Monday, May 25, 2015


When I am, death is not; when death is, I am not. ~ Epicurus

Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein


December, a shopping mall,
above the traffic snarl I saw
an empty trolley on the bridge,

its windows lit with moonlike glow —
reminding me how much I loved
taking a train in Warsaw at night —

how I would enter the train’s rhythm,
the knocking of the wheels against
the shifting and dividing tracks;

blind backs of buildings,
unknown streets –- an underworld
passing across my face

reflected in the dark, drizzled glass.
If I had known
what station would be next —

if I had known the doors of life
close quickly, and we watch the past
through time’s prison bars —

in the cramped Warsaw apartment,
at fifteen, when I made up my mind
to live in the West,

would I have danced as if
we never lose anything we love —
just keep adding beauty to beauty.

The trolley flying overhead
like a luminous ghost
brought back an unreal city,

in the same instant of stone and breath
arriving and departing,
falling and rising from its ruins.

The same moon moved between
darkness and light-wounded clouds,
winter’s hungry Wolf Moon,

adding phantom beauty to beauty.
“That is all,” the master said.
That is all but it is splendid.”

~ Oriana © 2015

I hear you, Impatient Reader: “This is not a poem about dying, and this blog post is supposed to be about dying.” But almost all poetry is about loss, and consequently about mortality. And about beauty — a poem without beauty is not really poetry.

Any significant loss prefigures the ultimate loss — and losing Warsaw was a great loss to me. It took me at least a decade to realize that I would never again have the kind of magical intellectual milieu I had in Warsaw, and two more decades to come to terms with that loss rather than live in perpetual mourning. Life teaches, but sometimes we learn very slowly. Suffering is a bad habit, and if not for the shortness of life suddenly revealing itself, I might still be sunk in it like a paralyzed swan. 

And what did I learn? That, after all, beauty is precisely that which we do not lose: thanks to memory and the unfailing cycles of nature, we keep adding beauty to beauty.

A time will come when this feasting on beauty will stop. But meanwhile, it is splendid. It is much better to live with gratitude for that splendor than to worry about dying.

Here is a poem that speaks more explicitly about dying:


This evening, far from here, 

a friend is entering his death, 

he knows it, he walks 

under bare trees alone, 

perhaps for the last time. So much love, 

so much struggle, spent and worn thin. 

But when he looks up, suddenly the sky

is arrayed in this same vertiginous clarity.

~ Jean Joubert, from “Brilliant Sky,” tr. Denise Levertov

This poem by Jean Joubert is a minor example of what I call the “comfort poem.” You may object that it’s not very comforting, since we are not promised a “better place” — but it’s about the best modern poets manage, and maybe it’s time to admit that better this comfort than none.

First, the magnitude of the loss is fully faced. The setting is desolate:

This evening, far from here, 

a friend is entering his death, 

he knows it, he walks 

under bare trees alone, 

perhaps for the last time.

The consolation of lush nature is absent: the trees are bare, so it’s late autumn or winter. The consolation of sunshine is absent: it’s evening. The speaker’s friend is alone, so the consolation of affectionate human company is absent. This is a minimalist landscape out of Kafka or Beckett. And the landscape seems to match the human element, and the approaching entry into no landscape at all.

Perhaps worst of all, the man knows he’s dying. Perhaps he’s not yet very old and “tired of life” after having lived a long time and done pretty much everything he’d wanted to do and richly enjoyed it, so he’s now filled with gratitude for having had this privilege. He’s certainly still able to take a walk — “perhaps for the last time.” It could be a middle-aged man with the diagnosis of terminal cancer (“thin” reminds me how emaciated cancer patients tend to be in the last phase). The poet is merciless in presenting the loss:

So much love, 


so much struggle, spent and worn thin. 

First, we must note that there is something unusual and significant about “So much love” being on the same line with “for the last time.” Love is immediately juxtaposed with the finality of the last walk. The man is dying, but there has been “so much love.” 

But what follows is “So much struggle, spent and worn thin.” Not victory, but the fatigue of being “spent.” In the end, no one wins — we simply exit, spent, worn-out. The reminder that much of life is struggle makes the man not fate’s darling, but essentially one of us: we struggle, we suffer, and it seems that the best we can say is, “There are the good days, and there are the bad days.” So much love, so much struggle, and soon it will all be gone, except for the fickle memories of those who knew him — hardly a “better place.”

Yet just as the poem reaches its darkest point, there is a “turning” (to use the term scholars apply to sonnets):

But when he looks up, suddenly the sky 

is arrayed in this same vertiginous clarity.

Already “but” announcing a turning point. Now there is the “vertiginous” (stunning, overwhelming, immense — note the suggestion of “vertical” in the word) sky, and the sky is beautiful. It’s beautiful simply by virtue of being the sky, just as it is beautiful to be able to take this walk, to feel the earth underneath one’s feet. The last comfort is having had the beauty of the world, continuing up to the last moment that we can still perceive it.

“Clarity” could be seen also in a negative sense here: it’s clear that this is all. Yet the words around it (especially “arrayed” — true, this is a translation, but “arrayed” is a wonderful choice) suggest a consolation: it is all, but it is splendid.

Imagine: it’s the last walk of your life. Tomorrow you check into the hospital, and you’re not expected to recover. What would that walk be like?

I can’t predict the thoughts I might have. I know only one thing: probably the first thing I’d do it look at the sky. I have always loved the sky.


Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything. ~ Saul Bellow
Why is so much poetry concerned with dying? Billy Collins said that poetry is “one long funeral.” It’s not because poets are morbid. Rather, perhaps they are the not in denial or mortality to the degree that the rest of us are. Poets more so than prose writers try to deal with the greatest sorrow of life: the knowledge of mortality and our ultimate helplessness in the face to it. How do we manage to carry on without howling in grief and protest against the non-human nature that says, “That’s it, you’ve had your time at the feast of life, and now you’re out of time.”

One common solution has been to imagine that consciousness goes on without the body. You remain Jimmy or Jane, Mark or Michelle, your memories and identity intact — just floating about for a quadrillion years — or else your permanent self enters a new body and reincarnates, going through the same tiresome process of being a colicky baby, then a toddler, a preschooler, etc. Neither scenario is likely or particularly consoling, aside from taking away the immediate terror of loss.

But the interesting thing is that even before religion started crumbling, a lot of poetry did not seem to “buy” the afterlife. Sooner “carpe diem” — or simply mourning the brevity of life. Starting with the Romantics, poets have paid increasing attention to Nature (the Romantics spelled it with a capital N) and to beauty. Modern poets have adopted it as the main answer of sorts: we can’t deny mortality, but we have the consolation of beauty. That beauty has a melancholy cast, but it is the best we can do.

Jack Gilbert states, “you must risk delight” without denying that bad things will happen and life will not last. He himself was counting on old age in which he’d feast on the memories of a rich life — no such luck, as he descended into dementia. We need to enjoy the moment, and the memories of moments, without any hope for joy “later.” Gilbert himself affirms this:

We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered caf├ęs and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

~ ending of “A Brief for the Defense,” from “Refusing Heaven”

“We must admit there will be music despite everything.” That is certainly true. Poetry was supposed to be impossible after Auschwitz, but many magnificent poems have been written since. In fact, the Golden Age of Polish poetry unfolded in the shadow of Auschwitz — you could say “within an easy commute.” Music goes on, beauty goes on — perhaps with more urgency than before, now that we know the fragility of human civilization, and also that which is most precious. 

But not everyone would agree with the assertion that concludes Gilbert’s poem:

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Outrageous! some may say. Maybe most people are not so exquisitely attuned to the sounds of the world. You have to substitute our own special delight. Even the morning coffee may be reason enough to go on living.

More seriously, many people see primary value in relationship with others, especially one’s family. For them, it’s not beauty that makes life worth living, but family love.

Freud said that the two most important things in life are love and work. In my observation, for most people it’s “love” in the loose sense of connection with significant others.


Recently, another value has come to the fore: living to the fullest — richly, intensely. In another poem, Gilbert asks the gods (who tell him that they’ll grant one more wish):

Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present.

Until we are “frightened into the present,” we remain frozen in the future tense of youth, always fantasizing about the future, even though, like the horizon, it fails to get any closer — until all of a sudden it is much closer, and we can finally read the words out there: THE END. Yes, now we are “frightened into the present.” And as if by magic we “get it.” We don’t have to read vapid New Age books to understand that it’s only by dropping the constant “living for the future” and instead paying attention to the astonishingly vivid present that we can enjoy the richness of experience, which we can later re-live “in the mind’s eye.”

Hayden Carruth admits the difficulty of living with the knowledge of mortality, and then asks for the consolation of beauty (we can’t really expect a poet to ask for the consolation of family love):

Reality is an impasse. Tell me again
How the white heron rises from among the reeds and flies forever
    across the nacreous river at twilight
Toward the distant islands.

(last lines, “Of the Distress on Being Humiliated by the Chinese Poets”)



Again, Freud said that the two most important things in life are love are work. For the majority of people, that’s no doubt true. For creative people, however, I suspect that it’s simply work. Not that love is unimportant; it’s just that work is more important by far. This old saying that an artist is married to his or her work? It’s true. An artist is someone for whom his or her creative work is the most important thing in life. That’s the very definition of an artist.

Taslima Nasrin, a best-selling Bengali writer, said, “I do not believe in prayers. I believe in work.”

Rilke said, “To work is to live without dying.” There is simply to time to worry about dying. True, Rilke wrote a great deal on the subject of death, and has even been called the great poet of death, but his own life was about turning out a prodigious amount of writing.

For me, it’s work and beauty. Sometimes I wonder if beauty alone could be enough, in case I lost the ability to write (due to stroke, say). Maybe. I can never have enough of Pacific sunsets, though in memory I also cherish the blossom of Polish winter sunsets, roses in snow. 

Can beauty be enough? The sight of a heron rising into flight, the splash of dark water from an oar at night? Sometimes I am sure it would be enough. But I can state with greater certainty that I feel inspired by stories of how the great achievers worked until practically the last conscious breath — in spite of the pain. They might even refuse pain killers just so they could still finish their last project. Because “when you have the why of life, you can endure almost any how” — even terminal illness.

Recently, Christopher Hitchens died this kind of death: writing for as long as he could, fully engaged with the world and ideas. I wasn’t fond of Hitchens when he was alive; it was only the interviews he did while undergoing the toxic cancer treatments that made me understand his courage and dedication, his warning that any rumor of a “deathbed conversion” will be either false and due to dementia.

But then he was only “pursuing his bliss.” It can take great stoicism to do that.

Finally, here is a fascinating video about how we can (almost) overcome the fear of dying. Not surprisingly, it concludes that living a rich life is the only remedy.

“We are characters in a story. Long John Silver is not afraid that you will close the book. The only thing we should be concerned about is whether we are living a good story.” ~ Stephen Cave


Love quotes by Epicurus and Wittgenstein. So refreshing to talk about death without religion. In fact the word God was not mentioned once in the entire blog.

You have come so far in understanding beauty as God as opposed to God as death and religion.

And the moral of the blog is to take in as much beauty as possible whenever we can.

PS. “Wolf Train” is an excellent title. Talk about the unexpected.


That gives me a shiver, God as beauty rather than God as death. And indeed, if I were to call anything divine, my first choice would be beauty.

The Christian god is basically a kind of Hades, the god of the dead, who are imagined as bodiless entities up there in the sky with him, and down inside the earth, in hell, aware they will never meet him (I'm not sure this bothers the Buddhists, but it might bother the Muslim).

But beauty, yes. One secular answer to religious is “graceful life philosophies,” which cultivate beauty. And work so absorbing that we lose the sense of self and of time is also magnificent. That’s why Rilke said that to work is to live without dying — possibly the wisest thing he ever said. He learned that from Rodin.

P.S. I also like your other definition of god: “God is baggage.” Yes, it’s become that: archaic baggage. A stone around the neck of the modern culture.

P.S. “Wolf Train” used to have a different ending:

The same moon moved between
darkness and light-wounded clouds,
winter’s hungry Wolf Moon,

adding phantom beauty to beauty —
the Wolf Train riding across the sky
with a silent aria of howl.

I am still attracted to this ending, its inaudible protest that perhaps isn’t exactly a protest — the howling of wolves has a pure-voiced beauty. If so, perhaps I could even preserve the uplifting final lines:

“That is all,” the master said.
That is all but it is splendid.”

But the purist in me rebels against it. The greatest positive message is the line “adding phantom beauty to beauty.” If I restore the former ending, the tacked on “master” needs to go. The poem would remain a celebration of life’s beauty amid the inevitable sorrows. 


And oh Grave, thy victory?

Pretty brave questioning from the Apostle Paul. Rhetorical questions to be sure — he wasn't inviting his readers to engage in a discussion. He was certain he had death figured out. He was covered. No need to fear. No worries. Die. Resurrect. Live forever.

Stephen Cave also reduces the issues and complexities of death too much. Surely the good story of life in "The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story" must include our circuitous bumbling toward death, our anticipation of it, and our eventual coming to terms with it (if we ever do). I find his parsing unhelpful.

Some years are for questions, some for answers. The answer I have found, after years of questions, is that it is very useful to have a philosophy of death, not just the years between birth and death. I can't go with Rilke who thought of death as some kind of fruit to be plucked, an accomplishment of sorts. In good yin-yang fashion death is foremost a pole against which to estimate and value life, a sort of "teach me to number my days" kind of thinking, as King David prayed.

Knowing the fact of death has pushed me into the present. Demanded of me that I live meaningfully. And I'm grateful. But there are yet things I fear about death and I see no reason to apologize for these fears. They are not knowing when, how, and where. And there are worries. Who will clean up my unfinished business? How much pain will my mourners feel (I mean I can hope, right?)?

The following is an excerpt from a story I wrote:

               I had noticed that when I contemplated death the most, the world seemed most alive. Taunting, I supposed. Or calling. It wasn't that long ago I had driven into the foothills, the so-called Gold Country, with death on my mind. With a heavy heart and cloudy vision I found my way to Oak Flats Cemetery, a graveyard as old as the gold rush. Now neglected, nearly forgotten, the gate lay to one side in the grass, hanging by a single hinge. There was a sense that the second and third generations, the mourners, the buriers, the weeders, the mowers, the flower bringers, had also aged and died, buried in other cemeteries, families now eternally scattered. The weather beaten stone markers felt cold--mossy cold, lichen colored. I didn't know anyone buried there but it seemed like a good place to contemplate death. I imagined myself in the earth, cold and dark. Silent. Alone. Drawn to that rest of the most final sense, I could hear that first shovel of earth that signaled all is done. On a god perch, I looked down through the years. There would be time for my life to be edited, the final chapter written by my children, the book closed and shelved, and then for memories to fade. My children would think of me less and less often until I was not more than an unread footnote. To the next generation I would be that middle-aged man who took his life. There would be a sad, serious face in the telling, a little speculation as to why, then a moving on. That's it. Life comes, it goes. The world didn't slow its orbit for my arrival and certainly won't miss a turn at my exit. Why do I take it all so seriously?

I continue to take it seriously but in helpful ways. I do measure the probable years remaining. I make certain to treasure and nourish my loves. I work to rid me myself of burdens that are not worthy of taking this journey perched on my shoulders. I try to laugh more, to see more, to name my feelings. I slow to savor food. I pause for fragrances. I record a touch with a conscious thought that I am loved.

So I am making it a good story, but death is responsible for that.

Thanks for a thoughtful piece. Loving what you do.


I'm not sure that St. Paul was entirely free of death anxiety. He staked everything on the factuality of the resurrection. If Christ did not rise, then our faith is worthless, and we are doomed to never living again (apparently life — being sentient forever — was Paul’s greatest value). But the evidence for the resurrection was weak. It would not stand in court now, and probably not then either. There were no eye witnesses. Accounts were contradictory. Paul was smart and educated, and must have known he was not on firm ground.

Cognitive dissonance could have fueled an extra zeal in trying to spread the new religion. Paul didn’t do well among the Greek skeptics, but illiterate Roman slaves and others who suffered from hardship and oppression were open to the attractive promise of the meek inheriting the earth and the last becoming the first. Never mind the lack of evidence . . .

All this rested on whether or not the resurrection actually happened. The Roman custom was to leave the body on the cross to rot. That was an essential part of why crucifixion was regarded as the worst possible punishment. Bart Ehrman and many other scholars presents convincing other scenarios, even assuming an empty tomb, for which the evidence is also weak. Rising from the dead was certainly the least likely of these scenarios.

Only the Second Coming within a generation was even less likely, and indeed it did not happen, nor ever will. Friends have suggested that I go in business selling bumper stickers that say JESUS IS NEVER COMING BACK. NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER.

(A shameless digression: Alfred Loisy, a French theologian, remarked, “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom, but it was the church that arrived.” 1902 was much too early to get away with such insights. Loisy was fired from his teaching posts and excommunicated. But then theologians don’t believe in god; they have defined him away in metaphors of metaphors.)


But back to your critique of Stephen Cave’s consolation. Life is a good story, an interesting story — until the years of pathetic decline. “Life is a play with a poorly written last act” — this saying has been ascribed to several writers. Already Shakespeare in As You Like It, in the notorious Seven Ages of Man soliloquy, presented a terrible picture of typical old age: “second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Dentistry has made progress, and now we can have implants as well as preserve most of our own teeth — but otherwise things remain as the Bard described them.

But now the last phase of aging — that bumbling descent you mention — begins significantly later. And that IS progress. In the West, “old” doesn’t start at fifty, or even sixty. Those extra two decades or so, before the accelerated aging inevitably sets in, are priceless. And the pathetic stage  need not be the part of the story if we become enlightened enough to make research on aging a priority. The ideal is maturation without debilitating illness. People would stay mentally sharp and healthy almost until the end, and then die quickly.

What we have right now is the hospice movement, and that too is progress against dysfunctional medicine. Nor is there a stigma attached to suicide after a diagnosis of terminal illness, if the enjoyment of life is no longer possible. Serious thinking about the end of life issues remains to be done, and the hospice movement shows that such thinking has begun.

(For another look at this, please read my blog post

As for the existence of death being responsible for a much greater appreciation of life, I have commented on this many times. If I hadn’t been cornered by mortality and realized at long last how little time is left, I’d probably be still stuck in depression, bewailing my shattered dreams.

That why I see the vague promises of afterlife as destructive. If paradise awaits, why bother trying to make much of this life, a brief episode before trillions of years of bliss? Yet out of the corner of my eye I see that even those who claim to be religious don’t seem to bet too strongly on everlasting paradise (now downgraded to “a better place”). They too seem interested in drinking the sweetness of this life down to the last drops, even if it means no more than dozing in front of the TV. Dozing is also sweet, also a message of “I am loved.” 

Friday, May 1, 2015


Coronado Bridge, San Diego. I drive on it every week.

Christianity is about eternity
. ~ a Christian website

Just another day in paradise ~ a sign over a garden gate in Coronado Island, Southern California.

How much the present moment means
To those who've nothing more —
The Fop — the Carp — the Atheist —
Stake an entire store
Upon a Moment's shallow Rim
While their commuted Feet
The Torrents of Eternity
Do all but inundate —

~ Emily Dickinson, # 1380

I have come across this poem by accident, as so often happens with things that startle us. These eight lines made me realize once more how much the culture has changed. Consider how much we hear today about “being in the moment” or “being in the NOW.” And as for having nothing more than the present moment — book after book reminds us that this is the deepest truth: we have nothing but the present moment, so we better fully enter the present.

Living in the present is the current cultural ideal. Cherish the now, luxuriate in the moment. Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” (one of those books where the title says it all, so there’s no need for the rest of it) has sold more than 2 million copies and has been translated into 33 languages. In the 19th century, would it have even been published? The alleged currents of eternity, the claim that only the afterlife really counts, would have indeed drowned out dissent.

It’s stunning to realize that until fairly recently, for Christians the real life, the eternal life, began after dying. Death was the birth into the rest of eternity, be it heaven, hell, or, for Catholics, centuries in the purgatory, where sinners were “purified” through suffering to make them fit for heaven.

Since the purgatory is not mentioned in the scriptures, Catholic theologians had to come up with some evidence for it. We pray for the dead, they said. If the dead went either to heaven or hell, praying for them would be useless. But if they are being purified in the purgatory, then we can pray for an earlier release and admission to an eternity of bliss. We pray for the dead; therefore, the purgatory exists.

This is very wobbly logic, but thanks to it we have the opulence of St. Peter’s, paid for with profits from the sale of indulgences. An indulgence meant that if you paid a certain sum, your soul or the soul of a loved one would spend less time in the purgatory. “As soon as the coin rings, the soul from the Purgatory springs” — ran the commercial just before Luther entered the scene. More money could buy more time off. The right amount could even get “plenary indulgence”: full release, no further purification by suffering required.

Luther rose up against this kind of corruption. You know the story: “Here I stand. I can’t do otherwise.” Imagine, putting one’s conscience ahead of the authority of the church! What shameless individualism! 

The church kept both the Purgatory and indulgences, but Protestants developed a different, more individualist theology and liturgy. Volumes have been written about how this changed the entire Western history. Once the monolithic power of the Catholic church was broken, it wasn’t long before the Reformation led to the Enlightenment and ultimately modernity with its scandalous exaltation of human rights and freedom. Lately scholars have been reminding us that nothing comparable to the Reformation took place in Islam.

But let’s get back to the pre-modern sensibility that’s apparent in Dickinson’s poem. Emily’s dates are 1830 -1886. It’s not really all that long ago. We are not speaking of the Middle Ages here. But even in the nineteenth century, which witnessed the birth of the theory of evolution and other great advances in science, for the general church-going public, a person’s “real life” began after death. Even assuming you survived childhood, dying at fifty-six was not considered premature. And what’s a span of fifty-six years — or even the biblical three-score-and-ten — compared with eternity?


Literary scholars have long debated Emily’s metaphysical beliefs. Some poems express agnosticism; other poems show a belief in the afterlife, but often with doubt tossed in:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound—
It beckons, and it baffles—
Philosophy—don't know—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity, must go—
. . .
Plucks at a twig of Evidence —
And asks a Vane, the way —
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit —
Strong Hallelujahs roll —
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul —

~ E.D. #501

Being a mystical and ecstatic poet, Dickinson wrote a lot about death and immortality and eternity, without getting too specific. She was an unconventional believer well acquainted with doubt, “the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul.” But “agnostic” is probably the strongest term we could use to describe her vacillations.

Dickinson also complains about the hiddenness of god. Is that just a game, a joke, this absence and silence?

I know that He exists.
Somewhere – in silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.

’Tis an instant’s play –
’Tis a fond Ambush –
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!

But – should the play
Prove piercing earnest –
Should the glee – glaze –
In Death’s – stiff – stare –

Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest –
Have crawled too far!

~ E.D. #365

She can even cry out in despair:

Of Course — I prayed —
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird — had stamped her foot —
And cried "Give Me” —
My Reason — Life —
I had not had — but for Yourself—
'Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom's Tomb —
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb —
Than this smart Misery.

E.D. #376

Such outbursts are disconcerting to those who’d like to see Emily as a nice Protestant girl.

And yet, like most mystics, Emily did know about the joy of being in the now:

I think to Live—may be a Bliss
To those who dare to try—
Beyond my limit to conceive—
My lip—to testify—
. . .
I think the Days—could every one
In Ordination stand—
And Majesty—be easier—
Than an inferior kind—

No numb alarm—lest Difference come—
No Goblin—on the Bloom—
No start in Apprehension's Ear,
No Bankruptcy—no Doom—

But Certainties of Sun—
Midsummer—in the Mind—
A steadfast South—upon the Soul—
Her Polar time—behind—


But she decides that would be choosing this world, this life, this paradise — clearly an error that will be rectified by the Almighty. Still, the first line — “I think to live may be a bliss” — does resonate with the modern reader. I stress “modern,” because it’s vastly easier for us to experience the bliss of sheer existence, since, despite the headlines, we luxuriate in less hardship and more security than ever before in history.


Still, Dickinson was certainly no atheist. “The Fop — the Carp — the Atheist” — this grouping makes it plain that she disapproved of atheists as much as of fops (dandies) and, if I read the word “carp” correctly, those who dare complain. All three types of persons strike her as shallow, interested only in the moment, unconcerned about eternity. They are this-worldly, seemingly unconscious of the infinite vista ahead (hazy as that may be).

(A shameless digression from the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” Why would people long for the resurrection of the body — after the Second Coming to be sure, which seems a long time to wait — when we are told that the body is a prison of the soul? I agree that it’s a bother to have to eat, sleep, brush the teeth, and so forth. Even with perfectly healthy bodies, wouldn’t being blurs of light be weightless and transcendent? Is it for the sake of the pleasures of the senses? Here we see — again — that logic will get us nowhere — which is likely our final destination regardless.)

Contrast this with Tolle:

“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”

In the modern era, this is what we find deep — not the least bit shallow. The “Now” has gained the dignity that the eternal life used to hold.

Tolle also says, “The past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”

Tolle’s central message is that when we stop the internal chatter, which is mostly about the past or the future, we can finally focus on the present and thus find bliss in simply Being — or, if you prefer, the Eternal Moment. But don’t think about this apparent oxymoron — thinking is a no-no. Stop thinking NOW.

He regards cats as ideal “Zen masters.” In fact Zen has probably been Tolle’s greatest influence, though he is freely eclectic, and would certainly not call himself an atheist. He is “spiritual” in a quintessential New Age way. My favorite Zen saying is “When you stand, stand. When you sit, sit. Above all, don’t wobble.”

Dickinson does not renounce wobbling. She admits to not-knowing (“I could not see to see — ”) She goes on a ride with Death and Immortality, but doesn’t arrive — in the last stanza she’s still in the carriage, continuing the journey, her bonnet still on.

While Tolle’s books sell in the millions, his fame is, ahem, momentary. Dickinson, writing in an era in which most Christians believed that “real life” begins at the moment of death, created powerful lines that immortalize her work, delighting us every time we return to her poems.

 Some ancient Zen masters in their current reincarnation


The old evangelical pick-up line, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” doesn’t work in the modern era. People live longer, don’t expect to die a sudden death, and apparently don’t spend much time thinking about eternity. If they do give it thought, many strongly suspect that eternity would feel just like the time before they were born.

But don’t writers and artists want to be famous also (and even especially) after they are gone? Isn’t their fondest and most foolish hope that they are creating “for posterity”? But it's important to stop deluding oneself that you are writing for posterity, much less eternity. 99.99% of us are of the moment and our art is of the moment — so it's OK to lie down. And if there is a treasure in the unconscious, it will well up again. I trust the unconscious. What is of true value in our work will not be lost — at least to us. To posterity — most likely it will be lost, but we won’t be there to lament this loss. Other art will replace it, more relevant to whatever the future moment turns out to be.

“Beyond happiness and unhappiness, there is peace.”

There is some controversy over how long one “should” live:

The most striking point that the interviewer makes is the value of slowing down, smelling the roses, enjoying la dolce vita — for some people the retired years, as long as they are healthy, are the happiest and most fulfilling years of their lives (and studies unanimously confirm that older means happier). The later years are the reward, the "paradise now." Emanuel doesn't seem to grasp that. But he does have a good point about the late old age (onset differs, but on the average it's the late seventies; for the lucky, the mid-eighties). That's where torturous medical treatments like chemo make little sense (or so I say at my stage of life). But as long as the person is able to enjoy life . . . he or she has the right to the last crumbs and sips of the feast.

There is nothing you can ever do or attain that will get you closer to salvation than it is at this moment. This may be hard to grasp for a mind accustomed to thinking that everything worthwhile is in the future. ~ Tolle

I remember when my life was almost entirely about the future. Unfortunately youth consists pretty much of trying to prepare for the future. It’s not easy to to let go of the future — you might as well try to let go of the horizon — and realize this is it, the future has arrived, and it has little or none of the promised splendor. But we must still make the best of it.

Bishop Shelby Spong: 

The theistic deity, we now suspect, is nothing more than a projection of a human need into the sky. From the same skies modern knowledge has removed the mystery and the intrigue. There appears to be no place in our universe for heaven. It has been radically dislocated from its ancient spot just beyond the clouds. If heaven is no longer a locatable concept, then we have to recognize that neither is God, since heaven was God’s abode.

We can and do rationalize this by saying that heaven is not a place and God cannot be thought of spatially. That is of course true, but a god who cannot be located or envisioned begins to fade into an oblong blur. Once God has been removed from the position beyond the sky where divine judgment, to say nothing of personal intervention, was believed to occur, then the major pillars upholding the concept of heaven were removed and the believability of heaven collapsed. That is why heaven is not spoken of today. Evangelical Christians do not speak of it, for it no longer makes sense even to them. Neither does the theistic God who reigned from that same heaven, but they have not yet come to that awareness.


My thanks to Jason Mashak

As our knowledge increases, it’s more difficult to cling to the old myths, Judeo-Christian mythology included. Heaven and hell have receded, or else have become included in the now as states of mind. In this moment, some people feel blissful, while others are experiencing the inferno of negative emotions.

New Age adherents, however, do speak of heaven, except under a different label: the astral world, or the spirit world. Or else it’s simply a different frequency. But above all, New Age is about NOW. If you can’t enter the now, you’ve missed it all. After much delay in pursuit of the future, and subsequent depression contemplating the past, I am beginning to sympathize with this viewpoint.  

I think to Live — may be a Bliss
To those who dare to try —

At this point, most of us dare to try.

Still, I never choose Tolle for my bedtime reading. Emily is still the Queen — not the Queen of Calvary, as she once named herself, but of the bliss of poetry.  


But I want to end on a bold embrace of this world as the only paradise we’ll ever know. For this we need a modern sensibility.

I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something

precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

~ Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes”

And this:

And though age and infirmity overtake me, and I come not within sight of the castle of my dreams, teach me still to be thankful for life, and for time’s old memories that are good and sweet; and may the evening’s twilight find me gentle still.

~ Max Ehrmann



So many good ideas in The Present Moment and Eternity.

My Christianity forced me into the future — it was all about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. As far as this world, I'm a stranger and “just passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue” and I must be careful, the good book warns, to not love the things of this world. This explains why, until recently, evangelical/fundamentalist Christians didn't care about the earth or the environment. God was never green. The world doesn't matter because one day soon God is going to torch it.

As this approach tumbled downhill across my soul I found that I couldn't appreciate anything in the present — I couldn't describe the taste of food, the fragrance of flowers, or the beauty of music. I could not dance because I could not hear or feel in the present.

Rilke wrote (I hesitate to quote this because I know this translation is sandpaper on your nerves):

No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused. (II.25)

In other words, the non-existence of an afterlife should drive us into the present. It has for me. Now the task is to maximize the present — no easy task in our world. Voices from the past and the world of “should” are persistent.

I appreciate our evolution toward the present. It really is all we have.


“Somewhere beyond the blue”! The shock of reading religious texts as an adult is the discovery just how childish most of them are. Or, to put it more gently, they belong to another era, one in which people never flew in airplanes, and had no inkling about what lay “beyond the blue.” Imagine the shock if you told them that the air becomes thinner and thinner until we enter the “nothing” of space (a simplified description, but good enough). Sure, today an intelligent theologian could turn it all into a metaphor, but I don’t think the typical church-goer has ever been quite as skilled at juggling metaphors and abstractions and a diversity of perspectives.

“Beyond the blue” was a real place. Somewhere over the rainbow. In earlier centuries, in the clouds; then, with the growth of science, somewhere safe from science: above the clouds. There was a river flowing from under the jewel-studded throne of god; there was a city with a wall of jasper and buildings and pavements of gold.The name of the place was heaven. There was a wall around the city because two thousand years ago cities had defense walls around them; back then writers could not imagine an unwalled city.

A walled city was constrained in space and had to be relatively small. By contrast, hell had no limits.

Our world has become amazingly different from the biblical world. Technology aside, I’ve been trying to trace the important revolutions. One of them has certainly been the evolution of a psychological rather than theological approach to human behavior. When we stop seeing people as evil and fallen, when we see them as traumatized and damaged rather than as sinners, the idea of punishment becomes questionable. Another revolution has been the radically different orientation toward time: the present moment is all we have. And books like The Power of Now celebrate this fact. 

Rilke was right on (and the translation of this particular stanza is just fine) — and ahead of his times. Remember that he was born in the nineteenth century, when only some intellectuals dared to be openly secular. And even in Rilke’s case, it was the journey of a lifetime to detach himself from Christianity and begin to “belong to the earth.”

Thank you, Michael, for this personal portrait of how a religion centered on the afterlife makes us waste the only life we’ll ever have. The denial of death and indulging in fantasies of a “better place” — never mind an eternity of boredom — degrade this life and this world, which will indeed soon be torched — I love the way you put it. The Catholic variation added “mortification of the flesh”: it wasn’t just that it was a sin to enjoy food; the saintly thing was to fast. Besides, there is no food in the Christian heaven. There is no sex. It’s constant daylight and eternal sunshine. The only activity is 24/7 praise of god.

Religion thrives on misery. If this world really is a vale of tears, then fantasies of “somewhere beyond the blue” have an escapist appeal. When life becomes secure enough and pleasurable enough, we see what it is we need to create heaven here on earth. We need beauty, kindness, affection, meaningful work. Disasters would still happen, but we’d get plenty of help and empathy. Though many chide me for optimism, I think the collective thinking is evolving, and we are moving toward that kind of world. 

Christianity won’t entirely perish within our lifetime (maybe by the end of this century), but I see it evolving into more and more rarefied metaphor until the Christianity of the past is remembered mainly as a kind of psychopathology, a set of attitudes that were peculiarly anti-life and anti-human.  

The pain and active harm that Christianity and other religions have caused will pass away, but the beauty of the best of religious art will survive. Below is the White Temple in Cambodia. 


I may be wrong but I imagine The White Temple built out of fear, as I think most of the churches in Italy were. I can't feel a disinterested love in those vast buildings. I see fine craftsmanship, creative designs, and I marvel at the administration and resolve each building required. But a gift of love from human to God? Not feeling it.

You are optimistic that Christianity may one day go away. I wonder — would that be a good thing? I found it toxic. Yes. But what panacea would take its place? It is the palm wine of the religious world — easily accessible, intoxicating enough for a life-numbing buzz — good for those who can’t find another way to live.


You have a point there about the role of fear in the creation of splendid temples. Human life was precarious, and gods needed to be appeased with gifts and sacrifices.

Another factor was the clergy’s need to impress the flock, consisting mostly of simple and illiterate folk. The church was pretty much the only show in time if we don’t count the public executions, one of the main forms of public entertainment. Small towns would borrow convicted criminals from larger places that might have an excess. Fear, cruel punishments and grand cathedrals had an uncanny way of going together.

Living as I do in a Hispanic neighborhood that also appears to be quite secular — the nearest Catholic church is small and faraway, in an old part of town — I don’t see my neighbors having any trouble enjoying life without religion. Family life is central: lots of visiting, birthdays, holidays. Babies, dogs, sports, TV, and the social media for the young. It’s a happy culture, a happy people. (The brutalities of the conquistadors likely evolved from cruel child rearing and yes, a toxic religion. That really was a different world.)

The educated have culture and travel to enjoy, as well as communion with nature. Again, I see no hunger for the otherworldly among my educated friends. Those who talk about the transcendent usually practice meditation. Some have studied Buddhism; one woman lived for a while in an ashram. Some fusion of Buddhism with “Christ Consciousness” may be satisfying for those who want a non-toxic religion.

There is of course meaningful work — for me that’s the most important part of life. More and more people are now able to have some sort of fulfilling work — if not full-time, then on the side. For some, it’s being of service. For others, it’s creative projects. Any artist or scientist will admit that their work is the essence of their life. Such work is as demanding as it is satisfying; it leaves little room for metaphysical preoccupations.

As for those who currently appear to need the “buzz” of fundamentalist religion, their numbers will probably continue to shrink. Fundamentalist churches, including the Catholic church, feel threatened; part of the reaction is digging in and making lots of noise. Some interpret this as the death rattle. Utter extinction may not come, but marginality is likely. The trend is already obvious. 


The concept that the body is a prison of the soul seems so archaic. Do people actually still believe that?


Religion and love of life don’t generally go hand in hand.

Most religions are anti-body and anti-life. Asceticism is prized. Repression of bodily desires is preached — practice may be a different matter.

I don’t know what percentage of people still believe that the body is a prison of the soul, but some do. Improved medicine seems to have decreased the hostility toward the body, just as improvements in safety and technology have decreased the hostility toward this world as the “vale of tears.” Yet even New Age adherents can come across as anti-body by placing so much value on “spirit” and “transcendence.” I’ve met some who have a strong belief in the “spirit world” and express a wish to “dis-incarnate.” To them, real bliss means having no body and just floating around in the astral regions.

But that’s relatively mild next to the Catholic cult of suffering and deliberate mortification of the flesh. That’s where pathology really comes in.


One reason Spinoza is so dear is that he didn't hold a double standard promoted by certain Enlightenment writers: philosophy for the elite, and the "consoling lies" of religion for the uneducated masses. Spinoza didn't believe in dispensing consoling or noble lies to anyone. The task of the philosopher was to educate; Spinoza held all human beings to be educable.

Some argue that atheism or agnosticism or pantheism (spirit and nature are one) or a metaphoric understanding of religion is fine for you and me, but what about the semi-literate Joe Six-Pack? Doesn't he need traditional religion? Isn't he going to fall apart if we tell him that he won't see his dog in heaven? (The reason I chose a canine companion here is that in my experience many people are not really that happy about the prospect of meeting their parents in heaven.)

My view is that Joe is not that fragile, and his private view is that those are just fairy tales, just as he suspected when first told of Eve being made from Adam's Eve or Jonah and the Whale. Let’s high time to acknowledge that Joe is not devoid of intelligence. Besides, he likes sports and whatever hobbies he may have, and if he’s like most men, he doesn’t like going to church. If religion perishes except for marginal groups, Joe will be just fine, and society won’t collapse either.

The less seriously religion is taken, the more people are able to enjoy life. Here’s to life!