Sunday, November 20, 2016


an agate “thunder egg” from New Mexico


The only philosophical
question left,
a French writer said,
is whether to kill yourself.

But that is the question of youth.
In my twenties, I could never look
from a high window or a roof 
and not feel a gathering leap.

Middle age asks two questions:
How much time left? and
How to spend what wakefulness
remains? Now I look

out the window, and the deep
magnolia gives two answers:
the morning light
glistening in the crown,

and the wreath of shadow.
And the layered wind
does not rustle To be or not to be —
Each leaf silvers Hamlet’s

forgotten reply: Let be.
It’s too late to renounce
the privilege of surprise;
centuries, it seems,

since my father told me
not to worry about the universe.
“That’s Aldebaran,”
he pointed to an amber star.

When the universe asks
the final question, I too
will point: Aldebaran.
Great light seen only in the dark.

~ Oriana © 2016

The “French writer” mentioned in the first stanza is Albert Camus.

Something struck me as I thought about my past suicidal imagery in general, mostly jumping from high places. I knew I’d fall, but actually I wanted to fly. That was the frustrated wish underlying the despair.

Not to fall, but to fly — to live out of my greatness rather than out my wounds. And, unwillingly at first, I realized that it is a choice: regardless of circumstances, we can still make that choice and it will make a huge difference. It took the pressure of mortality to give up on escaping life, escaping backward into past trauma. Instead, I decided to open myself to the choice outlined already in Ecclesiastes: “whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

Or, to put it less grandly, working hard was the only thing I knew how to do. I didn’t know how to be happy, but I knew how to write. At first I had to do it blindly: blind work like “blind faith.” I couldn’t afford to ponder why I was writing, or for whom (my depressive vision was zero audience, now and forever ). I couldn’t afford to think about purpose and meaning — that way lay brooding and crying fits. And those would be no more. It was too late in life to be wasting life.

And the question changed from “to be or not to be” to how best to spend what little time remains.  There is no single correct answer, but it’s not a matter of an answer, which has to be individual and may change over time. It’s a matter of finally asking the right question. And knowing the right question has been a great light to me. I saw it clearly during the darkest time.


In one of his poems written before the Nobel Prize, when he was more prone to bitterness, Milosz ponders human striving, then asks, “And for what, since we will be forgotten anyway?” Camus is one of the thinkers who engage with this question, the first one I encountered who had a secular answer.

~ “In his most famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus made the point that Sisyphus stands for all humanity, ceaselessly pushing our rock up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again. Over and over, ceaselessly, remorselessly, always striving but never succeeding, if only because ultimately everyone dies and his or her personal boulder rolls back down. Gravity always wins.

Camus nonetheless concludes his essay with the stunning announcement that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Sisyphus is happy because he accepts this reality, defining himself—achieving meaning—within its constraints. Camus’ stance is that meaning is not conveyed by life itself but must be imposed upon it.

“The greatest mystery,” according to André Malraux, whose work Camus greatly admired, “is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.”

Denying our nothingness isn’t what Camus proposed; rather, he urged something closer to accepting our nothingness and pushing on nonetheless, achieving meaning via meaningful behavior, even though—or rather, especially because—in the long run any action is meaningless. Probably the greatest such account of people achieving meaning through their deeds is found in Camus’ novel The Plague, which describes events in the Algerian city of Oran during a typhoid epidemic.

Camus’ plague stands for many things: the German occupation of France during World War II, the inevitability of death, and, of course, the plague itself. The struggle against cruelty, against death and disease, against an uncaring universe, must ultimately fail. But it isn’t a fool’s errand, since what gives life meaning is how one chooses to live, knowing this. (Had Sisyphus anticipated, each time he heaved his boulder to the summit, that maybe this time it would stay there, he would have been a ridiculous figure, rather than the existential hero of Camus’ analysis.)

The Plague is a “chronicle” compiled by the heroic Dr. Rieux, in order to “bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Camus is the existential thinker most associated with the “life is absurd” characterization of the human condition. Often misunderstood, he felt that this absurdity didn’t reside in life itself, but in something uniquely human, namely the peculiar relationship (which he called a “divorce”) between the human need for ultimate meaning and the “unreasonable silence” of the world. For Camus, neither human existence nor the universe is inherently absurd, but rather the relationship between the two, whereby people seek something of the universe that it fails to deliver.

Ruminating on Sisyphus, Camus wrote that “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” And at the conclusion of The Plague, while the citizens of Oran are celebrating their “deliverance,” Dr. Rieux knows better, that the plague bacillus will some day return. But at the same time, his commitment to the struggle, to what defines human beings in an otherwise uncaring universe, is undiminished.

Dr. Rieux understood that all human victories are temporary, which renders his perseverance all the more grand: “He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record or what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilence, strive their utmost to be healers.”

Part of that healing, according to Camus, was a commitment to be “neither victims nor executioners,” and his refusal to countenance revolutionary violence was a major factor in his break with Jean-Paul Sartre. Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, Camus—born in Algeria and sympathetic to Algerian independence—was heckled for his condemnation of murder in any form. “People are now planting bombs on the streetcars of Algiers,” he famously responded. “My mother might be on one of those streetcars. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

With strident voices calling for violence and destruction, generating false hopes and destructive acts, many of us would prefer the healing, humane wisdom of Albert Camus.” ~

Tibetan Kapala Skull


My answer is more along the lines of “We are of the moment. We belong to our moment, and should make the best of it.” Taking the long-term view is indeed depressing: eventually we will be gone and forgotten, and so will be the house and the garden we put so much care into, and all our brave struggles, insights, accomplishments — they will be gone and forgotten.

But — and it’s a huge “but” — we are not required to take the long-term perspective, and perhaps we shouldn’t take it. We don't belong to a hundred years from now, much less five hundred or a thousand. We belong to our time — our limited but very real “moment.” And in that moment it does matter whether we cope or fall apart, whether we make our garden beautiful or let it fill with weeds. In that moment — not a hundred years from now — it does matter that we make an effort and touch the lives of others rather than just watch TV or cat videos. It matters that we vote out a corrupt politician, even though it will not end corruption in politics once and for all. Nothing is “ once and for all.” But for the sake of the moment, our moment, for ourselves and for others who share the moment with us, good things are still worth doing.


“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” We don’t expect such statements to come to us from the twentieth century, in many ways an era of disillusionment (though also of startling progress in technology, and more slow but significant progress in human rights). The pursuit of excellence characterized ancient Greece. The ambitious strove for arete. But when it comes to the pursuit of ideals, the twentieth century taught us caution — extreme idealism tends to end up in catastrophe. We need here another piece of Greek wisdom: moderation in all things. 

Intuitively, though, I know what Camus means: it’s the work itself that makes us happy, not the results. “We must imagine that Sisyphus is happy” is in line with Rilke’s “To work is to live without dying.” It doesn’t matter that what we accomplish will almost certainly be forgotten; we’ll be lucky if some small portion will persist in an anonymous fashion even for a while. But even if eventually it’s forgotten entirely, that’s not a reason to cease working. Work is its own reward — particularly if we are performing at the level of excellence.

But even without that “struggle toward the heights,” work is a blessing. That’s why Ecclesiastes, after concluding that all is vanity, advises the reader: “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

And one of the bleakest poems in the English language, Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” ends with

Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.



There is a remarkable movie still playing in the theaters: “Arrival.” Let me warn you that the movie is quite flawed: the plot is illogical and difficult to follow. More than one critic called it a “puzzle movie.” The absurd antics of the paranoid military, the non-communication among world scientists, and small things like carrying a caged canary into the alien vessel are downright ludicrous.

And no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine writing the way the aliens (the mysterious octopus-but-not-quite heptapods) do — as if with both hands, writing both the beginning and the end of the sentence at once. “Linear” has become a strangely negative word, but I refuse to apologize for being human and linear.

But linear doesn’t mean totally ignorant of the future, especially when it comes to the typical course of human life. “Arrival” is, among other things, an existentialist movie, presenting the same question as “Gravity” did at one point: Since we know that life is going to end badly — that we are doomed to die — why proceed with the journey? Why live? Why do anything?

Oddly enough, both movies feature a dead daughter as the emblem of the heroine’s greatest trauma, a reminder of the inevitability of suffering and death, and a source of inspiration and motivation to live on. “Arrival,” with less noise and migraine-inducing non-stop “action,” presents the existential question with greater power and purity. Louise, a brilliant linguist who also appears to be free from the constraints of time, is chosen by the aliens to be the savior of humanity. “Louise sees the future,” the heptapods write in their inky logogram.

Louise knows that her daughter will die, and yet she decides to have a child “because every moment of the journey is meaningful.” She answers Yes to Nietzsche’s Eternal Return: Let it be. Let everything happen, the joy and the sorrow. But Louise’s alleged psychic powers only muddy the issue, which is surely that of everyone’s mortality and how we deal with it. Do we escape into denial or fantasies of an afterlife? Or do we stare into the abyss, fold up in terror and refuse to engage with life? Or throw ourselves into living with all the more intensity?

The book that inspired the movie is Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Everyone’s life. We don’t have to be clairvoyant to know that we’ll experience both joy and suffering — and suffering may outweigh the joy. We are going to age, and ultimately we are going to die, most likely after a nasty illness. No wonder Camus said that the only philosophical question left is whether to kill yourself.

In my poem I reply: “But that is the question of youth.” When we grow older and can no longer deny mortality, when we truly stare into the abyss, there are two possibilities. We can either fall into despair or come to realize that, with little time left, life becomes ever more precious. Erik Erikson describes the last stage of life as the struggle between despair and wisdom. 

Interestingly, study after study has found that happiness — or at least contentment — increases with age. People in their sixties are on the whole happier than people in their fifties, and people in their seventies tend to be happier than people in their sixties. Knowing that there isn’t much time left can make us paradoxically free of time, and make us savor what sweetness we can find now.

(Shameless digression: I think the idea of the Eternal Return violates the probabilistic laws of nature. It would never be the same the second or third time — cloning experiments clearly showed us that. Everything changes. You can’t step into the river of time twice.)

(Another shameless digression: The “rare genetic disease” of Louise’s daughter again muddies a universal question. It might make ethical sense not to have a child if we knew for sure that the child is doomed to die early after great suffering. The universal question is whether to have a child at all — a normal, healthy child who will nevertheless at some point learn about death and have to live with that knowledge, as we all do. Do we have the right to bring into being a new consciousness that will have to suffer and may never quite figure out how to cope with mortality?)

It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then ~ Alice in Wonderland

Salvador Dali, Alice’s Evidence


That’s not to dismiss the importance of the past and the kind of personal meaning we find in memory. Memory actually has no past tense.

As Milosz puts it:

I think that I am here, on this earth,
To present a report on it, but to whom I don’t know.
As if i were sent so that whatever takes place
Has meaning because it changes into memory.

~ Milosz, “Consciousness”

My quick response to the first two lines: “to your readers, silly.” But then two lines of sheer wisdom, and the reason I keep reading Milosz. Changing events into memory is also Keats’s “soul-making.” And memory is perhaps the closest we get to the Eternal Return — except that memory keeps changing according to the meaning we perceive in the present (that’s how “the present changes the past”)

Vladimir Kush: Sunrise by the Ocean


Many writers deluded themselves that they will be remembered. “You are writing for posterity,” friends are forever assuring those who don’t have much recognition. Milosz does not kid himself.   He realizes that even eminent writers are forgotten after a while and meet the common fate of all of us: oblivion. What shall remain of us will be some anonymous particles, a few words that strangers may repeat, without attribution. Borges was another poet and writer who fully understood this.

So, again, why write if it will all be forgotten? Why build anything if it will all be demolished, and replaced with something else? Why plant trees, if even trees don’t live forever? Or, if we plant those trees that live longer than we do, why do it if we won’t be around to enjoy them at their most magnificent? Why have a pet, knowing that cats and dogs don’t live all that long? And let’s not even talk about flowers . . .

On the contrary, let us talk about flowers. They teach us a great lesson: beauty is a joy even if it doesn’t last. Ultimately nothing lasts. But WHILE it lasts, the beauty can nourish and delight us — just as we can nourish and delight others whose lives we touch.

So I live by two answers:

To work is to live without dying. ~ Rilke

and, again: We are of the moment, and should fully devote ourselves to that moment.

Only a moment? Yes. And that is enough.

And that’s why Sisyphus the Everyman can be happy.

Titian: Sisyphus, 1549

(Please note: This is an updated and greatly expanded version of my earlier blog post on Camus and the myth of Sisyphus)



Today I woke up in the wee hours, sweaty, remembering a dream. In the dream my mother was telling me, “They came for Father. But again he managed to escape.” There followed some confused details. I woke up, knowing the dream was based on a conflation of several stories of my father’s narrow escapes during WWII. My mother had her own narrow escapes as well. I lay in the dark, repeating in my mind, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” 

My nightmares often feature the Nazis, but usually I am the target. Only in childhood I had nightmares involving the Nazis and my mother. This was the first dream that I can remember involving my father in this way. By the way, it was “local,” and “they" were not the old-time Nazis but apparently the new regime in the U.S. That's why I was so completely freaked out when I woke up.


~ “In a way, we were survivors too, holding the trauma of our parents’ memory. Marianne Hirsch coined the term postmemory—recollections of traumatic events which are imprinted on the lives of offspring like shadows, following them around: “Children of survivors and their contemporaries inherit catastrophic histories not through direct recollection but through haunting postmemories.” Both of us had grown up with an altered perception of the world around us. And we mostly lived with our secret fears, placing importance on self-reliance, as our parents did. To seek help was to admit we were weak. Feeling too happy was an insult to our parents’ histories, yet feeling depressed was worse—what was our suffering compared to theirs?” ~

November in Kraków. Photo: Jan Pieklo. Kraków was once the last train stop before Auschwitz.


One of interchanges in Arrival (a flawed but a thought-provoking movie) concerns the basis of civilization. Is language, or, more broadly, communication, the basis of civilization? Or is it science, again in the broadest sense — the drive to know?

Or maybe it’s something else. I started thinking about this after what would otherwise be a very trivial and forgettable incident at the public library. Another woman and I both approached a narrow passage. She smiled and let me go first. I smiled back.

That’s it. End of story. One of thousands of brief encounters of this sort where one person lets the other go first. A smile, sometimes a “thank you.” We take it for granted that this is how it happens — that no one will shout, “I go first, bitch!” Of course not. One time you go first, another time you go second. No big deal. But — perhaps that’s the basis of civilization.

I felt so moved that I described this tiny commonplace courtesy to the librarian who was checking out my books and videos. “Normally I wouldn’t mention such a thing. But with so much hate out there . . .” “It all counts. Even the smallest thing counts,” the librarian commented. 

I left, still thinking about it: a stranger let me pass first, and we smiled at each other. And suddenly I had tears in my eyes.

This is probably the first time ever that I gave any thought to a minor, common courtesy — much less teared up over it. But with photos of swastikas spray-painted over cars and buildings and even a children’s playground, “even the smallest thing counts.”

Respect for the other — that, I think, is the basis of civilization.

Raphael: The School of Athens, detail: Plato and Aristotle


 “What use are you? In your writings there is nothing 

except immense amazement.”
~ Milosz, “Consciousness”

In Hamlet there is a little-noticed moment when Horatio expresses worry that Hamlet does not have sufficient skill at fencing to stand a chance in a sword fight. Hamlet replies, “I have been in continual practice.” It’s not a famous line, but for some reason it touches me to the core. I too have been in continual practice, the practice of paying attention and being astonished. I can’t quite say for what purpose, or have faith that a grand occasion to exercise those skills will ever arise. But purpose may be beside the point. At least once a day, I reflect on the paradoxes of the world and instantly I am in “immense amazement.”

And thus I remain if not in continual practice, then in continual astonishment.

PS. Practice is its own reward. It's like a visual artist sketching. We don't ask, “What for?” The sketch may develop into something bigger, but it's fine just being a sketch. We are of the moment. The ladybug is not asking where the dandelion seed is taking her.


~ “Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

1. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? - Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan, Jim” ~


“Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.” ~ Nietzsche

It still takes Nietzsche to say something as politically incorrect as this, and as exhilarating. Do we need “mystical” explanations of the universe, or is that another cover for wishful thinking (eternal bliss awaits me; not sure about you)? The greatest mysteries lie all around us, in the nature of reality. Have you tried to nibble, at least, at quantum physics? chaos theory and emergence? Next to these, mystical imaginings (presented as knowledge) about extraterrestrials, Atlantis, the Cosmic Starfish, and so forth seem downright childish.

We are hard-wired to seek patterns and meaning. On the whole this is a good thing, but it can result in the mistake of manufacturing supernatural explanations. Once enshrined in "holy scriptures," thousand-year-old absurdities continue to weigh us down.

As Matt said, “Mysticism throws everything back in the formless cauldron so it can be endlessly prated about without logical restrictions.”

The good news is that we can enjoy the thrill of the mysterious without multiplying useless metaphysics. Once you delve into science, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the true mystery is all around us. As Nietzsche also said, every time you look at something in sufficient depth, an infinity opens up.

Correggio: Jupiter and Io
~ “And reincarnation? Really? If that were real, wouldn’t there be some proof by now? A raccoon spelling out in acorns, “My name is Herb Zoller and I’m an accountant.” ~ Bill Maher


Also, why does Jesus show himself (if he does) on grilled cheese sandwiches and bathroom doors? Surely there are more respectable venues.

Perhaps the saddest thing is those couples, usually deeply loving, who had a kind of contract that whoever goes first would give the bereaved spouse a sign that an afterlife existed -- often an agreed-on special sign, but sometimes just any sign, even the slightest — whatever might be possible. Houdini was one of those who kept waiting — and going to various mediums, only to discover they were all frauds.



~ “It was through participation in one of these [interfaith] groups that I learned just how futile and egocentric Pascal’s wager really is. I learned this when a Muslim scolded me for not honoring Muhammed, warning me that I would be punished for eternity if I did not capitulate. He cited Pascal’s wager and told me that the downside to not believing in Allah and Muhammed was so great that if there is even a slight possibility that I am wrong, it behooves me to go ahead and believe in him just in case.

I found this deeply amusing, since I had been told exactly the same thing about believing in Jesus. Evidently I’m screwed either way. If I reject Muhammed then I go to Muslim Hell, but if I reject Jesus then I go to Christian Hell. It is, quite literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” ~

The article goes on to discuss something else — the futility of arguing with believers. And it uses the example of a movie about a schizophrenic Nobel Prize-winner to make its point:

“In the movie A Beautiful Mind, the protagonist spends decades relating to three people who he later discovers are figments of his own imagination. But he experienced them as if they were real. No amount of argumentation or explanation could help him see that these three people only existed in his imagination.

And do you know why argumentation didn’t help? It’s because when you yourself are doing the work of creating a person in your own mind, nobody else but you can change your mind. Nobody. And it doesn’t do any good for someone else to argue that the person you’re experiencing doesn’t exist because to you, he does exist. He exists because you make him exist.

In the end, the protagonist of the movie had to finally come to a realization himself that the three people he had grown to love and need were not aging in any perceivable way. One day it finally occurred to him that something didn’t add up about that. Real people age. These people didn’t. That finally did it for him. Nobody else but him could make him come to that realization. It had to be him.” ~


Yes, something has to happen within the mind of the believer. But at this point I also remembered Nietzsche’s little-known remark that there is no need to discuss the existence of god; what’s needed is the discussion of how the concept evolved over the centuries. That, of course, points to the overall cultural evolution and the human, all too human origins of all religions.

But I wonder about “preparing the ground.” Though my own insight at 14 that Christianity is just another mythology might appear sudden, there was a slow erosion of belief and an accumulation of not just doubt, but also of knowledge about the world. I had to learn about other mythologies and the evolution of human culture.

During history lessons I learned about medieval Christianity, among other things. I read about the Reformation and was seized with admiration for Martin Luther’s world-changing courage. I learned some basic science, and so on. I wish I had my “It’s just another mythology” insight sooner. But the journey to adulthood and daring to think for yourself takes time. There are many layers of clarity that wait to be discovered, just as the beauty of the world seems greater by the year.

The tomb of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Doesn’t he look like an ancient god — Yahweh, to be specific?

Neil Carter, the author of Godless in Dixie, is arguing for a subjective neurological reality of whatever deity the believer worships. Rilke said this too: you create god every time you pray. And many ancient Greeks (and other “pagans”) claimed they could sense the presence of this or that deity while performing various rituals. The Eleusinian Mysteries were famous for inducing mystical experiences.

Funny that the answer to Pascal's Wager turns out to be so simple — simpler by far than, for instance, saying that if god knows everything, he could see who’s only pretending to believe just in case hell exists.

I confess that Pascal's wager used to scare me — and has been used by others to scare me and other non-believers, or “incorrect believers.” Going to church has even been described as “fire insurance.” Of course Pascal's Wager relies entirely on the probability (even if it’s low) of eternal torment. Hell has to appear real enough rather than imaginary, blatantly made up to manipulate people into obedience. Actually Pope JP2 said there is no such place! Yet even now people are still using the inane wager to try to frighten someone into belief . . .

Of course the “many religions” argument doesn't entirely refute Pascal's Wager as long as someone believes, as Pascal did, that you can rationally figure out which religion is true.

Pyracantha berries; photo: M. Iossel (Sure, the logical image would present the flames of hell; but I've decided to choose beauty.)


The question seems absurd on the face of it. Non-Muslim never ask themselves that. But I've certainly gotten asked, “But what if Christianity is true?” by Christians who didn't seem to realize that their question is equally absurd.

A woman on Facebook remarked that all of a sudden she's aware she has the notion of god only because she’s been told that in childhood. If not for the childhood indoctrination, she'd never give it another thought. Nor do billions of non-Muslims ever lose any sleep over the claim that Islam is the one true religion. Unless you were indoctrinated, the claim sounds bizarre. But the Christian claim sounds equally bizarre to the non-Christians. Sam Harris explains this in this exhilarating take on Pascal’s wager.

The scary thing is that an ancient mythology can still inspire atrocities — I wonder for how much longer. Some say forever, and think I’m naive to think that in just 3-4 decades or so only the lunatic fringe will still cling to dogmatic Christianity, especially the kind that assumes we are living in the End Days and only a small group of the faithful will be “caught up” (or “raptured”) to meet Jesus up in the clouds, while the earth is destroyed and everyone else ends up being tortured in hell forever.

It may take a century or longer for Islam to cease being what it is now — but then, who knows, the decline could be unexpectedly rapid. Let’s not forget that the main secularizing force is technology, including access to information via the Internet. And we can’t even imagine what further technological developments may unfold. The more control people gain over their lives, the less the hardship and suffering, the less need for religion.

In the best-case scenario, the big problem will be explaining to children, during history lessons, why horrible wars were waged over a fictional character — a kind of Iron Age Superman. 

a newly discovered Egyptian temple, 4200 years old

ending on beauty

“The uglier, older, meaner, sicker, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent.” ~ Vincent Van Gogh



Read your blog before bed last night . . . liked “we are of the moment” and started a poem using those words.

Something else you wrote made me think of a song that keeps going around in my head  based on Elliot’s “Cats”: “has the moon lost her memory.” I remember loving that song and once when I walked into my son’s improv dance studio he had just put on that recording. I could dance alone  and do my thing and loved it.

The world is truly a continual astonishment . . .

I love the photos you share — the raccoon in the levis, and always VanGogh. He was so prolific. They tell us to write every day. I have a friend who is an artist who does just that and I try to write every day too. Van Gogh painted everything he saw; he produced hundreds of paintings. I brought him up on goggle and it was stunning to see so many paintings. He really is an inspiration . . . as are you.


I love hearing that something I wrote inspired a new poem, and got a song going around in your head. I wish I had more feedback. We are indeed of the moment, but also part of the greater social context. We need to be needed. It’s a privilege to be useful in some way.

I may have told you: I discovered the power of doing something every day when I got serious about learning English. It has never failed. Of course no one would be so rash as to suggest that daily practice is everything; you don’t become Mozart just through daily practice. But that argument shouldn’t blind us to the fact that daily practice can get us very nice results that can be quite worthwhile without needing to be splendid.

For instance, you can pick a Pilates exercise to do every day — just minutes of spare times. You won’t become an athlete, but you’ll strengthen your back muscles and improve your posture. Part of my “wisdom of age” is microambition: tiny steps, tiny improvements. We don’t have to pursue great goals, with all the attendant anguish. We do this one small exercise every day, and we’ll discover that the results can be very satisfying.


In a way I relate to Sisyphus. Instead of pushing a rock up a hill I get great joy out of simply chasing a ball, like a dog: definitely in the moment.

Vladimir Kush’s Sunrise by the Ocean is my favorite image in the blog. At first I thought Dali painted it.

The blog ends with my favorite quote by Van Gogh. And this time my favorite quote by Oriana is "Great light seen only in the dark.” You also picked a real winner from Ecclesiastes: “whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

“To work is to live without dying.” ~ Rilke. So many great quotes in this blog. Just the quotes are amazing.

“Respect for the other — that, I think, is the basis of civilization.” Yes.

“Practice is its own reward” — another pearl.


I absolutely love the idea that perhaps we are not Sisyphus pushing a boulder but a dog chasing a ball. Why not go with the joy of it. And dogs and cats are such great role models. This is what we discover as we grow older. This is part of the “wisdom of age”: the cats and the dogs are indeed the best philosophers. They know best how to live. Perhaps we have more to learn from them than from, say, Marcus Aurelius.

The point is not to be brooding about some great goal or the meaning of it all. Practice is indeed its own reward.

Kush is often called the “Russian Dali.” He was inspired by Dali, no question. Below is one of my favorites by Kush, the logo of our Poetry Salon.


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