Saturday, March 12, 2016


Every stick bursts into blossom.
Flame-beaked ocotillos
wave in the warm wind.
In the scar of an arroyo
silvers a live stream.

This is the most precious garden:
not hothouse orchids
but the desert lavish with gold
brittlebush, our-lady’s-slippers,
bells ringing purple, indigo and mauve.

Just one season of unstinting rain,
and this place of thirst
blooms the richest Eden.
Lilac-plumed grass tames to my hand.
The prickly pear opens its soft veils.

So after years without love,
tenderness makes us flower.
So our once-parched face
becomes the face of all,
unfolding petal by petal.

~ Oriana © 2016

I've lived in Death Valley for 25 years . . . And then I suddenly realized there are so many seeds out there, just waiting to sprout, waiting to grow. I had no idea there was that much out there.

 (My thanks to Lucrezia for sending me the video and pointing out the ranger’s richly symbolic words.)

Golden Evening Primrose, now briefly transforming Death Valley into the Valley of Life

The “superbloom" in Death Valley made me remember this poem by Blaga Dimitrova, the “Bulgarian poetess” wonderfully described by John Updike in “Bech”:


I was born for love —
to give it and to receive it.
Yet my life has passed
almost without loving.
So I’ve learned forgiving:

even the deserts
I have crossed
I feel no scorn for.
I only ask them
with astonished eyes:

What gardens were you born for?

~ Blaga Dimitrova, Because the Sea is Black, tr Niko Boris and Heather McHugh

Water god, Villa di Pratolino

Now that gardening has become one of the joys of my life, I have a new understanding of water. Here in Southern California we rely on artificial irrigation — sprinklers and drip lines; otherwise, the coastal strip of garden cities becomes the brown-gray desert it naturally is, except for a brief springtime. And lately that springtime, which turns the hills and freeway slopes into a paradise of lush greenery and wildflowers for a month or so, has not been so reliable. A year without wildflowers is always a sad one — we are shut out of Eden.

The rains either come, or they don’t come.

And life is the same way. For some, the rains come — at the right time, in the right amount. But not for others.

The longer I live, the more I realize how much depends on “mere” circumstances. Did it matter that Bach and Mozart were born into highly musical families? Would they have contributed to music the way they have if they happened to be born to illiterate peasants instead, but just “worked hard and believed in themselves”? Let’s not be silly.

You may say, “But look at Marie Curie, becoming a physicist at a time when no women went into science (or practically none).” She too had a very supportive family; her father was a mathematics and physics instructor who introduced her to laboratory work. But let’s imagine that she happened to be born in Afghanistan or Bangladesh, was kept illiterate and sold into marriage at 12 — what of her chances then?

And of course illiteracy and being a child bride are by no means conditions of the past in those and many other countries.

But at least progress has taken place, even granted the setbacks. No need to elaborate on the importance of women’s literacy — the effect of even a minimum schooling on family size and economic well-being is well-documented. Here, however, is something that came to my attention only recently, and it does relate to the two poems that open this blog: the importance of sufficient parental love, which can be as life-giving as rain, the difference between a garden and a desert.
//Sophisticated reader, please don’t yawn. I know this is a relatively well-researched topic — but bear with me. LOVE AND SURVIVING CANCER

I came across an article on a young boy dying of cancer. His cancer is actually quite survivable, the article stated, but this particular boy doesn’t have loving parents to be with him while he receives his brutal chemotherapy treatments. His small-town family dropped him off with distant relatives, who in turn brought the boy to the hospital and are not bothering to visit. Without TLC, the article said, the boy is doomed.

“I’ve seen so many cases just like his,” commented a surgeon who happens to be on my Facebook thread.

And that was the end of it, except for the horror that seized me: how many people die who might otherwise live on if they had received loving care? I know there are some wonderful nurses out there, but we can’t expect them to be like a mother who sits by the bedside for hours holding the child’s hand and speaking to him softly. After all, there are other patients to be looked after. Only the mother — or someone who assumes that role — could deliver enough love.

Not long ago there was an article to the effect that it was Nancy’s love that created the cheerful, self-confident Ronald Reagan the public knew. Without her total devotion, most likely he would not have even become president. Now, I loathed Reagan, but again, those words shook me up: what a difference receiving enough love can mean. It’s usually a mother who provides the love (in FDR’s case, for example; or take Freud’s mother, who worshiped him), but it can be the wife. It can be a grandparent. It can be any significant person(s), as long as a lot of loving support is delivered — and not just during childhood.

Neural pathways are changed. There are long-term effects on health.

But parents can’t be under too much stress if we expect them to be loving. And their ability to be loving has in turn been determined, to significant degree, by their own childhood.

And yet, when we ponder the brute fact that what we now call child abuse used to be normal child rearing in the past, we realize that progress has indeed been made. Technology and public hygiene have made life more secure. Cruelty revolts us much more than used to be the case in past centuries. There is hope for more blossoming.

The Alaskan tree frog freezes solid in the winter, stopping its heart completely, and then thaws in the spring.


“He lived in the south-east London suburb of Chislehurst. He was a builder. He was of average wealth. His name was William Willett and without him Britain – and a quarter of the world, including the US – might never have adopted daylight saving time (DST).

A lover of open spaces, Willett was horseback riding one summer morning in 1905 when, ruefully, he observed how many curtains remained drawn against the sunlight. A solution occurred to him: why not move the clocks forward before each summer began?

By 1907, he had self-published a pamphlet, Waste of Daylight, which advocated that time be advanced by four 20-minute increments during April, then similarly reversed in September. Along with more recreational opportunities, Willett said, this would lower lighting costs.

His cheerleaders included prominent politicians like David Lloyd George and a young Winston Churchill, then president of the Board of Trade. Discussing the newly-proposed Daylight Saving Bill, Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle also came out in favor, though he disliked Willett’s fastidious adjustments. “A single alteration of an hour would be a round number, and cause less confusion,” Conan Doyle said before the bill’s select committee.

But crucially, the opponents included Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. The bill was narrowly defeated in 1909 as were subsequent proposals. Tinkering with time was, it seemed, too radical a move – even for the reformist Liberal government. Undeterred, Willett continued to furiously campaign in Britain, Europe and America until dying from influenza in 1915.

William Willett, the man to hate this time of year

Just a year later, a revised version of his scheme was finally accepted due to the most extenuating circumstance of them all: war.

Two years into the World War One, Britain was running desperately short on coal – the chief source of power for its industry and households. “Not only was there increased demand to fuel the navy, railways and armaments industry, but Britain had to supply allies whose coalfields were German-occupied, plus thousands of miners had volunteered for service,” says David Stevenson, history professor at the London School of Economics.

Willett’s ideas promised relief: longer evenings and less demand for coal-powered lighting. After Germany ratified a DST bill on 30 April 1916, Britain promptly followed suit with its own Summer Time Act, passed on 17 May.

Britain went on to witness occasional deviations. During World War Two, it operated two hours ahead of GMT in so-called Double Summer Time, once more to cut industrial costs. Trialled between 1968 and 1971 was British Standard Time, which advanced clocks by an hour year-round. Characterized by children wearing fluorescent armbands on inky winter mornings, it proved deeply unpopular.

Ever since, recurrent parliamentary bills have challenged DST. Not just in Britain, either: daylight saving measures are constantly being introduced, amended, disputed or ditched somewhere around the world.

Why is it such a contentious subject? Chiefly because the pros never convincingly overwhelm the cons. For every compelling DST argument, there’s always a persuasive counter. Broadly speaking, DST is thought to aid retail, sports and tourism – but hurt those in agriculture and mail delivery.

Petts Woods, where William Willett went riding when he came up with the idea of Daylight Savings Time


“I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it, I do this designedly. An innocent man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can’t and don’t. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed."

~ Darwin, letter to the American botanist Asa Gray

Some may protest: you mean we weren’t “sent to the earth” with some specific task to accomplish? No, there is no evidence for any such “destiny.” But we are free to keep questioning how best to make use of our talents and our limited time, and to forge our own path.

I'm also struck by the expression “sent to the earth” rather than “born.” Being born is a biological process. Mystics want you to believe that we come from a “higher” realm. The brain-free soul, charged with a specific task, slides into a fertilized egg — perhaps even chooses just the right the egg and the sperm. This is the swamp of the supernatural, just with different details. Plenty of my educated friends have swallowed this version of “destiny.”

They like to say, “There are no accidents.” But there are. There is the unfortunate human tendency to look back and say that whatever happened HAD to happen. The stray bullet HAD to hit a child, who simply HAD to have stood on the porch at the precise time. Why? Well, maybe the mother had a “life lesson” to learn from her grief.

No. The lesson here, if any, is that perhaps we can work to restrain gun violence — a task that seems impossible, but isn’t, if enough good people stand together. And it’s precisely in seeing that the child was NOT DESTINED to be killed — that it did not have to happen — that there is hope.

As for all kinds of random misfortune, we can learn not to blame the victim, and to provide empathy instead. What we need is clarity: here are the things mostly under our control, and here are the things that we don’t control. In the vast majority of cases, not blaming is the beginning of wisdom.

It is scary to ponder that the most important things are due to chance (the genes we inherit, when and where we are born, to what kind of parents) — it’s totally opposite of the brave American notion that if you simply work hard, you’ll be reap rich rewards. And, side by side with the self-made ideal, the New Age delusion that we choose our destiny — just that we do it before birth, so all misfortune is just "life lessons" we came here to learn.

The belief in karma has also taken hold among people who otherwise don't seem anything like the “lunatic fringe.” “The first forty years of your life you're just working off your karma — that's why it's so hard.” Surely there are more plausible explanations for the fact that the first half of life tends to be difficult for many? But then we'd be forced to acknowledge the "unfairness" of life (and of social arrangements) — and who knows where that might lead . . .

One positive outcome, though, would be the end of that cruel division of people into winners and losers.

(A shameless digression: Ah, the extreme individualists out there may say, but didn’t you yourself “choose” not to be depressed? An act of will that shows we create our own destiny?

That act of will happened because of an insight, which in turn happened because of certain books and ideas, which came into my life due to factors too numerous to be even fully known, but which determined that I had the intelligence and education that enabled me to understand ideas — and to have acquired the skills that made it possible for me to substitute productivity for brooding. The more I understand what happened, the more I see the play of factors quite outside my control.)

Beech Tree Creek, John Guzlowski


I'm pondering Kent Clark’s statement: today, if we asked people what quality is most important, the majority would say “kindness.” Yet Dante or St. Francis would not say that. St. Francis would have probably replied, “Chastity, obedience, and poverty.” Chastity more important than kindness? Apparently so.

Others in past centuries might have named courage, virtue, piety. Or endurance and self-control (Stoicism). John Milton would probably put obedience first. Depending on social class, hard work and thrift could also be named as supreme values. It was not until the 19th century that revulsion against cruelty (including slavery) began emerging. The novels of Dickens had an immense social influence — perhaps the most proud chapter in the history of literature, a showcase of how a novel can expand empathy.

Recently I was astonished by an article insisting that Christianity is not about kindness. All those years I thought that Christianity WAS about kindness. In fact the teachings on kindness were Christianity’s saving grace, outweighing the barbarous human sacrifice, the “bloody ransom” that stood as the foundation. But it was possible to put that out of one’s mind and just follow the teachings on kindness. Forgiveness, compassion, non-revenge, helping the less fortunate — that, I thought, was the beauty of Christianity.

How misguided and un-Christian, the article argues. This sentence says it all: “To make kindness into an ultimate virtue is to insist that our most important moral obligations are those we owe are to our fellow human beings” (and to animals, I would add, who are also our brothers and sisters).

Our most important moral obligations AREN’T to our fellow human beings??

Well, no. To use my own lingo now, according to religious conservatives, your highest moral obligation is not to real beings, but to an imaginary being.

And it’s tricky to define our moral obligations to that imaginary being. Are we to wage crusades? If not going to mass on Sunday is a mortal sin, is it a greater obligation than taking the time to play with your children? Obviously everything depends on interpretation, meaning which century you happen live in, and which church you belong to.

I also remembered that for a long time numerous thinkers have argued that the divinity of Jesus was open to question, and he should rather be honored as a teacher of ethics. After all, that was the premise of Unitarianism.

Perhaps not surprisingly, though somehow I was surprised, what followed was a sermon on sin and fearing god and obeying the commandments. As for kindness, the author reminds us that “Jesus did not heal everyone who asked to be healed.” Sometimes, apparently suffering from kindness fatigue, Jesus would go off by himself to rest and pray. (True. Christianity doesn’t insist on excessive, pathological altruism that would destroy our health. Only “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Not more so.)

But somehow the commandment of love is never mentioned — though I admit that the command to love god caused me much grief since I could not feel the slightest affection for the monster who threw children into hell by the million (all the non-Catholic children, back then). But I loved St. Paul’s “though as speak with the tongues of men and angels . . .” If only it had occurred to me back then (as it did much later) that a nun threatening children with hell is like the clashing of cymbals.

But at the time, it didn’t yet occur to anyone that threats of hell were a form of child abuse. A mild form, I admit, compared to severe beatings, and worse, that used to be normal child rearing practices in past centuries. The levels of stress had to go down for cruelty to lessen too. Dickens and Victor Hugo had to write his novels about the sufferings of children and the poor, so that “kindness” could take root in the collective psyche.

The early deities were cruel. Times were harsh, and this was reflected in the various religions. The preaching of loving kindness by the Buddha and Jesus was indeed revolutionary. But for kindness to become more of a reality, life had to become less harsh — and that is fairly recent. The levels of violence had to go down, as has indeed happened in a significant portion of the world. When we feel secure and when our physical needs are taken care of due to greater prosperity, we then have the luxury (in contrast with the past centuries) of practicing kindness. We can even speak out against spanking and other cruelty against children. We grow intolerant (and justly so) of even petty violence and malice. We start imagining a world at peace, a world where everyone is kind.

Pessimists might reply that that is an unachievable ideal. Cynics might laugh — but not as loud as they would have during the Middle Ages. Against many odds, progress has been made. One indicator of it is indeed the high value we place on kindness. The gap between the ideal and the practice is undeniably there, but I argue that the very visibility of the ideal is already a fact to be celebrated.

As for the concept of hell, I'm told that in liberal Protestantism hell is not even mentioned anymore. Mark my words: eventually hell will go. Theists still believe in angels, but the percentage believing in the devils is decreasing. It is a trend, one that reflects the great value that put on kindness.


“Paul says, ‘and last of all he appeared to me also’. But the appearance to Paul as recorded in Acts 9:3–9 was a visionary sighting, and his companions at the time saw nothing. The same Greek word optanomai is used for each of the appearances: to Peter, the Twelve, the 500, James, the apostles, and then Paul. If the post-resurrection appearance to Paul was a vision, is that true of the others? If so, that contradicts the gospels.”

speaking of clocks . . .


A US scientist has discovered an internal body clock based on DNA that measures the biological age of our tissues and organs.

Steve Horvath, professor of genetics and biostatistics at UCLA, looked at the DNA of nearly 8,000 samples of 51 different healthy and cancerous cells and tissues. Specifically, he looked at how methylation, a natural process that chemically modifies DNA, varied with age.

Horvath found that the methylation of 353 DNA markers varied consistently with age and could be used as a biological clock. The clock ticked fastest in the years up to around age 20, then slowed down to a steadier rate. Whether the DNA changes cause aging or are caused by aging is an unknown that scientists are now keen to work out.

The clock has already revealed some intriguing results. Tests on healthy heart tissue showed that its biological age – how worn out it appears to be – was around nine years younger than expected. Female breast tissue aged faster than the rest of the body, on average appearing two years older.

Diseased tissues also aged at different rates, with cancers speeding up the clock by an average of 36 years. Some brain cancer tissues taken from children had a biological age of more than 80 years.

"Female breast tissue, even healthy tissue, seems to be older than other tissues of the human body. That's interesting in the light that breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Also, age is one of the primary risk factors of cancer, so these types of results could explain why cancer of the breast is so common," Horvath said.

Healthy tissue surrounding a breast tumor was on average 12 years older than the rest of the woman's body, the scientist's tests revealed.

Writing in the journal Genome Biology, Horvath showed that the biological clock was reset to zero when cells plucked from an adult were reprogrammed back to a stem-cell-like state. The process for converting adult cells into stem cells, which can grow into any tissue in the body, won the Nobel prize in 2012 for Sir John Gurdon at Cambridge University and Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University.

"It provides a proof of concept that one can reset the clock," said Horvath. The scientist now wants to run tests to see how neurodegenerative and infectious diseases affect, or are affected by, the biological clock.

"These data could prove valuable in furthering our knowledge of the biological changes that are linked to the aging process," said Veryan Codd, who works on the effects of biological aging in cardiovascular disease at Leicester University. "It will be important to determine whether the accelerated aging, as described here, is associated with other age-related diseases and if it is a causal factor in, or a consequence of, disease development.

"As more data becomes available, it will also be interesting to see whether a similar approach could identify tissue-specific aging signatures, which could also prove important in disease mechanisms," she added.


Aging remains the central mystery of biology: why do our self-renewal mechanisms increasingly fail? No, it’s not bad diet and lifestyle — quite obviously each species has a genetic clock that determines the rate of aging and maximum longevity. Obviously, we’d love to stay young and healthy. Various “fountains of youths” have been found and lost: vitamins; fasting; yoga; jogging; hormone replacement . . . and on and on. That’s not to say that diet and exercise have no effect, but — those effects are trivial when we compare a twenty-five-year-old body with an eighty-five-year-old body — even if our senior citizen is in spectacular shape (“for his age,” we usually add).

Resetting adult cells to being stem cells offers no solution since we need our cells to be differentiated and adult — just not deteriorated.

Stress and disease age us faster. In spite of technology haters, there is no denying that technology has mostly reduced stress and made our lives safer and more pleasant. And yes, we do live longer  now than a century ago, and old age doesn’t begin at forty as it used to in Elizabethan England, for instance. But, but, but . . .  As Woody Allen said, life is like eating in a cafeteria: the food is terrible, but what we want is bigger portions.

Especially since now and then the food is actually delicious.

Alaska Glacier Bay

      ending on beauty

I don’t believe in the other world.
But I don’t believe in this one either
unless it’s pierced by light.

~ Anna Kamieńska

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