Sunday, October 4, 2015


Paul Klee, Ceremony and Sunset, 1920



What do you look like, my soul,
the one left behind on a drizzle-wet
park bench in Warsaw in eternal October?
Do you have big eyes and small breasts?

Horizons that weep after you, arms that stretch
across an ocean and two continents?
A childless woman is always a virgin,
weaving a shroud, pregnant with herself.

You made my life a foreign language,
homeless without endearments.
When did you teach me to dress in the wind?
To carry speech like loose change?

Death will come to me in Spanish,
La Muerte with its music,
its slow kiss of vowels —
long returns of the Baltic,

where I swam in your cold love
like the tears of the bronze mermaid
who remembers no one’s name.
I cannot bear to think of my face

becoming ashes, but you, my
fugitive soul, say you are
most beautiful before
vanishing. Don’t kill yourself,

you whisper, and one blue eve
you’ll see me flame
then go out like the sun
and the other stars. But having been.

~ Oriana © 2015

I realize that this is really yet another immigrant poem, with soul/flame just smoke and mirrors veiling the homelessness. But let’s ignore all the aquamarines and indigos of ocean that are a pure indulgence in this poem, and pay attention to dressing in the wind. The wind is more fitting here, being likewise a process, a movement, but not a thing. Nor is there such a “thing” as the soul. It is not a little being that inhabits us only to leave for a “better place,” all memories intact — and, if we are to believe psychics, it’s wearing our clothes! (some spirit form of a shirt and pants, we presume — but it’s not nice to inquire into those mysteries). (Is there a spirit swimsuit, or do we at last get to skinny dip?)

I was very impressed with Sean Carroll’s discussion of consciousness (“soul”) and his candle flame analogy. The flame is not a thing; it's a process. When the supply of wax ends, the flame ceases. It doesn't go anywhere, it just ceases happening. And consciousness — or call it soul — is likewise a process that ends when the neurons are no longer firing. The soul is not a thing and it doesn't “go” anywhere; it ceases happening.

I'm so glad to have the analogy. When I said, "What you call soul is brain function," to most people it was too abstract. They couldn’t visualize it. The neurons generating electricity — it takes a bit of background. But everyone has seen flame.

The same with being in love; when love ends, it doesn't “go” anywhere; certain brain areas cease to be activated, certain “love chemicals” are no longer produced. If people understood the flame analogy — that the “soul” is a process, and not a thing” — I think it would be the end of religion.  Without afterlife, who needs religion?

Imagine, no more violence because someone drew a cartoon of the Prophet! Churches being transformed into art galleries and concert halls . . . The earth finally being cherished because we don't go anywhere later . . .


This is a trendy new label for a behavior or pattern that “emerges” when a system becomes complex enough. Thus a flock of birds organizes itself into a certain shape and exhibits various behaviors that make migration possible. A single bird cannot give us any answers about migration. It takes a sufficient number of birds getting together and forming a complex new whole, a flock. Likewise, examining a single heart cell cannot explain the action of the heart. But heart cells working together produce the action of pumping blood. Likewise, a single neuron will generate an electric impulse, but that’s a long way from consciousness. When we get a lot of neural networks firing and interacting, then consciousness becomes one of the emergent qualities.


Here some might try to save the idea of the afterlife by citing religions like ancient Judaism: there was no soul apart from the body. Jesus did not appear to believe in the soul in the Western sense of the word (which came to us from Greece, but originated probably in Egypt). Rather, the body could be resurrected, the breath of life animating it again. That was the promise of the Second Coming: physical, bodily resurrection.

Otherwise, why bother resurrecting the body and all its troubles? Even assuming a perfect body, and one presumably without a sex drive (I don’t think Christians want any sex drive; Muslim men do), there’d still be the need to eat and brush one’s teeth afterwards. And if you eat and drink, there is “body waste” afterwards. Sewage in heaven? I could go on . . . 


We could preserve a person’s DNA. Even today the technology exists — not yet perfected — that makes it imaginable that we could use that DNA to “recreate” that person. But would we really be recreating Tom or Dick, or Alice or Jane, as they were during their natural lifetime? No.

Genes are only one component that goes into the making of a human being. It’s the complex interaction with the environment that determines how those genes are expressed. The new “Tom” would grow up in a different environment. We might get someone reasonably similar to the old Tom in terms of physical traits like height, hair color and eye color, but otherwise? The new Tom would not have old Tom’s memories, nor his education, income, spouse, and a myriad other things that life is composed of. He’d be living in the world of the future, with things like the Vietnam war, which perhaps was quite formative in old Tom’s life, no longer of interest to anyone except historians.

True, a video of the old Tom could be made where he conveys his memories, but listening to someone tell a story of his life is not in the least like having lived that life (or reading someone’s autobiography — besides, we know how completely inaccurate those are). The new Tom might not even be interested. And why should he be? He’d want to live his own life, not that of someone who lived before. Even with the same DNA, he would not be the same person.

Given how expensive the process would be, there is much to be said for old-fashioned natural reproduction: each child his or her own person, unburdened by some former identity.


To counter the argument that the flame doesn’t go anywhere, someone might argue that after all the energy of the flame goes off into space. Might it not be inconceivable that the energy of Tom’s thoughts, having gone off into cosmic space, might somehow reassemble to give us “Tom as he was during the lunar eclipse of September 28, 2015”? Maybe a moment-by-moment reading is happening somewhere off in the vastness, or in another dimension of space, so that our life is also happening elsewhere?

But what use would be that, really, if we’d likewise cease to happen elsewhere as well? And besides, the whole context, the entire environment would have to recreated — at least in the form of energy. And when we start pondering the meaning of “environment” here, the energy patterns of the entire universe would have to be recreated precisely as they were on September 28, 2015 (I chose the date of the blood-moon lunar eclipse because the world was supposed to end
— yet again).

It’s a sweet idea, I know, that a person could be translated into “energy” and that energy might then cohere somewhere in outer space, strolling about the galaxies — but think what it would take for that energy to cohere. It’s dubious that even something relatively simple like a candle flame could be transmitted without loss, stored, and then reassembled nanosecond by nanosecond. But let’s assume a fantastically “smart” multiverse that could achieve an energy-form reassembly. The physical brain would also have to be recreated, and the body with the muscles to react to the brain’s commands. Even if the enormously complex coherence of a re-created human being could be attained, without a brain to react to new events, only sheer repetition would be possible, an ongoing recreation of what has already happened.

It’s time for humanity to grow up and face reality: the only heaven and hell are right here on earth, in this life. If we are lucky, then before ceasing we’ll feel happy to have lived at all, in this one and only imperfect paradise. 

Some years ago when I was writing mainly health news and biomedical conference reports, I did write a collection called “Letters to Lucrezia.” It was loosely inspired by Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul.


As new and rosy as the fingertips of Dawn,
the soul is an infinite verb.
It souls in the brain, creating
the world and the self. “Shall we

dance?” I ask Heraclitus. But he
just stands on the shore of time,
not even dipping his toes
in the river to test if it’s the same.

Nor can you step into the same soul
twice, for the soul is a living flame —
now kindling, now going out.
One portion of it, whirlwind;

another, deepest calm.
“Note Hera in Heraclitus,”
says Lucrezia. “There’s a goddess
dancing in those flames.”

Hera and not Aphrodite.
Because marriage is not passion
but patience. “I forgive you,”
I say to Heraclitus the timeless,

the obscure. Arm around
the Goddess of Partial Truth,
my soul goes off to dance
with other splendid verbs.

~ Oriana © 2015


To be in love is not the same as loving. You can be in love with a woman and still hate her. ~ Fyodor Dostoyevski

So true. One of the wisest things he said, it's little known. What this quotation hints at is sheer torment. There is such a difference between being in love with the wrong person and loving the right person.

Also, let’s remember that the word “passion” also means suffering. Intense suffering.

Attachment-love rather than being-in-love is characterized not by high dopamine but by high oxytocin, the “love hormone.” Easiest way to increase oxytocin? Hold hands. If that's not possible, think of someone you love. No such person? Interact with your pet. Gaze at your beautiful houseplant. (Rejected by your houseplants? Try orchids.)
Dostoyevski Day, St. Petersburg, July 5, 2014

Let us forget with generosity those who cannot love us. ~ Pablo Neruda

Vermeer: Mistress and Her Maid with a Letter, 1667


People who love to point to all that’s wrong with humanity often say, “There’s Satan in all of us.”  Pondering that “Satan in us,” I can’t help but think of the habit of self-loathing instilled by the church’s talk of sin and how we, weak and fallen humans, are in the power of Satan.

All my life until recently I acted according to the childhood command to keep putting myself down and see myself as a sinner: evil, worthless, full of moral failings, etc. How slowly liberation comes . . . in part thanks to friends and strangers, who surprised me statements like, “I was inspired by your generosity”; “You really care”; “You really listen”; “People like you because you have a warm personality”; etc — statements to the effect that I was a good person. A good, generous, hard-working, dedicated person.

It was immensely difficult for me to accept the idea that I was a good person rather than a sinner. The church taught me to concentrate only on my failings and imperfections. I don't mean to say that now I see myself as a saint. But I finally — a tremendous victory! — I don’t see myself as evil.

I also see a lot of misguided behavior as coming from the frustrated desire to be loved, especially in those who had emotionally abusive, authoritarian parents; the church was just an extension of the abusive parents. Especially in families stressed by poverty, some people never truly experienced being fully accepted, valued, and loved (nor did they parents -- "we are the victims of victims”). And those who were abused tend to become abusers or perpetual victims of abusers, until someone breaks the generational chain. It’s our wounds that are the “Satan within us.”

Once we become aware of it, we don’t have to live out of our wounds, but out of our goodness.

Gustave DorĂ©, Satan and the Lake of Ice, Dante’s Inferno


Australian journalist: “Obama is wrong, we are not like the US, we value life.” Australia “decided to grow up.” The US “never shed its Wild West mythology.”

“Obsessed with revenge, those aspiring to mass murder draw from the archetypal US hero who relies on gun violence to right wrongs and overturn oppressive institutions. Those who transition from fantasy to action are those who rationalize no other option than murder-suicide by ‘going out in a blaze of glory’. No doubt this rationalization represents a distinct kind of tunnel vision, distorting the traditional US hero into an anti-hero who regards society as the enemy. But in creating enemies in one’s mind, perception can be reality and moral justifications are subjective. As the saying goes: ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter.’

In psychiatry, a ‘culture-bound syndrome’ is an idiosyncratic, locale-specific pattern of behavior that represents a culturally sanctioned expression of distress if not a mental illness per se. In Malaysia, for example, the culture-bound syndrome amok involves episodes of mass violence committed by an individual following a period of brooding. Unfortunately, in addition to borrowing the word amok in our own lay speech, it would appear that the US, along with other Western societies, has developed our own brand of running amok in the form of mass shootings. Once the cultural mythology of such mass murder has been firmly planted into public consciousness, a select few distressed individuals will look to this model to guide their own behavior, creating the problem of copycat killings.

Perhaps we need to look at these elements within the context of the culture itself. The US was born out of violent revolt, and the idea of the underdog responding with force to defeat an aggressor has been an archetype for the US hero ever since. As a nation, Americans see themselves as promoters of armed rebellion in the name of freedom and democracy around the globe.

In defiance of stereotypes, most mass shooters are not psychotic, delusional, ‘crazy’, or ‘insane’. A 2002 US Secret Service report found that the majority of school shooters have had a history of ‘feeling extremely depressed or desperate’ (not the same as having a clinical diagnosis of major depression) and nearly 80 per cent had considered or attempted suicide in the past. Almost all had experienced a major loss such as a perceived failure, loss of a loved one or romantic relationship, or a major illness prior to the shooting, and about 70 per cent perceived themselves as wronged, bullied or persecuted by others.

Revenge was a motive in the majority of incidents. Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University in Florida whose work has contributed to the debunking of the link between violent video games and violence, recently summarized the most salient features of a typical mass shooter, noting that risk factors for mass murder are similar for both adults and children. These include antisocial traits, depressed mood, recent loss, and a perception that others are to blame for their problems.

And herein lies the rub – while this kind of profile implies that mental illness could be an important risk factor, what we’re really talking about are negative emotions, poor coping mechanisms and life stressors that are experienced by the vast majority of us at one time or another. These risk factors are not necessarily the domain of mental illness, but rather the ‘psychiatry of everyday life’.

Therefore, it appears that the most important risk factors aren’t those that set mass murderers apart from the rest of us; instead, they are simply appropriated from culturally sanctioned patterns of aggression.

If mass shootings are difficult to predict, potentially self-perpetuating, and result not from easily eliminated sources but rather from untimely interactions between normal instincts, culturally sanctioned patterns of behavior and entrenched features of modern society, is there a rational approach to prevention? Inasmuch as marginalization seems to lie at the heart of the mass murderer’s grievances, further attempts to screen, identify, remove and effectively punish those with the potential to commit such violence are doomed to fail. [Instead,] we should reach out to those who have fallen away from mainstream society, bringing them back to the herd before they come to see only a single, deadly alternative.

Let’s also consider re-assessing some of our cultural values and teach our children about different kinds of heroes, how to resolve conflicts, and cope with loss. And, as a recent report from the Making Caring Common Project suggests, let’s prioritize raising children who are kind. The real solution is not about blame, but opportunity. According to the 2002 Secret Service report, mass shootings are not sudden, impulsive acts. They occur with planning that is known to at least one other person in more than 80 per cent of cases. This means that there’s time to reach out – not to a murderer, loser or weirdo; but to someone’s son, student, classmate and neighbor”.

Richard Pousette-Dart, The Blood Wedding, 1958 

I'm struck by the similarity of mass shooters to ordinary killers. The police report that killers typically feel they are victims; they are only seeking “justice.” And the culture tells them that justice is to be sought with a gun.


“13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”


So only female virgins get to survive as sex slaves. Now, maybe similar things took place and it was just the military custom of the times, but if we classified the Torah as mythology (as even some Orthodox rabbis do) then at least we wouldn't try to sanctify this sort of thing as piety. We wouldn't have to try to justify Moses in his anger that women and young boys were not killed.

I am not the only one who left religion after realizing it’s mythology. I found a great video by an ex-Muslim, Muhammad Syed, where he explains that he started studying Islam in the hope of becoming a better Muslim. After a year of study, he concluded it was just 7th century mythology.

He also points out that both the bible and the Koran are violent texts, reflecting the culture of the time. Many Christians don’t realize just how filled with violence and cruelty the bible is. 

Islam is now where Christianity was several centuries ago. The great difference, Syed points out, is the Internet. Information can spread as never before. Networking can take place more rapidly, across countries. That’s why the “apostates” from Islam (you are forbidden ever to leave Islam), some of them living in hiding, can obtain not only emotional support but actual, physical help.

“THE EMPIRE NEVER ENDED” ( but was continued by the Catholic church ~ P. K. Dick)
“To my thinking Roman Catholicism is not even a religion, but simply the continuation of the Western Roman Empire, and everything in it is subordinated to that idea, faith to begin with. The Pope seized the earth, an earthly throne, and grasped the sword; everything has gone on in the same way since, only they have added to the sword lying, fraud, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, villainy. They have trifled with the most holy, truthful, sincere, fervent feelings of the people; they have bartered it all, all for money, for base earthly power. And isn't that the teaching of Antichrist?

How could Atheism fail to come from them? Atheism has sprung from Roman Catholicism itself. It originated with them themselves. Can they have believed themselves? It has been strengthened by revulsion from them; it is begotten by their lying and their spiritual impotence! Atheism! Among us it is only the exceptional classes who don’t believe, those who, as Yevgeny Pavlovitch splendidly expressed it the other day, have lost their roots. But over there, in Europe, a terrible mass of the people themselves are beginning to lose their faith — at first from darkness and lying, and now from fanaticism and hatred of the church and Christianity.”

~ Dostoyevski, The Idiot, 1868

This may seem too extreme (remember, this is D’s character speaking, not the writer himself, whose mind was more subtle and who could see many sides of the questions; still, there is no question that D hated Catholicism) — but it brings to mind the view that former Catholics are often particularly passionate atheists. It’s so easy to hate the Catholic church because of the emotional child abuse it practices (maybe less so these days, when talk of hell isn’t what it used to be). Only beauty of the old churches partly redeems Catholicism, if we omit the darker chapters in its history. And now that beauty is diminished, fifteen centuries of splendid Latin liturgy discarded, many paintings and statues removed in an effort to please the Protestants. They weren’t pleased. Possibly they were amused at the thought that any Pope could believe they’d rejoin the Catholic empire.

an abandoned church in Chicago (St. Boniface)

I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race. I see no good in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam . . ~ Gore Vidal in a letter to Warren Allen Smith, 1954, Who’s Who in Hell


“Controlling for income, age and education, we found a significant independent effect of trees on the street on health,” said Marc Berman, a co-author of the study and also a psychologist at the University of Chicago. “It seemed like the effect was strongest for the public [trees]. Not to say the other trees don’t have an impact, but we found stronger effects for the trees on the street.”

Indeed, given the large size of the study, the researchers were able to compare the beneficial effect of trees in a neighborhood to other well-known demographic factors that are related to improved health, such as age and wealth. Thus, they found that “having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger.” (Berman notes that self-perception of health is admittedly subjective, but adds that it “correlates pretty strongly with the objective health measures” the study considered.)

Indeed, the finding wasn’t limited to self-perceived health. For cardio-metabolic conditions — a category that includes not only heart disease but stroke, diabetes, obesity and more — the study similarly found that an increase of 11 trees per city block was “comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $20,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $20,000 higher median income or being 1.4 years younger.”

[Improvement in air quality] is not the only possible explanation. Others, says Berman, include stress reduction that comes from being around greenery — a mental effect that translates into physical benefits — or the possibility that being around trees somehow increases one’s propensity to exercise.

The researchers are not shy about using these results to make policy prescriptions — they think it would be well worth the cost to plant more urban trees. “Ten more trees in every block is about [a] 4% increase in street tree density in a dissemination area in Toronto, which seems to be logistically feasible,” the study notes.

I have to keep reminding myself that the opening words here are “controlling for income.” In California, it’s the richest neighborhoods that have the most trees. Trees — including palm trees — are a synonym of wealth, and wealth and health are closely linked.
Trees are beautiful, and beauty is not cheap. The poorest neighborhoods are the ugliest. Beauty itself is health-giving.

So let us end on beauty. I look at this tiny prose poem and wonder: do I dare call it beautiful? Not quite, but it does invoke the woods, the trees.

My childhood theory about why prayers weren’t answered was that Yahweh didn’t speak Polish. So what did it matter if we politely called him Mr. God in a language he didn’t understand. The gods who knew Polish were hiding in the woods like the partisans. I wondered how they survived the winter. Their drinking songs could sometimes be heard. 


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