Tuesday, January 26, 2016



Odd, how at home I feel
in a ramshackle Tijuana bus
that stands at the chipped, faded curb,
La vida eterna

advertised on its side.
I could afford a taxi, but no,
I want this wooden seat,
this is third class, I’m loving it.

I only wish there’d be a live chicken
on this bus, it’s not the same
without an animal soul.
I sit on the hard seat,

knowing there is no hurry,
most of the world is like this,
no need to scribble false cheer
in letters home, or get another degree.

The faces around me are browning
and I think I too
am turning sepia, a century ago.
The fare is almost nothing,

like giving the thin flat coins
to beggars — or am I
giving alms to myself?
The bus is like a church, with pews,

Our Lady of the Sorrows
on the dashboard.
And the driver must be
one of the apostles, the obtuse

Saint Peter perhaps, rough-hewn.
He knows the Kingdom
will be his, why rush.
After a long snorting warm-up, we start

toward the U.S. border.
Again I’m going to America,
where I will be poor
and will have to drive —

where I’ll have to take my life
in my own small hands.

~ Oriana © 2016

It’s only now that I completely realize how very personal this poem is, about the Great Divide in my life, when I was way too young (17 and a half) to take my life in my own small hands (which were shaking -- my whole body was shaking — as I was boarding the plane that was about to take me out of Poland — forever, I assumed).

Back at the time of this memorable bus ride, by American standard I was indeed poor. By the Tijuana standard I was a rich gringa. But wealth is not measured by money alone.

In the US I was poor in terms of income, but not poor in terms that mattered to me most: I had a rich mind. As for people around me on the bus in Tijuana, they had rich family lives. The women knew how to cook, preparing feasts from inexpensive ingredients. The men could build things out of scraps or make a thirty-year-old car run. At least one of them on that bus could probably do beautiful tilework; it would not be surprising if several knew ceramics or leather crafts.

Although this bus was hardly an example of public transportation at its best, it was, nevertheless, functional. There is a warmth about being on a bus full of people (preferably also with an animal onboard), as opposed to being alone and cut off from others and the world inside one’s car. The people on the bus are a temporary little society. Someone might be old and very slow. Someone may be drunk and dozing. A woman is knitting a pink baby blanket, but mostly no one is doing anything, just sitting. It’s all as acceptable as a live chicken.  



Today I went to Ralphs, where I haven’t been for several years. And something I didn’t expect happened right away, a minute or so after I entered and began shopping in the produce section. A woman customer was walking in the opposite direction, and she smiled at me (as did a few others, later, both women and men). And without needing to think it out in words, I realized in a flash that people don’t smile at me — or any other customers — at Albertsons, which is in a working-class area.

I started shopping at Albertson’s because the Vons near me changed owners, then closed for good — and Ralphs, I thought, was too expensive.

Albertsons is a nice market. The prices aren’t lower — if anything, they are higher, I just discovered (lower-than-expected prices were another surprise about Ralphs). The variety is quite good. However, Albertsons doesn’t carry the dried shiitake I wanted for a more intense flavor (it does carry the more expensive fresh shiitake) — that’s how I ended up at Ralphs, closer to where I live, and arguably part of my own majority-Hispanic neighborhood.

The minute I walked in, a woman customer smiled at me . . .  And then a middle-aged man . . . and another woman, and a younger man (I was almost beginning to count). It was an unexpected way to realize the difference in social class, if that’s what it was . . .  it wasn’t the goods, it wasn’t the prices, it wasn’t the fancy floral section (the one at Albertsons is larger and more fancy).

I am *not* making a flat statement that working class people don’t smile at strangers, but all of a sudden I was oddly aware that no one at Albertsons ever smiled at me — insofar as I could remember. (I have certainly met charming, warm, helpful, smiling working-class people. This is a specific observation about two supermarkets in different locations.)

At the beautiful Coronado Library I do get smiles. On the way from Coronado, I often stop at Albertsons — no smiles. Not at Walmart either. Rarely, if ever, do I get smiles at Home Depot — sometimes in the succulent section, from a fellow succulents fan. Can’t say that Lowe’s is any different, though one of the nursery checkout clerks does smile at me. Never the other ones.

At Vons there used to be a nice woman cashier who’d smile at me whenever she saw me stand in line — I always picked her line for that reason. Vons wasn’t very smiley, but I’d call it intermediate. I felt desolate when the store closed because I lost “my” cashier.

And today, after a year or so of shopping at Albertsons, this pleasant shock: at Ralphs, smiles from strangers.

My theory is that the non-poor (I wouldn’t call Ralphs shoppers “rich” — at least not at the Ralphs near me) are more relaxed around strangers, and more relaxed in general. Not that I could possibly look threatening to anyone; people tell me I look like a little elf, or Alice in Wonderland.

And the lines in front of the lottery-ticket machines. And the yellow brake that pops up on the shopping cart wheel if you happen to have parked at the far edge of the lot — I guess you’re assumed to be a homeless person who’s trying to steal the cart. Well, no more putting up with that, or the obese vet partly blocking the entry, or, once in a while, someone begging. No more.

I'm wondering if the main factor is education — if it's educated people, regardless of income, who are more likely to smile at a stranger. A different store, and you’re in a different culture, with a different level of friendliness.

At the same time, it seems to me that decades ago people at all social levels seemed to be more likely to smile at strangers. Incomes may have been lower, but they were always rising, and people were more happy and secure. At first I was put off by all the smiling I saw in the US. Now I miss it.

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO KEEP WAITING FOR THE SECOND COMING (this is fun reading, but basically it’s just straight reporting)

“It’s my birthday today. I realized a few weeks ago that I have now lived longer than I ever expected. I am living on borrowed time. It’s a strange sensation.

I can’t tell you exactly when I thought Jesus was going to come back, because I was always reminding myself of Matthew 24:36: no man knoweth the day or the hour of Christ’s coming. So I didn’t make overly bold predictions. But my Dad was fond of saying “It says nobody knows the day or the hour. It doesn’t say nobody knows the season.” We were all sure that Jesus would come back about 2000 years after his first appearance. I’d heard estimates that Jesus’ real birth year was anything from 4 BC to 10 AD, which meant that from 1996 onwards I was in a perpetual state of anticipation. We also expected a brief period of intense global revival after Jesus’ 2000th birthday, immediately followed by the Rapture. One evangelist I knew thought Jesus was coming in 1998. As the turn of the millennium approached, things were getting fevered.

I was both incredibly excited and terrified by this. Although I couldn’t be sure when Jesus would return, I doubted I would ever turn 18, and I was sure I would never turn 21. The thought of turning 30 didn’t even cross my mind. All of my life planning was based around this. The ACE system allows you to work at your own speed. If you complete the PACEs early, you can graduate early. In the academic year 1998-1999 I did 101 PACEs, even though the school only expected us to do 60 per year. Part of the reason I was working so fast was that I hated the school and wanted to get out, but it was at least as important that I believed if I didn’t graduate early, Jesus would come back before I’d even had a chance to leave school. I believed God was calling me to play a vital role in the end time harvest of souls before the day of judgement. God needed me to spread the Gospel to the world. I didn’t have time to sit and stew in school.

In 1994, I’d heard God telling me in a Kenneth Copeland convention that he wanted me to form a band that would bring the world to revival. I never doubted that calling, especially after Jesse Duplantis prophesied that I would play in God’s throne room when we entered into heaven.  The prospect of heaven was so exciting I could hardly contain myself. But I was also sad. I wanted to grow up. I desperately wanted to get married, and I found myself wondering if I could meet the right girl and get married at 16 (the age of consent in Britain), and maybe we’d manage a couple of years together before the Rapture.

Knowing that the hour of Christ’s coming was upon us, evangelicals released the movie Left Behind in 2000. The premise was that the Rapture could happen any minute now. In 2014, there was a Left Behind reboot starring Nicholas Cage. The premise this time was that if Christ was coming any minute now in 2000, he must be coming really any minute now in 2014. The Rapture is perpetually happening any minute now.

This is one of the things people don’t understand about evangelical schools. When you say these schools aren’t preparing children for the future, you’re wrong. It’s just that the future they’re preparing kids for is not on this planet.

Disappointment over Jesus’s non-appearance was not really a factor in my leaving Christianity, but I do find it baffling that the spectacular failures of prophecy in 1988, 2000, and 2012 seem to have left my former churchmates’ expectation of Armageddon entirely undimmed. I think the next really massive bout of apocalyptic fervor will come in the build up to 2033: Christians will decide that all the prophecies about 2000 years after Christ were correct, but that the countdown began with the Resurrection, not Christ’s birth.

Me, I’m just glad I’m alive.”




For me, this is the most poignant part: “The prospect of heaven was so exciting I could hardly contain myself. But I was also sad. I wanted to grow up. I desperately wanted to get married, and I found myself wondering if I could meet the right girl and get married at 16 (the age of consent in Britain), and maybe we’d manage a couple of years together before the Rapture.” There is no marriage in heaven, St. Paul assures us, and presumably no sex. This life has some powerful attractions after all.

The end of the world has been predicted over 700 times now, and the failure of the predictions has never deterred the faithful from resuming their wait. True believers are immune to reality. 2033 will come and go, but the lunatic fringe will simply recalculate. Nevertheless, the example of this young man shows that once in a while someone, no matter how heavily brain-washed, manages to break away.

I suppose that the richer and more satisfying one’s life is, the less yearning for heaven. That “better place” somewhere in the clouds can’t possibly be as good as a walk on the beach at sunset, especially holding hands with someone you love. But evangelicals don’t have the time to walk on the beach, do they? They are losing their chance to experience the real paradise while they are busy preparing for the future in the imaginary paradise.

(By the way, at least the Catholic church didn't burden me with waiting for the End. True, there was the Bomb, so no real need for the archaic developments of the Apocalypse, but still — at least the nuns and priests were not particularly pushing the Second Coming. In any case, it was the Last Judgment that mattered, not Jesus walking — on the earth again. We weren’t even aware that Jesus would not be walking, but riding a horse. The matter of Purgatory for those who die before having had their chance to do time in Purgatory was never mentioned.)

The view that Jesus never existed is gaining more and more adherents. I declare myself an agnostic on the question of historicity (does it really matter? it all ended up as myth anyway), but I find it GLORIOUS that now we can argue that Jesus never existed, and even if he did, he’s certainly never coming back: never, never, never, never.

Yes, that many nevers. I remember when it first truly, deeply sank into me: no cruel Last Judgment. And that was what my mind was singing: “Never, never, never, never.” 

Charon Crossing the River Styx, by Joachim Patenier (d. 1524). Note the little naked soul that Charon seems to be transporting to hell. The soul's destination is not completely clear, but note that Charon is not facing the shore where the angels are. Of course what the soul needs is a good lawyer.

Most of the time we don't notice how good people are. For some reason I started being aware of it almost daily now. I catch myself thinking, Wow, people are so nice! So good! So friendly!

And of course we could be even more so. Ricard is right: Altruism can be increased. Meditation on loving kindness is fine, but I think the first step is treating children lovingly, with respect. Many parents do that, of course, but it's fairly recent. The old way was to dominate children into the ground and teach them blind obedience (you don't have to think Hitler Jugend; just think Dickens.)

What happened at some point in the 20th century? I think stress was reduced. Hardship was lessened. Prosperity and safety increased. Authoritarianism (insistence on blind obedience) wasn’t as necessary for survival. More loving care naturally followed, and more kindness toward others overall.



For many historians, the start of WWI conflict heralded the ‘real’ end of the nineteenth century, when the imperial European powers who had dominated the globe for centuries began to diminish and the powers that would dominate most of the rest of the twentieth century — the United States and the Soviet Union — began their ascendancy.  So, when did this 'longer' nineteenth century begin?  In Europe, many cite the storming of the Bastille on July 14,1789 and the start of the French Revolution as the true bookend for the 'long' nineteenth century, which would stretch out to 125 years, rather than the customary 100.

Those dates, 1789 and 1914, also accord somewhat with an important development in the history of mental illness, specifically, the rise of the lunatic asylum. It may seem strange that the release of prisoners from the Bastille may hark the beginning of the asylum era, but toward the end of the eighteenth century — and because of many of the ideals that marked the French Revolution — many societies were seeking a different solution to the problem of madness, just as they were to other health issues.  The construction of asylums and the passing of legislation to encourage authorities to do so can be seen in some ways as an extension of Enlightenment optimism, that by taking a rational approach, society could rid itself of many health problems, including madness. In Britain, however, it took additional legislation — the Lunacy Act and County Asylum Act (1845) — before the building of asylums really took off. 

Many of the asylums built following the 1845 legislation, along with those built in the United States and elsewhere, were located in bucolic, rural settings, far away from the helter-skelter of urban, industrial life, itself increasingly thought to be pathological.  As with contemporary legislation related to public health, such as that concerning sanitation, such acts were meant to be examples of compassionate social reform, providing state-of-the-art humane care, often in spacious, idyllic settings. The moral treatment on offer was often a mixture of talk therapy, occupational therapy, a familial atmosphere, and simply time to recover from the stresses and strains of modern life. 

Of course the reality was often different. Gartnavel Asylum in Glasgow, which celebrated its 200th anniversary last year, provides an example of how nineteenth-century asylums were complex institutions. Gartnavel was originally built near the city centre in 1814, but was moved to the leafy, more salubrious west end in 1843 to escape noise and pollution.  Occupational therapy was a pillar of treatment and a range of entertainments were available for patients, along with a library and visits from family and friends; rooms were ‘fully and comfortably furnished.’

But at Gartnavel, along with similar asylums, a patient’s treatment and experience also depended markedly on class. Working class patients were segregated from middle class patients, leading to considerable differences in care and treatment.  Although restraint was abolished at Gartnavel in the 1840s, it would return in later decades.  As in many instances in mental health, a profound gulf could exist between theory and practice.

The United States also experienced a book in asylum building beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.  A 'cult of curability' emerged in the 1820s and 30s, with asylum superintendents claiming that nearly 90% of their patients left fully cured after a stay at their asylum.  Later, mental health advocates, most notably Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) advocated the building of state hospitals to house the indigent insane. Influenced by the British lunacy reform movement, Dix inspected asylums and lobbied for legislation to improve services.  Though she managed to convince both houses of Congress to pass the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane in 1854, it was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. Nevertheless, asylum building continued apace in the United States.

If 1789 can be seen as the starting point for the asylum movement, why might 1914 be seen as the year in which this trend in mental health care ended? The answer can be found in the trenches of the First World War and the emergence of a new, disturbing disorder: shell shock.  Recognition of shell shock amounted to a sea change in terms of how mental illness, particularly in a military context,was understood.  At the start of the war, a soldier exhibiting symptoms of shell shock might have been summarily executed for malingering or desertion; indeed many were.

By war’s end, thousands and thousands of soldiers were taken away from the front to receive treatment for the disease.  Although this treatment occurred in asylums, most soldiers would eventually return to their communities, as living testimonials to the horrors — and pathology — of war, much like the thousands of soldiers who bore the physical hallmarks of trench warfare, such as a missing limb, eye patch or prosthetic nose. Shell shock, partly because of its scale, partly because of those whom affected, and partly because of its cause made it difficult to blame the sufferer, brought mental illness to the masses like never before.  Rather than shut away those afflicted in rural asylums, shell shock became central to how the Lost Generation was understood, and was depicted in the writing of Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and others. 

In this way, shell shock became one of the first mental afflictions whose sufferers were treated in a sympathetic, understanding manner, in some ways starting the process by which mental illness was destigmatized and, by extension, seen as a condition that should be treated in the community, rather than in an asylum.  Similarly, the Second World War and the Vietnam War, as well as subsequent conflicts, have had a major impact upon how mental illness has been perceived.”


How interesting that shell shock helped create more sympathy for the mentally ill. By the way, we are just barely beginning to understand what is now called “repeated blast injury” and post-traumatic stress syndrome. The more we understand the underlying brain damage, the less we blame the victim.

 Christian Schloe Digital Art Work

Ending on cats

To stay sane, we need to watch happy cats. There are sixty-five cats lovingly kept at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, allegedly to protect the place from mice.


Scotland, Ben Lomond

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