Wednesday, October 31, 2012



Traveler in the dark,
hitting broadside a pick-up truck,
your last thought a flash

like a shooting star:
Now at last I’m going to see
if there is anything beyond.

In the hospital, you felt a great light
bloom through you, white-blue
petal flames of stars:

There is no there.
There is only now


They are modes of travel:
a rose, a star. You and I
liked to travel alone,

so a moment could blossom again
in thought’s afterlife.
Ellen, I can no longer tell

best moments from the worst,
bringing wisdom, a rose,
with its rapturous thorns.

You thought I was the adventurous one –
seventeen, asking a bus driver,
in a tongue that hurt,

broken glass in my mouth,
Excuse me, Sir, could you kindly
repeat the directions –

Alone in America –
not because I was brave;
because I didn’t know

what I was doing. You knew:
“My first marriage lasted
ten years; my second one,

two months – ” you smiled,
an artist defending her right
not to live in a hurry,

passing this way only once.
Traveler in the night,
I knew why you loved

the music of shadows,
sepia photographs.
In your there that is

here, Ellen, ride an echo.
Come by to remind me:
The afterlife is now.

~ Oriana © 2012


A lover of coolness and clouds, I know I sound like a freak to those who possess one or both of these luxuries most of the year. But for me summer is always my little apocalypse, sometimes getting more intensely apocalyptic as heat licks the house with tongues of hell.

Last summer it was the disastrous hyaluronic acids knee injections, meant to restore my ability to take long walks and even hike in the mountains. Alas, I developed a severe inflammation and was virtually house-bound and in pain for months. As often happens, a new insight emerged as I scoured the Internet for information (including the price of various wheel chairs). The insight was this: all arthritis (mine is post-traumatic, just in the left knee) is auto-immune. Of course! Inflammation involves the immune system. Armed with this awareness, I dare say I saved myself and no longer compare prices of wheelchairs, though my strolls are hardly the long walks I was hoping for.

This summer I had the near-death experience involving computers. Laugh if you will, but my life is centered on my computer, and two crashes in a row, the second one being Growlie’s death of old age, left me computer-less for stretches of time. Since the first crash happened when I was suffering from severe carpal tunnel, and constantly breaking my vow to stay away from the keyboard, the enforced rest seemed downright providential. As I said to a friend, “If I were a believer, I’d be on my knees giving thanks.”

Unable to type, I had to content myself with reading, which I agree expands one’s mind, even if it’s not as satisfying as writing. The most important book that I read, three times over, was Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. Bering brilliantly explains why we there is no soul, destiny, or a universal meaning of life -- and why we tend to believe in such things in spite of lack of evidence.

The chapter called “Curiously Immortal” deals with the belief in the afterlife as the “cognitive hiccup of gross irrationality” (p. 114), since it’s essentially impossible for us to imagine non-existence. We are practically forced to be in denial of death. It’s been wisely observed that we can’t stare into the abyss for too long (and Nietzsche warned that the abyss stares back at us). One say to live on without being paralyzed by the fear of death is the solution offered by most religions: if you believe in the correct deity and/or are a good person, you will be rewarded in paradise. Another solution is to treasure the now. I particularly love Rilke’s “To work is to live without dying.”

Those already familiar with my blog can predict where I am going. But for new readers who might be waiting for accounts of near-death experiences, let me first toss in Jung’s, which strikes me as quite interesting. It took place after Jung’s heart attack in the winter of 1944, before stories of the tunnel, the light, the greeting relatives, heavenly music, and perhaps a glimpse of Jesus became commonplace.

Jung said he found himself high above the earth -- later he found out he’d have to be 1000 miles above it to see the continents the way he saw them. Directly below him was Ceylon, and the view of India (Jung had visited both places, and the trip was one of the most important experiences in his life). His vision extended across the “reddish-yellow” desert of Arabia to the tip of the Mediterranean. Then he turned and saw a floating boulder:

I had seen similar stones on the coast of the Gulf of Bengal. They were blocks of tawny granite, and some of them had been hollowed out into temples. My stone was one such gigantic dark block. An entrance led into a small antechamber. To the right of the entrance, a black Hindu sat silently in lotus posture upon a stone bench. He wore a white gown, and I knew that he expected me. Two steps led up to this antechamber, and inside, on the left, was the gate to the temple. Innumerable tiny niches, each with a saucer-like concavity filled with coconut oil and small burning wicks, surrounded the door with a wreath of bright flames. I had once actually seen this when I visited the Temple of the Holy Tooth at Kandy in Ceylon; the gate had been framed by several rows of burning oil lamps of this sort.

At that point Jung felt that he was being stripped of all desire and regret. All his wishes, “the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence,” fell away. Only his essence remained: everything he’d experienced and accomplished. He was about to enter the temple and be with the people to whom he belonged (here I recognize the Swedenborgian notion that after death we join our “soul group”). But at that moment he saw his doctor float up to him. The doctor was in what Jung calls “his primal form,” surrounded by a golden chain or wreath. Telepathically, the doctor told Jung that he must go back to earth. Jung felt terribly disappointed, and at the same time worried about his doctor -- why was he able to appear in his primal form? Jung reports that the doctor did die shortly afterwards, of septicemia.

I find this NDE account fascinating in that Jung, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, had a near-death experience that was completely non-Christian. It seems to have been strongly influenced by the Eastern tradition (note the temple patterned after the Temple of the Holy Tooth in Ceylon, and the Hindu seated in lotus posture) and by Swedenborg’s vision of the afterlife as being in the company of kindred minds (thieves with thieves, intellectuals with intellectuals; I’m not sure if I’d want to be with poets). 

There were neither Lutheran hymns nor something like a butterfly migration recently described by a neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, featured in a recent issue of Newsweek (itself headed for digital afterlife). By the way, Dr. Alexander did not experience a tunnel nor greeting pre-deceased relatives. His guide was a beautiful young woman -- somewhat like Dante’s Beatrice once Dante is in heaven. Wish fulfillment at last. (To give him credit, however, he did not “go toward the light.” Instead, once above the fluffy clouds and the shimmering beings, he experienced “an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting.”)

And I don’t suppose anyone is surprised that when Tibetan Buddhists have near-death experiences, they describe the bardo exactly the way they had learned it would be. Each culture and each age creates its own images of the wonders that await us “on the other side.”

However, we should remember that Buddha himself refused to speculate about the afterlife. He insisted that there is no permanent self, and made concentrating on the present moment the core of  his teaching. While the debate will no doubt continue, it is wise to remember Buddha’s wisdom: all we have is now.

In her poem “All Hallows,” Phoebe MacAdams writes:

Flowers and death 

hold hands 
in the season of souls; 

during Dias de los Muertos 

the arms of death are full of flowers, 

every skeleton offers a marigold and 

black, orange and yellow 
are the season's colors.

Mortality is a blessing 

in the darkness; 

nothing to do but 


and let go



in line with Halloween: an opossum that lived in a baby grand piano in Virginia


OK, Ms Happy Atheist, if you were to have a near-death experience, what do you think yours might be like?


Heart attack is fairly common in my family, so who knows, I just might eventually really have an NDE. Of course I’d hope for a completely surprising one: no tunnel, no light, no deceased relatives. A merry-go-round ride through the universe -- why not . . .

But of course no one can predict. I’ve never wanted to be unconventional. It simply happened to me, starting with a fairly unusual childhood. My desperate teenage ambition was to be average, to be “like the others.” But since my life has been unconventional, I suspect that I might end up with a very conventional NDE: yes, tunnel, the white light, my grandmother waiting for me, perhaps with my favorite cousin who happened to die prematurely. Organ music, the way it was played at St. Jacob’s in Warsaw.

No, I can’t really imagine my own NDE. But I know what my heaven would be like: a beautiful college campus, with some wooded areas like the lush North European forests. The sound of the cuckoo, which is the sweetest, muffled, swallowed call, not the harsh mechanical cuckoo-clock annoyance.

But there’d also be a fantastic botanical garden, and of course a magnificent library. And the best lectures in a variety of fields: geology, history, philosophy, biology, and on and on -- no limit. Jesus might lecture on the history and sociology of religion. All the lecturers would be charismatic. And now and then I’d like to give a lecture.

No god -- what would be the use of him/it? Maybe he could organize an occasional group discussion on the nature of reality and the meaning of everything. At first I’d probably be an eager participant. But after a while I see myself preferring opera, or a good play. For art, you have to have conflict. Even a good poem has dramatic tension. In heaven? Only the great art of the past would still make one “feel alive.” (No wonder the very idea of heaven strikes many as insufferable.)

But there could still be plenty of intellectual stimulation. And I wouldn’t preclude romance, either. Or fine restaurants. Or being able to continue my blog for a new, responsive audience. My heaven needs to have love and work, aside from beauty.

Too bad that this is doomed to remain just a fantasy. As Leszek Kolakowski said, “Why should the universe be so constructed as to listen to our desires?” As Milosz observed, a modern person can’t possibly believe that real life starts only after death. How horrible earthly life has to be for such a belief to become real . . . Case in point: the Middle Ages. Many people prayed for an early death. 

And when they prayed, “Thy Kingdom come,” they really meant the end of the world. They dearly hoped to see all around them destroyed utterly: even the great castles and cathedrals, the trees, the animals. All, all had to go. Was it Nietzsche who said that the foundation of religion is contempt for life?

it's not surprising to me that people have ndes that fit with their religious or spiritual backgrounds, or that diverge from their backgrounds. i really do feel people have the ndes that they need to have, to go wherever they need to go next, it's an invitation there. some people are being invited deeper into something they already have; others into something new. (how i have arrived at this, is a very long story.)


I'd love to hear your story. I'm not in the least surprised that people have NDEs that fit with their religious backgrounds or spiritual beliefs, but I'd be surprised to hear that anyone's NDE differs from what they already know, at some level.  The closest I've come is certain dreams, and on analysis, if I had no clue in waking life, no info would come. I realize this doesn't constitute a proof, one way or the other, but I do wonder -- if others are having all sorts of mystical experiences, why am I, a poet after all, deprived of anything of the sort? I mean, inspiration, sure, but the best writing comes from the unconscious, and that's not regarded as anything mystical, not even by Jung. Jung's theory of creativity was "cryptomnesia" --


Oriana, I will tell you my story sometime, I am not always in a frame of mind/heart where I can talk about it. I personally feel everything is a "mystical experience" of some sort if the mind/heart is open. I definitely feel that while reading your poems! Doesn't have to be really a grand or dramatic experience like Jung's aerial view of Europe. [Oriana: it was actually Asia, with just the southern tip of Italy showing, but I understand what Mary means]

[PS: Sadly, Mary died not long after Thanksgiving 2011. She was suffering from adrenal insufficiency. Alas, we will never get to know about the experiences that made her believe in the afterlife. I am glad that her brain created for her a soothing story. Most people die peacefully, surrendered to the process of the gradual shutting down.]



To me everything is a natural experience. For instance, I once did actually come close to dying. I felt my body shutting down system by system, and I was experiencing great peace, thinking oh, so this is what it feels like to die. The peacefulness was lovely. After recovery, i remembered that large amounts of endorphins are released in traumatic situations -- I wish we had those endorphins more often, under less life-threatening circumstances. // Believe me, I'd love to see the universe as totally benign, and all cancer miraculously (or otherwise) healed (thank you Denise -- I know we lump all such recoveries under "spontaneous remission," since we don't really know; but maybe one day we will) -- I'd love to experience something absolutely mysterious, the Jungian mysterium tremendum -- and mind you, my background in science isn't all that deep, though more than average -- but, darn it, everywhere I look, everything I remember, points to natural processes with no need for any divine or angelic assistance. 

It's like waves in the ocean -- we no longer need an ocean god to explain the waves and storms. As John Lennon sings in "Imagine": above all, only sky. Once I fully accepted that, enjoying the moment became very important to me. And it was while watching my mother die (I had "hospice at home" -- I can't praise hospice workers highly enough) that I had, with great intensity, the insight: "We are of the moment." And that moment should not be wasted on quarreling, feeling disgruntled about little stuff, and so on.

By the way , it strikes me as almost funny that I seem to derive much strength from my atheism,  quite like people who derive strength from their faith. That wasn't always the case. I had to come to the feeling of certainty and stop wavering. I think it's the power of clarity. 


As usual, love the pictures; the beauty of the butterflies and the ugliness of the opossum is a great contrast! If you substitute Nantucket for Ithaca in Cavafy's great poem you get the gist of my feelings; who knows why that little windswept isle has captured my imagination so. You know Melville is a great favorite of mine but as much as I enjoy his writing I am I think more enamored with the whaling aspect more than anything. I'm one of those few....those ' happy few '....who loves the whaling digressions. I'm sure a Jungian analyst would have quite an entertaining session or two trying to ascertain why a child of the agrarian South would be so caught up in the activities of a small Christian sect of a little New England island. I can only imagine their NDE's chasing the world' largest carnivore!


Scott, you are a treasure! Also, if you ever have an NDE, Melville will probably be waiting at the end of the tunnel. He'll point out the place in the ocean where you'll glimpse the whiteness of Moby Dick.


I'm hoping it will be Starbuck or some other 'Weighty Friend'! To be at the helm of a whaler in the South Pacific on a moonless night while the 'starry archipelagoes' pass overhead would be a nice NDE as well.


I should have thought of it! Fictional characters should be given at least as much weight as famous authors. We speak of great writers as being “immortal,” but it’s actually the characters those writers created who are immortal. And yes, I’m almost sure that an NDE could be very pleasant in the company of a favorite fictional character.


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