Sunday, June 26, 2016


 Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Not metaphor, but outside
the window, the muezzin
calling from town, his voice faint
as a phantom arrived in the room.
How many times have I felt
shame at those words—Allahu
akbar—felt it twist
like a knife inside me?
Once, lonely, I listened
for hours to recordings
of the adhan through
Macbook speakers,
wept and knew myself
in the presence of God.
My God, during this all holy
month, when I am so far
everything back home
seems like a dream, its violence
only a wakeable sleep—
where are you to refuse those
who call out to you, who undo
what you’ve made in your name?
I am not asleep and they are
not waking. Again there is blood
on the floor in your name
and there is no god
but you, so answer.

~ Leila Chatti —Poets Respond
June 19, 2016


Leila Chatti: “I am currently in my second home, Tunisia, where I return each summer to visit my family. It is Ramadan and I was preparing for the evening meal (iftar), during which one breaks their fast, when I first read the news about Orlando. And as I was reading, the adhan—the call to prayer–came drifting in from town. I was so startled by the juxtaposition I had to sit for a long time. I thought of the line by Naomi Shihab Nye: ‘What does a true Arab do now?’ And what does a true Muslim do, too? I wrote this poem.” (website)


Again there is blood
on the floor in your name
and there is no god
but you, so answer.

Here is an example of how the personal and the political can be flawlessly married. Rare, but possible. And it feels absolutely authentic. I suspect the personal element has to be dominant for that to happen — it's the intimate tone. It allows the reader to understand the speaker’s suffering.

How many times have I felt
shame at those words—Allahu
akbar—felt it twist
like a knife inside me?

Of course it’s humans who create a god in whose name they then proceed to oppress and kill. But it may take another century before that reality is acknowledged. Here the speaker may be on the verge of facing the truth. At the very least, she feels deeply wounded that the people of her religious tribe are causing mayhem again and again. 

I am not asleep and they are
not waking. 

~ beautifully said.

She is not denying that religion can have positive aspects. The call to prayer is beautiful and can even lead to a mystical experience. That’s why she feels all the more betrayed by the misuse of religion by those who want the power to impose their will and oppress others. The poet’s voice is a crying in the wilderness, a desperate plea to an absent god to answer, explain, perhaps even do something to stop future atrocities. But only humans can find answers — if they try hard and are lucky. 

When something horrible happens, the best answer is not an answer at all. It’s presence. The only true comfort is another human being who will be there with you in it. ~ R.J. Twain


~ “One way that biblical literalism screws with people’s heads is this: Children are taught from a young age that God is perfect—the essence of Love and Truth. But when you look a little closer at the stories in the Bible, it turns out that he’s an awful lot like Trump.

“He is powerful, and He wants us all to know it…

“I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know—from the rising of the sun and from the west—that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things . . . To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. . . ” (Isaiah 45:5-7 KJV).

Me, me, me, I, I, I, I, I.

He’s an insatiable attention seeker. From Genesis through Revelation, the Bible lays out precisely how people should grovel and sing God’s praises and otherwise kiss up. God wants his adoring followers to beg for things that he already knows they need. He loves the smell of burnt offerings and dictates just what should be burnt and when. He demands proof of loyalty, like cutting off the cover of your penis, or whacking relatives who don’t think he’s awesome, or being willing to turn your child into a human sacrifice…

He’s racist and able-ist. God may claim credit for making us all, but that doesn’t prevent him from picking favorites or finding some people repugnant simply by accident of birth. The Old Testament narratives are about favored blood lines, whites—I mean Hebrews—who get the right to claim land already occupied by other ethnic groups. According to God’s rules, even slaves must be treated better if they are Hebrew slaves.

But being Hebrew won’t help if you’re handicapped. Jehovah, like Trump thinks that arthrogryposis is just gross. Stay away! “No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles.” (Leviticus 21:17-21)

He demeans women. If a guy with crushed balls might contaminate Jehovah’s inner sanctum, a menstruating woman would be far worse. Whatever you do, don’t let Megyn Kelly sit on the furniture! And by the way, a woman who gives birth to a girl baby is nasty for twice as long as one who gives birth to a boy. But don’t get too insulted. Women can be saved through childbearing.”

There’s much more, please read the whole thing. And he fulfills the psychological need for a big daddy/protector as well. Just as the people of the Bible cried out to [Yahweh] to protect them and destroy their enemies, so today’s conservatives cry out to Trump for the same thing.


We shrug and say that’s just the archaic tribal mentality — boosting “us” — the chosen people, the greatest country in the world, the exceptional nation among inferior humanity — against the “other.” We say that god is dead — meaning specifically the vengeful, wrathful, nationalist, sexist, narcissistic, petty, jealous, infantile, and altogether distasteful Yahweh. But when this mentality suddenly crops up in the 21st century, there is reason to wake up — and lament.


The tome in [Solomon’s {the names have been changed}] hands was Alan Dershowitz’s The Genesis of Justice (2000), which used Talmudic and Hasidic interpretations of the Bible to argue that stories in the book of Genesis, from Adam and Eve eating the apple to Noah and his ark, constituted God’s learning curve — a means of establishing a moral code and the rules of justice that prevail today.

What struck him about the book was its depth, and a complexity of thought that he had been raised to believe was the exclusive domain of the rabbis whose authority commanded his community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The book’s brilliance, coupled with its unabashed heresy, created the first of many cracks in Solomon’s faith. Seeing the scriptures interpreted in methods so compelling and yet entirely inconsistent with the dogmas of his youth caused Solomon to question everything he believed to be true.

. . . Yanky’s study partner took Yanky to a presentation by the British scientist and New Atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion (2006). ‘It wasn’t so much that Dawkins was so convincing, or interesting even,’ Yanky told me between short sips of beer. ‘It was just, I was sitting there with this whole group of people who were having this one viewpoint.’ He experienced for the first time what religion looked like from the outside, a series of often ridiculous and always questionable ideas shattering its absolute hold on his psyche.

And as Dawkins spoke, Yanky realized that there was one answer that took care of all of his questions — God did not write the Torah because He does not exist.

Yanky was devastated by his realization that there is no God. ‘It was very upsetting,’ he said, talking quickly. ‘I remember laying in bed and feeling like the world had come to an end. It wasn’t a relief. It was very painful.’

He was so upset that his first move after this realization was to search out the smartest and most learned rabbis, hoping that they would have answers for him and be able to convince him that he was wrong — that there is a God, that the Torah is true. He wrote anonymous letters to a few respected rabbis, and posted them snail-mail (though this was 2000, he had little to no contact with the internet, as the most pious Jews don’t). The letters contained his questions, mostly culled from the contradictions between the first chapters of the Old Testament and evolutionary theory.

The explanations he got from rabbinic scholars were weak and obscure. One rabbi sent him a bizarre note, including a story about sitting in a boat, ‘an elaborate allegory intending to describe how we only coast along over the deep waters of the Torah,’ Yanky recalled. ‘It was cool, but it didn’t help me. Thanks Rabbi.’ With nowhere left to turn, he was finally forced to admit what he was: an atheist leading a double life, forced to stay under wraps lest his boss fire him, his wife divorce him, and his children get thrown out of school.

Wherever there is an insular Jewish enclave, there are individuals who have come to the conclusion that God does not exist, and yet they maintain their religious cover for social, familial and economic reasons. Many are well-established in their communities, even leaders. Many are financially successful, family men and women, moral people. ‘I am your neighbor with kids in your children’s class,’ wrote one undercover atheist anonymously on a blog. ‘I am one of the weekly sponsors of the Kiddush club… I was your counselor in camp… I do not believe in God.’

Moishe’s journey from believer to atheist happened in a matter of weeks, after a few passages from Maimonides convinced him that the greatest Jewish scholar was, like himself, an undercover atheist.

‘I’m desperate to tell my kids the truth,’ Moishe confessed. And yet, he doesn’t dare. Moishe is not alone. Many I spoke to stay inside the confines of their Orthodox lives for fear of harming their children, opting instead to let them continue to believe what they themselves now consider to be fairy tales.

‘To me, lying to my children was the worst part,’ said another undercover atheist – I’ll call him Yisroel. Yisroel has a very good job – he makes in the high six figures – and is very attached to his wife and children, the opposite of the stereotype that prevails in religious communities surrounding those who lose the faith, namely that they are ‘liars who want to do drugs, cheat on their wives and eat cheeseburgers’, as he put it. Yisroel’s greatest wish is that his children will learn to think critically and figure things out for themselves. But he has no plans to accelerate that process. ‘I take it one day at a time; I don’t have any long-term goal about that,’ he told me when we met in a Manhattan deli on a rainy afternoon.

A few lucky men convinced their wives of their new-found convictions, giving them a partner in crime. One man I spoke to — Yechiel — who lives in Jerusalem told me it was not as painful for his wife when he convinced her. ‘Women are in a much more minor role in the community,’ he said. ‘Women are expected to express religious devotion by raising the kids, by much more physical things – getting a job, supporting their husband’s learning. Much less a direct spiritual experience, so for her to give it up wasn’t giving up much.’

But it was for him. He remembered the direct aftermath of his loss of faith. ‘I was praying to Hashem [God]: Give me back my belief, prove to me that it’s true, begging and begging. At some point, I realized it’s just plain stupid.’ Still, he said: ‘If you would see me in the street, my white shirt and black yarmulke, you wouldn’t know anything at all.’ His wife is now pushing for more changes to their lifestyle, but fear of hurting his parents keeps Yechiel in line.

As long as ultra-Orthodox communities continue to marry people off at such young ages, doubters will remain stuck, Solomon contends. ‘Religion has survived a lot of major challenges,’ he said, and the recent turn towards fundamentalism within ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities is just that – a coping mechanism to weed out the non-conformists. ‘The radicalization of ultra-Orthodox Judaism is a sign of its success, not its failure.’

But Moishe believes that the phenomenon of atheism is deeply entrenched in the Orthodox way of life. ‘Everybody’s faking,’ he insisted. ‘I think it’s all going to come crashing down. I say 20 years.’


As humans acquire knowledge and culture evolves, they change their concept of god — sometimes going through of stage of claiming, like Dershowitz, that god too learns through his mistakes — or that it’s our consciousness that’s actually building divine consciousness (Rilke: “We are building god”). From there it’s only a short step to perceiving that we might as well jettison the concept of an external god altogether — it’s humans who are evolving to be more just and compassionate.

But it’s sobering to consider just how recent the idea of human rights is, or the still radical notion of not seeking revenge, or that punishment should not be torture — perhaps we shouldn’t even have punishment, just rehabilitation?

The ability to openly discuss such topics is also very recent. The freedom of thought and speech exists side by side with the remnants of archaic religions. The harm they cause is especially blatant in the case of radical Islam.

But — there are underground atheists in Islam and in other “extreme religions.” The conflict between orthodox teachings and the modern world is only growing. It is not too far-fetched to ponder that perhaps “Moishe” is right: ‘Everybody’s faking,’ he insisted. ‘I think it’s all going to come crashing down. I say 20 years.’

Scholars are divided: some say that at least in the affluent countries religion will disappear by 2050 (or sooner), while others lament that fundamentalist Islam and the other fundamentalist movements (e.g. the African kind of Catholicism, with its emphasis on Satan and exorcism) will take over.

If atheism wins, it will be what Nigel Barber calls “the triumph of earthly pleasures over pie-in-the-sky.” For me, the foremost earthly pleasure is beauty. In Warsaw I had lilacs in May and chestnut-tree blossoms in June — and that was enough to make me perceive the earth as the real paradise. Later came the Pacific Ocean, the Eastern Sierra and the Rockies — the splendor of the American wilderness.

An imperfect paradise, but a real one. As for “holy scriptures,” there is great literature. Now if only we figured out how to significantly fight aging so as to gain more time for the richness of life. The project is doable — now if only we didn’t have to waste resources struggling against what remains of archaic tribal mentality.



I see it more and more clarity: this is my last chance for unbridled hedonism. Recently I was reminded of that again: there was an opportunity to see the sea lions in La Jolla. It meant the ache of walking a longer distance than I usually do (though finally there is hope of improvement), but both the sea lions and the beauty of the ocean — all the layers of aquamarine and indigo — were totally worth it. What a privilege to live near such beauty!

What initially touched off the insight was far from poetic. I was looking for the all-fat diet in the first book that Atkins wrote on the ketogenic regimen for weight loss. I did not find it, by found this question: “Are you eating luxuriously enough?” A rhetorical question — Atkins knew that the reader, terrorized by decades of anti-fat propaganda, thought that weight-loss would come from subsisting on non-fat cottage cheese.

Of course unbridled hedonism is pretty individual. I am not into orgies. I'm not into “luxury cruises.” Maybe my horizons will expand if I turn out to be a candidate for knee replacement. But for now, unbridled hedonism is whipped cream and purple dahlias.

And something interesting to read, of course. Intellectual and esthetic debauchery combined.

It’s also taking the time to lie down. THE SACREDNESS OF LYING DOWN.

Time to read slowly, for pleasure.

Slow swimming.

Slow everything. Savoring, knowing there will be an end to it. Only so many mornings, only so many amber afternoons.

I am just beginning to explore my kind of unbridled hedonism. I expect other items will be added to the list as I remember them. My memory of pleasure has become dull over the years of struggle — the kind of effort that Buddhism and Taoism warn against almost as their most important principle: don’t struggle! And all the well-meaning friends who were telling me not to give up. More than anything else, I needed to give up.

Twenty years ago, I know exactly what I’d have predicted: that I’d now be saying, “This is my last chance for significant achievement.” Now I know that “significant” is pointless — I am not in control of that. What I write, what I’ve written — ephemera that must give me and my readers pleasure in the now. We are of the moment and we live for the moment. Rather than lament our "momentariness," let us give ourselves fully to the moment.

Digital art, Catrin Welz-Stein

No famous person from the past, no matter how great, would make sense now. Lincoln wouldn’t. Queen Victoria wouldn’t. Julius Caesar or Lenin, none of them would make sense. To be resurrected would be the most terrible punishment — so much for people who pay incredible sums to have themselves frozen, in the crazy hope that a future humanity would be interested in re-animating them.

We are of the moment and live in the moment. And besides, can I complain about over 190,000 page-views of my blog, and an international audience? One of life’s ironic but ultimately pleasant surprises: it’s my prose that has gained me readers. But not the posts that I regard as my best. How little we control.

I love the phrase: “We have to redefine victory.” I’ve redefined achievement so that the inner slave-driver is now pretty irrelevant.

“God is not dead. He is alive and working on a much less ambitious project.” ~ graffito

Yes, even god can finally come to his senses. Nietzsche lost his before he could grow older and wiser. This is what the world lost: a sane Nietzsche at sixty — working on much less ambitious projects. Imagine: Nietzsche — happy.

And this by Nietzsche reminds me of my youth: “What do you love in others? — My hopes” (The Joyful Wisdom, III, 272). Yes, my own hopes and ambitions was what I used to project on men — who, with one final exception, weren’t even a fraction as ambitious as I used to be.

Speaking of others, what about service? Yes (this is offered as the abridged version of Molly Bloom’s “yes” soliloquy). Unbridled hedonism would be insufferable without feeling a part of a network. I hope my doing the Poetry Salon and my blog are my current way of serving, providing the mental nourishment of beauty and poetry and whatever wisdom I can muster. Above all, beauty. I try to nourish others with beauty.

Ultimately, life is meaningful only through touching the lives of others. That’s why I never saw god as providing any kind of meaning. Only doing something for other humans has ever given me a sense of meaning and fulfillment. Even just chatting with a neighbor provides meaningful pleasure the way prayer never could. My hope is that I can continue to be of use.

If god existed, what kind of meaning could he find it his own existence, with no equals to talk to, and his inability to answer prayers, since that would violate the laws of nature? He’d die of boredom and uselessness.

What a journey it’s been: from great expectations to a very modest goal of being of some small use and enjoying life. Enjoying life! — how intensely I used to despise that idea.


~ so are you still denying yourself the goodness of sour cream, butter, full-fat milk and yogurt (not the kind with added sugar)?

First we had the marvelous news that full-fat milk and other dairy products lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. How can this be? It turns out that saturated fats don’t increase the small, dense LDL cholesterol, easily oxidized and thus dangerous. They increase the big. “fluffy” cholesterol particles, considered benign and possibly even protective.

“In addition to raising LDL cholesterol, saturated fat also increases high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, the so-called good cholesterol. And the LDL that it raises is a subtype of big, fluffy particles that are generally benign. Doctors refer to a preponderance of these particles as LDL pattern A.

The smaller, more artery-clogging particles are increased not by saturated fat, but by sugary foods and an excess of carbohydrates, Dr. Chowdhury said. “It’s the high carbohydrate or sugary diet that should be the focus of dietary guidelines,” he said. “If anything is driving your low-density lipoproteins in a more adverse way, it’s carbohydrates.”

When the researchers looked at fatty acids in the bloodstream, for example, they found that margaric acid, a saturated fat in milk and dairy products, was associated with lower cardiovascular risk. Two types of omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated fats found in fish, were also protective. But a number of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, commonly found in vegetable oils and processed foods, may pose risks, the findings suggested.

“My take on this would be that it’s not saturated fat that we should worry about” in our diets, said Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury, the lead author of the new study and a cardiovascular epidemiologist in the department of public health and primary care at Cambridge University.

In the new research, Dr. Chowdhury and his colleagues sought to evaluate the best evidence to date, drawing on nearly 80 studies involving more than a half million people. They looked not only at what people reportedly ate, but at more objective measures such as the composition of fatty acids in their bloodstreams and in their fat tissue. The scientists also reviewed evidence from 27 randomized controlled trials – the gold standard in scientific research – that assessed whether taking polyunsaturated fat supplements like fish oil promoted heart health.

The researchers did find a link between trans fats, the now widely maligned partially hydrogenated oils that had long been added to processed foods, and heart disease. But they found no evidence of dangers from saturated fat, or benefits from other kinds of fats.

ending on beauty

now that, more nearest than your fate
and mine (or any truth beyond perceive)
quivers this miracle of summer night
her trillion secrets touchably alive

~ ee cummings, #37

Julian Alden Weir: Nocturne, Queensboro Bridge

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