we are  responsible

for keeping things upright like building blocks.
And the rest of our lives we suffer a vague

homesickness for a time when we could believe
we left our missing sock in a dream.



It’s only in the recent decades that Western society started owning up to the fact that a lot of children have an unhappy childhood – some seriously so. Interestingly, this happened at the same time as child rearing became more affectionate and less oppressive. 

I wonder about the future generations: will they interact with electronic devices more so than with parents and peers?

Isn’t it time to admit that our Hyacinth is a better poet than Ruth Stone, for instance? Now, I’m glad that Ruth Stone got to be famous, but Hyacinth has more striking lines and more lyricism (not this particular poem, but those with nature imagery).

That the ending is fabulous goes without saying. I also especially like

. . .    Some childhood memories should be burned,

with respect, like a flag, full of stains and tears. And even
then we’d carry around the ashes.

~ how is that for an unexpected simile?

I wish Hyacinth could be declared a national treasure.


I just read your blog on happiness and childhood and was staggered by your declaration (in question form), that it was time that we (the greater WE), recognize Hyacinth as a better poet than Ruth Stone. I like Ruth Stone's work but Hyacinth’s strikes me in the heart far more often.

I concur, not that I would have ever thought of grading poets but I do think, setting aside publishers and width of reputation, that Hyacinth is greatly unvalued, perhaps somewhat by herself. What a warm fire you are.


Yes again on Hyacinth. Her craft is better too, tighter, more musical. Hyacinth has more lyricism by far. About Ruth Stone’s work some people would say, “This is not poetry” – but nobody would say this about Hyacinth’s work. We immediately know that it IS poetry.

The trouble is that it takes so much energy, even if we e-submit, to keep on submitting in a system that’s not efficient at recognizing quality. The whole marketing aspect is simply too much for someone who’d rather give it all to poetry itself.  But at least Hyacinth has gained local fame. This is supposed to be a growing new phenomenon: many poets are very good, but remain unknown at the national level. They enjoy a strong regional reputation, though. And after all, a region is like a small country. Think Lithuania. A poet this wonderful would not be ignored in Lithuania. Or rather, let’s not think about po-biz at all. Let’s simply love the poems and poets that we love. Let’s bless our luck in having her and her poems.


Your statement about your bed being your favorite place reminded me of  mine: my chair in the living room beside a lamp stand where sit  several books that I am reading and a coaster for my coffee cup (a close second is looking out my French doors observing my bird feeder).  It brings to mind too that line about being surrounded by a 'warm  river of books and black coffee' in Robert Morgan's poem 'White  Autumn'.

Trotsky was an interesting fellow, a biography about him and the rest of the early Russian revolutionaries would make great reading; too bad they were not poets and chess players!

I can't help but concur with the 'oldest = happiest' conclusion. As I am almost 50, it is so much better being 50 than 15; to be secure in one’s own skin is a worthy goal I think.


OMG, what a nightmare: to be 15 again! On the other hand, I’d love to stop aging. In fact some rejuvenation would be wonderful, but we all know the irony of the human condition . . . it seems that life gets richer in various ways just as the body starts declining. Only today I had yet another profound insight that led to even more self-acceptance – but it was about something in the past, and I can only smile a melancholy smile at wisdom coming late, as usual (Hegel: “The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk”).

Alas, the revolutionaries were poets and chess-players only on the side; their true dedication was, naturally, to the revolution. I grew up with the portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Engels arranged like a new holy trinity in every classroom (Marx’s facial hair outclassed everyone else’s) – that’s why I say they feel like a family to me. Of course we studied the Communist Manifesto in high school, and knew the biography of Lenin in some detail (not about his mistress, to be sure).  We knew all kinds of details about the October Revolution – the warship “Aurora,” the Winter Palace, the fact that the Smolny Institute (the first revolutionary headquarters) used to be a boarding school for aristocratic girls – BUT! Trotsky was never mentioned, and we had no idea that the revolution would have never succeeded without him. Long after Stalin’s death, history books still never mentioned him. To do so would have been a thought crime, to use Orwell’s magnificent coinage.

As for the revolutionaries in general, it’s only now that I stop and think, stunned – these men, and some extraordinary women like Rosa Luxemburg (lots of streets in Poland were named after Rosa, since she grew up in Poland, and Polish remained the language of the heart for her) – these incredibly bold men and women decided that capitalism had to be overthrown, and eventually, thanks to superhuman-seeming will power (some would say: fanaticism) and courage and self-sacrifice (and, to be fair, their willingness to sacrifice others as well; Rosa was perhaps the least inclined that way, being pro-liberty and pro-democracy) – in the end, in some countries they succeeded. The results proved disastrous, but I’m stunned that the experiment was even tried! Maybe it had to be tried, so that we could see how a balanced approach is needed, with creative capitalism encouraged, but predatory capitalism restrained, and some mechanism in place to moderate the boom-bust cycle (already described by Marx).

Just a quick note on Trotsky. Trotsky started out as an anti-Bolshevist, correctly predicting that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would soon turn into a dictatorship OVER the proletariat. Alas, Lenin had legendary powers of persuasion, and managed to convince Trotsky to join him. Not that Trotsky is to be excused for having been persuaded; once he starts defending, advocating, and in fact exercising “revolutionary terror,” he loses my sympathy. As one of his biographers put it, he was a brilliant man who became a “prisoner of an idea.”


  1. I love your picture. Your analysis is thought provoking. But, some of us did have happy childhoods--at least the time outside, enjoying the beauty of nature.

  2. I didn't mean to say that no one ever had a happy childhood. I think Trotsky, writing about his time, is profoundly correct in pointing out that only a tiny minority of children had what got glorified as a "happy childhood." Many children lived in utter misery -- still do in our time, if we consider the world rather than just the richer countries. So many children like Hansel and Gretel, whose parents can't feed them . . . But I think I do know what you mean about the time outdoors, and I agree -- just being able to stand between tall trees after school was happiness for me, a bit of the Garden of Eden. It was one of life's caresses.

  3. Reading your blog is what going to church or synogogue could be...a place to revere, to learn and praise what inspires us, what enlightens our senses and perceptions. I learn so much from your posts and often it is meditative -- sometimes it's just a phrase that will evolve into a whole new direction for me. I couldn't agree more about attention... Consider they are divided into "units", cherished units that we can waste at will because that is part of life as well as direct their energies toward productive means. Being so closely involved with various poetry activities I am almost honor-bound to post and keep these activities alive but they do detract from my own need for silence and sometimes they may even serve as an excuse.

    "For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey."

    Giving it up for Rilke, once again whose supply of honey is endless having faught his way into silence because...he believed.


  4. Thank you, Lois. I hope that others feel that way too -- that there is some gem in each blog that happens to fit their needs. Some people are starved for intellectual and aesthetic stimulation. I hope I provide some nourishment for them. That's my most important giving.

    Rilke's beliefs kept evolving. He particularly wanted to distance himself from the Book of Hours, twenty years later saying that he was not the same poet as the one who wrote that collection. In the Duino Elegies he addresses the Earth (Erde, du Liebe) as the Beloved. He also posits Orpheus as the personification of poetry. Like recently Szymborska, he requested that his burial service be secular, not conducted by a priest. And yet there is no question that Catholicism had a huge imprint on him. It repelled him, but, in a changed and personalized form, kept turning up in his poems. (Note his pathetic insistence that the angels in the Duino Elegies were more Islamic.) He didn't want the negative stuff that comes with Catholicism -- the S&M, rejection of the body and of reason, absurd dogma, eternal hell-fire damnation, blood sacrifice, the idea that real life begins only after death -- the whole medieval stench, you could say, the terrorism and intimidation, the crimes of the church (which succeeded so splendidly by exterminating the opposition, esp the Gnostics). At the same time, and this is emotionally difficult for me to say since I loathe those very same medieval, negative aspects of religion in general, there are some positive aspects that take a hold and keep showing up in writing. Marx didn't just say that religion was the opium of the people; he also said that it was the sigh of the oppressed soul -- its craving for beauty, for music, for some kind of grace and caress.

    Yes, we only have so much mental energy, can attend -- truly attend -- to only one thing at a time. And yes, for me too there is always some conflict between "poetry events" and our creative solitude. Those who organize those events are more extroverted, it seems to me -- and I am very grateful to them. When I tried to be an organizer, and to the small extent that I still am, with the San Diego Poetry Salon, it felt mostly oppressive.

  5. Thanks for your wonderful response Oriana. When I said Rilke "believed." I actually meant in himself. Not in Christianity. He was, as you say, ever evolving and if he distanced himself from the Book of Hours the poems (many of them) can be viewed in a non-denominational context. I have always considered them as love poems from spirit to spirit despite their sometimes specific address to a Christian god.

    I am not a Rilke expert, just a devotee and grateful for those with whom I can exchange this great love.

  6. I think he had a profound hunger for some kind of spiritual world, and was torn between that longing and his growing love for the earth and THIS life. He is regarded as the great poet of death. And indeed poems like The Swan imply that real life begins only after death, when we can be regal like a swan in water rather than a swan waddling awkwardly on land. I used to be more fond of Rilke in the past . . . But yes, he was evolving toward a magnificent love of life -- possibly because his life was getting easier and happier, as often happens as we grow older and richer (including financially, let's face it). Then the disaster of leukemia . . . He hated it, he discovered that he hated death -- because it would be of no use, i.e. he wouldn't be able to write about it.

  7. Rilke will be read in 100 years, in tens of thousands of years if our planet survives. In this way there is no death no better riches for Rilke.

  8. Yes. But it is also important to me to know that he didn't want to die. It reminds of a story I once read, about a great Eastern sage dying, the disciples leaning close to hear his last words. And he says, "I don't want to die." So human.

    I am glad that we aren't given the bargain, somewhat like the two destinies of Achilles: if you die now, people will read your work even centuries from now. Or you can choose posthumous obscurity, but you'll get to live to 110, healthy and sharp-minded, enjoying those thousands of sunsets to come. And if 200 years were offered, OMG, who could resist it . . . But we don't make such choices, and besides, Rilke did have a fabulous stretch there at midlife, crowned with the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. Though again, who knows, he may come to be best appreciated for the New Poems -- in some ways his most startling and modern work.

  9. I know what you mean Oriana. Though if a writer's desire to live is mitigated by his lust for fame he deserves to die (joke).

    My sense of the afterlife may be different than yours but in my mind, Rilke is still very much alive. I love his French poems especially and yes the New Poems are exquisite. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of him...

  10. A late addendum: it occurred to me that if I happened to have a strong belief in some heavenly paradise (Christian notion of heaven is dreadfully vague and unattractive -- Dickinson commented on that)-- if I had formed a notion of an attractive afterlife in any form -- I would have had no motivation to decide not to be depressed. I would have seen nothing wrong with self-loathing. I'd just wait to die, basically, holding to the Catholic belief that the more you suffer here on earth, the shorter your time in Purgatory.

    It's because I knew (not just believed, but KNEW on the deep intuitive level) that this is it, "there ain't no more," and you either make something of your life or else you've missed your one and only opportunity to contribute something positive to others and to enjoy the feast of life, it's because I knew that it's "now or never," or, as Rilke put it in the Elegies, "just once and no more -- but to have been here, even once, how magnificent!" -- that I finally became motivated to quit being depressed. Mortality did it. When it became real enough, depression became absurd and simply not an option. I didn't want to waste what little time was left (and we never know how little that may be; people notoriously overestimate their life expectancy).