Monday, July 1, 2013


Los Cabos, Baja California


Jasmine like blossoming moonlight
has taken captive the blue dusk.
I am fourteen, fifteen, sixteen –
the radio sings Malagueña.

Years later at a wedding,
a middle-aged mariachio
sings Malagueña with such passion,
the guests fall silent as in a cathedral.

Few comprehend the lyrics,
but the meaning soars
in the arches of the vowels, held
so long they span constellations.

Maybe it never really ends –
life driven by desire
for a different life.  

You never stop waiting, 

never, a famous actress 
said in her old age –
she who we thought possessed
all we ever wanted to have.

The music cannot be undone. 

It casts the human voice beyond
blue, into pure indigo –
not star jasmine, sparse petals, 

but the full narcotic flower – 

as the lights on the bay
sink shimmering shafts
into the ocean’s dark love.

~ Oriana © 2013


“That’s not important,” my mother would say countless times during her last years. She wanted “what wakefulness remains” reserved for the essence. That included the daily walks where she could look at trees, dogs, children, squirrels. A bird hopping on the pavement was important. The sale at Sears was not important. Neither was meeting the tax deadline, even if the IRS seemed to differ.

What, then, IS important? The answer depends on the person and on the stage of life. Right now, amid medical difficulties, holding on to the bliss of slow reading and slow writing has become primary. And beauty and tenderness, but much has been written about those -- so let me highlight slow reading and slow writing.

Primary? Yes. Because that way I hold on to the essence of what I am, of what makes my life worth living. Once I had my big awakening about mortality and how I don’t have unlimited time anymore, but must make the most of “what wakefulness remains,” I saw what I treasure most: “mind sex.”



Once I got to know what I truly want, what works for me and what doesn’t, I began to buy fewer things, but the things I do buy are of better quality. Like Cinderella finally claiming her glass slipper, I want the best.

I have also finally understood what Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn meant when they said, “Wear black and white, and you’ll always be elegant and never have to wonder what to wear.” On the verge of buying a “royal blue” blouse I don’t need, I stopped -- I’d like to say “in mid-air,” but it was “mid-screen.” It’s not too bad, being in the same minimalist closet with Marlene Dietrich (though I have a certain fondness for burgundy that I’ll keep).

In reading and creative work, I know that when I limit variety, I gain depth. I build on what I’ve already acquired (and even that has too much variety --  oh my foolish insatiable mind when I was young and wanted everything, everything). Some people say they no longer read new books -- they give themselves to the pleasure of re-reading. Slow reading and re-reading: mind-sex. Voluptuous.

I’ve learned that reading (and re-reading) ten great poets in depth will yield more satisfaction than reading a hundred poets superficially.

If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all. ~ Oscar Wilde

How do I choose those ten? I follow my bliss.

Ten is already borderline too many. When I was twenty-seven, I took one year just to read Rilke. I’d browse in the library’s poetry section, I’d glance at this or that poet -- but basically, my serious poetry reading was Rilke. And it was Rilke who taught me seriousness. 

Rilke at Muzot, 1923


I still remember my shock when a boyfriend I had in my twenties calmly asked, “Why don’t you use your intelligence to improve your life?” I was startled. My intelligence was Platonic, not Aristotelian. I used it to get high grades in college; that was what intelligence was for. Intelligence = intellect = useless in “real life.”

And, mind you, I already knew and admired the director of UCLA Brain Research Institute. I marveled at what he once said, “I owe my career success to the decision I made in my youth never to raise my voice.” He was using his intelligence and self-control, two traits found by studies to be the most important predictors of “good outcomes in life.” Alas, I didn’t realize that the way I gained near-perfect reading knowledge of English by reading Gone with the Wind for one hour every day gave me a tool that combined intelligence with self-control, a tool I could continue using -- if not for career success, then as a source of reliable happiness.

I didn’t realize it because back in my late teens and twenties I assumed the power lay not in the doing, but in having a goal.


I used to think: I am happy whenever I'm working hard toward a goal. But having a goal wasn't always possible, or the old goal “ran out” or stopped making sense. I felt bereft without a goal. I remembered my last year in Warsaw and the happiness brought by my daily reading practice, whose goal couldn’t be more clear: I wanted to to master English. That’s why for many years I thought that for me the secret of happiness was working toward a clear goal. No goal = no practice = no happiness.

I nodded my head when I read Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (note the pig-sty near the church and the graveyard)

It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.

That’s the semi-bad news: it’s a rare life that can be called “purpose driven.” The splendid news is that we don't have to have a goal. I’ve learned that it's better if my goal is fuzzy at best, so achieving or not achieving it doesn't enter the equation. Then there is no “failure” -- none of that useless suffering. No goal, none, just the activity itself! The process, not the outcome. It’s the activity itself that’s fulfilling. In a sense, you are making love.

(and besides, piglets are delightful)

I’m back from Coronado Library, an exquisite temple of the mind (oh the quiet old-money elegance, with busts of Aristotle). For two and a half hours I shamelessly indulged in mind sex, reading The New York Book Review. And I wasn’t making detailed notes, once a compulsive habit of mine -- intellectual hoarding. I was reading for the bliss of bathing in the intellectual grace of those semi-scholarly articles.

The first article (not counting a quick glance at Oprah’s “Change Your Hair, Change Your Life”) was a review of the best-selling book by Garry Wills, “Why Priests?” Wills argues that the Catholic church would be better off without its clergy. And no, he doesn’t mean the pedophile priests -- that pathology doesn’t require a book to indite it. Wills discusses the very institution of priesthood, and finds it obsolete. An ordained priest is needed to work the miracle of transubstantiation. But transubstantiation does not happen (Protestants reached that conclusion already centuries ago). Thus, in principle, anyone could lead a religious service.

(A shameless digression: this reminded me of my asking an ex-Jesuit, “But isn’t it time for women to be allowed to say the mass?” He replied, “Why should anyone say the mass? Perhaps we should stop it for three years, and see if anyone misses it.”)

“Transubstantiation does not happen.” The simplicity of the statement thrilled me. I had not thought of it in those few words because when I silently declared “It’s just another mythology,” the whole “mystery” disappeared. Besides, a Jewish rabbi, no matter how “reform,” could not possibly say, “This is my blood; drink it.” That was Dionysus. Divine cannibalism, the eating of the gods -- it was coming back to me, and it was delicious.


Raphael, Dispute over Transubstantiation
(I love the shelf clouds on which the Celestials are seated)

Next, the article on Marx. The Catholic Church and the Reds -- I’m addicted to these topics, and yes, that ease born of familiarity goes back to my childhood and teens, being caught up between two dictatorships, two totalitarian systems. The church, of course, was ahead, having had many centuries of practice at inducing guilt in us wretched sinners, and the carrot and stick of heaven and hell. The carrot wasn’t much (does anyone really want to live in a city with sidewalks of gold?), but the stick was overwhelming. Even after decades, hellfire is still burning in some of my neural circuits. The poison of being told that you will burn for eternity is so venomous that there is no 100% antidote.

Karl did look like a biblical prophet; he was, in fact, a descendant of eminent rabbis. But did I really need to be told that some of Marx’s ideas are by now completely obsolete, while other insights remain strikingly relevant? No, but it was an inexplicable pleasure to read about it. I can’t help it -- my heart leaps up when I read a sentence like “Late in his life, Marx replaced one utopian vision of total abolition of alienated labor with another, that of humanity devoted to artistic and scholarly pursuits.”

Oscar Wilde, of all people, beautifully summarized that other utopia, in a little-known essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. “It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought . . . Charity creates a multitude of sins,” Wilde wrote with his famous flair. But I don’t insist on flair; a merely intelligent sentence will do.

Marx and his youngest daughter Jenny. Jenny is wearing the cross in solidarity with the 1863 Polish uprising against the Tzarist oppression. Actually the cross should be black; Polish noblewomen began to wear black jewelry to symbolize mourning for the lost independence.

The sentence about Marx’s two utopias constitutes the entire “notes” I took during my orgy at the patrician Coronado Library. My reading wasn’t meant to lead anywhere. When you are posthumous (that lovely state of non-striving), nothing is meant to lead to anything else. You don’t think in terms of “stepping stones” or a “ticket to the future.” You are not climbing up any ladder. You are walking down a soft level road through a wonderful forest; you are listening to the birds, watching the deer that are watching you. You are “following your bliss.”

Nevertheless, I admit that decades of being goal-oriented, and feeling bereft when I had no goal, sometimes still make it difficult to do something for its own sake -- just to enjoy it. In that case, here is my justification for going to the library: over two hours of brain healing. My personal kind of meditation. No goal is needed. It’s the activity that creates a feeling of happiness.


Ronald Dworkin, that’s who. But before I get to his ideas about non-theist religion, let me reveal something from the time I was eighteen. True, back then youth was an excuse for all manner of ignorance, but this strikes me as  being particularly blind (and funny now, but not funny then).

As a freshman at UCLA, I took a lengthy test that was supposed to guide me toward the most suitable major (first of all, I was clueless about what the word meant, aside from the military rank). The counselor took a while pondering my results, reminding me of the Gypsy in Warsaw who studied the cards in a long, deep silence before saying, “You are going on a great journey.”

The counselor finally looked at me and said, “The score indicates that you are an artist.” “No, I’m not!” I exclaimed. I felt insulted; I defined myself as an intellectual. As the Tao warns, she who defines herself cannot know who she really is.

“Are you interested in the visual arts?” the counselor asked. “Not particularly,” I replied. She patiently combed field after field, while I was growing impatient. The test was actually a questionnaire about values; since my highest values were beauty and creative work, I happened to fit in with the artists. The counselor, exhausted, ended by pointing out that ballet and modern dance criticism was a new field in which I could become an expert and not have to face much competition. That, I thought, was the most ludicrous piece of advice since a Polish-American priest “playfully” (oh yeah?) slapped me across the bottom and said, “Just marry a nice Polish boy.”

Then I read an article which casually mentioned that creative people tend to  have unusual and colorful dreams. And talk about the deluge of unusual dreams I was having . . .

And now comes Dworkin with his idea that religion is not restricted to theism. One can be deeply religious without believing in an invisible man in the sky, the earth his mere footstool. Or believing in any kind of god or gods. (The gods wanted blood. Wasn’t it peculiar, sacrificing a lamb to Yahweh? And wasn’t it the priests who got to eat the lamb? A high-protein diet millennia before Atkins?)

“Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious,” Dworkin argues. Albert Einstein, for instance, said that though an atheist he was a deeply religious man. He was in awe of the universe, its sublime mystery and mathematical order. It could be argued that he was overly Platonic in his outlook, but that was before the view favoring probability, and of course long before chaos theory. Still, his reverence and his enchantment with mystery can indeed qualify him as religious (most would argue that “spiritual” is a better label for the sense of the transcendent without a personal god).

Dworkin refers to Rudolf Otto’s influential work, The Idea of the Holy:

When scientists confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles they have an emotional reaction that matches Otto’s description surprisingly well. Indeed many of them use the very term “numinous” to describe what they feel. They find the universe awe-inspiring and deserving of a kind of emotional response that at least borders on trembling.

I can become ecstatic just looking at the clouds. It doesn’t have to be sunset in full peacock display. The late afternoon clouds, those silver-gray harmonicas and schools of fish and angel wings -- and I’m thinking of fractals, Mandelbrot -- the clouds on their great journey.


Shelley, expelled from Oxford for his atheism, wrote these mystical lines in his “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats through unseen among us -- visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower --
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening --
Like clouds in starlight widely spread --
Like memory of music fled --
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

Mont Blanc


Dickinson, too, is an ecstatic without always being a theist (sometimes she is, sometimes not).

Come slowly, Eden!
Lips unused to thee,
Bashful, sip thy jessamines,
As the fainting bee,

Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums,
Counts his nectars -- enters,
And is lost in balms!

~ Emily Dickinson, 211

We too can count those nectars; we too can enter and be “lost in balms.” We are the children of the universe, interconnected in more ways than we can even conceive of, part of a thrilling mystery. If being religious means being in awe of nature’s mystery and beauty, as well as a strong commitment to moral values (which derive from our capacity for empathy), then yes, all my adult life I’ve been religious without knowing it.

(for Dworkin’s article, go to

Hello fractal animula!


For me mind sex means chiefly (though not exclusively) slow reading. Slow reading could also be called “deep reading,” or “studying.” Slow reading  is the practice that can sustain me day after day, rain or shine (and in this climate zone it's that merciless "shine" that’s an ordeal). All I need is a book and a pencil. By the way, asked what his spiritual practice was, Joseph Campbell answered, “I sit with a book and a pencil and underline words.”

And that was his main source of reliable happiness.

Along with performing the Apollonian task of organizing your world, attention enables you to have the kind of Dionysian experience beautifully described by the old-fashioned term rapt—completely absorbed, engrossed, fascinated, perhaps even “carried away”—that underlies life’s deepest pleasures, from the scholar’s study to the carpenter’s craft to the lover’s obsession. ~ Winifred Gallagher, Rapt

The best advice I ever got? ATTEMPT BUT LITTLE AT A TIME. Then you can do it slowly, at the level of excellence (or at least you will be able to reach the level of excellence) -- and reap the most pleasure. LESS = NO STRESS. When you do anything for the joy of it, without stress, the brain heals from the ravages of stress. Joy is a wonderful therapy. 

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