Saturday, March 24, 2012



Einstein didn't speak as a child
waiting till a sentence formed and
emerged full-blown from his head.

I do the thing, he later wrote, which
nature drives me to do. Does a fish
know the water in which he swims?

This came up in conversation
with a man I met by chance,
friend of a friend of a friend,

who passed through town carrying
three specimen boxes of insects
he'd collected in the Grand Canyon

one for mosquitoes, one for honeybees,
one for butterflies and skippers,
each lined up in a row, pinned and labeled,

tiny morphologic differences
revealing how adaptation
happened over time. The deeper down

he hiked, the older the rock
and the younger
the strategy for living in that place.

And in my dining room the universe
found its way into this man
bent on cataloging each innovation,

though he knows it will all disappear —
the labels, the skippers, the canyon.
We agreed then, the old friends and the new,

that it's wrong to think people are a thing apart
from the whole, as if we'd sprung
from an idea out in space, rather than emerging

from the sequenced larval mess of creation
that binds us with the others,
all playing the endgame of a beautiful planet

that's made us want to name
each thing and try to tell
its story against the vanishing.

~ Alison Hawthorne Deming, Genius Loci


a skipper

I remember how excited and happy I felt when my father told me that the sun was a star. I was eight, and felt in possession of great secret knowledge. Then, carefree, I asked, “Will the sun always shine?” My father said, “No. It will burn out and be a dead star.” Seeing how badly shaken I was, how disconsolate, he laughed and said, “Oh, but that won’t happen until ten million years from now. That’s a very long time.”

I relaxed, but somehow that knowledge that the sun will die would not go away. It was a cinder of sadness that stayed in my mind forever. The death of other stars didn’t bother me. It was fascinating to think that the still light reaching us might be from a dead star. But the sun, I knew, was the source of life, and the thought of it going out, ever, saddened me. It saddens me even now.

Maybe that’s one source of my instant fascination with Alison Deming’s poem. Another source was my familiarity, also since childhood, with “natural history” displays: specimens in jars or pinned down on a chart, meticulously labeled. This poem made me think of endless species, especially of insects, pinned and labeled, a tremendous labor of love gone into the collecting, identifying, ordering, preserving and presenting. It is indeed as if humanity’s great task was to name the animals, to classify them precisely, living or extinct, whose name and “story” we need to know, meaning both decode and imagine.

Ancient Nankoweap granaries

“Oh blessed rage for order!” And the rage for order of a future taxonomist who may reclassify. The Logos, the collective psyche, is also a kind of Grand Canyon: the layers of knowledge and understanding that it has taken centuries to accumulate. But for now, I revel in how the poet makes a leap from something as small as an insect to the unimaginable enormity of the universe:

in my dining room the universe
found its way into this man
bent on cataloguing each innovation,

though he knows it will all disappear —
the labels, the skippers, the canyon.

Yes, this labor of love in the face of mortality is certainly the main point of “Enigma.” But another important point, it seems to me, is the fact that we are not “separate, different, and superior,” a “chosen species” that exploits nature rather than feels a part of it. Our genome clearly shows our kinship to other primates, and to animals in general. We are not “celestials.” We did not come, by UFO or teleportation, from another solar system; we were not “seeded” by super-beings from another universe. Nor, as the poem puts it in grander terms, did we emerge “from an idea out in space.” No, we evolved “from the larval mess of creation” (a marvelous phrase) right here:

It’s wrong to think people are a thing apart
from the whole, as if we’d sprung
from an idea out in space, rather than emerging

from the sequenced larval mess of creation
that binds us with the others,
all playing the endgame of a beautiful planet

The disdain of certain New Age writers for the earth, their insistence that humans came from a remote planet, or else from “another plane of existence” that had nothing to do with the body and dangerous “body fluids” and other slimy stuff that pollutes our auras, has always puzzled me. “My friends can’t wait to disincarnate,” a New Age acquaintance once told me. True, the body is to some extent a bother, but personally I’d be willing to put up with having to brush my teeth and other body upkeep for centuries, even millennia, if only I could go on living here on earth, in the joy of having the body and its senses, taking in the beauty. I don’t think I’d ever get bored with sunsets, clouds, waves, forests. Or with human eccentricities, for that matter.

What of it, some may ask, if it’s all doomed to extinction? If this is “the endgame of a beautiful planet,” then what is the “meaning” of the universe, the earth, the human mind that can name and classify and tell stories? Part of my journey has been to realize that some questions are the wrong questions. “What’s the meaning of life?” is a particularly wrong question, a dangerous question that can drive people insane; some are said to have committed suicide from too much staring into the abyss.

The human brain is magnificent, but it doesn’t seem to function at its best when dealing with huge abstractions, with absolutes like THE meaning of life – THE answer, THE truth, one universal meaning, the same for everyone, rather than something each unique person needs both to discover and create in his or her image.

Tolstoy, you may recall, did ask that question, could not find a satisfying answer, and fell into despair. First he thought that the answer lay in religion – if only we could discover the “true religion,” not the corrupt versions preached by churches. But ultimately he could accept only an impersonal deity who doesn’t interfere with the laws of nature, with “necessity” – and that’s not the protective Great Parent who could soothe us when we have bad dreams.

Worse than bad dreams – who hasn’t at some point felt the urge to end the journey right now, once and for all – to taste the imaginary sweetness of oblivion precisely because life doesn’t seem to make sense (“Life is a bitch; then you die”)? And didn’t Nietzsche say that we have art so we don’t die of the truth?

Deming’s poem doesn’t even attempt to explain the universe; it says only that the universe exists, the earth exists and is beautiful, life exists, we humans exist. We may extrapolate that therefore we should use our existence to do something that’s good, or interesting, or beautiful – ideally all of the above. To extrapolate further, at our personal and collective best have a “beautiful mind” (“Life is a bitch, but just when you least expect it, it has puppies.”)

But all the poem is willing to state clearly is that the universe exists, the earth exists, and we exist – and something about the way the earth is and the way we are has given humans the urge to explore and name and classify, to be curious about everything that exists or has existed (the Grand Canyon being the most amazing natural history museum), to want to know and preserve the stories we discover.

Poems are mostly about mortality. However, those poems that I call “comfort poems” find beauty and personal purpose in spite of mortality. We are of the moment, they say, but isn’t it magnificent to be alive, to possess that moment? Once we are fully conscious that we don’t have very much time, we can use our moment for happiness rather than self-destruction, kindness rather than harm. As the title of Deming’s poem tells us, we answer the enigma of being alive simply by living.

Though this is beyond the poem itself, I can’t resist pointing to numerous studies that show people generally become happier as they grow older. We learn how to be happy, more generous, more forgiving. The less life we have left, the more we seem to love it, to love the moment. We answer not in the abstract, but by living.



My favorite line is "Life is a bitch, but just when you least expect it, it has puppies." Thanks for sharing the poem. The naming of things comes early. My great-grandson Jacob took out the odd things I've collected  in a basket, pine cones, seed pods, shells , leaves, bark. Seemed delighted with the labeling, then put them carefully back. I learn a lot from children.


We are obviously wired for wanting to name things. It may be part of our innate language acquisition circuitry. 


Grand Canyon pictures are so magical, especially the one with the bow in the sky.

Only a really happy person could write this: "I don’t think I’d ever get bored with sunsets, clouds, waves, forests. Or with human eccentricities, for that matter."

I totally agree with your questions like, “What’s the meaning of life?”, "Does God exist?", "What came before the Big Bang?" Answer is that it doesn't matter. What matters to me is how can I become a better artist or how can I become a better human being?


Even before I chose to be happy, I couldn’t stop being curious about “what next.” I have always found the world endlessly fascinating and beautiful. This, I think, has kept me from suicide. What if something fascinating were around the corner? And I was always surprising myself. When that ceased happening, when depressive thoughts got to be more of the same, I got bored with depression, its staleness, the trite repetitions. That feeling of boredom made it easier for me to reach the point of paradigm shift, though the biggest factor was my belated grasp of mortality: finally seeing how little time is left. Only a limited number of sunsets; better not to miss any. And the uniqueness of each human being is an astonishing thing in itself.

I agree that we “answer by living.” Even the existence or non-existence of god is after all not as important as how we treat others and the earth. If there is a god worthy of worship, no denominational label can be attached to that worship. Picking mushrooms the caring way, leaving the underground mycelium intact, strikes me as a form of worship superior to praying the rosary.

Sometimes I do wonder what, if anything, existed before the Big Bang. But since I’m not an astrophysicist, I know that I’m not able to find an answer to that question, and I happily leave it to those who get paid to think about these matters, and can point to some evidence, e.g. a slight asymmetry in the shape of Big Bang radiation supposedly hinting at some residue of a previous universe. I can spend a few moments pondering that, why not. Then I look again at my to-do list.


I very well recall Tolstoy's 'quest' that led him in his old age to flee the warmth of friends and family to die at a deserted train station. And Melville, who several times in his  life, rounded the Horn for the wide Pacific, through the straits of  Gibraltar and the despair of being a forgotten writer (yet Tolstoy was  beloved...but just as sad) I say, hitch my wagon to a man like Tolkien: a great lover of poetry, a devoted husband and father, a man who enjoyed his many friendships and his work and lived to old age and was able to see his children launched on their own careers and the last few years of his life his own masterpiece was being admired and praised.

Now Tolstoy and Melville still have important things to say, and you know very well my admiration for Melville especially. But they can also be quite the 'buzzkill' as the kids say! I can't live my life reflecting on the bad that can happen; I'm sure it's out there but so is the is the good. And those good things are soooo abundant  and thankfully simple and attainable; a cup of coffee, a good novel or  book of verse, a woodpecker at my feeder. Yes, it will all pass but while I have it, I won't dwell on losing it. Now, your blog and my recent book of verse by Hafiz; a 14th century mystic poet speak volumes more than the petty squabbles at work. As I have written before, I am absolutely fascinated with the Quakers of Nantucket who settled Europe and the Americas...then sent their ships into every sea, searching for a 'New Nantucket.'

I continue that journey, even though I'm not a Quaker....or whaler! I declare my house 'Nova Nantucket'; a refuge port from where I can, through books, TV and the www explore the world around me while not having to risk shipwreck on the world's reefs. Oh I still have to work, still will of course deal with the strife and storms of life in the modern age but every night I will tie up here at home port and enjoy my family and be thankful for what I have. I will do this... I must; the alternative is to be bitter about life's pettiness and fearful, sad, and morose a Twain became thinking on what 'bad' things might occur. That's not life....that's existing, and a sorry existence at that.

I do so much appreciate the blog you maintain; the images and musings are incredibly insightful. You are truly, as C S Lewis would say, “a mind awake.”


In one of his most famous poems, “A Brief for the Defense, Jack Gilbert says,

To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

That’s why social activists can be insufferable: the fixation on what’s wrong (though I know I should be glad that someone is willing to look at the nastiness and screaming about it). To thrive, we need beauty and tenderness, and interesting sights, books, sensations, interactions and other stimulation to keep our brains humming. I happen to be an “augmenter”: I automatically augment stimuli so that a little bit goes a long way. This is very adaptive if you live in the suburbs. In Warsaw, if I wanted some new stimulation, I could just look out the window. Here I had to find other sources of nourishment. As you say, a cup of coffee and a good book, the wind in the leaves – that’s so wonderful and forever changing: “nothing twice,” as Szymborska famously said (the song was a part of her memorial service).  I could live forever and not get bored.

So my answer to anyone who asks about the meaning of life is “Keep on living. Life itself will show you what is most meaningful in your existence.” 

Or, as the Buddha said, The purpose of life is to find your purpose in life, and then to live it fully. 


After a semi-surrealist poetry workshop:

I feel tremendously thistled by David Whyte’s saying we come from another world, not from this night but a “greater night.” No, we milkweed-parachuted here on earth, blown over by the erotic wind. Whyte imagines some spirit world – residing where? Inside a black hole? Then, to placate those possible listeners who don’t buy his “greater night” line, Whyte says, “or by an equally great miracle to have evolved in this world.”

What does he mean, “equally”? What could be a greater miracle than having started right here, “in the larval mess”? 

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Turning left on Wilshire
in the splintering crystal
of the jazz piano
and a million dreams –
mother city where my
adult self was born –
my domino failures
amid the pink stucco,
my stuttering, foolish,
heroic first steps –

turning left on Wilshire
past saber-toothed tigers
burping methane bubbles
in the oily tar pits; 
past the jutting iceberg
of the art museum,
the wet sheen of John Wayne’s 
bronze horse –

Turning left on Wilshire,
past weeping shop windows,
fountains like glass wings
spouting under wheels –
Bubbling on the radio,  
more emerging artists:
a former nurse recalls
an insurance salesman
asked her dying
“What do you really

want to do in life?” 
She confessed, “I’d like to 
go to California
and work night clubs,
but I’m afraid I’d fail.”
From eternity’s portal,
he gave her a blessing: 
I hope you go to California
and fail many times.

Turning left on Wilshire
years from now, by rainlight,
I pray to remember
that whatever happened
had glimmers of glamor,
red and green skids of light
streaming over the asphalt
and a sluggish pelvis
rearing from La Brea tar –

Will I be as bitter
as cold ocean water,
or will I become
tender like the rain –
turning left on Wilshire

past art-deco theaters,
past the stars on the sidewalk

like coins from the dead

past myth, past mirage,
a deluge of smiles,
the palm trees applauding
because I have come
to California
and failed many times.

~ Oriana © 2012


From where I am now, it’s easy for me to conclude that it was my fate (a combination of the having the right mother and the right ignorance) that brought me to Los Angeles, and my difficult but inevitable destiny to become first a poet, then, more broadly, a writer. I was thinking again about the great lecture by James Hollis on fate versus destiny, so I started searching for my write up of it – my long-forgotten poem “Poe’s Raven” turned out to be a part of it. Below is the email to Lucrezia (a woman in Florida – we used to work for the same org) in which I summarize the lecture. This post goes back to February 2002.


Friday night I went to an interesting Jungian lecture that asked the question: can we create our lives?  Friday night, when the young, "those dying generations," fluoresce in the hope of a hot date. Can you take fate  or is it destiny?  in your own hands and create your life? The answer is both yes and no, an interplay between fate and destiny. Fate means the circumstances given to us: the parents we had, the genes we inherited (who paid the ticket of the genetic lottery?), the parental family’s income and lifestyle, the education and religious indoctrination we received early in life. Destiny is not our circumstances, but “what we are summoned to become.” We don’t necessarily welcome the summons of destiny. Jung said, “You find your destiny on the path you take to avoid it.”

The speaker, James Hollis, a noted Jungian writer and lecturer (“Valleys of Despair, Mountains of Bliss: Measuring the Forces of Destiny”), translated the interplay of fate and destiny as a “flowing within” (whatever that means; Jungian lingo is always in flux, and you don't step into the same definition twice). Fate is what has been given to us, both advantages and limitations. Destiny is our potential, what is calling to us, trying to live through us. “Something wants to come into the world through us.”

Jung was interested in destiny rather than fate. He perceived the curative factor in therapy to be not the insight into the past, as Freud claimed, but rather an insight into the future. An important task of therapy was to guide the patient toward a larger, richer, more interesting vision of himself or herself, to hear the summoning call of destiny and respond to it.

It was a brilliant lecture by an extremely articulate author. One of my favorite quotations:  Authority keeps a person infantile. We need to ask what the soul wants of us, since external agenda is regressive, while the inner agenda is developmental.” 

Hollis also spoke of the difference between the first and second half of life. Jung, unlike Freud, was more interested in the second half of life. Hollis spoke of the midlife crisis: “The heroic ego project of youth has failed. How do we get out of the bog of depression?” His answer was that we must consciously start serving the needs of our soul, and listen to the call of our unique destiny.

But what percentage of the population gets to be in the sort of profession where you can be your own boss? This is where writers may lose sight of how the average reader/lecture goer is struggling just to cope with the brutalities of that external agenda, i.e. job, car payments. I’ve seen talented poets fall by the wayside under the pressure. 

I’m tempted to say that mere talent has little to do with it – a kind of “destiny drive” too powerful to be resisted needs to be there, and what I’d call an abnormal ability to make sacrifices. The role of fate, i.e. of circumstances, is hard to estimate. How many acorns get to develop into an oak? 

Hollis also said, “Most of us do not have the permission to be who we are. We all walk in shoes too small for us.” So he does recognize the problem, but I don’t think it interests and engages him enough, the dilemma of those for whom serving the soul would mean the loss of livelihood. 

Another crystalization: “Ideologies tend to annihilate the soul.” As do theologies, I want to add (note that mystics are hardly orthodox; they are heretics, creating their own god). That fits so well with my observations, and that’s why true poetry, the language of the soul, is so subversive. 

Someone in the audience asked about where the speaker stands in terms of his own life, at seventy. Hollis said, “Right now it’s so rich, I can hardly bear it.” And he choked up a bit, and teared up with obvious gratitude for the miracle of a life richer than he dared imagine during the hardship of his younger years.



First, I am struck by a certain flatness in my writing ten years ago. I wrote in a more vivid fashion while I was actively a poet, and then again after 2002, when I returned to poetry; after a year or so, more fluent and “cinematic” personal writing came automatically. Did pale Nordic Hollis seem caged in his un-Jungian business suit, or, on the contrary, perfectly framed in this trophy of triumph? I didn’t encode it back then, and now I don’t know. Now, when I write about an interesting lecture, the account creates a little drama. So I’ve done some “growing into destiny,” to use the phrase that Hollis favored.


~ I think Freud made a huge mistake when he rejected conscious purpose as a motivational construct and opted for a mechanical model of human behavior. If we want to understand people, I think we need to find out what they are trying to accomplish with their behavior. Freudians don't ask people, “What are your goals? What are your values?” Instead, they ask, “What happened to you in childhood? How do you feel about your parents?” ~ Steven Reiss, Ph.D.

(However, one needs to remember that Freud's rich neurotics had no goals. He completely despised his patients as people who had nothing to do except cultivate their symptoms.)

(And as a shameless, inexcusable Moby Dick-like digression from the topic, it’s just occurred to me that Dostoyevski, a secret fan of his own Grand Inquisitor, would have loved the modern finding that choice is stressful, and thus strict churches that tell you what to eat, what to wear, how to speak, what to read (no Internet surfing!), whom to date etc, are thriving and keep growing. Want to be happy and successful? Limit choice. Even better, eliminate choice. Stick to one thing; call it your destiny if that makes it more appealing.)


I am surprised that Hollis didn’t speak about the two destinies of Achilles (or if he did, I failed to record it). Let me run through it quickly. Unlike other human beings, Achilles was born not with one destiny, but with two; later he had to choose between a long life without glory, or a short one with glory. What motivated him to choose the latter was his all-consuming rage and need for revenge after the death of Patroclos. Achilles is not exactly a role model for us – no Greek heroes are, though the idea of arĂȘte (excellence) has remained a perennial inspiration.

But this is a chance to introduce the fascinating concept of a daimon. Scholars differ as to the precise definition, so we are free to choose the one that still has some meaning for us. Apparently, every human was assigned a spirit to guide him, somewhat like the Guardian Angel. But the daimon was the spirit of destiny, a voice that helped us find a way to fulfill that destiny. Today we’d speak of inner guidance or intuition or maybe even the “higher self.” But I rather enjoy imagining a little guiding spirit. You have to be alone and very quiet to hear your daimon. Maybe you’ll get to hear the daimon only once in your life – but it will be unforgettable.


What does your daimon say you should be doing? What does your soul want of you? If you are religious, then what is the will of God for you? Should you sit down and brood on this critical question of the second half of life? Should you to a therapist or a psychic (where I live, psychics are more popular, not to mention relatively inexpensive)? In an odd way, therapists almost stand for Freud, who analyzed the past, while psychics, like Jung, are concerned with the future: with destiny.

But the guidance will come neither from brooding nor from Tarot readings – though the latter may toss in a helpful image or two, a hint of something larger. In my experience the answer comes without conscious effort and when you least expect it. It’s yet another hint that our cognitive processes are unconscious – though an important answer will be communicated to consciousness. That answer may be different than anything we imagined. It may be terrifying, and we may try to do anything except obey that command. But to choose against growth means misery.

Emerson said that intellect annuls fate. I would narrow that to insight. Once I have an insight – and that’s a neurological event, that burst of high-frequency gamma waves from the right temporal cortex (the area that “gets” jokes and metaphors, art and myth) and the formation of a new neural network – my behavior changes, and I can’t go back to the old mode of perceiving and behaving. This happened when I clearly saw that I must not allow myself to be depressed – and in an instant I was done with chronic depression (not to be confused with temporary event-based sadness) for the rest of my life. This was terribly demanding, that imperative to live from my greatness rather than from my wounds. I was reminded of Kafka’s “There is a point of no return. That point must be reached.” To get back to Emerson, I’d say that, to a degree, insight annuls fate – fate understood in terms of limitations and disadvantages, such as genes that create a greater susceptibility to depression, or having grown up in poverty or wealth, or in a particular culture and religion.

But fate means also the advantages you’ve been given. When I think of my literary paternal aunts and a cousin who also became a poet, I can see that “writing runs in the family.” Talent is largely genetic, or at least genetic to start with. Looking at my parents, I can see that intelligence is mainly genetic. There is no personal merit here, just sheer genetic luck. On the other hand, talent and intelligence need to be developed. Part of it is the right environment, including education. Here again I can claim no personal merit. The only bit of pride I can take in this matter is when it comes to hard work and not giving up. But I know that persistence is a genetic trait, so the best attitude is to drop any pride.

Poets are not born in a country. Poets are born in childhood,” according to a Russian literary critic, Vladimir Khodasevich. Is this fate or destiny? It begins as fate, but development either follows or doesn’t follow. Or it follows, then ceases. There may be a change in direction. In my case, I found prose, especially personal essay, more in line with my workhorse temperament.

I rejoice in my luck. In 2009 I had the great double luck of having the insight that it’s too late in life for depression, and of discovering that “working works.” This blog exists because working works – at least for the lucky me. It also worked for Milosz, who experienced his share of depression and despair – and then discovered “escaping forward” into work.


Recently, reading a review of a book by Hollis, I’ve learned that he rejects the afterlife (this seems rare among Jungians, who typically believe that the mind has nothing to do with the brain; the word “brain” is simply not used, unless to degrade the brain to “only a kind of a radio” that receives the thoughts broadcast from the astral world – if I hadn’t heard that statement made separately by two lecturers, I would have never believed that non-schizophrenic, educated people could go for that). Hollis says he gave up the “shaky promises” and decided to live “more fully in this fallen, precious, richly divine world.”

“Bowing to fate, growing into destiny” is another summary of the message Hollis tries to communicate. Bowing to fate means total self-acceptance, including negative things you can’t change. For instance, I can’t change my crazy/scary medical history. It’s best for me not to dwell on it, I say, “It’s in the past,” and shift to counting my blessings.

“Growing into destiny” can be more difficult. The years when I had little idea of what would be meaningful work for me were the hardest years of my life. Then the great luck of finding that work, with all kinds of zigzags, spirals, and ups-and-downs. But still, having met people who never seem to “find themselves” and go through life drifting and dabbling, I’m thankful for my luck.

Re: “destiny drive.” I’m thinking of a certain wanna-be painter I knew when I lived in Los Angeles. Unlike people who say, “I’ll start painting after I retire,” she said, “Once I have the right relationship, then I can put my energy into painting.” I sympathized with her need for a lover, but I knew that she’d never become a painter.

As I watched her drifting and dabbling, I was on my way to becoming a serious poet, and knew that for me neither romance nor making money could come ahead of writing. But I learned that only in my mid-thirties. In my twenties, I was a slave of love. Thank God there was at least enough intellectual drive to serve as a “destiny drive” of sorts – my mind kept developing. (As the saying goes, an intellectual is someone who’s found something more interesting than sex.)

The time I drove to Los Angeles in the rain, Cecilia was reading The Gypsy (the entire book) at a cafĂ© in Orange County – and that was our first meeting when we reconnected after many years. Fortunately it wasn’t to be our last face-to-face meeting, but back then I wasn’t sure. Life taught me to take nothing for granted, and to expect many losses.


I listened to Poe’s raven as I drove
to Los Angeles in the lashing rain
for a hundred miles to see an old friend.

The main route was flooded.
Looking for blurred street signs,
rain-blind and half-lost

in the wet and cold,
I knew it could be the last chance:
a raven from the black

Forest of Nevermore
was perched on my dashboard.
How visionary the doomed

poet was, to choose not an owl,
the bird of wisdom,
but a raven, bird of fate.

Not the ghost-like flight
of wished-for destiny,
but a more emphatic raptor.

I know he’ll be flying by
more and more often now.
Then he’ll move in,

a part of the family.
In the end, the only family.
It’s an impressive bird

in his elegant undertaker’s plumage,
but his vocabulary’s limited.
That’s where our part

rises up: to speak
that which is not silence.

I was beginning all over as a poet after years of informational, journalistic prose. In my original write-up of the lecture on fate and destiny, I found this forgotten (and justly so) poem, possibly the first one I wrote after my long absence from poetry. The poem can be seen as being about fate. The ending, however, shifts to destiny. 

Whether "destiny" is the right term is another matter. I will delve into it in future blogs. But looking at people who get anywhere in the arts, what I see is a terrific drive, a great (some would say: abnormal) intensity. They write, paint, sculpt, etc., because they have to, and they are willing to make great sacrifices. Romantic love isn't as important (someone even said, "Your creative peers are more important than your lovers"). Family love is not primary in their lives either. Thus the question really is, as Bill Mohr said, "Are you abnormal enough?" Any notion of a "balanced life" is ludicrous. 



Thank you.  I loved the poem, especially that about the gift of failing many times.  I also liked the bit about the Jungian lecture.  Can we invent ourselves?  And the answer is yes and no.  

That's a profound answer and the answer to so many questions about the self and life.  Can we know ourselves?  Yes and no.  Can we know another's self?  Yes and no.  Can we be content, happy, accomplished, winning, successful, or anything else?  Yes and no.  Can we be whole?  Yes and no.  Can we know the secret of the universe?  Yes and no.  Will what I'm saying here be sensible to you?  

Well, yes and no?


Hollis would probably reply that it’s always an interaction between fate and destiny. There is certainly a limit to which we can “invent ourselves.” We can’t change our genes – which, interacting with the environment, determine whether or not we’d even want to invent ourselves.

By the way, the very idea of “inventing ourselves,” as opposed to “discovering ourselves,” has been described as an American idea, and more specifically one that prevails in California (though I suspect New York rivals California). The idea that we can somehow decide what we want to be, what we want to do in life, stems from the concept of having considerable freedom, rather than being hugely hemmed in by circumstances. Yet more choice also means more stress, so in a way it’s embracing what is without trying to change is that would be best from the point of view of being contented. Obviously, some people are motivated by something other than peace of mind (by the way, I wonder what Jefferson really meant by the pursuit of happiness. I suspect that he meant a rich life filled mostly with doing what you love doing, but not really peace of mind).

I was thinking of the two words in Polish, los (fate) and przeznaczenie (destiny – the root is znak – sign, mark – you are marked for something). Los is more negative than fate. My mother often used the expression, a victim of fate, in a voice full of utter contempt. Not being a victim of fate but rather working toward fulfilling one’s destiny (perhaps we could substitute here the pedestrian phrase “one’s goals in life”) was the noble thing. Stephen Hawking would be an example of such triumph of the human spirit. My mother had had some pretty horrific encounters with fate, so coming from her mouth, the mouth of a survivor, it had special weight – this contempt for fate and admiration for people who overcame circumstances rather than being defeated by them.

So you are right, yes and no. It’s all a matter of degree and of the interaction of fate and destiny. What Hollis wanted to emphasize was that Jung was more interested in destiny, in how the vision of the future can shape us as opposed to Freud’s fixation on the past. Was Jung right? Yes and no. Was Freud right? Yes and no. So it goes.


I wrote my PhD dissertation on a Laingian approach to psychological analysis of literary character. Based on the theories of R. D. Laing, this approach was interesting because he combined Jung and existentialism. What Laing believed was that in part we invent ourselves but that we have to realize that part of the self is not invented by our self. It's what's in place – plus it's what others see in us (fate? destiny?) For me, Laing came closer to what I feel is the truth of the self because his view wasn't as mechanical as Freud's and it took Jung's notions of complementary aspects of the self (yes and not) and multiplied them.  

The self is finally always more than what we say it is.

With the Buddhists saying that the self is an illusion and there is no such thing, and others saying that the deepest self is the Christ, or Shiva, or take your choice, I think there is really no way out except to say that the self is a verb. It’s in constant flux, with only some continuity.
Rilke says that life always says both yes and no, but death says only yes. I experienced that when mortality finally hit home and changed me. That was my satori: be happy now while there is still time. I apologize for the lack of originality. Never mind that I’d heard that a million times; it had to hit at the personal level.
The rest of it, many selves or one, inventing a different self or several selves (I think that happens spontaneously depending on who we interact with: I become somewhat different person with different people; likewise, English gives me a somewhat different personality than the one I have in Polish) – that’s minor details.
I like a combination of the Jungian approach with existentialism, but with the emphasis on the existentialist insight (I’m following Milosz here) that you can’t really know the past; the way our memory works, the present changes the past. We are our own unreliable narrator. What “really happened” is both unknowable and not that important; it’s what we remember and how we choose to tell it (Octavio Paz, later vindicated by neuroscience) that influences the unfolding of our life.
And then sometimes the self feels like an old pair of shoes we've been wearing for too long. 

I think it's time to read Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium again.

We are creatures of the moment and of changeable moods, to be sure . . . Sometimes I can't stand poetry and the thought I gave my life to it is sheer hell; at other times, a poem can feel ecstatic. Immodest as that may sound, that goes for some poems of my own! -- but only when I am in a certain mood.

Re-reading Byzantium is fine (note how much better the first three stanzas are than the final stanza; no one ever mentions how Yeats flubbed the last stanza!), but I love Jack Gilbert’s poem about aging, “Scheming in the Snow”:


There is a time after what comes after
being young, and a time after that, he thinks
happily as he walks through the winter woods,
hearing in silence a woodpecker far off.
Remembering his Chinese friend
whose brother gave her a jade ring from
the Han Dynasty when she turned eighteen.
Two weeks later, when she was hurrying up
the steps of a Hong Kong bridge, she fell,
and the thousand-year-old ring shattered
on the concrete. When she told him, stunned
and tears running down her face, he said,
Don’t cry. I'll get you something better.

~ Jack Gilbert

You said something very important: we do get tired of the same old self saying the same old things etc. And it's not as if we could buy a new self like a new pair of shoes. And then the next day we wake up all happy and in love with ourselves. So it goes. Life, just life, and the self selving. Is this selving governed by an actually destiny pulling us toward it? Only if we say so. Aside from what might be called biological destiny, to some degree we are free to work toward a goal. That’s all, but it’s magnificent.

The affirmation “I hope you go to California and fail many times” really hit home with me and then it was the last line of the poem. WOW!!!

Love all your Freud/Jung contrasts. Absolutely brilliant blog.
Thank you. Actually, the more one tries to untangle the fate/destiny interplay, the less possible it seems. Does anyone really choose to be a poet, a sculptor – or a UPS truck driver, for that matter? We are back to determinism and free will – and I’m not going there. But as long as the blog provides both pleasure and food for thought, that’s good enough for me. 

Really insightful post. I really must re-read some Jungian musings. The old Quaker whalemen sailed the Pacific in the first half of the 19th century, discovering new islands; one they named 'New Nantucket.' I like the notion of having a place of my own, of creating my own 'New Nantucket', an island of peace, stability and sanity in a world where it seems those things are rare indeed. As Melville famously wrote, 'you won't find it on any map, true places never are.' I realize that sounds kinda airy or dreamy but like poetry, it may not be 'practical' or even seem nonsensical but the dream is still vivid.  


I love the Melville quotation:  “you won't find it on any map, true places never are.” True places are states of mind, and what we remember trumps what is objectively there. So that’s your destiny (another word for a compelling dream), the creation of your New Nantucket. Good luck to you!

Especially enjoyed the Poe poem.
This is wonderful to hear. So far only the rain poem has been commented on. Well, Hyacinth liked the line about the raven’s “limited vocabulary.” Personally I’m thrilled to have rediscovered the poem. And as for Poe's "Raven," it is an uncanny masterpiece. Practically every American knows the poem, which should give us a pause. That music is powerful, and the poem does deliver an insight that would otherwise (if not presented in this ballad style) be quite uncomfortable to most.