Sunday, January 31, 2016


Michelangelo: Christ the Redeemer, Santa Maria sopra Minerva


I dream you live in the country,
in the helmet of a silver silo.
Slender young women file in,

in Boticellian curls and wisps.
Each greets you with a kiss.
What wish fulfillment is this?

I stand on the side
knowing that you are dead —
in a silo, already harvested.

There’s no room for me here:
you are too busy having
all you’ve never had.

In this radiance I am the ghost,
clanging the chains of the real.
I want my letters back —

I want even the postcards —
I want everything
I’ve given you back —

But why do I protest?
Maybe you do exist
in the unending grain.

What envious myth
makes me plead,
Help me live

I’m not in a silo yet.
That’s what vocation means:
I have to earn my death.

~ Oriana © 2016

Of course you can’t get everything back — or even the tiniest fraction. The amount of life wasted suffering because of an involvement with the wrong person can never be replaced. He did, in the end, help me live because I became determined: never again. I’ll never again wear myself out being around pathology. And I’ve kept that promise to myself.

But in a way, that was cheating. Once I had my vocation, I wasn’t even a fraction as vulnerable. Once I knew that my writing came first, I wasn’t about to destabilize my life for the sake of any man — not even the Prince, or my alleged “Twin Flame.”

There is a total difference between being in love and being in love with the right person, someone who you know will be in your life for many years to come — and not because it’s difficult to disengage from someone with severe pathology.  Even though you’ve officially broken up with the person, the crazy-maker keeps showing up, creating chaos. These stanzas are about the same person when he was still alive (the poem continues, but the opening says it all)


breaching each summer like bad news. 
There’ s always a heat wave,
burn spots on the ivy,
the racket of fans.

You call. Time stops,
sky bleaches to no color.
You erase whole landscapes
until there’s only you,

you and the sky like a wall —
We confess each other’s sins.
Instead of Why me?
I ask: Why you?

In youth, we are practically doomed to end up with the wrong person. A frequent reason is that we want “exciting” rather than nurturing. We also don’t yet know how to recognize pathologies, so are extremely vulnerable to charmers who know exactly how to fool and please until the game is up and now they are the VICTIM. They claim you are using them and victimizing them, along with the rest of society. You, a scarlet woman, seduced an innocent (what do you mean, you thought he was a consenting adult?), and now when they have overdrawn their account by $400 (“I have no idea how that happened!”) you won’t even lend them money — or some variation on that story. And the variations are endless.

True, even a bad relationship provides some growth. Besides, cynical as it may sound, a poet needs material. I can’t complain: I received plenty of material.

Giovanni da Paolo, Creation and the Expulsion from Paradise, 1445

As with all pathology, we need to try to bear in mind that people aren’t born eager to wreak havoc on others and make everyone miserable, including themselves. Something causes it. Alas, at present we can’t say much except the usual: it’s a combination of bad genes and bad environment. Experts have trouble enough dealing with the damage; lay people have no chance. For the average person, the only strategy is: try to save yourself. Again, that is sufficient.

What saved me? Already having a vocation, and not feeling inferior. At a younger age, chances are that I would have been destroyed.


“A naked statue of Jesus was carved by none other than Michelangelo himself to show the King of Kings in all his glory (remember he would have been naked at his crucifixion since the soldiers gambled for his underwear). Of course, this horrified the church leaders, who immediately covered the midsection of Christ the Redeemer with a skirt. This evidently did nothing to deter the curious nuns who kept sneaking into the sanctuary at night for a peek at the Savior’s family jewels. Seeing that nothing would stop this carnal fixation, the priest ultimately took a chisel to this priceless work of art and made a eunuch out of Jesus. They decided it was better for his genitals to be completely cut off than for them to cause another to sin.” ~ Neil Carter, Removing the Fig Leaf: A New Blog About Sexuality Without Shame

Since I already used Michelangelo’s “censored” naked Jesus as the opening image, let me share another of Michelangelo daring creations: Yahweh’s bare buttocks in the panel that shows both the creation of the sun and the moon and, on the left, the creation of plants. 



Oriana: For me, sexual repression was actually the easiest to recover from — but then I left the church at the last moment, so to speak. Still remember when I first looked at my breasts and touched them — to wash them, actually. Stopped thinking of them as obscene in an instant. But the fear of hell — it stayed with me for decades like PTSD, complete with nightmares, literally. My last one in that sequence was very interesting and gave me a poem, but it took me a week to feel OK again and not sick and shaky. Some of my fellow apostates have admitted to having had similar experiences, down to waking up in terror in the middle of the night. Recovery from toxic religion takes a lifetime.

(Facebook comment): what? you never touched your breasts? I was brought up as a good little Catholic girl but never had a single hangup of this sort... weird. on the other hand, I did decide for myself that god did not exist way before I had any breasts to speak of.

Oriana: You were so ahead of me! Thinking back of our literalism/metaphorical understanding discussion, I took fairly tales metaphorically (more or less), but religion — once I decided it wasn't fairly tales, in spite of my first good intuition — religion I took utterly literally, and it was terrifying. I who never believed in monsters under my bed, or witches or ghosts, did nevertheless become completely intimidated by priests and nuns and did believe that a monster in the sky spied on me 24/7, compiling a dossier to be read to me just before I'm tossed into hell.

It seems very comic now, but I felt embarrassed using the bathroom — because the Eye in the Sky was watching!! And there I was, pulling down my pants, how indecent and disrespectful. Ludicrous now, a source of true anxiety back then. (And in the movie Ida, I was especially struck by the scene of the nuns having to take a shower in a special shower robe . . . surely god could still see the body through the robe, so the purpose must have been to prevent the nuns from seeing their bodies.)

That of course was minor next to the real anxiety and suffering about my supposedly horrible sins (and everything was a sin, pretty much) driving nails into the flesh of Jesus. Romans or Jews was never a question for me, since I was the one crucifying Jesus with my sinful thoughts (I sinned mainly in thought -- it was pretty Orwellian).

Only soon after my 14th birthday I had a thought, "This is all a bunch of nonsense" — but my fear of hell still prevailed and I managed to suppress that thought. But soon after the thought, "It's just another mythology" prevailed and that was it — after waiting to be struck with lightning (Adam Zagajewski commented on that, "Sometimes there is a delay”).

(to the commenter): Just consider yourself very lucky. You mean you never felt doomed to end up in one of those big cauldrons in hell, with devils with pitchforks pushing you down if you tried to find a bit of relief by sticking up higher from the burning pitch? My idea of hell was mainly cauldrons rather than the Lake of Fire. An odd similarity to those cartoons of missionaries being cooked by the natives.

By the way, when I read Milosz's memories of HIS Catholic childhood, it was of course even more oppressive and repressive, so as with communism, there was a progressive “softening” with time. I did visit a church a few times more recently, and it's almost totally different now. But my stomach still turns. And there is nothing the new church can offer me either . . .

“Salvation is liberation from fear” ~ Marcus Borg. But the church’s tactic was always to manipulate through fear. That’s why hell was absolutely necessary as the very foundation of Christianity. Now the Catholic church, with its redefinition of hell as a state of mind, has taken a huge step forward. But the fundamentalist right wing is never going to give up hell, their chief tool and means of imaginary revenge. Never.

There is a connection between cruelty, hell, punishment, and hatred of the body and bodily pleasure. People cut off from physical love, from touch, often don’t get any love at all, and it’s harder for them to be loving. Happiness and being loved make it much easier to be warm and kind toward others. Those who learn to be cruel to themselves — forcing themselves to remain celibate, self-flagellating, self-mutilating, wearing barbed wire under the breasts or worse (not unusual in old-time convents — all in the name of “mortification of the flesh”) — people cruel to themselves can quite easily be cruel toward others. That’s why we have so many stories of sadistic nuns.

The Sistine ceiling was called pornography by the clergy and action followed. But later — restoration! We owe a lot to the Greeks, and how much the artists loved the human body. And the church, well, I'm eternally grateful to the church for having falsified the Second Commandment, so at least in Christianity we have figurative art.

Still, there is a bit of figurative art that scholars have found in Islam. Here is Islamic hell: Muhammad visits and sees women punished for showing their hair to strangers


As Oscar Wilde put it, “Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography.” It tells you more about the psychology of the criticizer than the people he or she criticizes. Astute professionals can formulate a viable diagnostic hypothesis just from hearing someone criticize.

Criticism is the first of John Gottman’s famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which predict divorce with more than 90% accuracy. In my clinical experience it is the most predictive of disaster in love relationships, as the other three tend to follow from it—stonewalling, defensive, and contemptuous partners almost invariably feel criticized.

Criticism is destructive to relationships when it is:

    About personality or character, rather than behavior
    Filled with blame
    Not focused on improvement
    Based on only one “right way” to do things

Criticism in close relationships starts out, in most cases, on a low key and escalates over time, forming a downward spiral with increasing resentment. The criticized person feels controlled, which frustrates the critical partner, who then steps up the criticism, increasing the other’s sense being controlled, and so on.

Criticism fails because it embodies two of the things that human beings hate the most:

    It calls for submission, and we hate to submit.
    It devalues, and we hate to feel devalued.

While people hate to submit, we like to cooperate. Critical people seem oblivious to a key point about human nature: The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists. If you want behavior change, show value for the person whose behavior you want to change. If you want resistance, criticize.

Critical people are certainly smart enough to figure out that criticism doesn’t work. So why do they keep doing it in the face of mounting frustration?

They keep doing it because criticism is an easy form of ego defense. We don’t criticize because we disagree with a behavior or an attitude. We criticize because we somehow feel devalued by the behavior or attitude. Critical people tend to be easily insulted and especially in need of ego defense.


Critical people were often criticized in early childhood by caretakers, siblings, or peers. Criticism can be especially painful for young children. They cannot distinguish criticism of their behavior from rejection, no matter how much we try to make the distinction for them, as in the well-intentioned, “You’re a good boy, but this behavior is bad.” Such a distinction requires a higher prefrontal cortex operation, which is beyond most young children. To a child under seven, anything more than occasional criticism, even if soft-pedaled, means they’re bad and unworthy.

The only thing young children can do to survive is attach emotionally to people who will take care of them. Feeling unworthy of attachment, as criticized young children are apt to feel, seems a bit like life or death. So they try to control the great pain of criticism by turning it into self-criticism—since self-inflicted pain is better than unpredictable rejection by loved ones.

By early adolescence, they begin to "identify with the aggressor"—emulating the more powerful criticizer. By late adolescence, self-criticism expands to criticism of others. By young adulthood, it seems to be entirely criticism of others. But most critical people remain primarily self-critical; I have never treated one who was not. As hard as they are on others, most are at least equally hard on themselves.

You’re likely to be the last to know whether you’re a critical person. As the joke goes, “I give feedback; you’re critical. I’m firm; you’re stubborn. I’m flexible; you’re wishy-washy. I’m in touch with my feelings; you’re hysterical!”

If someone tells you you’re critical, you probably are. But there’s even a better way to tell: Think of what you automatically say to yourself if you drop something or make a mistake. Critical people will typically think, “Oh you idiot,” or, “Jerk,” or just curse or sigh in disgust. If you do that to yourself, you most likely do it to others as well.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), Still Life with Pomegranates

Criticism vs. Feedback

Critical people often delude themselves into thinking that they merely give helpful feedback. The following are ways to tell the two apart.

    Criticism focuses on what’s wrong. (“Why can’t you pay attention to the bills?”)
    Feedback focuses on how to improve. ("Let’s go over the bills together.")
    Criticism implies the worst about the other’s personality. (“You’re stubborn and lazy.”)
    Feedback is about behavior, not personality. (“Can we start by sorting the bills according to due date?”)
    Criticism devalues. (“I guess you’re just not smart enough to do this.”)
    Feedback encourages. ("I know you have a lot on your plate, but I’m pretty sure we can do this together.")
    Criticism implies blame. (“It’s your fault we’re in this financial mess.”)
    Feedback focuses on the future. (“We can get out of this mess if we both give up a few things. What do you think?”)
    Criticism attempts to control. (“I know what’s best; I’m smarter and more educated.")
    Feedback respects autonomy. (“I respect your right to make that choice, even though I don’t agree with it.”)
    Criticism is coercive. (“You’re going to do what I want, or else I won’t connect with you or will punish you in some way.”)
    Feedback is not at all coercive. (“I know we can find a solution that works for both of us.”)

If you’re a critical person, you must get a handle on your impulse to criticize before it ruins your relationship.”

The part that now seems obvious, and yet oddly enough I haven’t thought of it before, is that critical people, people who put down others a lot, were themselves criticized and put down as they were growing up. None of us escapes some of this kind of abuse, but of course some children suffer a lot more than others. There are still parents who think nothing of pushing a small child against a wall and yelling, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” It helps to remember that those parents were themselves “done unto” in the same way — and likely they have already taken the abuse down a notch; at least they aren’t hitting the child.

We haven’t eliminated child abuse, but at least it isn’t the norm anymore — at least not in the Western culture. But any experienced therapist could tell endless stories of emotionally abusive parents — that’s what keeps therapists in business.


(It’s been shown that dogs make better therapists than humans, but apparently that goes for other social species — and maybe just for . . . animals?)

Siebert goes on to write about Lilly Love’s [a PTSD patient] residence at a place called Serenity Park, where birds named Julius, Bacardi, Pinky, and Cashew live with 30 other parrots, and where Love received parrot therapy. Before going to Serenity Park Love told Siebert, ‘‘They had me loaded up on so many kinds of medications, I was seeing little green men and spiders jumping out of trees" ... "as a six-inch-tall female caique parrot from the Amazon Basin named Cashew dutifully paced across her shoulders. Back and forth she went, from one side to the other, in determined, near- circular waddles. For the next 10 minutes, Love, her eyes closed, her arms still at her sides, continued to engage in one of the many daily duets she does with each one of Serenity Park’s winged residents, listing her shoulders up and down like a gently rocking ship, Cashew’s slow, feather-light paddings all the while putting Love further at ease."

Love goes on to say, "Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’

Parrots also can be severely traumatized. Siebert writes:

    "Abandoned pet parrots are twice-traumatized beings: denied first their natural will to flock and then the company of the humans who owned them.  In the wild, parrots ply the air, mostly, in the same way whales do the sea: together and intricately. Longtime pairs fly wing to wing within extended, close-knit social groupings in which individual members, scientists have recently discovered, each have unique identifiable calls, like human names. Parrots learn to speak them soon after birth, during a transitional period of vocalizing equivalent to human baby babbling known as ‘‘subsong,’’ in order to better communicate with members of their own flocks and with other flocks. This, it turns out, is the root of that vaunted gift for mimicry, which, along with their striking plumages and beguilingly fixed, wide-eyed stares, has long induced us to keep parrots — neuronally hard-wired flock animals with up to 60-to-70-year life spans and the cognitive capacities of 4-to-5-year-old children — all to ourselves in a parlor cage: a broken flight of human fancy; a keening kidnapee."

According to Lorin Lindner, the psychologist who founded Serenity Park, ‘‘Parrots have so many social neurons. Their brain is filled with the capacity to mirror their flock. It’s so crucial for survival to be able to know what the flock is doing, to know what the danger signs are, when they have to get together, when night is falling and they are called to roost. They’re so attuned to being socially responsive that they can easily transfer that to us. They have the ability to connect, to feel this closeness with another being, another species.’’

Siebert also notes, "Veterans, of course, share similar psychological scarring, but whenever I asked any of them how it is that the parrots succeed in connecting where human therapists and fellow group-therapy members can’t, the answer seemed to lie precisely in the fact that parrots are alien intelligences: parallel, analogously wounded minds that know and feel pain deeply and yet at a level liberatingly beyond the prescriptive confines of human language and prejudices."

Siebert concludes:

    "Nearing Serenity Park’s exit, I decided to turn back and step inside Cashew’s quarters for a moment. I had only to nestle close to her perch and she immediately hopped on my back. Crisscrossing my shoulders as I had watched her do with Lilly Love, she stopped at one point for what I assumed would be the parrot equivalent of a kiss. Instead, she began to clean my teeth: her beak lightly tapping against my enamel, the faint vibrations strangely soothing. Immediately afterward, she took a brief nap in my shirt’s left breast pocket — it felt as if I’d grown another heart — then re-emerged and crawled to the top of my head. She strolled about there for a time before plucking out one of her own deep blue-green feathers and then descending to gently place it on my left shoulder. I have it still."


Just the idea of "Serenity Park" is so marvelous . . . We could design healing environments rather than toxic medical spaces.


I had my big breakthrough when I realized that depression is not a feeling, but a behavior, and behavior can be changed. Now I came across this neat quotation from Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Excellence as a habit, a frequently repeated behavior -- this makes a lot of sense to me.

“We are what we repeatedly do.” I was practicing being depressed, getting better and better at it, descending into despair faster and faster — it got so I could do it in under two minutes. Then a vehement crying fit. Eventually the breakthrough, the insight — and I chose to be productive instead. I very deliberately chose to cope with life, come what may: “I’ll cope somehow.” Now I know that “bravely carrying on” is actually the easiest thing to do — considering the alternatives.


“I had been in Iraq for about two months when I heard about an officer conducting an impromptu habit modification program in Kufa, a small city ninety miles south of the capital. He was an army major who had analyzed videotapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern: Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and, over the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose.

When the major met with Kufa's mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Masjid al-Kufa, or Great Mosque of Kufa. Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 P.M., everyone was gone.

When I visited the base near Kufa, I talked to the major. You wouldn't necessarily think about a crowd's dynamics in terms of habits, he told me. But he had spent his entire career getting drilled in the psychology of habit formation.

At boot camp, he had absorbed habits for loading his weapon, falling asleep in a war zone, maintaining focus amid the chaos of battle, and making decisions while exhausted and overwhelmed. He had attended classes that taught him habits for saving money, exercising each day, and communicating with bunkmates. As he moved up the ranks, he learned the importance of organizational habits in ensuring that subordinates could make decisions without constantly asking permission, and how the right routines made it easier to work alongside people he normally couldn't stand. And now, as an impromptu nation builder, he was seeing how crowds and cultures abided by many of the same rules. In some sense, he said, a community was a giant collection of habits occurring among thousands of people that, depending on how they're influenced, could result in violence or peace. In addition to removing the food vendors, he had launched dozens of different experiments in Kufa to influence residents' habits. There hadn't been a riot since he arrived.

"Understanding habits is the most important thing I've learned in the army," the major told me. "It's changed everything about how I see the world. You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you get up. You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine. I drill my kids on this stuff. My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage. This is all we talk about in command meetings. Not one person in Kufa would have told me that we could influence crowds by taking away the kebab stands, but once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it's like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work.”

"I'm telling you, if a hick like me can learn this stuff, anyone can. I tell my soldiers all the time, there's nothing you can't do if you get the habits right."

In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations has expanded in ways we couldn't have imagined fifty years ago. We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics. We know how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications. We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives. Transforming a habit isn't necessarily easy or quick. It isn't always simple.

But it is possible. And now we understand how.”

From The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Ending on beauty:

Inside every mind
there's a hermit’s cave
full of light,

full of snow,
full of concentration.
I’ve knelt there,
and so have you,

hanging on
to what you love.

~ Mary Oliver

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