Saturday, March 5, 2016


Chagall, Three Candles


I lit the candles of the Sabbath and covered my eyes,
terrified in the mind as I was and waiting to rest.
And the evening passed. And as they reached their end
the one became turbulent, sputtering, loud,
the left on the table, the one facing my heart,

the heart of it burning out impure and rough,
a red with tarry shadows, spitting death at me,
the other placid as prayer, clear light and patient
in the copper hourglass bowl, steadfast as the soul
of the one I love, soothing me, being also alive,

and this one I knew would last and burn long tonight,
and other flail down like madness and hard living
of every sort, the darkness that is touched and felt.
And I sighed for the love, and sighed the poor candle out.
Then I could rest, having yielded half the light.

Bereishit, Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Bo, Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

~ Dan Bellm, from Practice

As I see it, blowing out the rough-burning candle but letting the calm one burn on signifies the choice (if one can speak of choice here — perhaps it’s more a matter of being worn out by romantic storms and yearning for serenity) of a nurturing love over a turbulent love life (or a turbulent life in general). There comes a time when we stop thinking “How boring” when we encounter a truly good but perhaps not exactly scintillating person rather than a charismatic narcissist. A time when we want a quiet life rather than disruptive drama. The choice of the candle that’s “placid as prayer,” patient and steadfast, symbolizes this choice (again, if that is a choice).

Note that Belm is aware that something significant goes out as he extinguishes the turbulent candle. There is a price for everything. Now he has only half the light — but it’s a steady light that will last. The price is presumably worth paying. Now he can “rest” — but “having yielded half the light.” Will that line stay with the reader more than the rest of the poem? I suspect the reader’s age will have a lot to do with what is most remembered: the imagery of the “impure and rough” candle versus the one that’s “clear and patient,” or the hint that there is a loss as well.

Then I could rest, having yielded half the light.

There is the blessed pleasure of resting, but also a sorrow of parting with half the light.

Or perhaps Milosz’s idea applies here: There is a time of life that produces the poetry of vitality, and the second stage that yields poetry of the mind.

And it’s “not fair” when I ponder how perhaps the reason the narcissist had the time to develop that brilliant surface, to memorize those quotes from Shakespeare with which to wow women, was that he didn’t use that time doing kind things for others. Ideally there should be time enough for both service and self-development, but . . . all gods are jealous gods.

This morning I was reading, again, Brodsky’s Watermark, which is poetic and thus healing. I find that what is healing is the reading of good poetry (with or without line-breaks — I don't mean prose poems, which I detest, but poetic prose in essays, travel writing, just meditations). It’s like listening to classical music, or to the slow lapping of waves. While firmly grounded in both time and space, it connects us with the timeless.

Brodsky’s book and Belm’s poem are good examples of interweave (or “braiding,” as B.F. Fairchild calls it). Pedestrian writing lacks the interweave with the limitless. The very word “poetic” implies an interweave with the transcendent.

Good writing is like a finely woven fabric (text = textile). It consists of the interweave of the limitless, the eternal, with tangible reality — both parts have to be there. The limiting factors (story, structure) need to be expanded by the limitless (music, the mental plane, imagery; this is one of my greatest discoveries: imagery is limitless).

Candles are often part of a ritual. In Belm’s poem they are an important part of the Sabbath meal. There are also memorial candles, votive candles, and candle-light vigils. We seek a connection with the collective psyche — a collective plane we don’t fully understand, yet whose presence nurtures us. “Keep on living,” it whispers to us. “You are still needed. Be strong. Go on.”

Perhaps it’s enough that for a moment we step out of the daily tasks into the timeless — as again we light the candles, watching the frail heart-shaped flame. The beauty of lit candles is like the beauty of flowers — it’s charged with mortality. But note that the flame is an upside down heart. How is that for unpredictable symbolism?



The inspirational writer and business consultant Dawna Markova is a long-term cancer survivor who has been diagnosed with the disease on six different occasions. That’s not a typo, 6 different times. In fact, almost 30 years ago she was told she had only six months to live.

Yet, after each diagnosis, Markova has battled back. I heard her interviewed on a Sounds True podcast and when this fact came out she was asked how she did it—how did she find the motivation and willpower to not give in to this deadly disease that has come so close to taking her life? She said that when each diagnosis of cancer arrives she finds herself asking “what’s unfinished for me to do?” She then looks at her life and asks herself three pointed questions:

What do I still have to give?
What do I still have to learn?
What do I still have to experience?

And each time she has had to ask herself these questions, she realizes there is still work for her to do in this life. It’s not her time. She has wisdom to pass on, new things to be learned, places she still needs to go and people she needs to see.


For me the first question has always been the critical one. Would I be able to go on if I knew I had nothing more to contribute? Perhaps it’s enough to be able to make someone else even briefly more happy by giving them a smile. Perhaps. Most people enjoy being of use — that’s one big reason why losing one’s job is so devastating.

On the other hand, perhaps being useful should not be the primary criterion by which we measure the worth of a life. Simply being alive and feeling all the sensations of it is miraculous in itself. Perhaps it’s enough to have a receptive attitude toward life — especially after a lifetime of giving.

As for "yet to learn" — for me that's not been based on deliberate planning, but discovery. I learn something and then I say, Oh, so that's what there was to learn. For instance, writing taught me that I could rely on my unconscious to provide all kinds of unexpected answers — that my unconscious was always there for me. Others learn that in other ways, but likewise, the experience was there first, e.g. you wake up knowing the answer. As a writer, I am much more aware that a lot happens on the unconscious level.

“What do I still have to experience?” is pretty useless to me, unless it means “What do I WISH to experience?” And even if I wish to experience certain things, a little voice tells me that I will never climb Mt. Everest — and that’s OK.

But that's being fussy about the details. I know what Dawna is trying to get at — don’t give up, and here are some questions to help you not give up — and I agree with that. We need to “live the questions.”

While driving home Wednesday evening, I noticed an amber warning light on the dashboard display of my trusty but oldish RAV4 Toyota. The shape was a mystery to me, but once I got home and consulted my manual, I realized that the clunky rectangle in the drawing was meant to represent the engine: “Check engine.” “Engine" — maybe more enlightened women don’t fall into panic on seeing the word, but I do, having learned in the past that this could be serious. And expensive.

I didn’t wait. The following morning I made an appointment with my Toyota dealer, Frank Toyota in National City, a place whose claim to fame is its “mile of cars” on the National City Boulevard. “The ‘check engine’ light came on while I was driving,” I explained to the man who answered the call. I can’t quite swear to it, but it’s possible that already at that point I heard him mutter, “Oh, that’s usually a loose gas cap.” In any case, I wasn’t taking any chance. At 2 pm I was in line at the service entry.

A greeter came and took down my preliminary “case story.” After a while, the agent assigned to me came out at a distinguished slow pace. I re-stated my brief story. I turned on the engine and showed him the light. “In my experience, in the majority of cases, that’s caused by the gas cap not being on tight enough,” he said. I pointed out that it’s been a week and a half since I filled up, and the light came on only the night before. “Sometimes it takes a while before the cap loosens enough to activate the light,” the agent said. “But we’ll check everything.”

I surrendered my key. Two employees stepped forth to prep my car for being taken to a mechanic’s station while I went to the agent’s compartment at the counter. Soon I had the estimate (2 pages in duplicate): $122. “It will be at least two hours’ wait,” the agent said. I opted for the shuttle — which also involved a wait, but, next to my anxiety that something could be wrong with the engine, that hardly mattered.

Eventually the phone rang. “Just as we suspected from the very start, it was a loose gas cap,” my agent calmly announced. “So . . .  did you tighten the gas cap?” I tremulously asked. “Yes, we SECURED the gas cap,” he stated solemnly, as if speaking about a weapons system.

He said the shuttle would pick me up. Half an hour later, the shuttle dispatcher called me to “collect” my address. Eventually, the ride to National City — which took quite a bit of time because first we were picking up someone at the other end of town. I used the time to prepared an indignant speech in case they did charge me $122. You know, the kind of speech that goes, “I have been a loyal customer for more than fifteen years, but now I'm thinking of switching to Sears.”

After being dropped off I was directed to the cashier’s, who prepared another form in duplicate. “Are you satisfied with the service you’ve received today from Frank Toyota?” the cashier asked. “First I need to see charge,” I replied. The cashier shook her head and said in a half-whisper, “There is no charge. Sign here.” I did.

Then it was just a matter of waiting for the valet to bring back my car. All the people involved in the gas-cap incident! I was still too overwhelmed to count them.

I turned on the ignition. The warning light was gone. Darkness descended as I drove home. 



And some Germans will always worship Hitler. The man was a genius! He wanted to make Germany great again! The denial of Stalin’s massive evil is in some ways like Holocaust denial — but unlike Holocaust denial, it has no convenient label, is more localized, and is disregarded by the rest of the world. The idea of a country’s greatness — at any price — has a tremendous hold on the minds of many, in any country. It fills the need to believe in some ideal, any ideal — and the need to belong to a larger entity, a “great country.” The fact that the leader was a moral monster is eclipsed by this powerful need.


One of Stalin’s victims, Marfa Ryazantzeva, executed in 1937.


Giving the brain the right information might cut dementia.

An increasing series of studies show that hearing loss increases the risk of dementia. The greater the hearing loss, the greater the risk.

Theories abound as to why – including some included in a recent article by Pam Belluck (link is external)of the New York Times: People with hearing loss become socially isolated. An underlying process affects both hearing loss and dementia. Cognitive underload increases – it’s hard to process the words when you can’t understand them.

Which may actually partially get at what is really going on.

The body is an information processor. Enormous data comes to be sifted, recognized, utilized, summarized, eventually dumped. A large, executive part of this information processing goes on in the brain.

When a person loses hearing, they lose an enormous information load to the brain. And most of this is not conscious – as is most of the information any human being normally experiences.

A critical factor in most dementias is atherosclerosis. Increase it through high blood pressure, stress, diabetes or what have you and dementia rates go up dramatically.

The converse is also true.

The Okinawa Project looked at many centenarians. When they died their brains were biopsied. Many showed neuropathology of advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

Except they did not show dementia clinically. The brains looked awful – the behavior was not. Their memory worked.

Why? The arteries of those with minimal memory loss were clean – without clogging, huge plaques, sharp narrowing and kinks.

For most biological events remain unappreciated. High blood pressure is generally not a cognitive problem. Unless checked, people don’t know they have it.

And what people don’t consciously experience still dramatically affects their health.

Conscious Vs. Non-Conscious Information

What is the difference in brain oxygen flow between a “resting”, sleeping person and one in high level exercise?

Less than 1%.

The brain is always “on.” Always taking in and processing information. Always learning.

It’s hard to know determine how much of this is not conscious. But estimates are that in “default mode”, where the brain is calm and at rest, about 90-95% of brain activity cannot presently be accounted for.

Walking and Reading

Which involves more information to the brain – walking across the street or reading a difficult mathematics text?

Most would immediately point to the math text. Partial differential equations are difficult for most people. Hard labor, lots of information.

Walking across the street involves being bombarded by hundreds of different bacteria, viruses, prions, fungi. Thousands of different chemicals assault our nasal passages, throats, skin. The immune system must respond to all.

And we must respond, adjust and adapt to our movement through space, the shifting effects of light, the powerful smells and noise of life. Not to mention fending off fast moving cabs and trucks.

So we should not be surprised that walking even 20 minutes a day increases brain cell growth. The information load coming into the brain and body is gigantic. So big we have to grow new memory stores for it.

And when that happens, we are not conscious that it does.

Preventing Alzheimer’s

People who wish to avoid dementia are given the usual laundry list of things to do – eat “right”, exercise, keep your blood pressure controlled.

They are not told that increasing the information load to the brain – on a daily basis – may be what really helps.
Yet the evidence is there:

Older folk who get out of the house more – just traveling out – have far less dementia. Novelty – new information – is good for the brain.

People with higher academic study years and learning hold off Alzheimer’s longer – though when it hits it may strike more quickly.

Those with strong social ties and engagement experience less dementia. Think of the information issues involved in interacting with other humans and you’ll immediately recognize even a short conversation takes a great deal of data to process and understand.

People who lack large information inputs – as occurs in hearing loss – get dementia earlier.

And at last week’s AAAS conference in Boston, data showing that dementia may spread “informationally” – to previously unaffected areas which become metabolically correlated with diseased regions.

Regeneration is the key. Lots of information coming into body and brain leads to lots of processing, lots of new brain cell connections, new brain cell growth.

In coming decades we’ll get a better idea of just what the healthiest forms of information are – and when they become too much. Drug overdoses, as in cocaine, may activate the brain and at the same time kill it.

But broadly useful forms of information are known – social engagement; physical movement; foods that fit what humans have evolved to eat.

They’re the same things that keep people healthy in so many ways – heart healthy, brain healthy, lung healthy.

Getting the right information lets the regeneration flow, working to rebuild and remodel the body for another day.

And many more years.


This is a very important article, doomed to pass unnoticed as the idiotic advice to solve cross-word puzzles dominates advice on how to prevent demential. But this article points out what a short walk does for the brain. The physical exercise is beneficial of course, the improved circulation. But it’s the information that flows into the brain to be processed that may be the greatest benefit.

Note the emphasis on unconscious processing. Information overload is bad, but underload may be just as bad or worse. It's time we began to research this. My guess is that it will depend a lot on the individual. Those whose brains are genetically more active and tend to magnify stimulation don't need as much coming in from the outside.



"sport's nut's" — not even "sports" is spared this guy's ignorance (but at least he's consistent). It's possible that this hater senses that football is the real religion, and that people (especially men) would rather go to a game than to church, so sports has to be attacked as the product of Satan. And if you think about it in terms of Athens vs Jerusalem (I guess I belong in the "sophisticated swine" category), it was classical Greece that gave us sports, even the Olympics. And in the culture wars, the Greek values are winning (those Greeks were such sophisticated swine).

Odd, the omission of “bilingual.” As everyone knows, from bilingual it's only a short step to bisexual.

ending on beauty:

Light cannot see inside things.
That is what the dark is for:
Minding the interior,
Nurturing the draw of growth
Through places where death
In its own way turns into life.

~ John O’Donohue



Love the flame poem and your commentary. The flame reminds us of mortality but it also reminds us of immortality.

The three questions are perfect to  ask anyone who is having a meltdown and thinks life is not worth living.

Of course I love the gas cap story but the last line makes the story beautiful.

Very interesting article on information underload and overload, and how information underload may be a causal factor in brain disease. Seems that neurons are like sharks: they have to keep moving — in this case, “firing,”


The last line of the gas cap story goes beyond straight reporting. It’s still “that’s exactly what happened,” but simply the inclusion of this little fact, that night was descending, adds poetry. I think it’s because nature imagery suddenly enters this absurdly technological and bureaucratic scene. Nature imagery is automatically lyrical and archetypal. The symbolism of nature, and here specifically of nightfall, is vast. It works on our emotional brain even if we don’t pause to ponder all the possible meanings of “darkness.”

The lyrical power of imagery is also evident in Dan Bellm’s poem about the two candles. The candle flame is ever so transient and “mortal” — when the wax runs out, the flame doesn’t “go” anywhere, it simply ceases: an excellent analogy to dying and the consciousness (or “soul”) not “going” anywhere but simply ceasing. And yet, wonder of wonders, when we stare at a candle flame, we feel marvelously soothed. That’s the power of natural imagery. Perhaps unconsciously we take it as a manifestation of the all-accepting mother nature, without punishment or reward — it’s a universal embrace.

More important, light has a very positive symbolism, going back to when our distant ancestors learned how to start and control fire. Now there was light, heat, the ability to cook, to scare off wild animals. Imagine the increase in security all this produced.

The article on Alzheimer’s and information underload is extremely important. The brain is a shark in yet another manner: it requires a lot of “nutrition” in the form of stimuli to process. True, these days it’s the chaos of overload that may be a greater danger to brain health. But as people age, they may indeed be starved for information — on the unconscious level.

In an unexpected way, that article connects with the Three Questions article, making me wonder if a “receptive” life would be satisfying enough. I am very used to digesting and recording experience — and that’s in part motivated by the fear that otherwise I would not be contributing and life would simply be passing like sand through one’s fingers — that it would be wasted. But perhaps it would be bliss to forget that fear — to just soak in life as in a delightful froth of a warm jacuzzi. To stare at the soothing candle flame. To just look out the window. 

Chagall, Evening at the Window, 1950

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