Sunday, May 26, 2013

CHOCOLATE JESUS









Honey, I talk to god all the time. Doesn't mean I actually believe there's anyone there ~ a woman on Facebook


beeches, County Antrim


CHOCOLATE JESUS


Well I don't go to church on Sunday
Don't get on my knees to pray
Don't memorize the books of the Bible
I got my own special way
I know Jesus loves me
Maybe just a little bit more
I fall down on my knees every Sunday
At Zerelda Lee's candy store

Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied

Well I don't want no Abba Zaba
Don't want no Almond Joy
There ain't nothing better
Suitable for this boy
Well it's the only thing
That can pick me up
Better than a cup of gold
See only a chocolate Jesus
Can satisfy my soul

When the weather gets rough
And it's whiskey in the shade
It's best to wrap your savior

Up in cellophane
He flows like the big muddy
But that's ok
Pour him over ice cream
For a nice parfait

Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus
Good enough for me
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Good enough for me

Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel so good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied

~ Tom Waits  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5kHx1itU8c
 


*
I especially like

When the weather gets rough
And it's whiskey in the shade
It's best to wrap your savior
Up in cellophane


Sweet Jesus, yes, but chocolate Jesus? If there happened to be a song called “Chocolate Muhammad,” there’d be Islamic riots. And who knows, Putin might send the singer of Chocolate Jesus to Siberia for “offending the religious feelings of others.” 



Abandoned church of the Transfiguration, built 1878, Arkhangelsk Region

But let’s stay with our more tolerant Western world. When you ponder the fact that in the past singing a song of this sort would lead to being burned at the stake, you immediately see the “softening” in attitudes toward  blasphemy. Let’s face it, this song would have been unimaginable just a century ago -- maybe even as relatively recently as the nineteen fifties, when “In God we trust” was put on the banknotes (I still fail to understand what this motto has to do with money -- maybe “in God we trust; everyone else has to pass a credit check”?)

*

Now that the Pope shocked the world by announcing that even atheists go to heaven as long as they’ve been good persons, how can I not be elated? What a journey I’ve witnessed! ~ from “only Catholics go to heaven” to “non-Catholic Christians also go to heaven” to “even good atheists go to heaven.” From the cruelty of the Middle Ages, a leap into the tender-hearted modern times. Well, almost. We are still talking about what doesn’t even exist -- unless here and now, both heaven and hell, and each human being gets to travel in both.

(Imagine a greater shock, the mother of all shock: what if the Grand Mufti announced that non-Moslems can also enter paradise? Paradise! That word is so redolent with pleasure, promising ecstasies we can understand; “heaven” is for monks, who’d just continue their monotonous chanting.)


MOVING AWAY FROM THE GOD OF PUNISHMENT TOWARD A LOVING “CHOCOLATE JESUS”

It didn’t use to be that sweet: be good and you’ll go to heaven. No need to believe in Virgin Birth or walking on water, no need to develop arthritis from kneeling. The old-time religion was much more grim. As Andrew Butterfield writes, “The prospect of death held a special fear, since according to Catholic doctrine death was not the end but merely a new beginning of one’s suffering. The damned burned forever in hell, and even the good had to undergo an extremely long time in purgatory, enduring torments far worse than anything experienced in life.”

(How long is meant by “extremely long time in purgatory”? My grandmother expected many centuries, perhaps ten. This actually gave her hope; she did not see herself as doomed to hell, the conclusion I reached about myself.)

 
Albrecht Dürer, The Penitent, 1510.

True, after shocking the world on Wednesday, on Thursday the Vatican took a giant step back. A spokesman for the Holy See said that those aware of the Catholic Church need to “enter Her or remain within Her.” (Her? Yes, the church is feminine -- a transvestite.) But already quite a few years back it was announced, infallibly I presume, that Protestants need not become Catholic to enter heaven; some time after that, we learned that Jews don’t even have to convert to Christianity. So I don’t think any going back is possible any more -- just as there is no banning pets from heaven. Just try telling a Catholic family that their dog has no soul! We are already in the twenty-first century, and it’s too late for that.

Besides, Jesus told us to feed the hungry and visit the sick, but he never mentioned becoming a Catholic. He himself was definitely not a Catholic. In fact, the historical Jesus was probably closer to a Jehova’s Witness. 

From an Amazon review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth:

Erhman believes, quite convincingly, that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in the Jewish tradition of his time. Jesus believed and preached that God would soon intervene and destroy the forces of evil, bring in his good kingdom on earth, and install him on his throne. There is just one problem. Jesus was wrong. In fact, he was mistaken about a lot things. People don't want to hear that, Ehrman points out.

The difficulty, Ehrman believes, is that this historical Jesus is obviously far too historical for modern tastes. Ehrman is right. Out of the context of his time, the overriding message of Jesus is preposterous, leaving anyone grasping for a meaningful faith nowhere to go, no inspiring message to believe in. Jesus the wisdom sage or Jesus the social revolutionary, for example, might offer solace, guidance, and hope but a Jesus predicting the end times leaves us only a corpse.


*

This is precisely the problem: the “historical Jesus is obviously far too historical for modern tastes.” In fact, a question arises as to the sanity of Jesus: today he’d be discussed as a case of paranoid schizophrenia with the “Messiah complex,” fairly common in schizophrenic delusions.

So no, the historical Jesus is not the chocolate Jesus who’d fraternize with kindly atheists. And here we are already visualizing a surprised atheist entering heaven together with her atheist dog.


OR MAYBE TOO MYTHOLOGICAL?

Here is a scene showing orphaned little Jane Eyre at Lowood School for Girls:

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child," he began, "especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?"

"They go to hell," was my ready and orthodox answer.

"And what is hell? Can you tell me that?"

"A pit full of fire."

"And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?"

"No, sir."

"What must you do to avoid it?"

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come was objectionable: "I must keep in good health and not die.”

~ Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

If already Charlotte Brontë could pen this little chuckle in 1847, no wonder we can more than chuckle. We can discard hell altogether as cruel and unusual punishment. 

If we discard hell, then everyone goes to heaven (serial killers may have to undergo compulsory therapy). But assuming the existence of heaven, what exactly would the souls do there? What would there be to talk about? -- for eternity, mind you. And no change in the weather. Or rather, what weather?

And besides, a New Age friend I once had told me about her near-death experience. I asked if there were trees in heaven. She said, “No, nothing like trees.” And for felicity, I require trees.


Beech trees and bluebells, England

GOD AS SANTA CLAUS

A woman who belonged to a 12-Step program told me that the idea is to find a “higher power” or “god as you understand him.” She rejected the god of her childhood: “He spied on me and was writing down my sins so later he could throw me into hell.” Her sponsor asked, “So what would you like god to be like?” And the woman replied, “Santa Claus.”

I am not making this up, nor is it meant to be a joke. The woman was lively and intelligent. She said she wanted a caring god who did good things for her. No hell, no punishment -- just help and affection. She shrugged and smiled: “So my god is a kind of Santa Claus.”

The "softie" god within would have been much more pleasant. Just take punishment out of the teachings, and you get a supportive religion, totally unlike the nasty stuff it was in my childhood, and that was the only religion available. No buddhist centers yet, not even in Warsaw.

No judgment, no punishment, no vengeance -- wasn’t that the most radical message of Jesus? An extreme, for the times, respect for every human being? (I’m “cleaning up” Jesus, I know: he wasn’t quite so universal.)

But back to God-as-Santa, or the “God Within.” What about the Satan Within and the internal battle between Zoroaster’s Ahura Mazda and Ahriman? But that’s the battle of youth. The God Within is for the middle-aged women.



Ahura Mazda

FEMINISM AND THE “GOD WITHIN”

Why women? Rabbi Finley pointed out that he started hearing about the “God Within” in parallel with the rise of feminism. “Women would come up to me and say that they believe in the god within,” Rabbi Finley stated. The god within was a softie: totally supportive, compassionate and loving, she (I think the change of pronouns is appropriate) provided guidance and nourished persons with positive thoughts and beautiful images. The god without was the patriarchal god, a dangerous lunatic: judgmental, jealous, angry, raging, always threatening punishment and dealing out “justice” (“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, and I shall pay back”)

(I realize that the term “lunatic” is politically incorrect, reminding us of the 19th century and the Lunacy Act: you had to register your insane relatives rather than just hide them in the attic. Now there is some dispute if the god of the Old Testament is best diagnosed as manic-depressive or a malignant narcissist. I vote for malignant narcissist.)

One scriptural support for the god within is of course my favorite saying of Jesus, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” If god is a loving, blissful state of mind, I have no quarrel with this definition.

It’s not the idea of the god within that displeases Rabbi Finley, but the feminist rejection of the the god without. “I need that eye in the sky,” he declared. “It challenges me: am I really as good as I think? Am I good enough? Could I be an even better person?” Shifting from the personal to the universal perspective, and tossing in the Nazis and the Stalinists, in his lecture on “The Otherness of God” Rabbi Finley declared that humanity needs god because without god, without the eye in the sky, humanity is evil. The eye in the sky keeps us in line.



(My experience with the eye in the sky god-without was that I was never good enough. I could never stay in the state of grace for more than two weeks after confession. I watched with melancholy envy as the beefy Insensitives proceeded to communion, while I held back, feeling unworthy -- thus depriving a certain altar boy of the pleasure of pressing the gilded tray against my budding bosom so hard it hurt. If only someone told me that not being careful enough and spilling a liquid of some sort -- there weren’t too many sorts, due to the communist economy -- was insufficient to disqualify me from grace.)

By contrast, the god within reassures women (well, primarily women) that they really are “good enough.” It’s the small still voice that tells them the world will not end if they lie down and rest for a while.



THE SAVING GRACE OF ATHEISM

Do we need this cumbersome metaphysical framework just to give ourselves the permission to lie down and rest? Could we manage just on “common sense”? The bible certainly contains much wisdom, and not just accounts of atrocities. Feminist scholars have even identified passages where god appears to be more God-the-Mother. But I can’t remember anything from the bible that changed my life. The statement that struck like a lightning and changed my life was “You can practice being strong, or you can practice falling apart.”

So, there was no choice except to be strong. Just one word -- “strong” -- did some incredibly heavy lifting. Sorry: it really was that simple. The message reached me at a time when I was whole-heartedly practicing falling apart. It put an end to that, then and forever. It happened to be in a book that my friends classified as “beach reading” and beneath me. But it delivered that one common-sense sentence whose price was “far above rubies.”

To be honest, I needed one more thing for the paradigm shift that ended my chronic depression. I needed to grow old enough to realize that there wasn’t that much life left, and that I did not want to waste that shockingly brief span of years brooding about past mistakes and disasters (I saw my life only as a series of tragic mistakes; my positive memories were blocked, so I couldn’t remember a single good thing ever happening to me). But I’ve spoken of this elsewhere. The way all this relates to the saving grace of atheism is by defining life as NOW, not as the hereafter. If you lose the now, you lose it all. 






Albrecht Dürer: Melancholia, 1514

ARE WE ALL AEOLIAN HARPS?
When we look at the cultural revolution that makes the fifties look like another country, it wasn’t just feminism that happened. New Age also happened, and it deserves to be taken more seriously. It’s an attempt to create an alternative to Christianity, though “Christ consciousness” is part of the emotionally supportive life philosophy it provides. On the West Coast  the New Age movement has been wildly successful.

An alternative to Christianity is no small accomplishment. Jung tried it too.  His thinking changed constantly, but not his absolute rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition of a judging, punitive god who is the Absolute Other while humans are just worms -- as Job says, “I am of little worth,” also translated as “I am of no account.”

Jung came up with a vision of a spiritual Übermensch, or the Self with a capital S (creating a hair puller equivalent of trying to comprehend the difference between being and Being). The divine lies within us; it is the “innermost infinity.”

At the same time, the psyche within is connected with the psyche without. Jungians and New Age mystics believe that the nature of reality is ultimately spiritual, and our thoughts influence matter. Quantum physics is often invoked: the observer influences the outcome.

Critics never tire of pointing out that there is nothing new about the New Age. Its various principles have been expressed since tribal religions, with new notions being added. Thus, one school of ancient Greek philosophy held that each person’s mind is part of the great collective Logos. Coleridge put it more beautifully than most in his “Aeolian Harp”:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?



It is an attractive notion, a god without that is not “absolutely other.” Here, the god within is a harmonious part of the the god without. I have no quarrel with that. It is simply Nature with a capital N. In my view there is no distinction between Nature and nature: it’s simply all there is. We are part of nature; or, to put it even more simply, we ARE nature.

WE HAVE ALREADY LIVED IN THE REAL PARADISE
 
If we are nature, then there is no judgment and punishment, even if bad things still happen to good people. Even a school shooting is not an occasion for declaring that the perpetrator is now paying for it in hell. It’s simply too late in history for that kind of primitive revenge consciousness. Rather, we debate on how to improve mental health services.

Isn’t this compatible with the “judge not” message of Christianity? Only if we revise Christianity to be fully compatible with its message of radical compassion. “Love thy enemy” is still the most daring ethics ever proposed. “Hatred by hatred never can be ended” is the Eastern equivalent, but the phrasing is mild -- far from the emotional shock of “Love thy enemy.”

Alas, if we go by “gospel truth,” Jesus did not always love his enemies. In fact he threatened blasphemers with hell. Yes, even Jesus needs some softening of the heart chakra to meet the modern standards. Since in every period of history the bible was read selectively, why not continue to be selective and go for Chocolate Jesus -- or, to be even more inclusive, god as an all-good and unconditionally generous Santa Claus?

(A shameless digression: I never believed in Santa Claus. My parents spared no effort to prevent me from believing in Santa, witches, or ghosts. Is it any wonder that eventually I rejected Catholic supernaturalism? Mark my words: atheism starts with not believing in Santa Claus.)

But, first of all, did you see the gorgeous full moon in Gemini (May 24)? I went for my evening walk soon after moonrise, and got to see earth’s twin like a huge amber lantern low on the horizon. I also remembered another lunar encounter, the time I saw a full moon from a plane at 30,000 feet, beautiful and serene between two silver-edged clouds. What a gift, I thought. What other paradise can one want?

But nature wasn’t seen as beautiful until Romanticism. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” -- Isaiah voices a longing for a completely flat paradise.

And if we are to trust Dante and the Book of Revelation, in heaven there is no night. And then what would we do, dreamers, poets, lunatics and romantics? 

But not to worry. Every atom inside us was once a star. We don’t go to heaven; we ARE heaven. We are the universe.

*

That doesn’t mean that mythologies are dead. They still speak to us. As long as we don’t literalize them, I am all for keeping the best of the ancient stories.

I don’t have a moonrise poem, only a moonset poem.

MOONSET, MONTANA DE ORO




Mottled like a lamp with moths, 

the heavy globe

sinks into the obsidian

silence of the bay.



The bellied curve

rests on shiny black water,

an entrance to the world

where the past becomes eternal.


We stand on the shore
as if waiting
for the ferry,

arriving dark on dark –



The wedge of amber

eases down.
The tip glows, 


a coin of pure white light.



Now the passage is paid.

The perfection of darkness.
You ask, “Where is Gold Mountain?”
In silence I take your hand.


One day as soft and tranquil 

as the ocean of a distant night,
we’ll pay with the priceless
coin of a spent life

and journey to Gold Mountain.
But not yet, my love.
Across the dark, again
we start toward dawn.

~ Oriana © 2013


###





REDEEMED FROM WHAT?
Lilith:

Loved your new blog. So the new pope says I can be redeemed -- redeemed from what, I ask?

 

Oriana:

Obviously, from hell, where you deserve to go because of your sins and the Original Sin (transmitted through your father's semen, St. Augustine says; at least the ovum is sinless, but only because St. Augustine didn’t know that such a thing as the ovum existed), except for being rinsed in the blood of the Lamb. The blood is the payment that needs to be made if justice is to be done.

And here the ugliness starts all over again. So you don't think you've done anything so evil that you deserve to be fed to the pit of fire? Let's take a more extreme case: an unbaptized child dies, so her soul is thrown into a pit of fire (the limbo was just for babies; but imagine an “unredeemed” 9-year-old girl). The cruelty of the Christian god is unspeakable. (Judaism wasn't as focused on hell, or afterlife in general). But we have just witnessed a huge leap forward for the Catholic church, since the new pope would allow an unbaptized child to enter heaven.

Now, if you’ve been properly indoctrinated/intimidated, of course you suffer from guilt and low self-esteem. I know I did, and life was difficult enough without that extra burden. Doomed for eternity! The ideal of perfect morality, which includes never experiencing “lust” or envy or anger or wanting a second helping not to mention dessert, is impossible to achieve, so naturally everyone is a sinner in need of “redemption.” It’s something like ransom, except in this case it involves a cruel and unusual execution of someone innocent instead of the sinner. Never mind that you wouldn’t have agreed to that. I assumed you too were told again and again: Jesus died for your sins. 

And if your own sins are truly minor, there is always “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” We have St. Augustine to thank for the doctrine of Original Sin: collective guilt. My nuns and priests were used to the objection that a child would make: “If it were me in the Garden, I wouldn’t have touched the apple.” The nun would smile indulgently and kindly point out that of course you too, little boy or girl, would have been disobedient, since it’s human nature to be curious, disobedient, and ambitious for self-improvement (“ye shall be as the gods”).

And if the creator created humans in his own image, then surely he himself must share all the human flaws.

Furthermore, what's to be done with the failed prophecies of the "last days"?

It really makes sense to see the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher. (by the way, how would Jung try to resolve JC's "father complex"?)  




Michelangelo, Last Judgment
 
Charles:

This blog starts out great and continues that way. It is associational writing that is enjoyable and makes sense.

A good question to ask a believer is, "Exactly what happens in hell?" Going into this thought process in a serious way will should have even the most ardent believers wonder if all the suffering in hell is realistic in the face of "Love your enemy."

I love the reference to the Catholic Church being a transvestite. How else can you describe this male-dominated religion where the hierarchy dresses like drag queens?

To see Jesus' predictions that went awry: https://www.google.com/search?q=jesus+wrong+predictions&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a.

And yes, Hell is a cruel and unusual punishment. God as Santa Claus makes so much sense.

Of course we are nature. Love MOONSET, MONTANA DE ORO. It captures the beauty of nature.

 
Oriana:

Thank you for pointing out the profound contradiction between “Love thy enemy” and the existence of hell. I haven’t thought of that. Christians don’t normally think of it; they got indoctrinated and intimidated as children, and some fear of hellfire lurks in the brain forever. 



And yes, a merciful deity would love his/her/its enemies and through love produce a change in the state of mind. Call it "love therapy."

Dante has a more sophisticated description of hell, where the psychological set of mind of vices such as gluttony or hoarding is colorfully depicted. But that’s Dante’s sophistication. Nothing even approaching subtlety is indicated in the gospels -- just fire for all. In a country with a hot climate, heat as a torture is easy to understand.

There was a time when I yearned for some metaphoric understanding that could validate Christianity -- since in some ways Jesus is a cool guy with more advanced sense of ethics. But then again, not. There is no saving Christianity without a huge revision. Bishop Spong’s Christianity Must Change or Die is a good start for anyone who yearns for truly compassionate, non-apocalyptic Christianity.

The beauty of nature is what finally remains for me. I never tire of sunsets and the beauty of moonrise and moonset. If there is any room in my mind for what the Jungians would evasively call the transcendent function, it’s the extravagant beauty of nature. In terms of sheer functionality, the earth doesn’t have to be beautiful, or the ordinary domestic cat be such an exquisite athlete. This beauty is a gift of nature so great that “Today you shall be with me in paradise” is the one true prophecy: we live in paradise.


GOD OF PUNISHMENT

Lynda:

Loved your "Chocolate Jesus" blog. Such a wealth of thought! I'll read it again when I have more time. It made me think of my Catholic girlhood, how my God was the God of Punishment. I gave him up at eleven when I was preparing for confirmation. The kids talked about how the bishop would slap you in the face at the ceremony. I decided no one, not even God's minion, would slap me. 


Oriana:

“God of Punishment” (GOP) is the perfect phrase. Yes!!

I envy you for having left the the GOP early, unlike me who actually went through with the confirmation. The bishop was a typical “grumpy old man,” devoid of any aura of holiness. He acted as if the ceremony were completely empty, which made me aware that it really was empty. 


Darlene:

Don’t be so sure of going to heaven. As you point out, the Vatican issued a disclaimer: If you are aware of the Catholic church, then “you must enter her or remain within her.”


Oriana:

Fortunately, the fourth century gave us Bishop Athanasius, later St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He taught that a heretic is doomed only if he is aware that he’s rejecting the true church.

I am not aware of rejecting “the true church.” In my eyes, the Catholic church is far from being the true church.

Not that such a church exists or can exist. Ultimately every person has his or her special beliefs. Many people have a sense of the sacred without needing to worship at man-made altars. The “temple of nature” surpasses anything constructed by humanity. I enjoy beautiful churches (except that they often smell bad), but nothing raises my spirits so much as being in the woods or a mountain meadow in bloom.  



Steve:

I really enjoyed your latest blog on The Chocolate Jesus. I immediately thought of "Well, I don't care if it rains or freezes, / Long as I have my plastic Jesus / Riding on the dashboard of my car."

As you know, I consider myself a spiritual though not religious person--but I also adore irreverence, I suppose because we all get so serious when the idea of God or the Creator or Higher Power or whatever we call it comes up. So I love the idea of a chocolate Jesus. Makes me think of an oven hot pad I once bought for my sister. It had a picture of a cat on it with the words

Love them little mousies,
mousies what I love to eat
Bite they little heads off
Nibble on they tiny feet.

What does that have to do with a chocolate Jesus? Well, a chocolate Jesus wouldn't last too long it MY hands, that's all!

Thank you for your fascinating philosophical/spiritual wanderings in your blog. They are always a treat!

 
Oriana:

Well, you’ve done it. I finally googled “Plastic Jesus” and got this famous rendition:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dG9tuuznL1Y

~ so it’s both a trinket Jesus and a “Sweet Madonna” -- both completely supportive and non-punitive.

Chocolate Jesus wouldn’t last too long in my hands either, though I stipulate dark chocolate, preferably “non-Dutched” (processed without alkali, thus providing more polyphenols). And thus my chocolate Jesus would become “the god within” quite literally.

For me the amazing and very “American” question was: “If you could have any god you like, what kind of god would it be?” It’s a profoundly American question because it at least implies freedom of choice, and asserts that the individual matters, and is not like Job saying, “I know I am of little worth” (in another translation, “I am of no account”).

I think I am like a lot of people who’d answer that I’d like a totally loving and supportive god. Remember that woman’s “My god is Santa Claus”? In our age it’s understood that Santa would never be so cruel as to bring ashes instead of gifts. Santa or Chocolate Jesus, but definitely not the terrifying “eye in the sky” spying on people’s thoughts and everything they do from the perspective of sin and punishment. If we stumble and fall, we’d like to be lifted up, not threatened with hell.

I think Christianity is actually mellowing toward the loving god within. The great part is that no one would kill in the name of the god within. The god within is basically one’s highest (some would say “deepest”) self. And it’s of course possible to talk to the god within and not be disturbed by silence. That silence can even feel soothing.

Or else a loving thought (including love toward the self, already a “soft” idea) can be perceived as an answer from the god within.

The part that clergy of all denominations do not like about the god within is that it makes them superfluous. New religious communities can be imagined, but they’d be more democratic and egalitarian. The dictatorship model will sooner or later be abandoned in the West. And irreverence is part of the great transition.

Monday, May 13, 2013

THE INNER INFANT




MOON

The moon is full tonight
an illustration for sheet music,
an image in Matthew Arnold
glimmering on the English Channel,
or a ghost over a smoldering battlefield
in one of the history plays.

It's as full as it was
in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby's face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth's bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.

And if you wanted to follow this example,
tonight would be the night
to carry some tiny creature outside
and introduce him to the moon.

And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand.

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees
in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.

~ Billy Collins, Picnic, Lightning

The humor of the poem relies on a rhetorical device that Collins uses quite often: he literalizes a metaphor, here going beyond the “inner child” to the inner infant: “the sleeping infant of yourself” that you can carry out in a tattered blanket in order to introduce him to the moon.

Nevertheless, even though Collins repeats this little joke of his again and again in his poems, we must admit that this particular poem is  quite memorable. First I thought this may be due to the fact that “inner infant” has a certain freshness, while the “inner child” has become a cliché to the point that some people don’t seem to realize it’s only a metaphor and not a real child hiding in some closet of the psyche. But just to make sure, I googled “inner infant.” Alas, there are entries for it; a cyber-nursery of inner infant psychobabble has already set up its dysfunctional playpens. (Of course some New Age people believe that memories of life in the womb can be retrieved as well. Oh happy embryo! Oh ecstatic zygote!)

Still, unlike the inner child, “the sleeping infant of yourself” is a lot more unexpected. The catalogue of the first stanza is forgettable and should have been omitted so we can quickly get to Coleridge, the moon, and the infant, without stumbling over sheet music, the English Channel, or a smoldering battlefield. Imagine this:

The moon is full tonight,
as full as it was
in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby's face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth's bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.
 

That’s where the poem finds itself and becomes less a list and more a vignette, organized by this central image:
 

you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand.

Details create reality: this is the most important thing that a writer needs to learn. Don’t moralize, don’t philosophize, don’t psychobabble -- we are going to forget all that as soon as we lift our eyes off the page, if not sooner. But good details make the made-up incident real and they don’t let go.

At first I wasn’t sure about the “tattered blanket” -- why would the blanket be tattered? And an inner voice replied, because it’s been so many years since you were an infant. The lolling head on that fragile neck is almost painful to imagine. But that was us, no denying. “Tattered” goes well with “lolling.” Yes, once we were so pathetically dependent on adults. Do we ever get over that initial insecurity? Or, as some New Age fans worry, Do we ever get over the “trauma of birth,” or are we stuck with post-traumatic stress disorder for a lifetime? (A shameless digression: a Jehovah’s Witness told me that humanity is still in post-traumatic shock after the Fall in Eden 6,000 years ago.)

You can tell that I live in Southern California, the capital of “rebirthing.” I think getting born once is enough, and one infancy is fine too. Blessedly the brain was too undeveloped then to be capable of encoding long-term memory of what it was like to be in diapers. True, we missed some wonderful moments too!

The final stanza returns us to the adult:

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees
in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.

Again, details create reality, and you see the scene so distinctly that you forget you never had an orchard with pear trees (though I had a fig tree once), nor a stone wall, and perhaps not even a lawn. There you are, the manipulated reader, walking in circles on an imaginary lawn under a full moon, lifting your inner infant to introduce the babe to the moon. The poem works: it’s the magic of a well-developed central image, even if that image is stolen from another poet.

*

I wondered in which famous poem Coleridge speaks of his infant son and the moon. “Midnight Frost” wasn’t it -- the babe stays asleep in the cradle the full length of the poem (“My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.”) And then -- eureka! -- “The Nightingale.” Astonishingly, it’s not in the Norton anthology, though it’s of about the same quality as the other conversation poems. Perchance a hidden hostility toward nightingales?

(A shameless digression: Let’s admit it once and for all: nightingales are shrill, annoying midnight screamers using their cheap trills to establish territory against other competing males. To know nightingales -- as opposed to poems about nightingales -- is to hate them. By the way, there are no true nightingales in North America; however, we have the mockingbird, and at his mating-mania worst the mockingbird can sing all night. The last time I heard a mockingbird, he was imitating a car alarm. Fortunately that was not late at night. In fact I adore mockingbirds during reasonable hours.)

Here is Coleridge on the babe and the moon -- “he” is the poet’s infant son, Hartley:

He knows well
The evening-star! and once, when he awoke
In most distressful mood (some inward pain
Had made up that strange thing, an infant’s dream—)
I hurried with him to our orchard-plot,
And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,
While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,
Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam! Well!—
It is a father’s tale
: But if that Heaven
Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
Familiar with these songs, that with the night
He may associate joy.—Once more, farewell,
Sweet Nightingale! Once more, my friends! farewell.

**

He “hushed at once.” I wonder at what point a young child first truly notices the moon, and whether the word for moon, meaning the concept of the moon, needs to be heard, grasped, and remembered for such noticing to develop. But lack of precise knowledge need not prevent us from enjoying this “father’s tale.” We nod our non-lolling heads.

Hartley Coleridge (1796-1849) became a minor poet and an alcoholic. We know that these conditions are genetic and are not to be blamed on early exposure to the moon and/or nightingales.



the screamer

*

Amazingly enough, a wonderful poet I know happens to have written a poem in response to the poem by Billy Collins:

HOLDING MY DADDY UP TO THE MOON

Yesterday I fell apart when I read
Billy Collins’ poem about Coleridge
holding his infant son up
for a first look at the moon.

Billy says if there is not a child
in the house, “take the sleeping infant
of yourself . . . ” and I took my father,
the forgotten little boy. No one
would have done this for him.

In the only picture I have (two inches
square, glued to a piece of wood)
he is sturdy as a Percheron pony,
dressed in knickers and tweed coat,
fingers barely close on the book
he holds like a teacup.
He never learned to read.

When the lawn is creamy with moonlight,
air drenched in jasmine
and mockingbird song,
it it this child I hold up.

~ Una Huynum, The Magee Anthology, 2001

*

Now this is a poem in a different league from the clever joke by Billy Collins . . . This is the “human” poetry that touches the heart and yes, it can make us cry, so people who are afraid of feelings (yes, feelings can hurt) don't want to come near it. Better to chuckle with Billy.

Some humor is fine in poetry, but with humor you can go only so far. We don’t read poetry for comedy. From poetry we want poetry.

A poem like Una’s is of great value precisely because it has emotional power; it expands our empathy. We see the little boy who didn’t get either the love or the education that every child  should get. And if we truly understand, we stop judging and blaming: to blame is to ascribe total “free will” to a person, as if we could choose our genes, the income and education of our parents, and all kinds of other circumstances entirely beyond personal control.

“I wrote this poem when I was beginning to remember positive things about my father,” Una commented. If we had a difficult relationship with a parent, it can be decades before we begin to feel compassion for him. Yet as soon as there is even a grain of compassion, everything changes: instead of a dangerous big man with big fists we see a helpless little boy who didn’t get enough caring. He was “forgotten” in the chaos of a large family, and had to survive somehow, keeping his fear and pain to himself. Sensing that no one would have lifted this child up toward the moon, his adult daughter, the poet, now symbolically performs the missing act of affection.

This lifting up of the child toward the sky is something many parents do. It’s beyond affection; something only half-understood compels them to do it. They hold up the child like an offering to the universe. At the same time it could be said that it’s the other way: they are offering the universe to the child. The universe belongs to the child, and the child belongs to the universe. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship, if I may be permitted to steal a line. It’s part of a non-fear-based relationship with reality.

Cesare Pavese observed, “We don’t remember days; we remember moments.” I remember the moment when I first saw a broadsheet with Desiderata in the window of a bookstore in Washington, D.C. I was seventeen and a half, and this was the second or third week after my arrival in the United States. One of the statements felt like an antidote to all the instances when I felt I wasn’t valued and welcome, the world already too crowded, with room only for important people. I kept reading it over and over: “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” That was the moment when a total stranger, the writer of Desiderata, picked me up and lifted me to the moon and the stars.

(That writer was Max Ehrmann, who penned the text in 1927. The work remained little-known until the sixties and seventies.)




The statue of Max Ehrmann in Terre Haute, Indiana

(A shameless digression: when we look at those marvelous sepia photographs showing the huge families of the past, when having ten or more children was not uncommon, let us remember that the more children, the less parental attention and affection each child received. The younger children were basically raised by their older siblings, and sometimes felt as if they had no parents.)
 

 Queen Victoria with children and grandchildren. At least there were nannies.

*
 

Pavese is right: in the end we remember not years, not days, but moments. Watching my mother slowly decline and die was very painful to me, but I preserved some moments I cherish. My favorite one lives on in this poem:

MOTHER MOON

I tuck a baby blanket
around her shrunken body,
wheel her past the patients parked
in wheelchairs against the wall –

the fractured elders sent to this
“Rehab Center” to be trained
to walk again, though they don’t
see what there is to walk to.

In the patio, sharp breath of February wind,
the dry rasp of banana leaves.
“Cold,” she complains. I tuck her tight
in her cocoon of hearts and balloons

when she looks up at the sky
and smiles. “Moon,” she says,
her face in that moment
again her own,

not a stiffening mask.
In the pale heaven over Los Angeles,
a frail daytime moon
hangs like an unfinished watercolor.

Earlier that week a baby girl I know
pointed her finger and said
“moon” for the first time.
Her eyes gathering the light,

my mother smiles, pulls one
finger from under the blanket
and points up. “Moon,”
she says for the last time.


~Oriana © 2013

**

There is an unavoidable sadness here, a lump in the throat when we realize that eventually we will notice the moon for the last time. Yet I see it as a celebration of my mother’s ability to blossom into total joy.

And though now this seems very long ago, I can’t forget the news report that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, on his way to the site of the execution, saw the moon again after several months on death row, “and his face lit up with obvious pleasure.”

Let’s step away for a few seconds to see a little boy consciously enjoying looking at the moon for the first time. And then for the last time.

This was a human being, and humans enjoy looking at the moon. It’s part of being a child of the universe.

And maybe what underlies the “funny” poem by Billy Collins is not a joke after all, but a great truth of the heart: that we are not tragic strangers in this world, our lives “nasty, brutish and short.” Even if we didn’t get enough tender care in childhood, we can give tenderness to ourselves. When this tenderness toward the self is joined to a connection with nature, the rich feast of life is its own reward. As Rilke says, "just to be here is magnificent.”

And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself . . .
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.




Hyacinth:

WS Merwin wrote an unforgettable poem entitled Still Morning

" I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmuring in a shadow
and I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet..."

He goes on to  say all the voices are long gone now and he keeps seeing sunlight on the green carpet.

As for the tattered blanket, take it from the mother of a child whose blanket was so necessary to him that he would stand under the clothesline and cry while it dried. He dragged it everywhere.

Those of us who have never heard or seen a nightingale see it as romantic.

So much of what you write about your mother I have experienced. Thank you for writing about it.

Love this blog. Wish there was more  of Arnold's Dover Beach: the image of the moonlight on the cliffs of Dover and the Channel.


Oriana:

You’ve just inspired me to include at least some of Arnold’s Dover Beach in the upcoming blog, Chocolate Jesus. Interesting that Arnold saw the “sea of faith” receding in the nineteenth century. To be sure, there was a good deal of receding, with geologists and paleontologists making inroads perhaps more so than the theory of evolution at that point. Still, the scientific basis of modern atheism wasn’t then what it is now, along with scholarship in mythology and history of the bible making more people aware that all religions are human invention.

But I know you mean the beauty of the imagery. Without it, I would completely lose my interest in poetry and read nothing but non-fiction. It’s the imagery that still holds me. Imagery is eternal.

I have one preverbal memory, and I don’t think it’s “false memory.” It’s a flash of my grandfather’s face and his laughter as he’s trying to tempt me with a ladle of milk (I was allergic to cow’s milk). It’s an indistinct memory, but it’s his laughing face, and that’s not in any photograph. He died -- in front of my eyes, of stroke -- when I was two and a half.

I don’t remember when I first saw the moon -- REALLY saw it, and watched it with delight. I suspect I already had the word for it at the time. I remember the first time I saw the moon through a telescope: I was eight. It was startling to see the roughness of the surface. But I still loved it. I particularly loved seeing the moon from a plane once: so beautiful and serene.

And I love these lines from Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence:

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear, my master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.

Did you see that just yesterday we had the new moon, a wonderful crescent with the faint outline of the full moon? I watched it close to moonset, when it’s huge near the horizon.

I always walk out at night just to look at the night sky.

You don’t get to see the nightingales: you hear them. It’s a mystery how such a small bird can produce such very loud sound. It’s the poets who romanticized the nightingale, the readers being embarrassed to admit that they prefer good sleep to that racket (or so I suspect, but I’ve already confessed to my hatred of noisy birds -- including those that make a terrific din at dawn).

Scott:

Love the idea of poetry and astronomy. I am currently reading a novel based on the life of Maria Mitchell, the famed astronomer of Nantucket (Melville met her and wrote a poem of her late in life). If it's clear, rarely does a night go by where I don't go out and look at the constellations (I have to take the dog out anyway!)

Ah Pavese; I wish I knew Italian, he and Levi are favorites of mine....and I love the Godfather movies!


Oriana:

Moon and poetry are practically inseparable. Hyacinth told me a story about a workshop she once took. The instructor made a big point about not wanting to see any moon poems, since everything that could be written about the moon has already been written. The participants quickly conspired together, and all brought moon poems to the session that followed. As you can imagine, these were fairly seasoned poets who realized that you can always write something that hasn’t been said before if you simply write honest, interesting details about what you really see, without trying to be poetic. The moon between the clouds is not the same as the moon tangled in tree branches.

As you probably already know, Pavese did a “masterly” translation of Moby Dick into Italian. For some reason it’s easy to imagine Moby Dick in Italian, all those vowels rising and falling like waves.

Friday, May 3, 2013

TRANSCENDENCE FOR NON-BELIEVERS; THE ANSWER LIES OUTSIDE




The brain is wider than the sky. ~ Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t the problem of evil that made me leave the church. It was the Universe. Or rather, the insight “It’s only another mythology” AND the Universe. Just the other night I looked at the stars -- they were exceptionally bright -- the night sky clear without the mucilage of even the wispiest white cloud affixed there like a postage stamp on a letter to an unknown address. Again I thought that no being, especially no one looking like a man seated on a throne somewhere up there, could have created the stars. They are gigantic nuclear reactors (fusion, not fission). They are formed, exist for billions of years, then die. The distances involved are beyond what we can grasp. Assuming that Jesus travels at the speed of light, after 2,000 years he still has not left our galaxy.

(Yes, I realize that one can try to interpret this as entering another dimension, but it’s the same as with the string theory: a wisp of proof, please. But it’s not provable; in a wonderful new phrase, the hypothesis is not falsifiable, and in order to be a useful tool, a hypothesis needs to be falsifiable.)


This is obviously a fake church bulletin, and an exaggerated one: it’s not a question of proving ALL of this. Proving ANY of this, even a small portion, would be astounding. As my one and only astronomy professor said, it’s not that we throw up a handful of pebbles up into the air and expect them to fall down so as to spell “god.” It’s not that we are waiting to hear from the Voice from the Whirlwind. A small still voice, a whisper practically, might do -- with the disclaimer that auditory hallucinations are the most common kind. But even so.

Recently I had yet another reminder of what made religion so impossible to return to. It had never worked for me as consolation. Aside from the threat of hell, the complete silence on the other side of prayer was unnerving. 
A brave little boy actually questioned the nun: “How come god spoke to Moses, but never speaks to us?” The nun sighed and smiled a vague appeasing smile: “The times were different then.” This seemed as suspect to me as god’s
invisibility.  



Still, during a period of exceptional stress, I too ask the absurd and all too human question, “Why do we suffer so much?” After a reading, I was talking with the series host, Jon, one of the two local poets I know who happen to have a Ph.D. in physics (!) Like Ms. Job, I said that I never wanted heaven, oblivion was fine, but first, I wanted an answer to the question, “Why do we suffer so much?”

Jon replied that he would like to know why gravity is such a weak force. Are gravitons leaking into other universes? Soon he was speaking about gravity waves and Einstein’s time-space curvature hypothesis, and . . . I noticed that I felt exhilarated. I said as much to Jon, who told me that while waiting  in a medical office, he happened to read an article on the Big Bang. “It really cheered me up,” he said.

 

 

That’s when it hit me — again — “The answer lies outside.”

All the psychobabble we’ve heard over the years tries to tell us that the “answer lies within.” Look within, and your problems will vanish. I say the opposite. The answer lies in self-forgetfulness, which means looking at the world. 


SCIENCE-RELATED MOOD UPLIFT


Later I remembered another time this “science-caused” change of mood happened to me in an even more dramatic way. My father was in the final stages of Parkinson’s disease (the most macabre way to die I’d ever witnessed), and a neighbor handed me a newsletter about Parkinson’s that summarized new research. I read it in one sitting, totally fascinated and strangely exhilarated. The disease was gruesome, but I couldn’t resist the mystery underlying it. What caused the dopamine depletion? Inflammation, yes, but why specifically the destruction of dopamine-producing neurons? Boxers and women who’ve had hysterectomies -- the risk factors didn’t add up but remained a haunting tangle.

The following weekend I went to the BioMed Library at University of California, San Diego: the first weekend of many. I feasted on the books, and even more so the journals; eventually gravitated toward endocrinology. I, who never thought I could cease writing poetry, who regarded poetry as an all-powerful addiction, let poetry vanish from my mind -- for about eight years.

To get to the point: once I began reading science article, both popular and professional, I couldn’t help noticing the emergence of a much more “sane” self. I traded the anguish that went with poetry and po-biz for serene contentment. I wasn’t depressed anymore. The pressure to hurry and struggle were gone. So this was mental health, I thought: reading about dementia and experiencing mysterious contentment.

Listening to Jon speak about gravity waves, I experienced a mini-version of this return to sanity. I was no longer interested in the metaphysics of suffering. Obviously there were different causes of different kinds of suffering. But why even think about it, when there was so much to learn about the world. I was in the grip of rationality, and loving it.

Why the uplift? Bearing in mind that science is more about the fun of pursuing questions rather than positing answers -- those are always partial and subject to change as new evidence emerges -- we can tentatively state that the activation of the left prefrontal cortex leads to a brighter mood and positive emotions. Intellectual stimulation activates this region. Brooding about one’s problems and negative emotions are associated with more active right prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, an active left prefrontal cortex can decrease anxiety and other “negative affect” -- what I call the “screams of the amygdala.” 

So yes, an easy way to cheer up is to activate the left prefrontal lobe -- and an additional factor may be being reminded of science, that astonishing and triumphant human enterprise.

*


PRAYER NEVER WORKED FOR ME; RELIGION NEVER CONSOLED ME
 
A believer might argue that the best way to decrease anxiety and improve mood is prayer. But that’s just it . . . prayer never worked for me, at least not the mechanical prayer that I was taught. As for some kind of “conversation with god,” a ten-year-old girl doesn’t have much to say to god (who already knows it all anyway). I tried and tried to be attentive at prayer. Still, within minutes I always got drowsy. Nothing zombified me into stupor as effectively as praying the rosary.

Now it’s quite obvious: I’ve never been much interested in sedation. Mainly, I love learning new things. I don’t mind the muddle and murk at the frontiers of knowledge. Nietzsche was right: as soon as we look at anything deep enough, a new infinity opens up. There is simply no end to learning and unfolding. 



A boat ride on the River Styx, Mammoth Caves

CAVESIGHT

Everything here is blind:

white shoots of errant seeds,
transparent fish.
Salamanders thread eyeless sleep.
Embryo arms

reach out without hands;
unfinished dragons clot,
stretch bulbous heads
rowed with unopenable eyes.

A stream runs through me,
clear as absence.
You ask how it can flow,
reflecting no one –

my curtains of stone, where shadow
does not fall, but is;
balconies of dark overlooking dark,
unechoed shell of passages –

Don’t be deceived. I am a slow
hurricane of motion.
Everything lengthens, thickens, fuses.
Drop by drop, I meet myself.

~ Oriana © 2013

(One reason I chose this poem was Rabbi Finley’s remark that atheists don’t enjoy poetry; they can’t understand metaphor and symbolism.)

 

Krubera Cave, Western Caucasus

TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE SELF

If the self doesn’t exist, why does it feel so good to “forget oneself” in the pursuit of anything intellectually stimulating? (This sounds like the “Jewish Zen” kind of question: if there is no self, then whose arthritis is this?) Even writing in the third person leads to a better mood than writing in the first person. Maybe distance is the secret not only of poetry, but of everything (but, as Sarah Luczaj pointed out the first time I made this remark, it has to be the right kind of distance; do I sense another infinity opening up?)

Obviously, not everyone is interested in pursuing learning. Even those who do have other access to being swept beyond the mundane into utter delight -- or, as I understand the term, transcendence. The most common portal is music. It affects the brain so quickly and profoundly that we find ourselves in another plane of experience without really trying. Tranströmer described this beautifully in the opening of “Schubertiana”:

Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the
   houses were eight million human beings live.
The giant city is a long flimmery drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.
Inside the galaxy, coffee cups are being pushed across the desk, department
   store windows beg, a whirl of shoes that leave no trace behind.
Fire escapes climbing up, elevator doors that silently close, behind
   triple-locked doors a steady swell of voices.
Slumped-over bodies doze in subway cars, catacombs in motion.
I know also – statistics to the side – that at this instant in some room
   down there Schubert is being played, and for that person the notes
   are more real than all the rest.


(~ translated by Robert Bly)

First, we are given a description of New York seen from a “high place” outside the city. I love “a long flimmery drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.” “Flimmery” suggests “shimmering” and “glimmering” – but happily escapes the overuse of those “poetic” words, and deepens “drift.” Flimmery also makes me think of “flimsy.” And yes, a galaxy: nothing solid, just darkness and those moth lights flimmering there, and everything evanesces: “a whirl of shoes that leave no trace behind.” That too was my own experience: at night from the Empire State Building, Manhattan seemed unreal with its hovering verticals, a phantom city.



And yet in that phantom city, with its subway cars like “catacombs in motion,” with its “triple-locked doors” -- “somewhere down there Schubert is being played.” Let me quote the entire passage, my favorite lines in this poem full of marvelous lines:

I know also – statistics to the side – that at this instant in some room
   down there Schubert is being played, and for that person the notes
   are more real than all the rest. 

 
More real than everything else, and so capable of producing ecstasy is that many classical music lovers agree that music is the closest we can get to the divine; some have gone as far as to say that music IS god.

Ah, you may say, that’s the magic of intense focus. But something about great music simply forces the change of focus. We are “swept away.” Beautiful scenery can do the same. Those who engage in the kind of physical exercise where every movement requires great attention often report elation. Apparently anything to which we give total attention can be the ticket to transcendence.  



IT’S STILL EARLY AFTER THE DEATH OF GOD

And yet, as we read about religious mystics, who wouldn’t want to achieve that kind of transcendence? Does it take belief? Deep meditators say it doesn’t, but not all of us are capable of mastering meditation. Listening to my refrigerator works best for me, but it has taken me only so far. After all, it’s not just rapture we seek; we want a life-transforming vision, a beautiful sense of trust in the unfolding of existence.

As Ginette Paris points out in her excellent book, Wisdom of the Psyche, it’s still early after the death of god. This is still only the dawn of the post-religious era, and we are still working to develop effective secular life philosophy. Paris says, “Neither Voltaire, nor Nietzsche, nor Freud, nor Jung, nor Sartre, nor any of the modern philosophers of atheisms are completely free of the redemption myth. God may have been declared dead, but the mourning is not finished; it is too big a loss to be completed in just a few generations. Jung’s nostalgia for god resurfaces at times in his theory about about the Self.”

The idea of “individuation” never appealed to me; I felt I was individuated enough and didn’t care to spend my time micro-analyzing my dreams and fantasies, or endlessly journaling and “questing.” The self-centeredness and ultimate futility of those practices were blatantly obvious to me. With my introversion, I had a rich inner life without really trying. My need was for greater engagement with the world. That’s how I realized that the answer doesn’t lie within; for me, and I think for many others, the answer lies without, in the right kind of work or activity, in the right community and connection with others. Rather than draw dream-based mandalas, I prefer to read a good book, write something either lovely and/or blasphemous, give a lecture, swim with the dolphins.

Ginette Paris argues that the myth of redemption has made it difficult for us to see that life is both terrible and wonderful, so let’s enjoy the wonderful part. (This view can also be found toward the ending of Ecclesiastes.) I whole-heartedly agree. Most people are not wretched sinners who deserve hell for eternity. They are decent human beings who do their best under the circumstances; rather than meditate on the five wounds of Christ, they want to be happy -- in this life, and not after they die. 




THE JOY OF BEING POSTHUMOUS 

 
When I was eighteen, my mother said to me, “The difference between you and me is that I am no longer waiting.” I was indeed waiting, which is excusable at eighteen. At some point during adolescence, we start waiting for everything to happen. And then, at some point when we are much older, we are no longer waiting. We are living for the present, not for the future. I call that being posthumous.

Ginette Paris writes from a posthumous state of mind. You can get there either by nearly dying or simply by growing older and being cornered by mortality. Goals, self-improvement, weight loss, striving to lay a foundation for the future -- all this becomes ridiculous. You realize that one day you will lose ALL your weight. As for everything you do being a stepping stone to something better -- or, as one woman put it, “your blog is your ticket to the future” -- that is simply a delusion. At long last you realize that just existing is an immense delight.

You can have this insight early in life, but it won’t necessarily “take hold.” I had an early encounter with mortality. At first it affected me profoundly -- for instance, I realized how trivial and inane most concerns were in the light of mortality. But I was simply to young to absorb the profound lessons and form clear priorities.

THE DAY I LEARNED MORTALITY

The surgeon said in a calm, controlled 

voice, “You should be able to lead
a normal life – ” he paused –
“for the rest of your life.”

I walked out of the arctic hospital.
I kept walking to the parking lot.
It was the fracture of that pause:
the silence rolled, uncontrolled –

I drove on the streets, the freeway.
Sunlight in streaks and spills
played tag along the tattered
eucalyptus groves. Wildfires

of bougainvilleas flickered,
flirting with the wind.
It was fluent paradise on fault lines.
A death sentence, but normal.

The palm-tree in front of my apartment
stood quiet, not clapping
its fronds, but waiting.
Not a twig fidgeted, not a cloud.

I kept walking. I kept climbing 

the echoing stairs.
But everything around me 
stopped.

Everything was staring, 

waiting,my shadow splayed in two
against the stucco wall.


 
~ Oriana, © 2013

The answer arrived many years later, in the form of the sayings of the “Jewish Buddha”: Be here now. Later you’ll be someplace else. Is that so complicated? 

 
 


Scott:

As usual, deep and thought provoking. The images you use are always beautiful. The newest one with the eclipse brought to mind an article online I read recently of A S Eddington, a famed British astronomer, contemporary of Einstein and devout Quaker. He was a profound man of science yet was awed by the unseen as well. I have long believed that simple men and women of faith have done perhaps more good, unseen by us, than we shall ever know. Guesses, as C S Lewis might say, but am sure the truth is much better. I am thankful for the bad example of Tolstoy and Melville; brilliant writers but miserable people....better Tolkien than Tolstoy, that's my motto and in my haven of 'New Nantucket' is where I'll reside, a isle full of birds, black coffee and books. Oh, have gotten some great Nantucku's, even one from Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon!


Oriana:

Nothing in all the mythologies and sacred texts awes me as much as the mysteries that science is grappling with, whether it’s astrophysics or biology. The world is so amazing! The more I learn -- and I don’t pretend to know even a fraction -- the more astonished I am by the intricate workings of nature, especially where chaos theory applies, and yet somehow we end up with something almost comprehensible. Scientists, like artists, have a sense of the sacred that goes hand-in-hand with questioning, rather than with blind obedience to authority (the greatest enemy of truth, as Einstein said).

I see the torment of great minds like Tolstoy and Melville as due in part to their having lived at a time when the archaic religious texts were already difficult to accept, but there wasn’t yet enough to take their place. And there  still isn’t quite enough, but at least we are further along the road. Scientific explanations of natural phenomena have helped, so earthquakes and diseases are not seen as “divine punishment.” Life has become less harsh thanks to scientific advances -- think of Jonas Salk and polio; can we ever be grateful enough? Globalization has also helped, making us familiar with other cultures and their wisdom, and less eager to consign their members to eternal damnation.

Nevertheless, as I point out in the blog, “it’s still early after the death of god,” and we are still struggling toward a planetary consciousness and the concept of human dignity that’s based simply on this: everyone is not just one isolated individual, but humanity -- a part of the human family. Everyone is unique and has value. Imagine the kindness that would prevail if this became an accepted principle. Respect -- for animals too, for nature in general. More than respect -- reverence.

A private paradise of birds, coffee and books -- I’m with you, even if I need to put milk into my coffee -- and coconut milk too, and vanilla extract. Paradise now! How lucky we are . . .  




Charles:

First totally awesome sentence, "Assuming that Jesus travels at the speed of light, after 2,000 years he still has not left our galaxy."

Love the way you contrast boring prayer with learning and unfolding.

I would say the Rabbi F can be accused of not understanding metaphor in poetry when he referred to St. John’s of the Cross “Dark Night of the Soul” and said it was not a love poem.

Even Rabbi F would agree that music is transcendent.

Of course I love the part about swimming with dolphins. Your writing is so inspiring.

 
Oriana:

Jesus lends himself to various uses. His activity as a healer serves as an argument against those who think suffering is good for us and we should not be seeking cures for various diseases. As I think I say somewhere, no church would ever donate money to medical research. Churches might not admit to it, but religion relies on suffering. People don’t turn to it for knowledge -- many believers would admit that the creation myth is not to be taken literally, nor Eve being made of Adam’s Rib, nor Noah’s Ark, and so on. But suffering is not metaphorical. The clergy know that illness and other hardship is what makes people pray. Religion thrives on fear and helplessness, offering a kind of Santa Claus in the sky (the jealous god of wrath is mostly in eclipse these days).

And, amazingly enough, Jesus can even be used to illustrate astrophysics. Of course a large object, such as the human body, could not travel at the speed of light.

St. John of the Cross was inspired by the Song of Songs, which his poem imitates. But I am impressed that Rabbi F even knew the poem. He probably knows the gospels too. That he settled on the Kabbala and its strange myth of creation is somewhat mystifying. Maybe it’s a way to explain evil: the vessels that were to contain divine light shattered. God was not a good potter? In retrospect I love the way Rabbi F shockingly concluded that Tikkun Olam does not mean repairing the world but repairing god. For me the sense of absurdity is delicious: inventing a deity, and then concluding that imaginary being needs us to repair him.

Religions tie themselves in knots of their own making, be it the problem of evil or the question of rebirth: if there is no self, how can it be reborn? There are so many REAL problems that need solution that I’m tempted to say that wasting time on imaginary problems is a sin, a crime against reality.  


Hyacinth:

The line I remembered from the first reading is “cornered by mortality” -- that one line intrigued me. Food for thought, as is the whole blog. Also I  especially like the line “A stream runs through me, clear as absence.”

I think if we don't question everything we are not thinking creatures. There are so many miracles every day to consider and question, and one question leads to another like a space craft (Star Wars) lifting out of this planet into the universe. I like Whitman's  "a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels." Your photo of a snail is a miracle and
the night sky staggers me.

I like the cave poem: “Here everything is blind. . .” I have claustrophobia so going down into the salt caves in Salzburg was an experience -- all those blinding white walls of salt!  I forgot to be afraid, I was so awed. It dwarfed life and all I knew, the way the ocean puts things in perspective.

How little we really know of the world how little  of our brains we really use?


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Oriana:

It’s a pernicious and persistent myth that we use only 10% of our brain. We are whole-brain users. Nor do some people think with their right brain while others use only the left brain. Might as well talk about those who think with their rear brain!

Trouble is that garbage in = garbage out. Endless misinformation. But then, compared with the horrific nonsense that people in the Middle Ages believed . . . I still find it hard to believe that Europe managed to survive the Middle Ages. And a nuclear holocaust, though it seems less likely now, is still not 100% averted. If anyone starts it, it will most likely be a dictator with a medieval mentality.

We still know only a small portion of all there is to know about the universe. There is a consensus that the unknowable will always be with us. Yes, a mouse is a miracle, but its genome has been decoded. Every year, a bit more knowledge -- that also awes me and cheers me up. So many discoveries have been made since my birth! One reason I’d love to live long is because I love to read about the new discoveries -- even though I know that all scientific knowledge is provisional, subject to revision as new evidence is presented. Can you imagine a religious leader saying to his “flock” (isn’t it something how people are equated with sheep?) that what he says about the afterlife is provisional, including the very existence of the afterlife? Yet cultural evolution takes place in religion also; liberal Judaism seems to be losing even the belief in a deity. And certain left-wing Catholics are influenced by the Eastern traditions and say things like, “We are all Christ” and “Your deepest self is Christ.” Talk about a contrast between that and “You are a sinner doomed to hell except for the redemption by Jesus.”

A slow progress toward more kindness and dignity. Why not atheism for everyone? Because there will probably always be those whose lives are so hard that they cannot manage without a super-parent in the sky. Nobody’s life should be that hard. Life should be a joy.

But back to transcendence and nature. The beauty of nature does seem miraculous to me in that it’s more extravagant than seems necessary. If engineers were designing flowers, would they ever come up with orchids? That extravagance of beauty, going beyond a functional minimalist design, is a mystery to me. I think of it with reverence and gratitude.

As for the image below, I considered one that says: Lose yourself in nature and you will find yourself. I'd revise it to: Lose yourself in nature and feel happy! All this stuff about finding yourself is well, too self-centered. The answer does not lie within; it lies outside, in the beauty and mystery of the world. It lies in self-forgetting and remembering the world.