Tuesday, June 22, 2010


The Ox and the Rose
When a former lover went to the AA,
a thought danced like a lightning
in the storm of my mind: If only I could 
do it for him – I’d be much better at it.

Then, in excited whisper, another man
confessed: You know what attracted
me to you? Your arrogance.
This confirmed he was The One.

I was right. Soon my new love
said about a friend who was dying,
If it were me, I would be even more
heroic. Neither of us had any doubt.

It’s not arrogance, but passion:
a goal summons, and the inner ox  
begins to plow that endless
field of stones and stars.

Some call it the Protestant work ethic,
but I see nothing Protestant about
life’s deepest joy. It’s my tender, Catholic
faith in the infinite rose.

It’s for the rose that the ox
never ceases his labor –
the unfolding rosa centifolia
that is even greater than art.

    ~ Oriana (c) 2010


This is a minor old poem. I'm posting it only because it continues the thread of "extreme effort" (or call it simply "hard work") as prevention of depression and suicide. 

The alcoholic mentioned here once made a remark that stayed with me: "Alcohol is always there for me. When I need it, it is there." At the time I couldn’t counter that with a positive example. I couldn’t tell him what else could always be there for him when he needed it. Back then, I was a love junkie more than a poet (excusable at a young age), so I didn't have anything that would be there for me whenever I needed it.

 But I sensed that the possibility existed. When I was in my late teens, my self-imposed routine of studying English gave me a taste of the strength that comes from working hard and making progress toward a goal. That goal ran out, however, and I didn't yet know that it's the work, not a particular goal, that matters. Only now, this late in life, I can say: "Work is always there for me." 

Or, to return to the metaphor that I use in the poem, the inner ox is always there for me. 

And the rose? It's not a goal the way I used to think of a goal. At one time my goal was to publish in one hundred magazines. I'll never forget the empty feeling I experienced when I reached that goal. The rose is closer to beauty -- I love to create beauty. The rose is also a symbol of the soul (a poem that I read for the pure pleasure of it is "one for the rose"). But I don't want to define the rose. Let rosa centifolia have a different meaning for each person. 

I can imagine someone saying, "So work is now your drug, your addiction?" Not only work; I listen to my favorite music the way other people do drugs. These labels do not bother me. I am never going to seek a "balanced life." I want to do what I love doing, without forcing myself to seek "balance" in some boring activities. I found something that works for me, and I feel enormously lucky. 



Is there bliss after the inner ox plows for a good long while?  Is there pleasure in the plowing, and ecstasy in the aftermath of it, when you're all plowed out, so to speak? 

I remember reading somewhere long ago that the masochist doesn't really enjoy pain (as Freud surmised), but needs pain to break through the blockages to pleasure. That there is so much repression of pleasure in some people that it takes a being struck or pained (physically or emotionally) before they can feel a flow of pleasure in their bodies.

Intense effort can be a kind of pain you place on yourself, until you, in effect, break under it.

Life should be easier, and pleasure should be a daily experience.  When I studied tantra, I recall the teacher saying that all depression is due to lost pleasure. 

Luckily for us, we get pleasure from good poems. More than catharsis, there is beauty.

You've got me thinking about all this.


And you have certainly made me think as well. What I said needs a caveat about not going so far that work becomes destructive. And given how compulsive creative people can be, work is an upper and, like speed, it can kill.

When I got tired of my depression – a boring state of mind, with thoughts so repetitive that make me think of an endless pantoum – I asked myself about the last significant stretch of time when I was not depressed. I had the answer instantly: when I was both writing articles and teaching at a junior college. I was simply too busy to be depressed. So the answer stared at me with such clarity that I practically felt my neural networks remodeling. And I was right. It became impossible for me to indulge in depression again (my depression was largely volitional; I could get depressed at will; I know I'm not the only such case).

For me creative work provides enough pleasure so that it's rare that I feel de-energized by it; yes, there is pleasure in the steady plowing. But now and then it gets to be too much, with too many demands from all directions. Then the best thing for me is to drop everything, lie down and decide which activity should have priority. And even after I've decided, not to rush to it immediately, but close my eyes and do my parasympathetic breathing (the long exhale). And then to remember to work slowly and take breaks. To do anything not in a manic fashion, but with slowness and serenity (at least as an ideal). To plod, rather than frantically thrash and hurry. Done serenely, the plodding/ploughing becomes pleasurable, and it's a reliable, sustaining pleasure that's "always there for you." As Hopkins says in "The Windhover," "sheer plod make plough down sillion / Shine."

Let me say it again, because I feel I haven't emphasized it enough, since I'm only learning -- that work should be plodding, serene, and not manic and dangerous to health. 

The terrific success of books such as Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, with their emphasis on self-discipline and delayed gratification, can blind us to the obvious danger: the potential development of anhedonia, the unwillingness and/or inability to feel pleasure. As long as music and the beauty of nature give me instant pleasure, I feel I am all right. But I remember the times when I had to force myself to listen to music or take a walk; those were also the times when I worked with an anxious feeling, a feeling of failure, rather than in a more pleasurable "plodding" way.

But I realize I am blessed; all who have creative work are blessed.


Why some of us take on so much responsibility and drive ourselves so hard continues to puzzle me. There are people who don't have that ox going in them.

A cure for depression--be 100% in the present moment.  Over-working is one way to be 100% in the present. In that regard, over-work is self-medication, why you weren't depressed when you were working so hard, I believe.


Already Ecclesiastes, arguably the wisest book in the Bible, after demonstrating that all is vanity, nevertheless recommends “whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might” (Eccl 9:10)

We don't really understand why some people "don't have the ox in them." I don't think it's laziness; more likely it's not having a goal, a direction -- but that's a guess. Persistence is a genetic trait that can be enhanced through the right experiences. The interaction of genes with environment may be too complex for us to ever completely understand all human behavior.

I have definitely been saved by the ox in me -- and by having grown up around people who'd survived huge traumas and catastrophes, people who'd been there with Job on the dung hill. The view from the dung hill is different; for one thing, you see a lot of heroism, which makes the impulse to kill yourself over a man seem not only idiotic, but shameful, and a disgrace to my family. Maybe that was a delusion, but it served. I survived my youth.


I've learned much about depression (reflecting now on one of your comments), that depth I now call a friend (on some days), a relationship he apparently isn't comfortable with since he doesn't now visit in the same way. He's more devious, stays too long, shape-shifts easily. Still, I call his name, he's in my house, and I demand he lives by my rules. I say, Beware the ox! Unless you can leave room for other, better oxen. The psyche is on the move in the sorry voice of depression and will not be denied, even by an ox. What does it call for? 


I trust my ox, a wonderful animal that has been my salvation.

I used to think that my depressive cogitations were profound, but eventually I saw the repetitive, self-absorbed, and rather pathetic nature of these various thoughts of self-loathing, trying to discover which tragic mistake was the original tragic mistake that gave rise to all the other tragic mistakes, and so on. I was like the hyper-rational mole in Kafka’s “The Burrow.” I say, Beware the depressed mole! He steals your life away from you.

Not of the healthy, hard-working mole, however. Below is an elegy (or call it a eulogy) for a Carpathian mole.


I saw him by the roadside, dead –
his white, oversized
bulldozer hands
curved in the shape of their toil –

   Brother, how did I know you
   when I was still a child –

He had no face, only blackness,
tender velvet I feared to touch,
knowing death would enter my hand,
the softness would be endless.

   Teacher, how did you see
   I had to touch or live blind –

    ~ Oriana © 2010


And don't forget the rose. Beauty is a great source of happiness for me. 

Speaking about the (shockingly recent) turning point in my life when  I decided not to be depressed, at that moment I experienced exuberant self-confidence in the strength of my will. I suspect that confidence was due in part to my long experience in keeping promises to myself, and in part to my knowledge that I was descended from and brought up by two very strong women, my mother and my grandmother, and I had their genes and their heroic example. I did not doubt that the power of my will was greater than the power of my wounds.

But in the first few days, I also experienced some doubts. Could depression really be ended without drugs and therapy? I did not backslide, but I felt a bit shaky. Yet ultimately I knew it could be done -- not only because intuitively I felt a great light within me, but also because that moment took a lot of preparation. Revelation feels instant, but it often takes a long period of ripening, of accumulating influences.

For one thing, I knew that intense activity in the left prefrontal cortex could override signals from dysfunctional, over-reactive and overactive amygdala (what I call "the screaming limbic system" -- the old wounds). This meant that intense, focused left-brain activity, such as learning how to speak a new language, play an instrument, use a new software, or even just preparing a lecture could shut up the dysfunctional deeper structures. Yes, the wounds of the past were real, but dwelling on them was dysfunctional. Forgiveness exercises brought mixed effects: in one case the effect was spectacular, the trauma erased; in another, the memories kept returning, causing crying fits. Amazingly, what finally worked was the commonplace if belated insight that there was only so much time left, and that if I spent that time suffering and crying, I would lose it all -- give victory to both the trauma-causer and my Anti-Self, and end up with a feeling that I have wasted my life.

I also knew that cognitive therapy had proved successful in the treatment of depression. Even  earlier, in The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck put forth his view, heretical at the time, that psychological disorders were disorders of thinking. A "mental disorder" was basically a thought disorder -- paying attention to the wrong things, along with an even broader cognitive dysfunction. For instance, Peck said those who were obsessive-compulsive had trouble seeing the larger picture. 

In depression, I felt, the thinking disorder was more complicated due to memory distortion. The larger picture was absent, but so were positive memories; there was tremendous self-absorption (or call it masochistic narcissism); the slightest negative thought produced a cascade of automatic negative thoughts that kept going on and on. But experience showed me that tight focus on a project and dedicated work could end this whole syndrome like a miracle.

Theories such as Peck's are important steps even if they are oversimplified. I discovered that something else was very helpful, and possibly essential in the long run: the "live!" signal from others. Luckily, those around me appreciated what I could contribute as a dedicated teacher, for example. A small but significant group of people kept saying how much they loved my poems. This too was very healing. I know I owe my healing not only to myself, but to supportive friends.  And to invisible friends -- the writers and poets who've shaped my mentality and created in me the trust that life could be worth living.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


[Photo: Charles Sherman, Light in Muir Woods]

This post is a companion to “Extreme Effort.” Pondering how low my self-esteem was during my youth, when I was getting emotional and verbal abuse, and how much better it is now, I want to laugh when I think how obvious one huge factor has been in creating that higher self-esteem: working hard, and respecting myself for it. The respect of others came slowly – sometimes never – but I grew less and less dependent on it. What mattered most was the fact that I was making an extraordinary effort. What self-esteem I have I earned the hard way.

The poem below is based only in part on a real person, the young man who ended up committing suicide. It’s more about how I can split myself into two selves. My inner Orpheus is a fragile romantic. But, in a reversal of the myth, my inner Eurydice is Big Mama, a tower of feminine strength. No doubt it has something to do with my having grown up around very strong women. 


In the purple-tainted twilight
of the oil refineries,
I drove Orpheus late at night,

while he sang his chronic hymn
in praise of suicide – 
his urge to crash

into a concrete wall.
Something still smolders
from those years, 

nods over me
with the wheezing heads
of oil pumps on Signal Hill –

hisses the pale burn-off flame.
Reminds me how free I was then,
how I sang And that was life

from Tosca, the love aria
before the execution.
I think it’s the terminal

Orpheus in me,
excited by infernal landscapes,
interrupting with the idiot question,

But without wanting to die,
is it really life? He turns his
bird-bone back to me, 

keeps staring at that long-ago
concrete wall. 
That’s all right, Mama, I sing. 

I’m my own Mama now, 
dead Orpheus 
in my arms as I sing.

~ Oriana


The urge to crash into a concrete wall -- I know exactly where that wall was: on Cherry Avenue in Long Beach, California. A few years ago, driving from San Diego to Los Angeles, I passed the freeway exit that led to it, and burst into tears. But that was nearly the end of those episodes. Last year I fully committed myself to not being depressed and to putting my energy into work instead (my depression was mostly the agitated sort, with high adrenaline-driven energy). I also decided to be happy (insofar as I can overcome my life-long disdain for happiness, the motto that happiness is for pigs), and reach for life-enriching experiences even if they involve considerable stress and expense.

Working hard is as natural for me as breathing. Making myself happy in other ways takes a lot more self-talk and forcing myself, since, and it means going against my deeply ingrained dislike of spending and of travel stress. “It’s only money.” “I will be good for health.” “I can take it.” “It doesn’t really matter.” “It’s only a poem.” These simple phrases can be a lifeline for someone like me, who is not much motivated by pleasure. Where would I be without them? Stuck at my computer, and paying the price in poor health and excessive narrowing of life.

And yet it is to the long hours at the computer that I owe still being alive. 

And yet, more than to Mozart and great books and the beauty of nature, and friends for whose patience with me I am infinitely grateful, it is to the long hours at the computer that I owe still being alive.  To that, and, as I mentioned in the comments in a previous post, 


to the impact of having grown up with stories of extraordinary endurance, which make all my troubles seem very small indeed. 


Monday, June 14, 2010



In Masaccio’s Expulsion
from the Garden,
how benign the angel seems,
like a good civil servant
he is merely enforcing
the rules. I remember
these faces from Fine Arts 13.
I was young enough then
to think that the loss of innocence
was just about Sex.
Now I see Eve covering
her breasts with her hands
and I know it is not to hide them
but only to keep them
from all she must know
is to follow from Abel
on one, Cain on the other.

            ~ Linda Pastan

Here is another poem inspired by the same fresco. We need to see more of the chapel to understand Graham’s reference to the world outside Eden. This image includes some of the surrounding frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Masaccio's work dates back to 1425. 


Is this really the failure
  of silence,
or eternity, where these two 
        suffer entrance
into the picture 

a man and a woman 
        so hollowed
by grief they cover
        their eyes
in order not to see
        the inexhaustible grammar

before them – labor, judgment, 
        saints and peddlers –
the daylight hopelessly even
        upon them
and our eyes. But this too
        is a garden

I'd say, with its architecture 
        of grief, 
its dark and light
        in the folds
of clothing, and oranges,
       for sale

among the shadows  
        of oranges.  All round them,
        on the way down
        toward us,
woods thicken.  And perhaps
        it is a flaw

on the wall of this church, or age,  
        or merely the restlessness
of the brilliant
        young painter
the large blue bird
        seen flying too low

just where the trees  
        clot. I
want to say to them
        who have crossed
into this terrifying 
        usefulness – symbols,

balancing shapes in 
        a composition,
mother and father,
        hired hands –
I want to say to them,
        Take your faces

out of your hands 
        look at that bird,
the gift of
        the paint –
I've seen it often

in my life, 
         a Sharp-Shinned Hawk,
tearing into the woods
        for which it's 
too big, abandoning
                 the open

prairie in which 
                   it is free and easily
eloquent. Watch
        where it will not 
veer but follows
        the stain

of woods, 
        a long blue arc
breaking itself
        through the wet
black ribs
        of those trees,

seeking a narrower 
        place.  Always
I find the feathers
        afterward. . . .
Perhaps you know
        why it turns in

this way 
        and will not stop?
In the foreground
        almost life-size
the saints hawk their wares,
        and the women

and merchants.  They too 
        are traveling
a space too small
        to fit in,
calling out names
        or prices

or proof of faith. 
        Whatever they are,
it beats
        up through the woods
of their bodies,
        almost a light, up

through their fingertips, 
        their eyes.
There isn't a price
        (that floats up
through their miraculous 

and lingers above them 
        in the gold air)
that won't live forever.

      ~ Jorie Graham


Some readers will prefer Pastan’s more accessible poem; others will be dazzled by Jorie Graham’s unexpected, electrifying language (especially in the first half of the poem). I know that it’s Graham’s poem I will be returning to again and again, though I greatly appreciate Pastan’s wisdom. I will be returning to Graham’s dramatic tension and mystery.

I especially love the second stanza:

a man and a woman
    so hollowed 
by grief they cover
    their eyes
in order not to see
    the inexhaustible grammar

before them -- labor, judgment, 


Graham's poem could end:

I want to say to them,
    Take your faces

out of your hands,
   look at the bird,
the gift of 
      the paint --

but the poem flows on as though by itself, and that too is a mystery that compels me to read it to the end, and ponder the price we keep on paying for any significant choice. 

As for the fresco, I find it mesmerizing. I identify with Eve. It wasn’t that I was exiled. I exiled myself because I too wanted to know (“to see the world”) and to be as the gods (those who lived in the West). Like Eve, I yearned for a “larger life.”

Until I gained a broader perspective, reality seemed a travesty of that yearning. The sense of loss was overwhelming. Yet I had to admit that California was certainly “also a garden,” as Jorie Graham puts it, in an almost desperate attempt to put a positive slant on the Expulsion.  

Graham protests too much, and this spoils the second part of the poem. The bird entering a space too small for him is an unconvincing role model. But I agree that those exiles and immigrants who remain pathologically blind to the world around them (though I understand the dissonance that comes with having a different world inside you) deprive themselves of a chance for happiness. It’s a more complex happiness than the easier, warmer, more natural happiness of those who remain settled in their homeland and their culture, but one can work through to contentment (I speak as one who once thought that could never happen, at least not in my case; that a “happy immigrant” was like a “gay corpse”).

The emptiness of suburbia and the stress of huge commutes are still a part of my life, but I realize that living in another place would bring other problems. That’s how reality tends to be everywhere: nothing is all good or all bad. My real homeland is the country of the mind. 



There is much to be said about both poems. Pastan's style is more in keeping with the way I write, very much in the vernacular , simple direct and clear and startling at the conclusion. Graham's is much more complex and makes demands on the reader, delves more deeply into all aspects of the painting. Her  poem doesn't just present what we know of the painting but makes us want to know more and even more. Will take many readings. I esp like the woods images but see no woods in the painting or bird??? or oranges- is she just imagining some of this? I'm confused but delighted anyway.


Jorie grew up and traveled in Italy and no doubt got to see the entire fresco-covered chapel -- and somewhere there must be a bird, and oranges for sale. I agree that this poem invites many re-readings. Pastan addresses one feature of the fresco in particular: Eve is covering her breasts.   This small and banal-seeming detail blossoms into an unexpected commentary on the rest of the human history that's yet to unfold, indicated simply by the names of Cain and Abel. 


As always, I enjoyed the art, poems and comments. I found Linda's poem easy to access and Jori's will require several readings and more contemplation. I agree with the point where you thought the poem could end and I felt that it went on longer than it needed to. I am impressed with the fact that the sword is the one spot of black in the fresco and it stands out with vengeance. The expression of the angel doesn't look angry but the sword is piercing and war-like. The way the figures are covering themselves seems to be something more than either poem has addressed. It may be fear or shame or grief. Could it be a primal self-consciousness as they are naked and exposed to an angel who has suddenly appeared? I don't think that either poem has captured the emotion of the scene. Perhaps I am being too critical.


I particularly agree with the statement: "I don't think that either poem has captured the emotion of the scene." The fresco is simply startling in its emotional expressiveness. I think Pastan comes closer to entering Eve's mind, but neither poem does full justice to the extraordinary painting. I admit the task would be very difficult. 
It's interesting that the couple are presented naked. Going by Genesis, they should at this point be clothed in animal skin outfits created for them by God as the first fashion designer. But nakedness connotes vulnerability and feeling "exposed," as you observe. I also love your having pointed out the dramatic blackness of the sword.

I wonder if perhaps there is simply too much in this poem, and yet not enough. Do we really care enough about the sharp-shinned hawk? It's the drama of the couple that I want to stay with. I like the turn the poem makes with "take your faces out of your hands, look . . . " -- but what follows is not enticing enough.