Sunday, September 6, 2015



Twenty years later I’m told I am foreign.
How naïve to have thought
I’d grow out of it. As if I could erase
my Columbus Day:

in the morning
I had a homeland;
in the evening
I had two suitcases.

Twenty years later under desert sky,
I remember the stencil
of drizzle in Warsaw.
On the sill of our old kitchen,

pigeons ruffle like small gray clouds.
My uncle and my father
raise a toast with żubróvka,
the buffalo vodka, the bottle lit

with a blade of buffalo grass.
I ought to remember
in more vivid color,
but I was carelessly young.

I tried so hard: changed my name,
ate only with my right hand —
eager to throw away extra vowels
and hands. Twenty years later

men still want me to touch them
in French, slide toward them
on slow Slavic looks:
“You know how to treat a man —

you’re from the Old World.”
I must be centuries old —
I am river and rain.
And the half-remembered

Warsaw park, a chapel of green dusk;
through a fence of shadows
I call after the long lost child.
Yet my homeland is not lilac

gardens, nor childhood’s palaces
of clouds — my true
homeland is the undefeated
republic of the mind.

Among statues in a museum,
no one says, as I used to,
“Excuse me, I’m foreign.”
No one is foreign.

~ Oriana © 2015

Yes, I'm willing to state it plainly: my true homeland is the republic of the mind, the world of ideas, of art, music, and literature. And yet, and yet . . . there is a power of the first landscape we came to know: it’s those trees that become the “real trees.” Palm trees and eucalypts can never their place — those are not “real trees.” There is supposed to be a river in the middle of the city, and lush parks and statues, and schools named after great writers, not generals. Not that this is objectively better; only normative; it’s what you grow up with that becomes your matrix, your model for what the world is supposed to be. There is no healing of that incongruency. If it’s May or June, then where are the lilacs?

I especially liked the part about oxytocin, which has been dubbed the “love hormone.”  So, both watching sports and participating in religious rituals releases oxytocin . . . Soccer instead of mass (especially now that the beautiful Latin liturgy is gone)? It’s happening.

And no wonder I love holding hands so much . . .  No wonder many women say that holding hands is more important than having sex. And even a handshake cause a small release of oxytocin. Call it the “magic of touch.” Oxytocin is also the reason we adore petting dogs and cats so much.

Falling in love has been called dopamine addiction. I find that now there is more general interest in feel-good long-term relationships, and that’s where oxytocin becomes the most important neurochemical.

“Love triggers dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. That's why it's so motivating. But happy chemicals come in spurts. They do their job by turning off after they turn on. When your happy chemicals dip, you might interpret it as a loss of love. That turns a natural fluctuation into a crisis. You are better off knowing why love makes happy chemicals go up and down.

DOPAMINE brings about that great feeling you get when you find your missing keys. It's the neurochemical that evolved for seeking and finding. Animals sniff around for food and mating opportunities, and when they find something that meets their needs, dopamine surges. But the surge is brief. Dopamine does its job by dropping after it rises, so it'll ready to alert you to the next chance to meet your needs—and so you'll be sure to pay attention.

When you find your keys, you don't expect that great dopamine feeling to last. But when you find "the one," your body may produce so much dopamine that you assume you'll soar forever. When it finally subsides, you wonder what's wrong. You might even blame "the one" for having changed.

OXYTOCIN is the neurochemical that causes trust. It's released during orgasm, and in smaller amounts when you hold hands. In animals, it's released when mothers lick their babies. Oxytocin is the good feeling of a common cause, whether a political rally, a football huddle, or thieves with a plan.

Reptiles release oxytocin during sex, but mammals produce it all the time. That's why reptiles stay away from other reptiles except when mating, while mammals form long-term attachments to relatives and herds. The more oxytocin you release when you're with a person, the more attached you'll feel. More touch = more oxytocin = more trust.

Getting respect feels good because it stimulates SEROTONIN. In the animal world, social dominance brings more mating opportunity—and more surviving offspring.

Your brain always wants more respect to generate more serotonin. Your loved one may give you that feeling at first, by respecting you or helping you feel respected by others. But eventually your brain begins to take the respect you already have for granted. It wants more, so it can get more good feelings. That's why some people constantly make more demands on their loved ones, and why others constantly seek out higher-status partners.

Happy chemicals give us information that's hard to interpret. For example, if I watch a football game and burst with excitement when my team scores, I see thousands of others share my reaction. It feels like they understand me. Why doesn't my partner understand me when thousands of others do? The answer is simple. SPECTATOR SPORTS TRIGGER OXYTOCIN, AS DO POLITICS, RELIGION, AND OTHER GROUP ACTIVITIES. You get a good feeling of trust. Of course, trusting a large number of people in a limited way is not the same as trusting one person in a comprehensive way. But to your mammal brain, it's all the same oxytocin.

We want all the happy chemicals we can get. You expect some from romance, and some from other aspects of life. But no matter where you get them, happy chemicals sag after they spurt. When you know why, you can manage your behavior despite the confusing neurochemical signals.

There's good news here. Don't blame yourself or your partner if you're not high on a happy chemicals all the time. Maybe nothing is wrong. You are just living with the operating system that has kept mammals alive for millions of years.”


Caveat: the effects of externally administered oxytocin seem to vary according to how close we were to our parents. Adults who were harshly disciplined as children typically have relationship problems, and their oxytocin system may not be as reliable. Fortunately, change to the oxytocin system is possible, and may be as simple as getting a dog (an affectionate breed, that is).


We’re wreathed in robes of seaweed,
air bladders’ amber beads,
the hood of water
over the face of things.

Fish weave in rainbow veils.
Kelp sways like soundless bells.
we cannot tell one day
from a thousand years.

Here are our amulets, good-luck
crystals, diadems and crowns.
Here tilts the headless
statue of our god,

Lord of Mercy in whose name
we killed. Mudworm burrows
in palaces of our rare marble.
Our purses fill up with silt.

We remember pine forests,
resin scent of the wind.
We remember having held
someone’s hand.

This glitter on the waves
like bent echoes,
those are our last words:
Hold hands. Hold hands.

~ Oriana © 2015

Minoan town, a Bronze Age fresco from Akrotiri


In one of his essays, Milosz says that “if, from one generation to the next, there is an increase in the purely human need for justice and order,” then human perception of god changes. “God changed into a malevolent, cruel demiurge, the tyrant Zeus, the tyrant Jehovah, because he was the god of nature, which contradicts and dissatisfies us; many people have opposed that god with a divine hero, a leader of men, namely, the rebel Prometheus, Lucifer (who often had the face of Christ), as did the Romantic poets. (Blake famously said, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.” The literary critic William Empson argued that "Milton deserves credit for making God wicked, since the God of Christianity is a wicked God.")

(my paraphrase:) It seems to me that if Milton had to strive at epic length to “justify God’s ways to man,” he must have felt that such justification was needed; he spared no effort trying to rationalize what must have begun to be perceived as god’s cruelty. The twisted logic of “felix culpa” that created the need for a “bloody ransom” also required complicated theological maneuvers.

But it wasn’t just the Romantics who had problems with the unpleasant character of Yahveh. To the Marxists, “the market [was] an extension of the struggle for existence and nature’s cruelty . . . The enemies of revolution loved to appear as the defenders of a religion threatened by atheists, while those atheists hated them as the priests of an inferior god, Zeus, Jehovah, otherwise known as the Devil.”

The Marxists advocated an economy based on cooperation, not competition. Milosz saw the opposing movement as “Americanization” -- a brilliant insight, I think, that goes beyond the outmoded duality of capitalism and communism. He also pointed out that certain intellectuals take perverse delight in visions of catastrophe and apocalypse. In my observation, it’s mainly Christian fundamentalists who are very big on apocalypse, and here again we see torture porn in the form of vividly imagined “tribulations.”

The Romantics’ sympathies with revolutionary movements, and Romanticism as part of the larger rebellion against the cruel god so vividly portrayed by Milton who was trying to “justify” him -- much material for thought there. (Milosz, Selected Essays, pp. 235-245.)

Oriana: I think that as the West continues to progress in ethical thinking, god will be seen as more and more cruel. Some have observed that Christianity should have dropped the Old Testament and made Jesus the only god, more plausibly merciful. And perhaps it's not too late, given the daring theological maneuvers in new definitions of heaven and hell proclaimed by JP2.

Culture and the concept of god: cruel men invent a cruel god, and then the cruel god makes men cruel — a vicious circle. Robert Wright wrote a fascinating book, The Evolution of God. The stress of hard times correlates with cruel deities; as life gets easier, god “mellows.” The higher the standard of living, including the social safety net, the less emphasis on hell, usually, until progressive denominations approach the hell-free status. As the need for revenge and punishment diminish, and our understanding of evil becomes more psychological and we view the perpetrators not as sinners but as emotionally damaged human beings in need of healing, not more cruelty dealt out to them, hell as pointless eternal torment becomes repugnant.

But can Christianity survive without hell, and thus no obvious need for salvation? Can the cruelty of the crucifixion remain its basis? It will be interesting to see.

For a fascinating essay about Christianity and the concept of eternal torture, see

 (By the way, “Godless in Dixie” is one of the best blogs out there.)


“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" asked the Christian theologian Tertullian . . . Having received the revealed truth via Christ, “we want no curious disputation.” Well that was then. Today science is so powerful that theologians can’t casually dismiss secular knowledge. Athens and Jerusalem must be reconciled or Jerusalem will fall off the map. ~ Robert Wright, The Evolution of God

That’s why the more enlightened religious leaders such as Pope Francis say it’s OK to believe in evolution. The worst possible mistake they could make is threaten excommunication if you believe in evolution, thus losing what educated followers they still have.


One of the most provocative books I’ve read is Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light, which presents the entire history of the West in terms of the competing ideas of Plato or Aristotle.

Plato gave us the myth of the cave (Book VII of The Republic). It encourages man to find a path out of the darkness of the cave of material existence, of being “merely human,” into the light of pure “ideas,” everlasting and changeless. Aristotle, the pragmatist, wants us to explore the world — which is not a dark cave, but is magnificent. Reality is “multiform and constantly evolving.”

Aristotle gave us “the US constitution, the Manhattan Project, and shopping malls. Plato gave us “the Chartres Cathedral, but also the gulag and the Holocaust.”

But the great cathedrals were not built because of religion alone; they were great feats of architectural engineering. So the easiest criticism of Herman’s book is that everywhere we see the fusion of both the Platonic and Aristotelian approach. He doesn’t deny it — in fact he instantly acknowledges this fruitful interaction. But he still wants to trace the two currents.

My instant reaction: the dark cave is religion, the recitation of invariant scriptures that are increasingly out of touch with the modern world; an insistence on blind obedience to doctrine in spite of lack of evidence, and denial of free debate. Science and rationality are the light — the candle in the dark. I don’t deny that this is a simplified picture: nothing is all good or all bad. Or almost nothing.

The phrase “merely human” has been a disaster, exemplifying religion’s contempt for humanity. We need to see the word “human” as the highest praise. Part of the meaning of life is to become more fully human.


During his investigations, Leonardo discovered several extraordinary things about the heart. “Up until and after his time, because of course he never published, the heart was believed to be a two-chambered structure,” Wells explains. “But Leonardo firmly stated that the heart has four chambers. Moreover, he discovered that the atria or filling chambers contract together while the pumping chambers or ventricles are relaxing, and vice versa.”

In addition, Leonardo observed the heart’s rotational movement.“If you look at a heart, it is cone-shaped,” says Wells. “But it’s a complex cone in a geometric sense, because it’s a cone with a twist. This is because the heart empties itself with a twisting motion – it wrings itself out, a bit like the wringing out of a towel. In heart failure it loses this twist.”

“In 1986, researchers surveyed a group of more than 50,000 male doctors in the US about their drinking and eating habits, their medical history and state of health over two years. They found that the more alcohol the doctors reported drinking, the lower their chance of developing coronary artery disease, despite their dietary habits.

Another large study published in 2000, also in male doctors, found a ‘U’ shaped relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and – in this case – death, rather than coronary artery disease. Subjects who drank one standard drink a day were less likely to die within the 5.5-year-long study than those who drank less than one a week, or those who drank more than one a day.

This suggested there was a ‘sweet spot’ for alcohol consumption; a healthy middle ground between too little or too much, where the benefit for cardiovascular health balanced the risk of death from all causes.

In 2005, yet another study in medical professionals – this time 32,000 women and 18,000 men – attempted to answer this question by looking at how their drinking habits affected not only their risk of heart attack, but also their physiology.

The people who drank one to two glasses of alcohol, three to four times a week, had a lower risk of heart attack, which the researchers hypothesized could be due to beneficial effects of alcohol on HDL cholesterol – the so-called ‘good’ cholesterol – as well as haemoglobin A1c (a marker of diabetes risk) and fibrinogen, an agent that helps the blood to clot. These three factors all play an important role in ‘metabolic syndrome’; the cluster of abnormalities that often heralds cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Other studies have found hints that alcohol might alter the balance of these factors for the better, which pointed to a possible mechanism by which alcohol in moderation could improve health.”

But later findings took a closer look at “tee-totalers,” and discovered that it was ex-drinkers who were the unhealthy ones; those who had always abstained for religious reasons, for instance, showed no increased risk of heart disease. So we are still not entirely sure about the benefits of alcohol. But this much has been confirmed

1. alcohol increases HDL, the protective cholesterol

2. alcohol decreases platelet aggregation, lowering the risk of clots

3. alcohol may have anti-inflammatory effects, as shown by reduced levels of inflammatory markers, and the benefits of light drinking for people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Since all arthritis is an inflammatory disease, and since alcohol tends to suppress the immune system, this makes sense.

And this last point brings us to this article:

“X-rays showed there was less damage to their joints, blood tests showed lower levels of inflammation, and there was less joint pain, swelling and disability in those patients [who drank frequently rather than infrequently or never], the researchers found.

Previous studies have shown that alcohol may reduce the risk of developing the disease in the first place.

Similarly, in the current study non-drinkers were four times more likely to develop RA than people who drank alcohol on more than 10 days a month.”

A (very) moderate intake of alcohol has also been found to lower the risk of osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s Disease. Is it really true that half a glass of wine a day can extend your life by five years? Future research may finally yield the answer. Of course dose is extremely important, since past a certain level, the toxicity of alcohol overwhelms its benefits.


 From Alan Lightman's intricate 1993 novel Einstein's Dreams:

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great aunts…and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.

Dali design for a set curtains for Bacchanale, 1939

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