Sunday, October 9, 2016


Earth photographed from space


Unendurable, later, this necropolis of love.
I recognize even the raised spot
in the pavement on Fourth Avenue 

where he stumbled once.

Oh city within the city, eternal city of time. 

That stairway of dead echoes. A half-
figure peers into my old window,
his shadow broken on the railing.

Must I walk forever
down these stumbling streets,
read again the warped,
rusted warning signs?

Yes, says the theater marquee, 

in red neon blood 
announcing a silent classic,

“The Death of Orpheus” —

as if it didn’t happen
long ago, when he turned
away from his art. He said,
“Maybe the meaning of my life

will be through you — you write,”
and I reeled, a dazzled moth —
though we both preferred
to turn off the light.

~ Oriana Ivy © 2016

How strange it is to come across poems about old loves, so intense once, now essentially meaningless, almost puzzling. The greatest love of my youth was a narcissist. He once made a statement that startled me: “Perhaps the meaning of my life will be through you — you write.” To give him some credit, he also said “You have talent.” Thus he delivered the antidote to the poison of having been told, three years earlier, that I had no talent.

And later he almost ruined that memory by trying to justify his cruelty: “If I hadn’t caused you pain, this” — pointing to a poem of mine — “wouldn’t be here.” He wanted to believe that he created me as a writer.

His own art happened to be acting. He had an obvious talent for acting and took drama classes in college. But a teacher happened to make an unfortunate remark: “You are not handsome enough to be a leading man.” And that verdict was the end of this talented man’s acting ambition. If he couldn’t be a leading man and have the adulation that goes with it, then there was no point being an actor.

“Hamlet doesn’t have to be handsome,” I remarked when he told me this story. But even if he heard me, it was too late (unless for amateur theater). He preferred to mourn for his lost glory as a star.

In spite of the grandiosity, he had no secure sense of his own accomplishments. They were always only for show anyway, only a means to earn admiration. He took fencing lessons and cello lessons; when the recorder became popular, he tried that for a while. He’d go for the intellectually chic (this included food — he wouldn’t be caught dead eating iceberg lettuce; it had to be red-leaf or butter lettuce, in those pre-radicchio years); he drove a stick-shift VW, professed love for Beethoven’s Late Quartets, and played the abstruse game of Go rather than chess. But he never stayed with anything past its peak popularity.

He seemed to realize his own lack of substance. For a narcissist, he could be surprisingly self-aware. He said, more than once, “I know I am shallow” — and, in a moment of despair (he was no stranger to despair): “Deep down, I am a piece of shit.”

I realize that there is no single explanation for the various sub-traits of narcissism, of which self-loathing may be one. Did he have a terrible childhood? Yes. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and he grew up in the poverty and brutality of the “mean streets.” It was about survival, not about learning empathy or discovering your true talents and vocation.

Whatever causes the narcissistic personality disorder, it must be terrible not to have a genuine center, a seriousness about something for which you feel reverence. For me it's both beauty and the intellect, the collective genius of humanity; at a more specific level, it's still mostly poetry. That, and the ideal of kindness.

Finally, though, I agree that most of us have a need to worship something. For me that’s beauty. And that’s my center. Creativity is strongly connected to it. And yet, much as I hope that I will be able to work until almost the very end, I can also imagine no longer being able to write, and yet still having beauty at the center of my life — in a receptive way.

(A note on the title: the poem is part of my Eurydice series. In my personal “revision”, Eurydice, disappointed in Orpheus, becomes a singer herself.)

Photo: Alexey Menschikov


It’s not that suffering made me strong — on the contrary: I think I would be stronger and healthier now if I’d received a lot of affection back then and found creative work sooner. I believe that happiness, not suffering, makes us strong — the happiness of being loved, and the happiness of doing the work we love. Emotional support makes us strong, and the fulfillment and self-forgetfulness that come with paying full attention to whatever we are doing. As Freud said, “Love and work.”

But the suffering in my youth gave me the special scale of comparison that makes almost everything minor now, while elevating a sunset, say, to miraculous abundance and enchantment. Why, the astonishing fact that I am still alive! I don't have to remind myself to count my blessings.

This morning I woke up to a tiny miracle: a flock of mourning doves wandering in the grass in my backyard, pecking at some invisible seeds. Whole five minutes of watching them and listening to their cooing! I was flooded with happiness. O tiny gods! Would I be caressing such ecstasies if not for the years of squalor and degraded love, the years of “unrequited soul” as Hafiz says it?

Perhaps I would. Perhaps even more so. But offhand it’s plausible to think that my daily appreciation of small beauties is enhanced because they feel like such a gift after the torments.

But in the main, my youth wasn't completely wasted because, among other things, it created a different definition of pain, catastrophe, defeat, degradation. And people are surprised that I don't take novocaine for minor dental procedures. That’s not even real pain! Real pain is so obliterating that you either pass out or are totally filled with the desire to die. Not to die and go to heaven, but the desire for oblivion: not to be. That is pain. Other kinds, that's “discomfort.”

As I get older, I see how fewer and fewer things fit into the category of “important.” Interesting how often I remember my mother in her last years — I knew they were her last not only because she was getting close to 90, but also because she began to say, "That's not important" about a lot of things.

human heart without muscle or fat, with only the arteries and capillaries exposed



“Almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure —these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what it is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” ~ Steve Jobs

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I have encountered to help make the big choices in life.”  ~ Steve Jobs


The older I get, the less interested I become in wasting time on fussing about my clothes and the like trivia. Life is just too short for that. We are indeed “already naked.” And yet . . .  the day most beautiful at sunset, just as life seems ever more beautiful as we foresee its close. What my heart desires is the fullest possible communion with that beauty.

I only wish Steve Jobs added that full acceptance of death is also likely to make us more kind toward others — again, there is simply no time for petty arguments etc. So much nonsense falls away, and ideally more empathy and kindness make itself manifest — that’s part of the
so-called "mellowing with age.”

Van Gogh: Sunflowers 1887


I stole this image from an ad for solar energy, and why not. I am a cloud-watcher. Years ago I thought my main identity was “immigrant,” and after that “writer,” and after that “woman.” Now that I feel wonderfully posthumous, i.e. post-poetry, I am a cloud-watcher again. Call this a second childhood, but no, it's not the same. I never had such thoughts as now. When I was a child, I thought only I was real, while others were programmed robots. No more. Now I see that the clouds are more real than I am.


This is the most useful commencement address I’ve ever heard. Relax: you don’t have to have a dream. Imagine: in this culture that nags you, starting in childhood, to “think big,” to know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life already at the age of nine, but certainly by nineteen, here comes a “success story” from the entertainment business, and he tells you it’s OK not to have a dream.

In fact, he tells you to beware of long-term goals; you’re likely setting yourself up for despair. Instead, Tim Minchin says, be passionate about short-term goals. Wow! almost my own “doctrine of tiny steps.” Instead of worrying about not having a big dream, or, later in life, about having just run out of your big dream, concentrate on the task right ahead, no matter how small. “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might,” as the preacher advises in the wonderfully secular Book of Ecclesiastes.

Then another task will present itself. To paraphrase Kafka, it has to; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

You’ll see that next task out of the proverbial corner of your eye. But if you are preoccupied with the “big dream,” trying to consciously control the course of your life, you are blinded and might miss something important.

Of course it’s proverbial that most people “don’t know what they want in life.” Let me quickly explain why it’s so hard to have a coherent “dream.” We are not a single self; the brain has many competing neural pathways. Call them multiple selves. And even those shift and evolve depending on the stage of life. So “go with the flow” is the best solution. Trust life. Trust your unconscious. But when you do engage in work, especially the sort that really calls to you at the moment, throw yourself into it. Be micro-ambitious.

Tim does urge us to remember that it’s mostly luck, and being grateful for whatever luck we’ve had — starting with the luck of existing. It’s illogical to take pride in one’s achievements or blame oneself (or others) for one’s failures — too much of it is sheer luck. The understanding of luck — of the power of circumstances — is the key to humility and non-judgment.

“Searching for meaning in life is like looking for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook” ~ Tim Minchin


When Franz Wright first sent a few of his early poems to his famous father, James Wright wrote back: “So you are a poet. Welcome to hell.” Dante’s Canto III comes to mind, the inscription on the gate:

Through me the way into the suffering city,
through me the way into eternal pain . . .
Abandon hope, you who enter here.

The poets’ hell was also mentioned by Milosz. It was a part of the hell of artists: those who put the love of art ahead of human love. Milosz said that Anna Kamińska was not an eminent poet; she was too good a good human being “to learn the wiles of the craft.” Her life was rich with human joys and suffering rather than creative agony and ecstasy.

There is no circle of poets in Dante’s hell. Virgil is one of the noble pagans who dwell in Limbo. Brunetto Latino, Dante’s mentor, runs on the burning sand under a rain of fire as punishment for homosexuality, not poetry. Most unforgettable is the troubadour Bertran de Born, who holds his severed head like a lantern. But no one is in hell for the idolatrous dedication to his art rather than to god.

Agony and ecstasy, the cross and the delight: the agony of poetry’s difficulty, the capriciousness of inspiration, waiting ten years for the right ending (now and then it’s precisely what happens), the impossibility of writing good work every time. And this before we even begin to lament the wounds in the struggle for recognition, the constant rejection and humiliation. “You die not knowing” if your work was any good, as Berryman says in Merwin’s poem.

For Franz, there was also the problem of being regarded as “the wrong Wright,” the son not half the lyricist that his father was. “No magic,” I kept thinking when I read Franz’s poems. But all poets have the less personal but even more demanding mothers and fathers — the great poets whose best work set the standard.

It took me years of despair to come to see that the last words written on gate also pointed to the paradoxical way out of hell, especially the hell of trying to get published. “Abandon hope” —  stop striving for instant perfection and struggling for recognition, and enjoy the peaceful pleasure of concentrating on the work itself, on the beautiful unfolding of the creative process.

This is Buddhist and Taoism wisdom, but not exclusively so. Some Western thinkers have also discovered the bliss of dropping the striving, of dropping the self-flagellation with the whip of “Achieve! achieve!” They advise dropping the dream, the great ambition, and concentrating on “micro-ambition”: the task at hand, without thinking of the results. “Don’t have a dream!” Focus totally on what’s in front of you.

What goes together with hope is its dark twin, fear. “Hope and fear — why we cannot fly.” I forget who said it (a poet, I think), but it sounds true. These are irrelevant, distracting emotions.

It’s also a matter of trust, of relinquishing conscious control. The best writing flows from the unconscious when it is ready, in its own time. Once writing ceased to be overwhelmingly important, I began to watch with pleasure how it emerges, one image leading to the next, one idea opening an infinity of ideas. That’s where the inner critic must awake and choose only the best — again, with as little struggle as possible, since choice too is part of the inspiration, and will come when it is ripe.


In Dante’s hell I’d probably find myself in the circle of the heretics. For Dante it meant those who denied the immortality of the soul, i.e. the afterlife. Those who dared to think for themselves and concluded that consciousness dies when the body dies (which seems to be also the Old Testament view) are doomed to live in open tombs filled with flame. After Judgment Day in the Valley of Josaphat near Jerusalem, the heretics, their bodies restored, will return to lie down in their tombs — but now the stone lid of the tomb will be shut.

One might point out that the suffering would be greater if the heretics had some hope of getting out of the tomb and seeing “the sweet light” of earth. Then they’d be trying and trying, only to fail again and again. But without hope, they will not engage in useless struggle. Strange as it may sound, they’ll be at peace while being everlastingly consumed by the eternal flame.


Jerusalem, the Valley of Josaphat, assumed to be the site of the Last Judgment. In the foreground, a cemetery (I think): a treeless, flowerless, stony place that makes old European cemeteries look so luxurious and sweet in a melancholy way — I almost want to say “cozy.” Cremation is now the way — we aren’t yet ripe for the eco-burial. Otherwise, who wouldn’t want to “rest” in a cozy cemetery?

ONLY 58% OF AMERICANS STILL BELIEVE IN HELL (so much for Pascal's Wager?)

It doesn’t surprise me that the belief in hell is waning, since there is less and less tolerance for cruelty, and besides, as soon as I arrived, I noticed that Americans don’t see themselves as sinners (a huge change after Polish Catholics, who seemed 50 years behind) deserving any kind of punishment, much less eternal. The most recent (2013) Harris poll found the belief in Satan and hell down to 58%. I expect this to slide below 50% soon.

~ “It is increasingly difficult to convince educated people that they and their friends and children deserve infinite suffering for finite failings—or that a god who acts like an Iron Age tyrant (or domestic abuser) is the model of perfect love. A group called Child Evangelism Fellowship aroused intense opposition in Portland last summer in part because outsiders to biblical Christianity were appalled that insiders would try to convert small children by threatening them with torture.

The appeal of hell as a part of the faith package appears to be in decline, even among Evangelicals. According to a 2011 survey, while 92% of Americans claimed some sort of belief in God, only 75% believed in hell. A 2013 Harris poll put belief in the devil and hell at 58 percent. As one theology professor, Mike Wittmer, put it: “In a pluralistic, post-modern world, students are having a more difficult time with (the idea of) people going to hell forever because they didn't believe the right thing.”

The decline of hell-belief may be due to the same factors that may be causing the decline in bible belief more broadly — globalization and the internet. It gets harder to imagine oneself blissfully indifferent to the eternal torture of Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and atheists when those people have names and faces and are Facebook friends.” ~

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Anima dannata (damned soul), 1719

It’s said that in order to capture the agony, 20-year-old Bernini held his hand over flame while watching the reflection of his face in the mirror.


Those who still believe in hell seem to be particularly ardent supporters of it. One man on FB said, “But without hell, who'd ever want to follow Jesus?” Sad.

Pascal lived in an era where the clash with competing religions hardly existed. Now of course it’s the Muslims who claim that all non-Muslims go to hell, and we are aware of that, and the whole game seems more and more ridiculous.


One world at a time. ~ Henry David Thoreau, on being asked about the afterlife


In surgery, anesthesiology and urology, around two-thirds of doctors who have registered a political affiliation are Republicans. In infectious disease medicine, psychiatry and pediatrics, more than two-thirds are Democrats.

It’s possible that the experience of being, say, an infectious disease physician, who treats a lot of drug addicts with hepatitis C, might make a young physician more likely to align herself with Democratic candidates who support a social safety net. But it’s also possible that the differences resulted from some initial sorting by medical students as they were choosing their fields.

Dr. Ron Ackermann, the director of the institute for public health and medicine at Northwestern University, says he remembers his experience rotating through the specialties when he was in medical school. “You’ll be on a team that’s psychiatry, and a month later you’re on general surgery, and the culture is extraordinarily different,” he said. “It’s just sort of a feeling of whether you’re comfortable or not. At the end, most students have a strong feeling of where they want to gravitate.”

One explanation could be money. Doctors tend to earn very high salaries compared with average Americans, but the highest-paid doctors earn many times as much as those in the lower-paying specialties. The fields with higher average salaries tended to contain more doctors who were Republican, while the comparatively lower-paying fields were more popular among Democrats. That matches with national data, which show that, for people with a given level of education, richer ones are more likely to lean Republican (possibly because of a concern over the liberal policy goal of taxing the wealthiest at a higher rate).

The sorting may also reflect the changing demographics of medicine. As more women have become doctors in recent years, they have tended to cluster in certain specialties more than others. The data showed that female physicians were more likely to be Democrats than their male peers, mirroring another trend in the larger American population. So as women enter fields like pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology and psychiatry, they may be making those fields more liberal.

Over all, the partisanship of doctors looks very different from a generation ago, when most physicians identified as Republicans. The influx of women may help explain that change, too. The researchers Adam Bonica, Howard Rosenthal and David Rothman compared political donations by doctors in 1991 with those in 2011 and 2012. The study found that doctors had become substantially more likely to give to Democrats.

New doctors can’t explain all of the change, though. Even older doctors in the new data look close to evenly split between the parties. It’s likely that many older doctors have switched parties over the year. That’s true broadly for well-educated professionals in the United States, who have become increasingly Democratic in recent years.

The shift reflects how the practice of medicine has been changing, too. Doctors used to essentially be small-business owners. As such, they may have been more attracted to Republican aims of low taxes and limited regulation. These days, more and more doctors are employees of large companies or hospitals.


~ “Ever make a decision and then your brain finally feels at rest? That's no random occurrence.

Brain science shows that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety — as well as helping you solve problems.

Upward Spiral (US): Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.

But deciding can be hard. I agree. So what kind of decisions should you make? Neuroscience has an answer.

Make a "good enough" decision. Don't sweat making the absolute 100% best decision. We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful. And brain studies back this up.

Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control.

US: Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process. In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control.

As Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz said in my interview with him: “Good enough is almost always good enough.”

So when you make a decision, your brain feels you have control. And, as I’ve talked about before, a feeling of control reduces stress. But here’s what’s really fascinating: Deciding also boosts pleasure.

US: Actively choosing caused changes in attention circuits and in how the participants felt about the action, and it increased rewarding dopamine activity.

Want proof? No problem. Let's talk about cocaine.

You give two rats injections of cocaine. Rat A had to pull a lever first. Rat B didn't have to do anything. Any difference? Yup: Rat A gets a bigger boost of dopamine.

US: So they both got the same injections of cocaine at the same time, but rat A had to actively press the lever, and rat B didn’t have to do anything. And you guessed it — rat A released more dopamine in its nucleus accumbens.

So what's the lesson here? Next time you buy cocaine … whoops, wrong lesson. Point is, when you make a decision on a goal and then achieve it, you feel better than when good stuff just happens by chance.

And this answers the eternal mystery of why dragging your butt to the gym can be so hard.

If you go because you feel you have to or you should, well, it's not really a voluntary decision. Your brain doesn't get the pleasure boost. It just feels stress. And that's no way to build a good exercise habit.

US: Interestingly, if they are forced to exercise, they don't get the same benefits, because without choice, the exercise itself is a source of stress.

So make more decisions. Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb sums it up nicely:

We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.” ~


Choice is also a burden, a source of stress, but only if you agonize over it. The beauty of this article is pointing out that we don’t have to agonize — that we can make a “good-enough decision.” Once we realize that the decision doesn’t have to be perfect, we can decide quickly — and then we’ll quickly feel better. 

ending on beauty

Whose one white note was feast enough
for all the throats of dusk.

~ Cecilia Woloch

Photo: David Whyte


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