Sunday, May 27, 2012


“I believe in god, but I don’t believe in immortality,” a woman told me in a restroom at Macy’s (not the first time that I’ve conversed on a grand subject in a public restroom). Since ancient Judaism didn't "feature" an afterlife, I asked, "Are you Jewish?" She said, "No. I'm a mystic." Before I managed to reply, another woman emerged from a stall and asked, “Are you a psychic or just a mystic?” “I am a MYSTIC,” the first woman reiterated.

It wasn’t the time and place to demand definitions, but it was yet another confirmation that people crave something that they can call mysticism or spirituality. And there is certainly mystery enough to make room for this yearning for the benevolent unseen – for a responsive, friendly universe, itself one great collective psyche. The vocabulary changes, but not the nature of the yearning.

The Judeo-Christian god does not seem particularly suited to be the object of that yearning, since he is mainly the god of the dead – a sky god, to be sure, but less Zeus than Hades: the hidden god, the invisible one. Only the dead – and then only a blindly submissive portion of them, those who sacrificed their intellect, as Ignatius Loyola insisted we must – have communion with him. They, and maybe the mystics – who are quick to protest that their visions cannot be expressed in “mere words.”  

If heaven and hell are states of mind – and that’s the current Catholic dogma outlined by the former Grand Inquisitor, later Pope Benedict – then god too is a state of mind, a loving and blissful one (for the moment, let's not invoke the cruel archaic Yahweh, but the kind of benevolent deity that non-fundamentalist believers desire). With this new definition god is a loving state of mind the problem of trying to prove god's existence is solved. 

And since we have access to a blissful and loving state of mind in this life, immortality seems excessive; we can do without it. But, wait a moment: we don’t pray to a state of mind. We don’t worship a state of mind. We ENTER it – but not forever. The human brain requires variety, everything is in flux, and soon enough we exit bliss and enter a different state of mind, one of a hundred emotional flavors between heaven and hell.

If we enjoy infinite variety, if we love traveling, then immortality is still the most wonderful promise any religion could make. I don’t really want heaven (what a bore! in hell at least I could be of use, bringing comfort to fellow sufferers), but I’d love it if consciousness could continue having fascinating adventures even after we shed our bodily container. There is, however, the nasty problem of truth – of evidence or lack of it – that intrudes here. And because of that unpleasant intrusion, I can’t call myself a mystic (I know: I’ve tried calling myself a mystic atheist because, after all, there is so much MYSTERY out there). I don’t even call myself “spiritual.”

the elusive Polish bison – a rare sighting

Some might point to things I love, such as books, music, nature, writing, deep and affectionate conversation, animals, etc, and argue that, combined with my lack of interest in luxury cars, fine clothes, gadgets, kitchen remodeling and the like, I qualify as “spiritual.” “I think you are a deeply spiritual person,” I’ve been told more than once. “Some people think they are atheists, but they really aren’t,” a man recently remarked in my direction. I felt insulted at first, but quickly realized that he was completely confused about the meaning of atheism, and assumed it meant nihilism.

But for me atheism felt like the opposite of nihilism. Taking that plunge into clarity was so refreshing, and what relief! – a hundred pounds of “seeking” and respectfully “not knowing” off my back. Not as bad as tons of religious nonsense crushing me before I left the church at fourteen, all the susurrations of mindlessly repeated Our Fathers – but even the so-called “spiritual quest” was still a hindrance, a drag. Now my energy was free to be directed toward living and thinking, without religious phantoms choking me. I’ve never before felt so affirmative, so capable of enjoying the feast of life.

It’s possible that some people regard “spiritual” as synonymous with “inward.” I think I strike some people as spiritual because I am deeply introverted, and thus have a rich inner life. Among poets, I favor those who likewise seem to have a rich inner life and dare speak with great seriousness. They take that risk, rather than escape into clever irony and humor. And the moment I think of seriousness in poetry, I remember that it was Rilke who taught me seriousness. Oddly enough, as a beginner I enjoyed writing short funny poems. Then came the encounter with Rilke. When I came to the line, “You must change your life” (in response to powerful art), that was already after the fact; his poems had already changed my life.

In some ways, it was an instant change; I was thunder-struck by suddenly grasping what poetry was. But it took many years before I was able to formulate a mental answer to those who tried to force me into the “spiritual” slot: I am not spiritual; I am a writer. (This actually came as a startling personal discovery: I am not a mystic; I am a WRITER. The thought filled me with happiness.)

I’d rather have inspiration than mystic visions; and what joy, the keyboard rather than the rosary! When I gaze at the clouds, I’m not thinking of heaven; I’m simply enjoying the clouds. But I may also be thinking about how to describe them, since I’ve used up “baroque,” my favorite adjective for describing the celestial spectacle.

The churches of my childhood had the most fabulous echoes, especially when nearly empty: then the slightest creak of the pew was multiplied into a huge long groan.

As a writer, I am grateful to Catholicism for all its imagery and craziness, the purple hoods on statues and paintings during the Great Week of Lent, the orgies of candles and naïve processions to bless — what? The fields, the animals, or just the small walk right around the church? It didn’t matter. The little girls sprinkling flower petals in the path of Mary’s icon definitely had fun, and had to be restrained from tossing up great geysers of petals all at once.

So there was in me the child who suffered from the anguish of being doomed to hellfire (since I took seriously the constant mea culpa confessions of being by nature a wretched sinner, helpless against Satan) and the future writer who took in the cavernous interiors, the stench of incense, the thunderous rage of the organist. This was long before I learned that the incense was originally used to cover up the smell of blood in the temple, and the mass was designed around the ancient Israeli ritual of animal sacrifice (host = hostia = “victim”).

Ah, the echoes of the past. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud likens the psyche to the city of Rome, with layers and layers of history — so I see within me earlier selves with their now outgrown desires and despair. Living is a continual dying into oneself, over oneself, so to speak, building new layers of consciousness on top of the old.

Recently I came across this poem by the young Rilke. I’d read it many times before, but now it spoke to me more clearly than ever:

Ich liebe meines Wesens Dunkelstunden
I love the dark hours of my being 

I love the dark hours of my being
in which my senses drop into the deep.
I have found in them, as in old letters,
my daily life that is already lived through,
and become wide and powerful, like legends.
Then I know that there is room in me
for a second large and timeless life.

But sometimes I am like the tree that stands
over a grave, a leafy tree, fully grown,
who has lived out that particular dream, that the dead boy
(around whom its warm roots are pressing)
lost in his sad moods and his poems.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

I like parts of another, more literal translation by Mark Burrows as quoted by Dowrick (p. 154)

I love the dark hours of my life
in which my senses deepen;
in them as in old letters I find
my daily life already outlived
and, as in legends,
distant and complete.
. . .
Sometimes I am like the ripe 
and rustling tree which rises 
above the dead boy’s grave
– gathering him in its warm roots –
and fulfills the dream he had lost
in sorrows and songs.

(When it comes to great poets, literal translations seem both more powerful and interesting, and sometimes even more poetic. In literal translation, the last line of Rilke’s poem reads: “lost in sorrows and songs.”)

This is one of my favorite poems from The Book of Hours – the collection in which Rilke’s artistic genius first showed itself. Those of you with a even bit of German will probably remark that Dunkelstunden is more musical and somber (the heavy doon/shtoon internal rhyme, with apologies for the phonetic transliteration) than the weightless “dark hours” rising like glib balloons, but there is no helping the loss of this funeral-march music. Miraculously, “reif und rauschend” preserves its alliteration in Burrows’ “ripe and rustling.” The original has rhythm and rhyme, and that is lost. But I’m thrilled that both Bly and Burrows at least give us a good translation of Rilke’s imagery and meaning (sometimes lost in Macy’s perversely inaccurate translation).

The poem makes me think of the saying that happiness lies mainly in remembering. While something is happening, we are too busy experiencing it. It’s afterwards, remembering, that we can savor the pleasure without the tension, and can see a particular event as part of the evolving story of our life. At least that’s true for introverts, who need a lot of quiet, solitude, and “down time” (including dim light; introverts don’t like bright light or too much sunshine) so that they can process their experiences and reflect on the meaning of it all. Was Rilke an introvert? He’s the patron saint of introverts. Auden called him “the Santa Claus of solitude.”

I identify so much with everything Rilke is saying in this poem that it’s practically my personal anthem. I imagine that’s true for almost anyone in the Salon: extraverts don’t become poets. This is a good time to be an introvert: we are no longer branded as shy and/or antisocial. Several recent books praise us as thoughtful and sensitive. Quiet is a minor best-seller.

Rilke doesn’t waste time being defensive about what he loves: the quiet solitary hours. He tells us something wonderful: that there is room in us for a second large and timeless life. This life is discovered only through reflection, or by reading old letters and journals. That’s when you see both what has ceased to matter, and what has remained. In another poem, Rilke says that the part that lasts is what “consecrates us.” Whatever is large and timeless will emerge; we can’t really escape our central themes.

from Jung's Red Book


It’s wonderful to explore those central themes, to see that “there is no failure; there is only learning.” And we begin to make out the outlines of our own legend, “wide and powerful.” Yet the second stanza moves away from this celebration to note “sometimes I am like the tree that stands / over a grave.” Whose grave? The grave of the young self, the adolescent with all his dreams and innocence and huge ignorance. The adult is not just an older version of the adolescent, but in some ways a different person. The adult has ceased to be just a dreamer and drifter; ideally, she has “found her path in life” and is fulfilling a major dream, instead of setting off into five or six different directions at once. 

I remember the first time someone spoke of his younger self and said, “I wasn’t yet me.” Even though I myself wasn’t quite me yet at the time I heard it that statement, I grasped it instantly. I sensed it was about finding one’s essence, one’s unique self-expression. It’s what happens when a painter stops painting like most of his peers and becomes, say,                    Jackson Pollock.

I’ve always had an intense life of the mind. My real life is my inner life. Nothing much shows on the outside, but in my mind, what blizzards, storms, ecstasies! 

When I think of the great divide between adolescence and adulthood, I can’t of course dismiss changing countries and languages as the first great event that made almost all other change look minor by comparison. But in my life there was an event of comparable, or arguably even greater importance: the discovery of my vocation as a writer. Or maybe instead of “discovery,” I should say “gradual development,” since it wasn’t a matter of a light going off in my head, but rather a “long and winding road” with many backslides; in the end, I did accept the rather strange idea that I was, indeed, a writer. Not a poet – that “vocation” broke down more than once – but, more broadly, a writer, in the Rilkean sense of having to write, because you know that if you couldn’t, you’d die.

There are of course many other kinds of vocation. Almost anything can be a vocation if you feel it’s the right path for you, and you work at it with “wild patience.” Mistakes become stepping stones; the most beautiful trees grow in cemeteries. For me, there is also a beautiful feeling of calm that lets me know I am indeed doing the right thing.

James Hillman was a contrarian Jungian psychologist. Spurning the idea that parents, and especially the mother, determine the child’s destiny, Hillman came up with an “acorn theory” of development: each of us is born with a potential destiny (“daimon”) that can be discovered and fulfilled – just as the acorn contains the potential to grow into an oak. In The Soul’s Code, Hillman recognizes that only some people will go on to realize their potential. In fact such people strike us as extraordinary:

Extraordinary people display calling most evidently. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate. Perhaps, too, they are extraordinary because their calling comes through so clearly and they are so loyal to it . . .  They seem to have no other choice . . . Extraordinary people are not a different category; the workings of this engine in them are simply more transparent. (p. 28-29)

Rilke became aware of his poetic vocation fairly early in his life; once he found his path, he struck people as being totally dedicated to it. The best-known and most startling anecdote about Rilke’s life is that he refused to come to his daughter’s wedding because he happened to be in a fertile, productive phase and didn’t want to lose his creative momentum. Years ago I knew a woman who was so appalled at Rilke’s not coming to his daughter’s wedding that she could not bring herself to read his work. I understood Rilke perfectly, even if I suspected I wouldn't have had his courage to protect his creative solitude as fiercely as that. But Rilke did have that courage and that dedication and that “first things first” loyalty to his calling, and that’s why Rilke was Rilke.

But this poem was written long before the wedding incident. Rilke was already an “oak,” so to speak, but he remembered the acorn – the acorn and the seedling. In The Book of Hours he announced, “I feel my own power.” But in “The dark hours of my being” we also sense great affection in him for the young boy that he once was. For one thing, the boy already had the dream that the man was fulfilling – the dream that the boy “lost in sorrows and songs.” The songs were a beginner’s poems (Rilke started writing verses at the age of nine); the sorrows – read any biography (for one thing, imagine a sensitive boy being sent to a military academy).

Here I’d like to come up with a wonderful coda about all of us being great rustling trees, and quite a grove we are! But “grove” reminds me of “grave.” With every gain, there is some loss, so here is thinking of the young girls and boys whom we outgrew, who are no more except in our memory, but who need to be remembered with tenderness.

This is the tenderness I finally managed to achieve toward my younger self. I wrote the poem before major unhappiness hit again. I could use a third picture, and a fourth one. Such is life. With luck (and let’s face it, it takes a lot of luck), we pursue not happiness, but a calling – which we recognize in the dark, solitary hours of our being.

You will love again
the stranger who was yourself.
            ~ Derek Walcott

Photography traffics in time.
On my driver’s license, at thirty-nine
I look younger than at twenty-seven.

At thirty-nine, my eyes are lit
with an astonished smile.
My wayward hair seems to dance 
over my right brow.

At twenty-seven, I’m withered inside:
tight mouth, defeated eyes –
a face like the arrival
of familiar pain.
I’ve given up on my hair –
a wig crowns me with synthetic sheen.

I want to go back
to the woman in that faded polaroid –
get rid of the wig,
throw out the thriftshop blouse,
the platform sandals so worn down
she waddles lopsided.
I want to buy her a self-correcting
typewriter, so she doesn’t inhale
so much correction fluid.

I want her to stop wasting herself
on loveless men. They call her
a diamond, a pearl,
leave her like broken glass.
I want to crumple that list
she keeps near the phone,
of clever things to say.

I need to talk to her, it’s urgent:
she mustn’t spend evenings crying.
I want to buy her decent shoes.
She must be told she has talent.

Oh, she is bright and funny too –
watch her cook the “nothing soup,”
or read whole volumes, crouched
in a dim corner of the bookstore.

Secretly I admire her style –
waking at six to record
a flute concerto from the static-y radio;
drifting to sleep in the drowning
moonlight of Selected Shelley.

Dear child, I want to say,
forgetting it is she
who’s my unlikely mother –
this stranger who at night
will not pull down the blinds
so her houseplants can feed
on the morning’s first timid light.

If only I could show her
the other picture. But I can’t.
She must stumble into the future
blindly, carrying me into the now –

this woman slender as new moon,
too young and fragile for the task.

~ Oriana © 2012


Love the continuation of your wrestling with God thoughts. So many brilliant viewpoints in just the first few paragraphs.

Did you know that the word, "Israel" means, he who wrestles with God? You would have made a great Talmudic scholar.

Then that pleasant surprise image of 1/2 a Polish bison.

You are a committed atheist and you back it up with profound thoughts. I don't believe you could have gotten to where you were if you didn't go through Catholic boot camp.

People often accuse me of being spiritual but all I want to do is become a better human being. I could care less about being spiritual.

"I’d rather have inspiration than mystic visions; and what joy, the keyboard rather than the rosary! When I gaze at the clouds, I’m not thinking of heaven; I’m simply enjoying the clouds" is my favorite few sentences.

“Two Pictures” is also a great poem.


I'm still not sure if it was just a coincidence that my commitment to atheism – finally deciding "this is it" – and the quantum leap in happiness that I experienced. I think we need to close doors – keeping too many doors/options open (in this case leaving the door ajar to the possibility that "maybe god exists" – not a being floating in the clouds, that’s just too silly, but some kind of cosmic force) drains energy. Once a choice is made, there is less stress. It’s similar to committing oneself to a vocation – you stop imagining yourself doing other things, and focus on one path. There is power in simply having a focus.

Catholic boot camp – I love the phrase. Yes, the exposure was both toxic and challenging . . . It was pretty dramatic to be plunged into Catholicism after Winnie the Pooh . . . and to this day, nothing compares to Catholicism in terms of aggressive indoctrination and my ultimate rejection of that indoctrination (even assuming that total recovery is not possible). People who think that Communist propaganda was a ruling factor in my childhood obviously didn’t experience old-time Catholicism, which outdid the government not just tenfold, but worked at a much more powerful life-and-death level, and had fabulous images and music and stories. The splendor of the churches compared to the dull, boxy “House of the Party” – well, there simply can be no comparison. 

(But now I also realize that I was deprived of what existed for the Jesuits, for instance: the deep meditation on the Gospels, a more interesting and experiential approach. The church wasn't going to see a mere girl as anything but superficial, not worth initiating into "spiritual exercises" -- those were for the church elite, especially the Jesuits.)

So my leaving the church, once I came back full circle to the perception I had already during my first religion lesson – that this is all fairy tales, and there is no invisible bearded man sitting on a throne in the clouds, whose will determines all that happens – my breaking away was the greatest act of courage in my whole life, since back then a part of me still believed that I was dooming myself to eternal torment in hell. In fact even now I am not totally free of that old terror – except that, should I turn out to be wrong, I am prepared to say, with Bertrand Russell, “Sir, you didn’t give us sufficient evidence.” And should hell as a place of eternal torment turn out to exist, then a deity who created it is worse than Hitler and is not worthy of worship.

In any case, I reject the criterion of faith and accept only conduct as having any validity for judging a person. I know this is a more Judaic than Christian thinking, as is the concentration on this life rather than the afterlife.

In many cases belief is irrelevant; it’s the behavior that matters. When I was doing depression, if someone asked me, “Do you really believe all this nonsense? Do you believe you are worthless, of no use to anyone, your whole life a failure, and so on?” it would probably have depressed me even more, since now I’d be exposed as a moron who worshipped at the altar of such falsehoods. In any case, it would have plunged me into more thinking, this time about my own thinking. I needed to stop thinking and start working. In a similar vein, people who torment themselves pondering religious questions that can have no verifiable answer are mostly wasting their time – unless they have Dostoyevski’s genius and the result is The Grand Inquisitor. Otherwise just giving a dollar to a homeless person is worth more than all the metaphysics.

Speaking of Dostoyevski, I realize that I can understand literature better because I am familiar with both the Old Testament and the Gospels. I also understand why someone like Dostoyevski could have a deep attachment to the person of Christ, and thus be unable to make a clean break (though he could never be conventional; he constructed his own heresy). Literature is the richer for his conflict between reason and faith.

Many people still confuse atheism with nihilism. The latter means a lack of values. All atheists I know have strong moral values, love beauty, love their friends and families. As Milosz observed, believers and non-believers are not all that different. Where Milosz was probably wrong was in his assertion that believers made the choice to believe. I think that’s decided on the level of the unconscious. I can’t believe if there is lack of evidence, even if I’d like to believe. In others (e.g. recovering addicts), the need to believe may prevail. I say: whatever works. How we live right here on earth matters because it touches the lives of others. We are responsible for that. It’s social contract all the way. Even suicide is a social act. So ultimately it all comes down to being a good person, and I think everyone can say Amen to that. 

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