Saturday, April 16, 2016


What compels us about images is the sense of the eternal. ~ Robert Hass


Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
quickly, then
slowly again,
caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily
touching my hair now.

We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.

~ Donald Hall

How do we interpret the amazing last stanza? For me, it’s about “eternal moments.” Those are the moments of beauty and tenderness that stay with us for life. They are outside of time.

The speaker literalizes the idea of an eternal moment, making the mental physical. The golden minutes of the afternoons in the room that was filled with gold-tinged light are presented as preserved not in memory, but rather than actual tiny rooms in the bodies of the two lovers — rooms of gold that will last a thousand years.

Only poetry can get away with such literalization (or call it reification), and make us take delight in it. At the same time, this creates difficulty for readers who are not used to “translating” metaphor. But such translation is not an absolute necessity. It is enough that we are affected by the image: the gold bodies of the lovers dozing together in the golden room, and the timelessness of it, the tiny shining rooms being created and preserved inside the lovers.

Old Roses

White roses, tiny and old, hover among thorns
by the barn door.
For a hundred years
under the June elm, under the gaze
of seven generations,
they floated briefly,
like this, in the moment of roses,
by the fields
stout with corn, or with clover and timothy
making sweet hay,
grown over, now,
with milkweed, sumac, paintbrush.
roses survive
winter drifts, the melt in April, August
and men and women
who sniffed roses in spring and called them pretty
as we call them now,
strolling beside the barn
on a day that perishes.

~ Donald Hall, “Kicking the Leaves”

I love the simple first line: “White roses, tiny and old, hover among thorns.” Isn’t this what life is: the good days and the bad days (“thorns”). And though we may shrink into old age, the blossoms keep coming.

For a hundred years
under the June elm, under the gaze
of seven generations,
they floated briefly,
like this, in the moment of roses,

by the fields
stout with corn

I love the phrase, “the moment of roses.” In California we have flowers year-round, so we aren’t as aware that the season of flowers alters with other seasons. The moment of roses is profoundly symbolic — it’s really moments, plural — for me, the moments of fulfillment, of deep, quiet pleasure, a respite from the mundane struggle.

And there is also a deep symbolism in the survival of roses. Rose bushes have been known to survive for a hundred years. And beautiful moments keep happening, though to different people — the days perish, the generations pass, but beauty, however transient, has a certain everlasting quality. No wonder Milosz spoke about the “eternal moment,” and how poetry is the finding and recording of eternal moments — see my discussion of the first poem.

Donald Hall at his roll-top desk. The house goes back to 1865.


Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored. ~ Nietzsche

If I am correct, then in Buddhism this is all interdependent origination. But give me N
ietzsche's formulation any time.


"Again and again in Russian literature we see a claim to a kind of spiritual and moral exceptionalism that is fundamental to Putin's rhetoric. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin called the 'biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,' it is not surprising that he continues to draw on the myth of a Russia divinely foreordained to stand firm against the corrupting forces of the West.”

The question Putin is grappling with, Andrew Kaufman says, "is one that recurs throughout the nineteenth-century Russian classics: What is the source of our national greatness?"

Nineteenth-century writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, for instance, believed that Russia's mission was to establish a widespread Christian empire — with Russia at its epicenter, Andy says, pointing to The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov as exemplary novels. Dostoevsky's contemporary, Leo Tolstoy, on the other hand, believed that every nation is unique and worthwhile — none better or worse than others.

"Tolstoy was a patriot," Andrew says. "He loved his people, as is so clearly demonstrated in War and Peace, for example, but he was not a nationalist. He believed in the dignity of every human being and culture."

Tolstoy was able "to uncover the full-blooded truth of every one of his characters, no matter their nationality," Andy says. "In his Sevastopol Tales, which were inspired by his own experiences as a Russian soldier fighting against the French, British and Turks in the Crimean War, Tolstoy celebrates the humanity of all his characters, whether Russian, British or French."

And so Putin has two distinct traditions to choose from, Andrew says. "He has chosen the Dostoevskian tradition, not the Tolstoyan one.”

Westward, No

In certain works by Dostoevsky, says Laura Goering, professor of Russian at Carleton College, "the West is depicted as something seductive, yet soulless, a temptation to be resisted at all costs."

For example: Writing about his 1862 journey to Europe in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, Dostoevsky describes the Crystal Palace in London: "You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal."

Laura says, "That conflict is further played out in The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan's materialism is opposed to Alyosha's spirituality and Dmitri's very Russian breadth of soul.”

Again and again in Russian literature, she says, "we see a claim to a kind of spiritual and moral exceptionalism that is fundamental to Putin's rhetoric. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin called the 'biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,' it is not surprising that he continues to draw on the myth of a Russia divinely foreordained to stand firm against the corrupting forces of the West."

Get Real

The genius of Russian literature, aficionados say, is that it is so very real. The great 19th century writers, such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Nikolai Gogol did a masterful job of capturing the corruption, hypocrisy, inequity and greed — as well as that yearning "Russian soul" — of their times.

To Nina Khrushcheva, the spirit of Russia is captured in Dead Souls, a novel by Gogol. The story, she says, circles around the "messianic paradigm of greatness, large size, central control — in which affairs of the state are more important than affairs of an individual.”

Putin, she says, is like a character in another Gogol work, The Government Inspector, a play whose title is sometimes translated as Inspector General. She says that the character, Khlestakov, a petty clerk "is only a simulacrum of greatness, of real achievement."

As far as fictional constructs go, adds Nina — author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics — Russia today needs to start living as if it's in the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pnin. The title character "is as soulful a Russian as they come," she says, "yet he has the courage to live in the real world.”


In many ways, the US seemed like the propaganda image of the Soviet Union, except more Orwellian (advertising being more sophisticated than political propaganda). What really astonished me is that Americans thought theirs was a classless society. And populism was like proletariat to the square power. The cowboy instead of Europe's aristocratic ideal, and the "new Soviet man." The cult of the pioneer — Dostoyevski thought that Russia's destiny lay in Asia, the East/Siberia being like the American West. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin — for all their anti-capitalist rhetoric, they actually had a lot of admiration for the US as a role model.

Also, I've always wondered why, when there was a chance (but maybe not — overextended?), the US didn't annex (or buy) Baja California. It's easy, from the inside, to see how lovely and convenient that would be. The Empire. The beachfront real estate. The nationalist dream is easy to understand.

In the culture of distraction to be focused and productive is the real counter-culture.

And that is quite a change from being like the lilies etc — remember the “flower children”? I love flowers, but . . . those people were not into gardening, to put mildly. They were just not into work, though that came back somewhat if you did something creative or unconventional. Interesting to watch these changes.

Freud [in a letter to his wife:] "If one of us should die, I shall move to Paris.”

Many years earlier — Freud [also in letter to his wife:] "Do you know what Breuer said to me one evening? ... He said that he had found out that there was concealed in me under the shroud of shyness an immeasurably bold and fearless human being. I have always believed this myself and never dared to tell anybody. ... But I could not give expression to my ardent passions ... so I have always suppressed myself, and that, I think, must show. Such stupid confession I make to you, sweet treasure, really for no good reason, unless it is the cocaine that makes me talk.”

By the way, Freud’s wife, Martha, outlived him by eleven years.


“Here’s one popular assumption: it’s important to look within and discover who you really are, your true self. Our thinkers would be skeptical of the existence of a true self, especially one you can discover in the abstract. They understood that we are multifaceted, messy selves who develop by looking outward, not inward.

Our personalities are formed through everything we do: how we interact with others, our reactions to things, the activities we pursue. You don’t behave the same way when speaking to your mother, say, as when dealing with a junior colleague, your dentist, or a close friend.

Each of us is a complicated being bumping up against other complicated beings all day. Each encounter draws out different aspects.Who we are consists of behavior patterns and emotional ruts we’ve fallen into over time – but that means we also consist of numerous possibilities of what we can become.


We aren’t just who we think we are, we can work on becoming better people all the time

Once we find ourselves, the assumption continues, we must embrace and be true to that self. But the first great philosopher in the Chinese tradition, Confucius, who was born in the sixth century BCE, would have thought differently. The problem with authenticity, he’d say, is that it’s not freeing the way we believe it to be. Who is that authentic self you think you have discovered really? It’s a snapshot of you at this one moment in time. If you stay true to that self and allow it to become your guide, it constrains you. It doesn’t allow for the sort of growth you experience when you recognize that you are ever-changing.

We flourish when we recognize our complexity and learn how to work with it through self-cultivation. You grow, for example, when you understand that you are not a hothead just because you tend to think of yourself as short-tempered, or shy because you see yourself as an introvert. Most labels are patterns of behavior we’ve fallen into and can be broken. We aren’t just who we think we are, we can work on becoming better people all the time.


Confucius teaches that certain rituals – “as if” rituals in particular – are transformative because they break patterned behaviors we’ve fallen into. When you smile as if you’re not angry, or bite your tongue instead of lashing out you are faking it. It’s because those “as if” moments create a tiny break from reality that they are so valuable. We act “as if” we are different and our feelings are more mature. By doing so, we transform into someone who is kind and generous rather than someone exercising the right to express authentically honest but destructive feelings. As we complete these rituals again and again, letting our behavior lead our feelings rather than the other way around, we become different – and better – over time.


  Work with the shifts and detours – chance conversations, experiences, interactions – that nurture an expansive life

Just as we often view the self as stable, we see the world as stable, too. Of course we realize that life can change, but at the same time we tend to proceed under the assumption that the world is generally predictable and that we should figure out how we will fit into it. If we see ourselves as good at maths, we continue along that academic track; if we consider ourselves whimsical, we seek a life partner who will join us on our adventures.

Mencius, a Confucian scholar living during the late 4th century BCE, saw the world as fragmented and capricious. He would advise that we should work with the shifts and detours – chance conversations, experiences, interactions – that nurture an expansive life. Rather than making plans for our lives, a Mencian approach means setting trajectories in motion.

    When you are contemplating a big change, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences

What’s wrong with a life plan? When you plan your life, you make decisions for a future self based on the person you are today not the one you will become.

Rather than boxing ourselves in by committing to big decisions, the Mencian way would be to approach them through the small and doable. When you are contemplating a career change, say, or a break up or move, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences on a small scale. Pay attention to your responses to these experiences, because they will guide you in new directions.

If you think you can lay out a perfect plan for your life, you’ve missed the “Path.” Instead, recognize that we are complex creatures constantly pulled in different directions, and that it’s through working on our interactions, experiences and responses that we grow. It’s the small actions through which you conduct yourself that matter most in transforming yourself, and the world, for the better.


I discovered some of those principles as a writer. For instance, I was always using the accidental — whatever was floating around — as part of whatever I was writing. I let the weather come into it, a few words from a book or conversation of the moment. The writing became richer that way than if I tried to follow a rigid focus.

Yet in spite of knowing how complex and changeable everything was, I hung the "depressive" label on myself. Reading articles to the effect that it was genetic was a huge hindrance. I had to start perceiving depression not as an emotional condition, but as a set of behaviors which I could decide to perform or not to perform. I could brood over my past, or I could do something else.

Deciding not to be depressed was perhaps the single most important event in my recent personal history. It was based on insight, but productive behaviors had to take the place of brooding — it was very exhausting at first.



“Having grown up in what comedian Jim Gaffigan might describe as a “Shiite” Irish Catholic family, and protected by 17 years of Catholic education (kindergarten through college), I was more or less immune to the ubiquitous and graphic gore surrounding almost everything in my Catholic world. In fact, the first time I remember thinking about it at all was on my wedding day when a Jewish friend who had apparently never been inside of an old-school blood and guts Catholic church was blown away by what he saw there. The graphic depictions of brutality on the stained glass windows and on the stations of the cross led him to observe that he too would hate the sons of bitches who had done all of those terrible things to Jesus. Until that moment, I don’t think that it had ever dawned on me how much Catholics celebrate death and bloodshed.

The world is apparently awash in the body parts of holy dead people, including the mummified head of St. Catherine of Siena, the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua, and the finger of St. Thomas the apostle. (Yes, the VERY finger that the doubting Thomas supposedly poked into the wounds of the risen Christ.) My favorite among these has to be the “Holy Foreskin” which was passed around Europe until the 18th century: It was believed to be the foreskin of the young circumcised Jesus Christ himself.’

I suppose that none of this should be surprising when a religion celebrates events with names such as ”the murder of the holy innocents,” “the agony in the garden,” the “scourging at the pillar,” and the “crowning with thorns.” For Catholics,the highest admiration has always been reserved for those individuals who died for their faith, and the more gruesome the death, the more attention and esteem they earn. Very early in my elementary school years we were regaled by the story of St. Tarcisius, a child martyr that is now the patron saint of altar boys. (Yes, I actually was an altar boy.)

Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt reflected on the peculiar tendency to make children reflect upon their own mortality when writing about his grim Catholic upbringing in Limerick, Ireland. According to McCourt, someone was always making him promise that he would die for something.  His amiable but shiftless father would stumble home drunk after a night on the town, roust his young children out of bed, and make them promise that they would be willing to “die for Ireland.”  His schoolmasters regularly made him promise to "die for the faith if called upon.”

Staying on message, the nuns that taught me at Gate of Heaven School in Dallas, Pennsylvania, rarely missed an opportunity to remind us that "You know not the day nor the hour," and every Ash Wednesday our parish priest would grind ashes into our foreheads while mumbling "Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”

Perhaps the ultimate of macabre Catholic traditions is the preservation of the bodies and/or body parts of long-dead saints. In my own hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, the body of a nine-year-old boy is preserved in a glass case inside one of the local Catholic churches. It looks like something that you might see in a spooky wax museum, and it sort of freaked my daughter out when she first saw it as a little girl. It is the actual body of St. Crescent, who was martyred in Rome during the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians during the third century. St. Crescent had been entombed in the Roman catacombs until 1838, when the body was exhumed and entrusted to the religious order (the Rosminians) that eventually founded the first Catholic parish in Galesburg. The body was shipped to Illinois in the hope that it would help the church attract new followers, much as the freak shows outside of circus tents were designed to turn bystanders into paying customers for the big show inside. Local legend has it that it is only the presence of St. Crescent in our city that protects Galesburg from tornadoes. In the same vein (pardon the pun), the dried blood of St. Januarius is said to protect Naples, Italy, from volcanoes, earthquakes, and plagues.

As evidenced by my one other encounter with the body parts of a saint, these relics are most effective if you publicly flaunt them at least once a year. In 2003 I was in Budapest with a small group of American academics. We were strolling around the streets taking in the sights when we came upon a procession of elaborately costumed people accompanied by musicians that sounded vaguely like a small town American junior high school marching band. There was a great deal of pomp and solemnity, and the focal point of the assemblage was a skeletal human right hand held aloft in a glass box. By luck, we had stumbled upon the annual Holy Right Hand Procession in which the right hand of St. Stephen (the first Hungarian king and the patron saint of Hungary) is paraded around the city. I really did not think too much about this until my companions began talking about it. They found the whole affair to be grisly and more than a little bit creepy, and they were somewhat taken aback by my nonchalance. This became the first time I had ever been put in the position of trying to explain the Catholic rationale for such practices, and I do not think that it went very well.

A certain degree of gullibility from the masses is required to maintain these corporeal celebrations. For example, my wife and I visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium, in the summer of 2013. The centerpiece of this magnificent church is a vial of blood allegedly drained from the body of Jesus Christ during the crucifixion. It was brought back to Europe by a guy returning from the crusades who claims to have received it as a reward for his great service in Jerusalem. I don’t know about you, but I would have at least required a certificate of authenticity like you get with autographed baseballs, but everyone seems to have just accepted his story as it was. Anyway, this vial of blood (or is it . . .?) became a big hit in the city and it too gets carted around town once a year during the annual Procession of the Holy Blood. On non-procession days, one can view and worship the holy blood in the church under the watchful eye of a stern looking priest, following a donation to the basilica, of course. Background organ music adds to the sacred ambiance of the event, although the rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” that we heard when we were there pushed the entire scene into the realm of the surreal.

Domenico Ghirlandaio: Slaughter of the Innocents   


I was reasonably aware, especially since “the slaughter of the innocents” (for which there is no historical evidence) was such a favorite story and subject of paintings, or so it seemed. But just Stations of the Cross, each one described to us children in excruciating detail, were enough. My grandmother happened to love doing the Stations of the Cross, so I had more than average exposure.

But it was really in Spain where the gore and the body parts were on much more spectacular display; no one on our tour could help looking away in revulsion. I was afraid the WASPish lady from Connecticut was going to throw up. The tour guide seemed unaware of how appalled we were, even though most of us had a Catholic background.

The Los Angeles cathedral of the Queen of the Angels has an interesting basement area, where the failed attempt at modernity is abandoned and we get the feel of traditional Catholicism. And sure enough, the tomb of St. Viviana or Vibiana (or even Bibiana) is there, her body allegedly having been transported from Rome (how would we know? if the clergy were smart, they simply left the tomb empty). She is one of those "virgin martyr" saints of dubious authenticity. But a saint was needed, the big ones were already taken . . .

A friend commented that on a trip to Europe her son was so disturbed by the relics, the gory paintings, the stories, that he could endure only a limited exposure. The modern Western mentality can tolerate the glorification of these atrocities less and less. It doesn’t surprise us that these days a child would be disturbed. But start the exposure to the tortured martyrs early enough, alongside fairy tales and Winnie the Pooh, and a child accepts this stuff as normal . . . except that with less cruelty around us now in the West, no matter what's on the news, and more gentle child rearing, no matter how we ourselves were raised, as adults we get to see that the gory stuff, the standard Catholic S&M, as the pathology that it is.

There is a growing repugnance against both violence and seeking martyrdom. How miserable life used to be — and that misery, both causing it and enduring it, was widely excused and even glorified. Happiness is a modern concept! 

Of course the great master of the sadistic imagination under the guise of piety was Dante. This is one of Gustave Doré's illustrations to Dante's Commedia, showing the Ninth Circle of Hell, where the souls of the damned show like straws frozen in the ice. Satan, the "Emperor of Pain," here looks like a giant Batman.

“Alcoholics, it is now clear, are not all of one kind. Investigators have found that, among men, there are at least two types -- those with early-onset abuse (prior to age 25), and those whose illness sets in later in life.

Researchers suspect that family incidence of alcoholism runs unusually high among early-onset alcoholics, suggesting a genetic predisposition. This group comprises 40% of the estimated million male alcoholics in the United States. Impulsivity and violent behavior are common among these men, who are motivated to seek alcohol is as a way to get high.

By contrast, men who become alcoholics later in life have less family [history] involvement and use alcohol as a way to relieve anxiety and stress. (Women problem drinkers are more in keeping with the late-onset male pattern.)

One group of studies implicates a gene that affects the ability of brain cells to respond to dopamine — a neurochemical active in pleasure responses. Unable to get enough dopamine because they lack a sufficient number of receptors for it, the thinking goes, such people use
alcohol as self-medication in an attempt to boost dopamine levels.

But other researchers point to evidence of a "mean gene" that impairs the action of serotonin, a wide spread neurotransmitter that normally dampens many brain stimuli, including those wrought by dopamine.

So who's right? As researchers duke it out in the lab, Frederick K.Goodwin, M.D., sees sense in the seemingly contradictory findings. What it most likely means, says Goodwin, head of the National Institute ofMental Health, is that there may be more than a single gene involved in
alcoholism, just as there is with diabetes. "There's no doubt it's a complex picture."

Dr. Goodwin suspects that future research may even turn up a common genetic predisposition to a complete host of addictions, including alcohol and drugs — perhaps even extending to food and sex. Then, he feels, yet another factor — genetic in some cases, perhaps environmental in others — would influence the specific form of the addiction.”


It's dreadful when you learn that a 12-year-old boy is already drinking . . . or a 14-year-old starts passing out. And you may hear stories like, "Already when I was only six years old, I'd sneak into the living room after the guests left, and drink whatever was left in the glasses." Very hard to overcome those genes — usually combined with stressful family life, but then you'd expect family life to be stressful when a parent is an alcoholic -- or both of them. So it's very hard to separate causal factors here, but the fact is that the inheritance is not 100% (apparently it's 25%) -- one sibling may turn out perfectly fine, while the other one develops early-onset alcoholism already in young teens. I've witnessed two cases of that pretty "up-close."

ending on beauty:

There is a silence more musical than any song. ~ Christina Rossetti


Thank you for helping readers better understand the metaphors of Donald Hall’s poetry.

Great point about the US buying Baja. We might be living there now! Too bad.

This pearl of Chinese wisdom is also  very good — "we are multifaceted, messy selves who develop by looking outward, not inward.”  Rather than “be ourselves” we should try to be better human beings all the time.

I had a friend whose favorite quote was, "Each time you make a decision, you limit yourself.” Then he would ask, “Did you make a decision about that?”

The Holy Foreskin was my favorite story.


Perhaps the fact that Baja California remained with Mexico is for the best after all. If Baja happened to be American, it would be prime real estate, and probably too crowded, full of skyscrapers by now. Also, Mexico probably feels it has ceded too much territory. . .  In any case, there is much merging near the border.

The very appearance of the article on Chinese wisdom in The Guardian, and the popularity of this course in Harvard, make me suspect the pop psychology of trying to “find yourself” and “be yourself” is on the decline. We are in constant development, and hopefully the culture is moving away from “looking within” toward a more external focus. Alas, the gaze is now mainly on the IPhone screen rather than on the actual world. But that too will have to change, though for the moment we seem to be hopelessly addicted.

Your friend was clever, but actually it’s good to limit oneself. No achievement is possible if a person tries to keep all options open. Smart people limit themselves early. They close the doors and focus on just a few things — or even just one. That’s the great question we should have been told to ask ourselves even before college: would you rather be pretty good at many things, or truly excellent at one thing? Artists and athletes know the answer. Like Chinese wisdom, the wisdom of limiting your choices should become more widely known.

Ah, the “holy foreskin”! It’s harder and harder to understand how people could ever believe such stuff. Charlatanism never dies, but it changes form. 


I like “Old Roses” better. Very low key, not reaching for a thousand years — a hundred-year-old rose bush is enough. The hardiness of roses inspires me more than the “golden” naps of lovers. With roses, you don’t have to fake anything. They are hardy as hell.


Darlene, I agree. I probably should have used only the rose poem. “Gold” arguably overreaches. A rose bush is real. We can see it as a symbol, but first of all it’s out there near the barn. Splendor resides in the small and the ordinary, in the visible and not the invisible.

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