Thursday, December 23, 2010


[Frederick Edwin  Church, "The Iceberg"]


I feel as if we opened a book about great ocean voyages
and found ourselves on a great ocean voyage:
sailing through December, around the horn of Christmas
and into the January Sea, and sailing on and on

in a novel without a moral but one in which
all the characters who died in the middle chapters
make the sunsets near the book's end more beautiful.

—And someone is spreading a map upon a table,
and someone is hanging a lantern from the stern,
and someone else says, "I'm only sorry
that I forgot my blue parka; It's turning cold."

Sunset like a burning wagon train
Sunrise like a dish of cantaloupe
Clouds like two armies clashing in the sky;
Icebergs and tropical storms,
That's the kind of thing that happens on our ocean voyage—

And in one of the chapters I was blinded by love
And in another, anger made us sick like swallowed glass
& I lay in my bunk and slept for so long,

I forgot about the ocean,
Which all the time was going by, right there, outside my cabin window.

And the sides of the ship were green as money,
             and the water made a sound like memory when we sailed.

Then it was summer. Under the constellation of the swan,
under the constellation of the horse.

At night we consoled ourselves
By discussing the meaning of homesickness.
But there was no home to go home to.
There was no getting around the ocean.
We had to go on finding out the story
                                                        by pushing into it—

The sea was no longer a metaphor.
The book was no longer a book.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.

        ~ Tony Hoagland, from Hard Rain. (a chapbook, 2005; Writer’s Almanac, December 22, 2010 



"The journey of life" – it seems like a worn-out metaphor, and yet Tony Hoagland manages to put new life into it. Another statement this poem reminded me of was something my father (and I am sure many others) said: "Everyone's life could be made into a novel." Again, Tony makes that novel come alive, with all our fears and confusions.

The stanza that touches a special chord in me is this one:

At night we consoled ourselves
By discussing the meaning of homesickness.
But there was no home to go home to.
There was no getting around the ocean.
We had to go on finding out the story
                                                        by pushing into it —

— it brought back the terrible moment I realized that there was no home to go home to; all I could do was to "push into the story." Once I read about a Chinese general who transported the troops by ship to another country he planned to conquer, and then burned the ships, so the soldiers would know they had to march inland; there would be no sailing home. Burning the ships or burning the bridges – one way or another we know that there is no going back, only forward.

What seems most confusing, and this is what I think Tony means by our "marvelous punishment," is that we do not know our destination; we make plans and try to plan our route, but life laughs at us.

Many New Age persons believe that the soul has a specific task to accomplish in this lifetime, but before incarnating, the soul had to drink from the river of forgetting – or maybe the memory of that task was removed from the soul by some other means. In any case, we are born without a clue, and try to find out somehow (that’s our “marvelous punishment”). We go to a psychic or a college job assistance center to take the career aptitudes test; we start journaling, quit journaling in favor of ballet classes – you know how that goes. Is the search really ever over, or does it only seem that way? What about those midlife career changes? What about people who are the late-late bloomers, who discover their most fulfilling work and make their greatest contribution after they retire?

This morning I was thinking about how it was mostly other people who determined the course of my life. I did what others wanted me to do, with one exception: writing. People (parents, teachers, peers) did not want me to write.  I certainly wasn't pressured to start writing. I wasn't even encouraged, however faintly. In fact in college I was told I had no talent, which stalled my development for three and a half years. And yet, somehow, with shipwrecks and without a map, writing happened.

It also didn't feel like a choice, but the forces, both inner and outer, that were making me write – those forces were a mystery, but at least they were not other people. When I write, it's between me and the language. I am forever surprised and thrilled when someone else actually reads my writing, but I have no thought of an audience while I write. Who do I write for? Is this a conversation with an unknown god? I have no idea. I live with the mystery. I push into the story.

I remember one workshop where we were all asked why write. One person after another gave either a noble, altruistic reason or a therapeutic one, or both. I said I have no idea why I write, but my best guess is that I do it because I am compulsive. The instructor looked at me with disgust. That moment passed quickly, since the person to my left was already saying, "Because I want to share my thoughts and feelings." "And also to inspire others," she added, not wanting to sound too self-centered. And there I sat, compulsively attending a workshop just because it was there.

Here is a further steal from the Writer’s Almanac:

Donald Harington said: "If you are destined to become a writer, you can't help it. If you can help it, you aren't destined to become a writer. The frustrations and disappointments, not even to mention the unspeakable loneliness, are too unbearable for anyone who doesn't have a deep sense of being unable to avoid writing."

Instead of “destined,” I am tempted to substitute “If you are compulsive enough.” And this reminds me that I am indebted forever to Brenda Hammack, who in the past stopped my tortured babbling about reasons we write by stating clearly and without apology: “We write because we are compulsive.” I am sure this applies in all fields of art. Was Picasso compulsive about painting? Was Pavlova compulsive about dancing? We know those are rhetorical questions. Picasso never painted in order to make a great gift to humanity. He painted because he had to, because if he could not paint, he would die. 



Still in awe of Tony's poem. Going forward is really a day by day decision. I like your "conversation with an unknown god."

Sign over the entrance to National City Library: "I always thought heaven would be a sort of library." ~ Jorge Luis Borges


I too am in awe of that poem and the phrase "pushing into the story."

In my youth I felt that I was indeed living inside a bad novel written by an incompetent writer with a crude, heavy-handed sort of sense of humor. Alternately, I felt the Book of Job explained it all: there was this wager to see how much it would take to break us.

"The journey of life" is probably the most common metaphor for human existence.  We travel through time; some of us also make leaps across the continent or this or that ocean (location, location). There have been endless guesses as to where we are going, since we would rather not contemplate the most obvious. Jung was probably right when he said that the psyche cannot endure the thought of annihilation. ("When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you" ~ Nietzsche)

The poem somewhat reminds me of what Billy Collins tends to do. But with Collins everything turns into a chuckle, while Hoagland’s poem uses humor, especially in the first stanza, to seduce us into reading a rather dark piece. I think we sense this already in the second stanza:

a novel without a moral but one in which
all the characters who died in the middle chapters
make the sunsets near the book's end more beautiful. 


which reminds me of the movie "The Hours," and how Virginia Woolf explains why one of the characters has to die – So the rest of us can appreciate being alive.

The mystery of where we are going is in large part the mystery of self-transformation that takes place over the years. We hope that our journey is toward a greater self that we sense within us. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, No single event can awaken within us the stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.

So many years to be born – and then it’s time to die? We are senior citizens by the time we stop living from our wounds and begin to live from our greatness – and the time to depart is so soon? This joke is so cruel that of course we yearn for an afterlife.  Afterlife as a library, with our books in it – practically all writers, and not just writers, would love it. Now if only there existed a religion that promised that . . . and maybe a book club and a poetry salon as options that come with that infinite library . . .

John Donne suggested a book image for an afterlife. When we die, our page is not torn from the Book of Life, but translated into a better language.  

John Guzlowski:

Oriana, you are a wonderment.

Reading through all of this is amazing -- so much going on in your thoughts, so much that you are willing to share.

I loved the part about heaven as being a library.   It reminded me of what my daughter Lillian used to say about heaven when she was a little girl.  Heaven she felt would be populated by all the characters she loved in the books she loved.

I wrote a blog about it (I had almost forgotten) and here's the link (by the way, there's a photo of my dad there with Lillian and my mom's brother Uncle Walter [who found my mom after the war in Germany in a DP camp]).

And as you say, death is cruel.  We spend our lives learning to be the wonderful, thoughtful, loving, spiritual people we always hoped to be and then we are.  All that suffering and learning and growing lost.  Definitely, it's a gloomy world.


Thank you, John. I hope I don’t overwhelm the reader. My blog is so different from a typical chatty blog. Zagajewski asked, “Why are you so metaphysical?” I don’t know why – maybe the traditional Catholic upbringing, which was in fact very dark (sin, hell, suffering is good for you) sensitized me to metaphysical questions at an early age.

I think the only consolation for dying, however feeble, is to know that we have contributed something good to the collective psyche; that we have been bearers of light.

If our ethical and economic priorities were right, most biomedical research would be devoted to extending “health span.” Considering that wisdom comes to us so late in life (Hegel: The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk), we could use fifty more years of vitality to put that wisdom to use. Ah, the poems I could finally write . . .

By the way, I recommend to all John’s great Heaven blog. Personally, I can imagine long conversations with Odysseus, Raskolnikov, Anna Karenina, Prince Myshkin, and yes, Primo Levi might be interested in my grandmother’s Auschwitz stories. 


Writers are always told they should keep their audience in mind.  I certainly never think of a human audience when I’m writing.  I used to say that when I write I’m doing something that’s between me and my god, although afterwards it occurs to me it would be nice to have somebody read the poem and appreciate it. 

And yes, of course it’s a compulsive activity.  I’m sort of like a pot boiler, with a lot of steam building up.  When I write, I release that pressure.


I am so glad this came up. Yes, writers are always told to think of their audience, but maybe it's like the myth of eight glasses of water a day? There is no scientific foundation for it. The body tells you when you need water. And the brain does its thing when it comes to writing – the less conscious the process, generally the better the quality. To me, the greatest gift is a poem that arrives in minutes, “at white heat” – though I know that it’s taken me a lifetime to arrive at that moment of inspiration. 

Some of my best lines make no sense when they first hit my consciousness, except for their beauty and originality. I know they are right, but don't understand why, and sometimes it takes someone else to point out the meaning.

On the other hand, lines that are totally obvious to me may be obscure to some readers. During revision, some thought should be given to that, especially if there is a consensus about lack of clarity. But in the end, it's your poem. True, the reader will make it his/her poem, but that never enters into consideration while the creative process is "on." The poem works or it doesn't work. It either has magic or it doesn't.

And yes, we write because we are compulsive, and I am sick of all the noble lies I've heard on the subject. People who are not compulsive enough to be writers would be better off volunteering for the humane shelter, the soup kitchen, or the senior center. Then there is always gardening.

Rilke asks, "Must I write?" By which he means, if I didn't, I would die. Was Rilke compulsive? Was Kafka? This weirdly reminds me of something I heard on PBS: many convents are closing their doors. The one that is thriving and recruiting novices like crazy is the Dominican Sisters, which cling to traditional white habit and traditional Catholicism in general. What's the connection here to Tony Hoagland, Rilke, Borges, etc? I'd like someone to clarify it for me. All I know is that it belongs. The Dominican Sisters refusing to wear jeans belong in this post.


This bit, in particular, really strikes my heart: "When I write, it's between me and the language. I am forever surprised and thrilled when someone else actually reads my writing, but I have no thought of an audience while I write. Who do I write for? Is this a conversation with an unknown god? I have no idea. I live with the mystery. I push into the story."

I, too, am always strangely lured by language and its magic, and in my ideal world I would speak all languages, know all languages and all words within them, and understand their complex nuances in each culture – I would live atop that tower of Babel perhaps. And audience? Yes, I am never even really asking the question, "Who is there?" or "Who will read this?" The push of expression/desire/epiphany simply pulls me toward a pen and a paper.

This is, indeed, hard to reckon with as an artist – when you see all of your piles on the floor (or all of your paintings stacked on top of each other in a studio, as the case may be) without a reader and maybe even without a destiny. They may even be like Tibetan sand paintings that are only momentary and soon to be brushed away (or torn up) by wind, water, or time. Sometimes I like to think that my poems have only one particular destiny or reader, and that once that poem, for whom it was meant (though I quite often don't know, initially, who that someone is) the poem has reached its "home." Then again, maybe, like us, poems have no home to go home to. 

Nevertheless, as Annie Dillard said, "You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back..." So I went up Palomar Mountain, winter solstice, and built a kind of bonfire with friends, and went into the sweat lodge where we were inside a cloud, inside rain, inside the dark – listening to rain drop on our little canvass hut, feeling the rain seep up from the Earth, flowing all around us. Stones were brought in to warm us, and water was poured on the stones, and even inside we were surrounded by steam-cloud, and with small flickers of light, we huddled in the mud and sang and spoke our hearts and looked utterly primordial – so small and humbled, so huge and mythical. We were inside a womb again. I guess life, nature, poetry, dance, and song pull us into a fairy tale – one that is real and ephemeral, one that is always changing and being retold – a journey of life, yes. 

Peace, love, joy, and a little sunshine!

Lisa also clarified the Dominican nuns for us:

Oriana, I'm really laughing – as I almost included in my last post a bit about nuns. I heard on NPR yesterday that nuns – and one particular nunnery where the women wear white habits and feel that they are truly married to Jesus/God – are the "new radicals" of the day – moving away from the one-liner, empty, text-message world. I laughed because I immediately had in mind all of my poet friends who have been "married to poetry" – so much so that they often turn their backs on a partner in human form!  Yes, there is a correlation here! HA!


As you probably guessed, I combined two of Lisa’s posts, but kept “Peace, love, joy, and a little sunshine!” after “the journey of life.” Chastened by middle age, that’s what we ultimately wish for our journey of life: not fame and fortune, but “peace, love, joy, and a little sunshine.” As one friend of mine said, “Instead of the pursuit of happiness, I believe in the pursuit of peace. When I am peaceful, everything else follows.”

Note: a little sunshine. Not too much. Not the vicious summer solar radiation that burns the edges of leaves. Metron ariston – moderation (“the middle way”) is best. Thus the wisdom of the ancient Greeks meets the wisdom of the Buddha, whether it comes to the size of the Christmas supper or the beginning of your weight training.

(By the way, did you know that hardly anything increases a woman’s self-esteem as weight-training does? Start humbly, with 4-lbs dumbbells. First thing in the morning, before breakfast, SLOWLY lift them just above your nipples -- no need to aim higher. Lower and lift, until your body tells you to stop. Try it just once, and you’ll immediately know what I mean about self-esteem! As Lisa so poetically put it, we start small and humble, and minutes later we are huge and mythical, and sweating a bit.)

Male readers may not understand this on the emotional level, but women need all the help with their self-esteem they can get – and all the peacefulness too.)



I've been enjoying the taste of "pushing into the story," sailing around the "Horn of Christmas," and the quote from Borges, "I always thought heaven would be a kind of library." I wish that were true!

This line: "What seems most confusing, and this is what I think Tony means by our marvelous punishment, is that we don't know our destination; we make plans and try to plan our route, but life laughs at us." I agree. This is why I've resisted James Hillman's work with the daimon simply because the idea doesn't work. There is no conceptual rigor for the present, it simply isn't useful for life – trying to identify our daimon isn't possible. We fool ourselves by trying to. It is only possible in retrospect and can only be decided by those we leave behind. The daimon is suitable for the tombstone – Here Lies Michael... I have no way of knowing what else might be said. 

We're rounding the Horn of Christmas, yes. May our ships be worthy and sound.


Michael cont. (from Rome):

On Christmas Eve I went to midnight mass at Rome's Basilica of St. Mary of Angels and Martyrs. Like the other 100,000 churches, cathedrals and architectural wonders Italy tries to maintain, the Basilica is too large to understand its vastness, too filled with paintings to absorb the stories, and the craftsmanship too extensive to know what to admire first. Too much. Of everything. And there's just something...that doesn't seem to add up. I've been tempted to think Italy is a boot-shape lie, that these monuments are not gifts and praise to God but structures to ego and arrogance and fear.

I walked the empty streets after mass munching on roasted chestnuts and pondering my cynicism. Perhaps there is another possibility. In the rear of the Basilica are two pendulums, moving almost imperceptibly, with a story written on a wall board telling about Galileo's studies of motion and time. The story ended with these words: Given that all things are in motion, "stones have the same status as stars."

Is this why we do art? To remind ourselves we are more than stones? If so, every shaped stone, painting, or sculpture is a cold, hard prayer to escape the darkness and shadows of the soul. This would suggest that Italians have felt darkness, shadow, loss, and fear, more intensely than any others.

Or, maybe each monument is just a lie, and for most people, a very good, needed lie.

This morning I visited St. Peter's Basilica and saw Michelangelo's Pieta. Stunning (and parked too close to two mummified popes, in my humble opinion). Even my amateur eye can see he remains the greatest, and he was only 25 when he carved it.

Saw the Pope at mass and later in the square when he addressed the crowd. It was raining -- and one minute before he stepped out the rain stopped and the sun shined. How can other religions compete with that! I'm happy to say before he finished it started raining again, hopefully diminishing some of mystique.



I'm most intrigued with "stones have the same status as stars."
Michael goes on to wonder if artists make art in order to be more than stones. 
I like to think of art as celebrating life (even when it's about death, it celebrates life) so I read the quote as referring to the "life" that everything is imbued with, whether stones or stars.



I like the words written on the wall of the Basilica. The Buddha teaches that all is alive in different ways. 

Oriana (reply to Debby and Una)

Galileo’s greatest achievement was his laws of motion. Everything moves (Heraclitus really hit on something there, but it took Galileo to work out the mathematics). Stones and stars are the same from the point of view of the laws of motion. It’s ironic that the tribute to Galileo should be in the basilica (true, in the back of it), since Galileo is regarded as the father of modern science. He was persecuted by the Church, spending his last years under house arrest. And of course many claim that science has been the primary factor in diminishing the power and influence of the Church.

As for everything being alive in different ways, a physicist would probably say that matter is a form of energy, and energy is timeless. In more ancient terms, resurrected by the New Age, our recycled antiquity, the idea is called “pan-psychism.” Everything is alive, and the whole universe is alive, and has one mind, the collective Logos. Our minds are part of the general Logos. Reality is “psychoid,” that is, our psyche can influence external reality. Once we get into quantum physics, anything seems possible.

Another interesting coincidence is that the name “Galileo” brings to mind Galilee and the most famous of all Galileans, an outrageously radical religious leader who preached forgiveness, forbidding revenge. No one has ever made a more radical statement than “Love your enemy.” Galileo as the first modern experimental scientist was an outrageous radical in his own way, daring to question authority (in this case, the revered Aristotle) in favor of empirical evidence.

But the statement about “stones and stars” is much too striking to be left at the level of physics. Both words have archetypal symbolism, and seem opposites. Unifying them at any level demands metaphorical thinking. Stones and stars and trees and people, the Tao’s “ten thousand things” – these are all children of the Universe (call it also the Great Mother, the Source, the Ground of Being). The artist’s task is often said to be “to praise the world” – to praise life in spite of suffering.  The very existence of a poem or a sculpture or a symphony, no matter how tragic the theme, is a triumph of life and an homage to life. A poet writing about death is still saying, “I live.” 

Oriana (reply to Michael):

So glad it started raining again before the Pope was finished. Relief! You know how the human mind works – how easy it is a label an experience "mystical" and convert to any religion that happens to be handy . . . Our hunger for meaning can never be fully filled, never. 

Creating art may make us think that we are more than stones, and yes, certainly, art has a social function and can lift us above the mundane. As one poet put it,

The matter is, each of us houses within a pietà
tearing itself out of Chaos, the mud still caked on our loins

I love these lines. Our lives are a chaos of ten thousand things. Women understand this in painful detail as they move from tomatoes to beans to cheese, walking ten thousand miles in the labyrinths of supermarket aisles. Only those who are both exceptionally gifted and exceptionally self-disciplined and focused can bring their inner pietà into perfection and offer it to the world.

But a pietà is a figure of grief over the loss of what we loved most. So much art rises out of loss, out of downright trauma and tragedy. The transformation of grief into art makes the grief bearable.

Still, no matter what the deep roots of art, artists sculpt, paint, write, sing, and so on primarily because they are compulsive. Those Angels and Martyrs we call artists create art because they have to. Everything else is an afterthought.

I know my words do not do justice to your rich post, in particular the provocative statement about Italy being a boot-shaped lie . . . But I will not mar my reply with any abstract musings about god versus ego or the social role of art; I will also resist the temptation to keep on circling like a crazed philosopher around destiny and destination. Let the images speak.

Thank you again for this rich sharing, this prose poem of Christmas in Rome. We wish you abundant la dolce vita in Italy, so that you return to basilica-poor California with enough sweetness to keep smiling at your memories for years and years to come.


Oriana cont. (from a much humbler but still lovely location)

Picking up the thread of destiny: The daimon is the ancient Greek concept of a guardian spirit (here they are again! whatever you think of, they thought of it first) of a very particular sort: this spirit guides us toward our destiny (not to be confused with fate, which is circumstances we were born into; destiny is the future pulling us toward it).

Achilles was famously born with two daimons, or destinies: he could either live a short glorious life, or a long peaceful life with no glory. First, he chose the long peaceful life; later, driven by rage, he threw himself into battle. (By the way, the first word of the Iliad is not “Sing,” is not “”Heavenly,” as in “Oh Heavenly Muse” – in Greek, the first word of the Iliad is rage.)

While we are still in the Mediterranean basin, I must mention Heraklitos (Latinized to Heraclitus), who saw us as being able to shape our destiny, at least to an extent. One of his most famous aphorisms is Ethos anthropoi daimon, usually translated as “character is destiny.” Scholars don’t agree on how best to translate “ethos.” One interesting interpretation is that it means not so much personal integrity as “daily habits.” That would mean that our daily habits are destiny – it makes sense, e.g. the habit of working versus the habit of procrastinating. (Of course there is only so much we can control; so much depends not only on the red wheelbarrow but even on the proverbial butterfly in China.)

But most dictionaries define destiny as an event or course of events that will inevitably happen in the future. Aside from death and taxes, is there such inevitability? In the modern age, can we still take seriously the idea that each of us has a particular daimon, or destiny? Maybe due to our longer life expectancy, or maybe because this is the Age of Distraction, those who have a strong (or, frankly, any) sense of destiny seem an exception – the Dominican Sisters, perhaps? 

Psychologists are beginning to suggest that perhaps each of us has a different vocation at different stages of life. Thus there may be a decade of intense parenthood, followed by a period of dedicated work in a profession, followed by a period of community work (if only it were so simple . . .  maybe it is, for the lucky few).

James Hillman is a Jungian psychologist. Perhaps he never doubted his vocation (there are those early bloomers who never swerve), and that’s why he is blind to the cluelessness of others. Adam Zagajewski said that most poets have no idea what their message is; in AZ’s view, Zbigniew Herbert, whom I regard as the greatest Polish poet of the twentieth century, to the end of his life had absolutely no idea what his message was.

But isn’t that always for the readers to decide? And can a poet have many messages, with no single central one emerging, and still write wonderful poems? A poet who claims to know what s/he is saying is either a simplistic, mediocre poet, or else s/he is deluding herself. Also, each age finds different messages in the work that survives. In fact, the very reason that we call a masterpiece “ageless” is that each generation can make it fit their needs and understanding.

In spirit I agree with Michael that the daimon’s destiny is to be identified only on the tombstone. Alas, the growing popularity of cremation and scattering the ashes means that even our daimon will be gone with the wind rather than written in stone. But rather than despair, let us ponder how we inscribe ourselves in the memories of those whose lives we touch. We mean something within a social network. As Christopher Reeves eloquently put it, “Family values means that we are all family, and we all have value.”

But to have heard what you take to be the voice of your daimon even once in your life, and to have obeyed his or her orders even for a while – that is quite an experience. Need I say that the daimon speaks when you least expect it?


As for turning to your god/vocation and away from your human partner, that’s the tricky part. The ideal partner is one who does not interfere with your vocation, but is supportive; that supportiveness, in turn, usually makes a woman take time our for mutually nurturing times together that become at least as precious as spending the time with the muse. I think that no matter what our primary vocation is at a particular stage of our life, our other, universal, human vocation is to be loving toward at least one person, and kind and affectionate toward many.

I have a poem about this conflict between human love and the love of art, and its resolution, at least in poetic terms: 


Once I found the great love of my life,
I did not want to sleep
in anyone’s arms –

it was difficult enough to fall
asleep in the arms of the Muse
wooing me, making me write it down.

The Muse evicted men from my bed –
the tenderness of waking together,
animal yawn and press –

Is this your knee or mine?
But sex would follow, the man
always prepared like a boy scout,

while I wanted coffee, my eccentric
yogurt – and to go soul-deep
into a poem or a book.

Beauty so ancient and so new,
I exist because I have loved you,
I pray with Saint Augustine.


It used to be high drama:
drunken poets, dim decrepit streets –
Hollywood’s junkie neon light,

stairways of misfortune and stale stench –
to meet a man who didn’t love me,
who wasn’t even good in bed.


Not done with eros for the duration,
though in cat-lazy afternoon,
I tried to explain to my mate

the concept of immortal soul.
The soul began in Egypt.
The earth portion, ka,

lived on in the tomb.
The ba went to heaven;
now and then it visited the ka.

“It visited?” he asked.
“I bet they had sex.”


In old age, I wonder, what will I
remember? Pages I have
written, pages I have read?

Or will one of my souls
go back to where we used to walk
on the beach, holding hands –

The shimmer of the cliffs
mirrored in wet sand, in trembling
shallow pools –

the rocks weightless as dragonflies,
the chatter of the Muse drowned out
at last. Beauty so ancient and so new,

you exist because we have loved you,
we pray with Saint Augustine
and we are holding hands.

~ Oriana




Well, I finally got around to reading all of the Oriana emails.  I save them, like unopened letters -- a rich treat that I want to savor over a quiet cup of tea! My head is swimming with nuns and home and thinking about why I write. I thought of Emily Dickinson who thought of her poems of gifts that she sent to friends. Maybe we write to send a little gem, a gift to someone – anyone who will listen. Maybe we're all just compulsive and generous!! So, Oriana, I hope that you have a lovely holiday, full of the generosity of light and love.   


Thank you, dear Jill, for reminding us of generosity. We can’t just be compulsive; the other side of being an artist needs to be generosity.

I know that elsewhere I have indeed said that I write for friends and loved ones, and I know I am not the only one to have said that. John Guzlowski recently said that; Una said that. But the thought of art as a gift alights in to my mind like a lovely angel only after the writing is done. It applies more to wanting to share the work. During the writing process, I confess I have no conscious intention of making a gift to anyone. There is only one law then: the creative process must go on!

In the calm afterwards, yes, that seems to be the perfect reason! Or so says the angel, uninterested in the demons that may have had something to do with producing the poem. But now is the time of the Angel of Peace and Generosity (whose name is all our names), so hark, and be well.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


[Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th century icon, St. Catherine Monastery, Mt. Sinai; note the demons trying to pull down the souls]



In heaven, I do not know that there are angels,
but I know there are numbers there, and light.
(Arithmetic and heaven are both uncountably
full of light.) Inaccessible cardinals, there
will lord it over mere infinities;
the naturals will dance among the reals . . .

Apart from numbers, how little we know.

There is no largest prime. The Halting Problem
is formally undecidable. Every subset
of a well-ordered set is well-ordered itself. And so on . . .

Such things are true, even easy to prove.
Are there uncountably more, unknowably other
true things about the world?

I had to go away. A woman I love
(and this is true, too) put an icon
of an archangel into the glove-compartment
of my car. I haven’t looked, but I know it is there,
as I know there is no largest prime.

she said. His numberless wings cloak all of us
poor travelers who do not know, but are not lost.
The angel, she said, of happy meetings, after all.

~ David Dwyer (deceased husband of Kathleen Norris)

“Some people bristle at the suggestion that they be held accountable for their mental states,” Kathleen Norris states in her new book, Acedia and Me: A marriage, monks, and a writer's life. She also quotes Thomas Merton: “It takes real courage to recognize that we ourselves are the cause of our own unhappiness.”

This is not a fashionable attitude. I think that is precisely the core problem in our Age of the Not-Responsible Me, the Age of the Victim. Like Norris, I hasten to exclude the type of depression that has a clear physiological cause, e.g. being severely hypothyroid and/or hypoestrogenic. Likewise, I do not equate depression with “normal grief,” e.g. the process of normal mourning after the death of loved one. I am thrilled that Norris chose the medieval term acedia (from Greek for “torpor” or “non-caring”) to label what I call chronic depression, a “spirit of sadness,” a habit of suffering – a state of mind that can last for decades.

Responsibility for one’s thoughts the Catholic viewpoint, of course – hence, "sinning in thought." I don't mean "dirty thoughts" or occasional feelings of anger, envy, etc – things I used to confess as if they were serious sins. But I do wonder about deliberately indulging in negative thoughts, allowing the downward spiral of depression suck you in.

When I was doing self-loathing, I never saw anything wrong with it. Now I do: I could have used those hours doing something good for myself and/or others, if only just reading. I wish I had all that time back for studying, learning, writing, or even just taking walks. But time wasted doesn't return. Worse: because practice makes perfect, I can easily tick off the worst times in my life, but have to really strain to remember anything good. I KNOW that good things have happened to me, but since I don't think about them, positive memories are difficult to access. That, I think, is a loss.

And I remember a poem by Auden that ends something like this:

On Judgment Day,
God will reduce you to tears of shame
reciting by heart
the poems you would have written
had your life been good.

Now, what matters to a writer is not so much the things that happened, but the things that s/he remembers. Of course I have poems about exquisite moments, for instance about seeing eight or so coyotes run single file in the hills: their grace of movement was ecstatic to watch. But I do wonder about how much I may have missed, overall, due to the great predominance of sad memories. Yet I know it’s possible to practice remembering good things. This is a trivial feat compared with the “mental hygiene” depicted on “A Beautiful Mind.” 

Yet when I say “state of mind,” I am reminded of my own breakthrough discovery: depression is not only a state of mind, but also a set of behaviors. When you change your behavior, your state of mind also changes. The opposite is also true: change your state of mind, and your behavior will change. For some people it's easier to change behavior; others (think of actors) are adept at inducing any emotional state they wish: cheerful or weepy. The point is: we have an amazing degree of control. In control begins responsibility. A scary thought, unwelcome in our age. And Kathleen Norris strongly hints that ours is the Age of Acedia: we would rather wallow in our bed of sloth and uncaring, miserable as that bed feels, than start walking toward healing.  

To experience despair is human; to languish in chronic despair for years on end is pathological. Norris sees similarities between writers and monks, and that includes the susceptibility to depression (the latest Internet survey did find writers and artists highly susceptible to mood disorders, though nursing home and childcare workers place first). “Acedia is a danger to anyone whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value. The world doesn’t care if I write another word, and if I am to care, I have to summon all my interior motivation and strength.”

Labels can be of immense importance. Acedia gradually advanced to the status of Despair, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. As a practicing Christian, Norris got to see acedia as a temptation, something she knew she could resist. I saw acedia as a behavior, and behavior can be changed. Both Norris and I were inspired by the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” in which a brilliant schizophrenic scientist uses the healthy part of his brain function to identify his delusions, which he then chooses to dismiss as they arise. What is critical here is the exercise of the power of volition, not its conceptual framework. “Whatever works” will be a refrain throughout this post.

Naturally, Norris got attacked for what was perceived as an assertion that depression is something a person can snap out of. She walks on eggshells around it, unwilling to assert that at least some of us can snap out of it, just as the exceptional few (Dashiel Hemmet is my idol here) can quit drinking and/or smoking cold turkey, without endless hours of attending AA meetings. Such people are shrugged off. We disturb the experts.

But it does me good to have a tenuous soulmate in Kathleen Norris -- just as it felt good to have a friend talk about his experiences of the volitional element in depression (“I could enter depression at will”) and, at 52, his decision not to be depressed. If only we could hold a convention, collecting I wonder how many people who'd be willing to come out of the closet and say, "I did it without drugs or therapy. Here is what I do instead of depression." Once I opened up, I started meeting people who amazed me by saying things such as, “Around fifty, I went off drugs. Now, if I start not feeling good, I just listen to music, and pretty soon I’m OK.” I don’t care if this is not typical. We exist. What’s even more miraculous, most of the time we live more contented (and conscious – do I dare say “enlightened”?) lives than before the onset of depression.

Initially, my principle was to maintain the "Mask of Normalcy" – first out of literal, irrational fear that if someone saw my depression, I would be involuntarily committed to a mental ward and given shock treatments and toxic drugs; later in part out of habit, but also because I didn't want “trouble.” Thus, if the phone rang while I was in the middle of a crying fit, I had the time window of three rings to blow my nose and normalize enough so that my voice could "pass." I could also claim sinus congestion.

Why this secrecy? I didn't feel that I was among soulmates. The intuition that others would not act in my best interest, but only in theirs, kept me on guard. I felt I had to be strong – which later proved excellent practice for non-depressed behavior. You see, if you practice being strong – even if you fake being strong – you become stronger. The mask becomes the face. In this case, I love it. Whatever works.


For me, the pleasure of delving into this book had nothing to do with Norris’s prayer practice – nor with the struggles of monks with the noontime demon. I wasn’t even interested in Baudelaire’s “spleen” – I already knew too much about that. For me the most fascinating part of the book deals with Norris’s marriage to David Dwyer, a brilliant, unusual person, a writer and a mathematician.

David recovered from his bout of suicidal depression through social interaction with other patients on the mental ward. His psychiatrist miraculously prescribed only a sleeping pill, to be used as needed. Living in a rural community in South Dakota, the couple had to deal with isolation. Kathleen found her community of soulmates among the Benedictines. David, a lapsed Catholic who didn’t care for the pedestrian post-Vatican II liturgy, had a more difficult time – yet ultimately more social interaction turned out to be his equivalent of prayer practice, yoga, hiking or the like activities that serve others.

Whenever Kathleen Norris writes about her husband, who died of lung cancer (the kind that feels particularly unfair because it’s not caused by smoking) at the age of 57, the mixture of humor and love works wonders to engage the reader. The deathbed scene is so charming in an unusual way that instead of a quick paraphrase, I want to quote it:

“David’s pulmonologist . . . authorized the nurse to stop administering anything but pain medication, which allowed David to die on Friday morning, a good Catholic goy to the last. Before he died I had more than an hour alone with him, except for a nurse who came in occasionally to read the monitors registering his vital signs. I spoke to David and recited some poetry. He responded only once, when I said the Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy, indeed. I could not recall the Latin for the requiem hymn “In Paradisum,” which David had told me he loved, but hoped that the English would do: “May the angels lead you into Paradise.” David muttered something incomprehensible, and I felt a faint pressure on my hand.

I watched the monitors as his heart rate slowly declined.  . . . I hadn’t requested a chaplain, but one appeared at the door and asked if he could pray with us. I couldn’t refuse, and was grateful that the man had a gift for spontaneous prayer. He asked whether there was a Scripture passage I’d like him to read, and I said Psalm 27. But, casting a suspicious eye on the Bible in his hands, I asked, “What translation is that?” It was the New International Version. “That’s not acceptable,” I told him, and explained that my husband was a poet and needed more beautiful language. As I did not want to let go of my husband’s hand I asked him to dig out the Book of Common Prayer from my purse. It had been a gift from David, many years before. Hospital chaplains must receive many odd requests, but the man proved reluctant to root around in a woman’s handbag. This is becoming quite a spectacle, I told David, but I am only trying to find you a decent translation. I am certain that he heard me. I would not let go of his hand, but I did take my eyes off him for a moment as I attempted a one-handed retrieval of the book from the depths of my bag. While I was thus occupied, the nurse told us, “His heart has stopped.” I could only sigh and say that David was always doing this to me in airports, too. The minute my back was turned, he’d be off somewhere, and I’d have to go look for him. “See,” the nurse replied, “he was being himself, right up to the end.”

I totally agree about the need for the best translation. After reading this I thought that dying is almost worth it if you can have Kathleen Norris to describe it.

Some of you may find it difficult to believe that, with her husband sinking fast, Norris would quibble about which translation of the Psalm was acceptable. O ye of little faith! Beautiful language comes first. It is what poets worship. At her husband’s deathbed, Norris proves that she is a true poet.


For me another jewel in the book was the reference to the story in John, 5:1-18, about the lame man at the pool of Bethesda. This was the pool that at a certain season was "troubled" (I love the word in the KJ version) by an angel, and whoever among the blind, the lame, and the paralytics got into the pool first would be healed.

The wonderful part is that Jesus asks the lame man if he wants to be healed. And the man does not say Yes. He says that he has no one to help him, and by the time he gets to the water, “another steps in before me.” This has been going on for 38 years The man’s belief is that he can’t win; someone always beats him to it. Even though this reason sounds legit, the fact that the man does not start the reply with "Yes" suggests that he’s found a perfect excuse.

What is even more interesting is that Jesus does not insist on a Yes. He does not berate the man for not being motivated enough, or not having enough faith, or past sins that may have caused the lameness. Nor does he analyze the sins of the man’s parents. He says, "Pick up thy bed (other versions say "mat") and walk." And the man picks up his bed/mat and walks.

Jesus does not go into arguments about motivation and faith and the sins of the past. He refuses to play either theologian or therapist. No cogitating – presumably enough of that has been going on for 38 years. He orders action. I imagine him playing a drill sergeant: Rise! Pick up your bed! Walk! One-two, one-two .  . . 

And the lame man walks.

Need I even say how thrilling this story is to me, coming back after so many years? It meant little to me when I was a child and a young teen – it was just another healing, made memorable only by the location. Only now I see the connection to depression, and one way it can be overcome – not by everyone, no, but I bet by quite a few people. Don't sit or lie there, thinking about your problems -- do something! Action, action, action. A commitment to activity, to work, to staying active. It's so simple, I want to laugh.

Actually, just as I love the angel's troubling the water, I love the word bed rather than mat. Even a small, portable bed would be more effort to carry than a mat, and I think an activity that requires effort is more healing than strolling about with a light mat. Right away you’re proud of yourself for having enough strength. Greater effort means better focus.

(Also, it’s easy for me to imagine merchants sprawled for blocks around Bethesda, hawking poolside supplies to the handicapped – including, of course, the Port-a-Bed, since the wait both for the angel and for winning the race to the pool could be a long one.)

(Note the angel swooping down to trouble the water. Presumably it’s Raphael/Israfil, the angel of healing. Alas, the name of the painter was not provided, but my guess is someone influenced by Murillo.)


Now, given how I rejoice in my conscious decision not to be depressed, it may seem contradictory that I also rejoice in the story that seems to say, you don’t have to want to be healed; just start doing something. Let me explain. In my case, at this stage of my life, the motivation was important. So important that without my sudden disgust with depression, which had become repetitive and non-creative, and my desire to be done with it, I would probably still be stuck in the bog of sullenness that Dante describes in the Inferno. But I also remembered an earlier time when I was not depressed even though I was by no means ready to close that door. At the time, life kept me so busy that my lack of commitment to not being depressed simply did not matter.

In a nutshell, I was too busy to be depressed. I was teaching, I was writing, I was traveling as a reporter to conventions and conferences. Remembering those busy years and my freedom from depression during that time, I had the answer about what to do after making my decision: work. Work, not religion, turned out to be my salvation. It wasn’t any new activities. I played with an idea of exploring some new pursuits, but introverts don’t like novelty. I was happy enough to do what I was doing, just with more intensity and commitment. In fact, my goal is LESS:  to do fewer things, but do them better.

An introvert’s paradise: LESS. My dream of a “zero room” with nothing in it except winter light. Shed, shed, shed the distractions, the non-nourishing people and activities. Music, yes, but the most wonderful music is silence. Then my whimsical brain can start playing a violin concerto in my head. Itzhak Perlman. Only the best.

I fully agree with Norris’s advice: “Perform the humblest of tasks with full attention and no fussing over the whys and wherefores.” I used to discourage myself from writing, because what sense did it make? Who would read it? Then I understood that I simply can’t afford to ask certain questions. And an aphorism was born in my heart: A happy life is as meaningless as a cloudless sky, but it can still be enjoyed. This may not works for others, but for me, who used to despise happiness as a mark of idiocy (recently I’ve been told that this is a European view), it marks a revolutionary change in attitude. 

Likewise, I can’t afford to think either of the remote past (I mean mainly my youth, the time of the shattering of dreams) or the remote future. The potential to activate debilitating suffering is too great. But I don’t insist on being strictly in the Now. That has become one of the holy cows of New Age. Some planning for the near future is perfectly in order. I can’t afford to Dream Big (another disastrous precept that leads to a collision with the iceberg of reality), but I love to dream small, in terms of “attainable felicity.” Better a small step toward an attainable felicity than a giant leap in the wrong direction. And since life works by paradox, it’s often by concentrating on the small, the “narrow slice,” that we find something immense.

By the time I made my commitment to non-depression, all the mood-supporting activities were in place: getting up early, intense exercise, listening to music. I have also already made the mood-friendly diet discoveries: flax-seed oil (Flora – other brands are rancid), fish oil (Coromega and Life Extension; other brands are rancid), and of course lots of protein (to increase dopamine production) were also in place. More frequent meals, to stabilize blood sugar. Who knew that two eggs a day builds character? Who knew that intense exercise remodels your brain and increases stress resistance?

Well, I knew. I knew almost all of it for years – though not quite the thirty-eight years that the lame man waited. A true depressive loves the uncomfortable bed of depression, and is completely uninterested in anything as shallow and meaningless as happiness. Fortunately, it’s not happiness that is the opposite of depression; it’s vitality (thank you, oh wise Andrew Solomon; thank you also for your rare courage in admitting to loving depression).

To my fellow introverts: Rejoice! We don’t have to be happy! We can keep our creativity and be vital!

Here are some jingles I developed as the fun part of my knowledge of various incidentals that help preserve vitality – meaning a good-enough mood and lasting energy.

Early to rise, early to bed
keeps the Muse singing in your head.

Flax seed, fish oil, olive oil
against demons make a foil.

Why risk depression at Denny’s?
Sardines and tomatoes cost pennies.

Two eggs a day
keep the anti-depressants away.

And when troubles come our way,
let us tango them away.

Don’t cry for me Argentina
taking action is my coffee suprema.

Overthinking a disease?
Happy bee that sails the breeze.

Overcome with blues and blahs?
Wait no more – clean the house.

For self-loathing have no heart –
many others are worse than thou art.

An avocado will keep you merry
while you write better than “Brooklyn’s Ferry.”

With exercise do not delay.
Rise up and shout olé! olé!

(I could go on, but this exercise is hazardous to my credibility as a poet.)

You may not yet know about intense exercise – that is a recent study. But I knew the rest, and simply wasn’t motivated enough to put it into practice. What finally did motivate me was the humbling fact of getting older. Too late, I thought. Too late to waste what life remained. Too late for suicide. Too late for depression. Jack Gilbert goes further: it’s too late even for discontent (true, I’ve done enough grumbling for several lifetimes).

And besides, quite suddenly, after so many years, I was out of love with depression. I saw that it was boring – so repetitious, it just wasn’t fun anymore. And there were those ominous studies showing that depression is a risk factor for just about every nasty disease. The health nut in me could not sustain cognitive dissonance forever.


Kathleen Norris relies on prayer, and that’s fine with me. Whatever works. As soon as my mother saw that I left the church, she told me, “Never try to convince a believer that there is no god. For all you know, faith is all that keeps that person alive.” I never forgot that admonition.

Personally, I can’t easily dismiss David’s often repeated question to Kathleen Norris: Doesn’t it bother you that none of this is true? My intellect will not be muzzled simply with the invocation of mystery. The cosmic mystery is certainly there – no one is more acutely aware of it than scientists, who know how little they know. But that mystery does not point to anyone’s having died for our sins. However, as a writer and a reader, I know about “suspension of disbelief.” What is not literally true may still be metaphorically true. I can enjoy various Gospel stories on the metaphorical level and I love finding personal meaning in them.

And the sheer loveliness of angels, the nativity story, the gentle face of Mary – I can delight in the beauty of it all without the intellect-violating baggage of archaic beliefs and the pedestrian language of the post-Vatican II services. I can even speak of heaven and hell, not as places, but as states of mind. I love being lapsed – I can have the beauty without intellectual self-mutilation.

Recently I talked with an acquaintance about how some people can believe and others can’t. She even knew a scientist who was a believer. “It’s because of the great need some people have to turn to someone in distress,” she said. “I understand that,” I said. I’ve witnessed need-based faith – in recovering addicts, for instance. For me the need declined as contentment grew, and as I was lucky enough to be able to build my small but immensely important “community of affection.” And my acquaintance agreed that the more contentment, the less the need for an invisible helping hand. We have real hands to do good with, right here on earth. We may no longer have the comfort of old-time religion, but we have one another.

Norris puts great emphasis on caring relationships with others. The opposite of every deadly sin is a cardinal virtue. The great task, Norris explains, is not run away from sin, but to work your way through to the virtue on the other side. Thus, the way to deal with greed is to work through to generosity. With acedia, the point is not to repress it, but to work through to its “virtue side,” which is caring.

Amid hundreds of quotations – I can’t decide if this is the book’s vice or virtue – the author quotes from Stephen Spender’s introduction to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. “The Consul’s despair is really acedia . . . His errors are theological: refusal to love or be loved. Ultimately his sin is pride.” Consequently, besides caring, the other virtue on the other side of acedia is humility. Paradoxically, it’s humility that precludes a depressive’s self-loathing; you know you are simply not special enough to be that bad.

The Catholic Church that left an indelible imprint on my psyche no longer exists. But beauty still exists everywhere around me. All poets are mystics anyway, just in their own fashion. I revere kindness and beauty. For me, that is religion enough. I know it may not be enough for others.

Kathleen Norris quotes Chaucer: “A great heart is needed against acedia, lest it swallow up the soul.” To me, “heart” means the ability to love. There is no doubt that Norris has a great heart. Yet she is tough, too, bringing up self-discipline again and again. For me her message is, once more, “love and work.” Also, all that goes with work and love: commitment, engagement, being fully present, dedication, persistence even when the going gets rough. But this is not a prescription for others. For one person, the foundation of a fulfilling life may be communion with nature; for another, parenthood; for someone else, religious faith; for yet another, great music. Or a combination of some or all of these. Whatever works.

In honor of Kathleen Norris’s spiritual practice, let me close with two versions of Psalm 1, the traditional and the “updated.” I lean toward the King James version with its hypnotic language, and its warning against sitting in the seat of the scornful.

Psalm 1, King James Version

 1Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
 2But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
 3And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
 4The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
 5Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
 6For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

Psalm 1 (modernized version by Stephen Mitchell)

Blessed are the man and the woman
who have grown beyond their greed

and have put an end to their hatred
and no longer nourish illusions.

But they delight in the way things are
and keep their hearts open, day and night.

They are like trees planted near flowing rivers
which bear fruit when they are ready.

Their leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.


A Russian icon showing the Archangels: Raphael is on bottom right


Holy cow! 

Pick up our beds and walk to our healing.

I have an extraordinary dream about exactly that, and your reference to the Pool of Bethesda put it together for me. Of course I heard the story deep in my Catholic childhood. Never realized it was the key to the dream. 

In Jungian psychology the bed is the unconscious . . . pick up your bed and walk, carry it rather than lying on it. In depression we are still asleep and do not want to wake up fully into our adult lives and our present reality, and it's tempting for artists, because our unconscious is so rich and inspiring. We don't have to leave our beds behind when we get up and start walking . . . we carry them with us. 


The bed can also be simply the inner life, and for depressives that inner life (which is their true life, and not what they do in the outer world) is heavily tinged with melancholy. Since most poetry is about loss, poets are afraid to let go of their sadness, even if they suspect they have outgrown it. Cheerfulness is not compatible with lyricism. As Hyacinth put it, “Depression strokes the feathers of the Muse.”

But there is so much evanescence in life, so much opportunity to mourn even as we celebrate beauty, that we don’t need to worry about running out of material.

Staying in bed also symbolizes withdrawal from engagement with the world. Depression is easy; active engagement takes effort. It’s one thing to stay in bed when we need rest, and another to use it as a refuge from life in general. But as Lilith wonderfully observes, we can carry our bed with us – that inner space of calm we can enjoy simply when we close our eyes.


That you used my word "cogitating" was funny. An interesting deduction of the Yes. We are always saying we have to accept people where they are, as is, before they can change. I like the concept: to get up and do something, even if it means wash your face!!

I miss the music and the art of religion, especially the hymns. There is much to love in spite of all the harm done in the name of religion. Man is territorial like all animals and it seems to me that this demand that we all accept a certain religion is a territorial dispute for our minds.

My motto has been for some time now Simplify, simplify. Dear old Thoreau.


For me "simplify, simplify" ties in with not overthinking. I discovered that I can't afford to ponder the meaning of life. Nor can I keep asking whether my writing makes sense, given the tiny audience. I am blessed to have even a tiny audience. As John Guzlowski recently said, "I write for friends and people I love." Yes, it’s that simple. 

I am glad that you zeroed in on the gospel story and the message "Take action." I heard a psychologist argued that while for him, an extravert, it was all right to work out his problems by playing the guitar, an introvert needs to keep a dream diary and do a lot of "inner work." In my experience, it is particularly an introvert who needs "outer work." He/she needs to take action rather than continue to obsess with himself and his/her supposedly gigantic problems. Rise up, pick up your bed, and walk! Or, as you say, at least wash your face.

The pool of Bethesda can also be the pool of Narcissus. Norris says, “For contemporary monks suffering from acedia, the cure is much the same as in the fourth-century desert. When a monk says, “I can’t bear to live this way for the next forty years of my life,” the answer is still that he need be concerned only with today. “I recommend physical labor,” one abbot has said, “wood working, gardening, even mopping the halls, anything to get them out of that closed circle of the self.” 

Angie Vorhies:

As a writer, poet, translator, I can certainly understand Norris’s insistence on having the right words at her husband’s deathbed. She was certain that he heard her. But I wonder, at that moment, was it more important for him or for her? She would be the one to remember this scene, to write about it later. Of course the words mattered. 

Reading your post sent me to my bookshelves to look up Psalm 27. I keep two copies of the bible next to my desk for occasions like this where I want to look up something that has been referenced in a literary context. 

One was my dad’s bible, given to him in 1959. He wasn’t particularly religious, but his mother was and she kept it long after he graduated from high school and left home. I wonder if my dad ever opened it. It was given to me after he died and I keep it, not because I think it was important to him, but because it connects me to my dad through my grandmother. It’s a Revised Standard Version, published in 1952, “an authorized revision of the American Standard Version, published in 1901, which was a revision of the King James Version, published in 1611.” Like the sons (and daughters) of Noah, it’s fascinating to me how the bible evolves and is passed down through generations. 

The second copy I have is the King James Version. I keep this on hand because the language is so beautiful and because I think any writer writing in English has to acknowledge the influence this book has had on the language. Whenever I need to look up a passage I go first to the Revised Standard, then to the King James for comparison. I always prefer the latter. 

Here are the closing lines of Psalm 27 (“A Psalm of David”) from the New International Version, the one the hospital chaplain wanted to read:
2 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, 
   for false witnesses rise up against me, 
   spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: 
   I will see the goodness of the LORD 
   in the land of the living. 
14 Wait for the LORD; 
   be strong and take heart 
   and wait for the LORD.  
And the same lines from the King James:

 12Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty.
 13I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
 14Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD.
I’m with Norris on this one. What do you want to hear when you die? Wait, I say, wait for the right words.

But you don’ have to be a writer to understand this. Any music or food lover could relate to this, too. Even prisoners on death row get to choose their final meal. 

This is not a bad thing to start thinking about, actually. I should write this into my will. When my time comes, whatever else you do, please do not play smooth jazz at my funeral.  Or, God forbid, serve fat-free cheese at the memorial service.  If you do, I will come back from the grave to haunt you.

A good suggestion: have a clause against it in your will, or the minister will use the wrong translation, and non-fat Velveeta will be served. I don’t mean this as a joke. I think your point – which is of course Norris’s as well – is excellent. Beauty means so much to you and me, and to those who might come to our memorial services.

A friend expressed distress and disgust because the ashes of a local poet got buried in a plastic container. This poet, Linda, was very much into beauty and had a lot of art in her house. Some might argue, what does it matter, why waste money on a nice-looking container? She isn’t there to see it. No, she isn’t, but the living are there, her friends who expect something that would honor this person’s love of beauty. They were hoping for a beautiful last image connected with Linda. Funerals are really for the living.

I too prefer the King James Version. It basically engendered literary English. It’s the matrix, the source. Those who think that “the angel stirred the water” is “more clear” than “the angel troubled the water,” or that “mat” should be substituted for “bed” seem insensitive to the richness of meaning in KJV, and how much more memorable those unusual phrases are. But of course the sudden presence of an angel would trouble us, or water, or anything you might think of. “Pick up your mat” –that would be fine after a yoga class, but as anyone who reads Lilith’s response can see, we would lose that suggestive richness, that possibility that yes, we are walking with our beds, we are carrying a lot as we go about our business (I think some women are carrying their whole remodeled kitchens). 


A high school music teacher told me, "It isn't true what you've been told. Practice doesn't make perfect." Then he smiled and winked, "Practicing the right things does." But what I first took to be clever insight fizzled when I began wondering, What are the right things? and could find no answers.

I would have been better off with Whatever works, which is a wonderful and true (in the way of experience) mantra, as long as one understands that any project in the soul will never be completed, the work always goes on (knowing that life is in the doing, not the done). I applaud any effort to flee dogma and orthodoxy related to the ways of the soul. In this realm, the word truth (or the phrase one right way) doesn't belong. We can only talk of knowledge and experience and this talk is best visualized as travelers chatting along the way, swapping stories and insights and news of great vistas and the next best restaurant. Run from the traveler (whom we've all met) who knows everything about a people and country. This person travels a path we can ignore. No need to travel there. Thus, flee the person who has an instruction manual for the soul. Soul thrives in conversation, not lecture, where it is lured, not driven.

My own story – I had an off-and-on, love-hate relationship with anti-depressants, a padded holding cell while waiting and looking for a better world. The waiting and looking are key: we wait, we look. But why? I think it was Aristotle who spit out his breakfast gruel and sputtered the word entelechy – the force, or drive, or motivation, for life, the instinct to thrive. This ten-gallon word is built-in, standard equipment. But it left me as frustrated as my music teacher's advice. OK, I want to thrive, I feel the call, what now?

These are the pieces that worked for me: consciousness, naming, and accepting. In that order, not in that order, circling, spiraling up and down, mostly a cauldron, with Shiva stirring. I became aware of what came before my behavior (the archetypes forming my complexes), I learned to name the parts of the soul and its processes, and best of all, learned to accept the entire mix as beautiful and tragic. I once said, I am not repulsed any longer by the landscape of my soul. Later I said, I can accept the landscape of my soul. Still later, I love the landscape of my soul. It was then I declared depression a friend (though one I'm very careful around), and this apparently disgusted him because he doesn't come around much anymore. I think he doesn't like me using him in the way he used me. 

Still, I am careful around cracked sidewalks, dirty window panes, peeling paint, boarded up buildings, and too little sun, too much sun . . .

Isn't this what is meant by Know Thyself?


Thank you, Michael, for the unexpected gift of bringing Aristotle into the discussion. Entelechy is a word as ugly as gruel, but when you look at the Greek, it’s sheer music: entelecheia. Aristotle made it up as a pun on endelecheia, meaning persistence. Punning on persistence, Aristotle inserted telos, meaning end or goal.  And working toward a goal, when it is done daily, with persistence, can be a powerful antidepressant. I remember how happy I was when I was working hard to learn English. It was my last year in Warsaw, and the happiest year of my life. That hard daily work was a major reason I felt so strong. I soared.

Aristotle also gave us eudaimonia, which is generally translated as happiness or well-being. Now, one expression I picked up from Norris’s book is “Let scholars howl.” Let scholars howl, but what I see in that word is a “good daimon.” A daimon was a guardian spirit, but literally it means “destiny.” Listening to one’s daimon is a way to discover one’s own path to fulfillment. (Listen closely, because you’ll be given orders that at first may make little sense.)

For one person, that might be playing the cello every day; for another, weight-lifting. Music may strike us as more lofty than weight-lifting, but for the body builder, it would be a torment – just as dumbbells would be an instrument of torture to the cello player. I am thrilled that you zeroed in on the most important part of this post: whatever works.

Happy are those who have found their path to contentment – without trying to impose it on others. I agree that we must flee the fanatic who thinks that there is only one path to healing. (True, when my mother saw the way I studied English, she said, “You are a fanatic.” But I never tried to force others to follow my example.)

A physician once offered me a free sample of Zoloft, a two-weeks’ supply. A friend of mine who is a therapist warned me, “All you will get is side effects.” I googled the side effects and tossed the pills. By the way, neither the cello nor the weight-lifting will cause side-effects such as weight gain, insomnia, tooth-grinding, and impotence. The same goes for poetry, journaling, meditation, prayer, organic gardening, volunteering for s soup kitchen or animal shelter, acting in a community theater, gourmet cooking, ceramics, and a myriad other ways  that people have discovered as their own path to contentment.

My daimon whispers that for me, there must be a strong commitment and daily practice. Any time I have a specific goal, I work toward it every single day, no excuses. It’s so simple, and the results amaze me every time. Yet, before I put on my prophet’s robes and proclaim that this is The Way, that wise spirit also whispers that for someone else, twice a week may be enough.

But – and this is a huge but – while having a goal is energizing, once the goal is achieved, a crash into emptiness and depression may follow. Luckily, some of us have discovered that it’s best to hold the goal loosely – or to choose the kind of goal that will never run out, and concentrate on the daily practice without thinking about the results. It’s the work and the persistence that have a marvelous mood-stabilizing effect. But if you happen to be someone who needs a clear goal, that’s fine too – whatever works.

I love your second paragraph so much, that I want to repeat it:

Whatever works . . . is a wonderful and true (in the way of experience) mantra, as long as one understands that any project in the soul will never be completed, the work always goes on (knowing that life is in the doing, not the done). I applaud any effort to flee dogma and orthodoxy related to the ways of the soul. In this realm, the word truth (or the phrase one right way) doesn't belong. We can only talk of knowledge and experience and this talk is best visualized as travelers chatting along the way, swapping stories and insights and news of great vistas and the next best restaurant. Run from the traveler (whom we've all met) who knows everything about a people and country. This person travels a path we can ignore. No need to travel there. Thus, flee the person who has an instruction manual for the soul. Soul thrives in conversation, not lecture, where it is lured, not driven.

I wonder how many people actually realize that not being depressed -- I mean chronic depression now, not the acute grief that's situational -- is a choice that's under their control. And even then, to act on that knowledge -- it took me decades before I even wanted to be done with depression. The decision took care of everything; everything else, i.e. practice, followed.

In defense of your teacher who said that it’s practicing the right things that works, he may have been on the right track; it’s just that a young person typically does not yet know his or her own right thing(s) to practice. Those who do are the lucky ones; if they do the practice, they are on a path to excellence as well as contentment.

But the late bloomers among us need not weep. Whatever our practice is, the best is yet to be. 


Lincoln said, People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.


Imagine the panic of Big Pharma if Lincoln's statement became widely known.

True, we may know that we can be just as happy as we choose to be, and yet not be motivated to choose being happy (or at least contented, grateful, amiable, not depressed). For me, motivation was the missing link, until the fact of getting older really registered on me.

At the Burlignton airport, I saw a message chair and the sign that said, Relax in a hurry. Funny, yes, but in fact, you can learn to relax in seconds (no need for a massage chair). My decision not to be depressed also took a second or so . . . but I realize that I had all the tools that I acquired over the years, and all the supportive memories and experiences I could draw on.


Here is another quotation for you:

An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn't know why they choose him and he's usually too busy to wonder why. ~ William Faulkner


The ancient Greeks would have said not “demons,” but a daimon, the guardian spirit that was that person’s destiny. It’s so true that we don’t really know why we write (or paint, or create any kind of art). But we better surrender to that compulsion, or call it destiny, and be too busy doing our task to wonder about the whys and wherefores. Leave those questions to philosophers – they’ll get it all wrong anyway.


Rilke’s comment on therapy:  “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

Though some degree of manic-depression may be common to creative people, it’s possible to have this disorder without being creative and that’s a real tragedy.  Can people talk themselves out of a depression?  You can certainly talk yourself out of a blue mood.  You can go outside for a walk, set yourself some task that will give you a sense of accomplishment, have lunch with a friend, put on some music you love, look at beautiful pictures, read something uplifting, etc.  And what causes one person’s mood indigo may not cause that at all for another person.  My brother and I discovered, as adults, that we both felt happy on chilly gray days because we associated this kind of weather with a fire in the fireplace and hot cocoa—in other words, what we had experienced at home as children in such weather. (And what artist doesn’t like gray?  It’s the perfect ground onto which you can project anything, and any color, you like!)

Conversely, though, I think it’s really hard to talk yourself out of the depths of a major depression, because this is chemically caused and not just a “downer” because of gray skies, a drop in the Dow, or a tiff with a friend or loved one. A chemically caused major depression is a terrible thing to witness (no doubt even worse to have), and I have seen this in someone close to me.  There was absolutely nothing I could do to “cheer her up.”  She had lost interest in everything. 

During the 4 months in the 1960’s in which my marriage was breaking up, I think I also had major depression—although this was what’s commonly called a reactive depression and doesn’t come on because of a lack of serotonin in the brain that occurs for no ostensible external reason. However, I lost 10 pounds in two weeks, going from 106 pounds to 96 pounds, before I got hold of myself and began pulling myself up by my bootstraps, so to speak.  At one point, my husband suggested that a week or two at the beach would do us both good.  I knew that if I ever allowed myself to lie down on some beach, I’d be a goner.  I absolutely refused.  I fight standing straight, with my back to the wall.   

I wasn’t depressed when I lost my mother midway through 2002.  She was 99-1/2 and had been suffering for about 5 years with multi-infarct dementia, macular degeneration, and severe hearing loss.  And the last thing she said to anyone was when she told me, a week before she died, that she loved me—albeit in slightly garbled speech without her usual very clear enunciation.

Oddly, I don’t recall being depressed even after my younger daughter, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004.  I didn’t even have my usual chemical sensitivity problems.  (I have MCS, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, developed in 1985 during renovation of the high-rise office building in which I was working.)  I think I was running on adrenaline then.  I spent the next 3-1/2 months until Amy died flying back and forth between Carlsbad and Denver—between home and Amy. I had the odd idea that Amy couldn’t die as long as I was there, sleeping in the bedroom above her.  And I busied myself searching the Internet for anything that could help her—if not a complete cure for the very rare and extremely aggressive, intractable kind of lung cancer she had. Numbness got me through the two weeks after her death. And then things got very hard, because that was when I realized I was never, ever going to see Amy again. For the next three years I wrote poem after poem about her and the experience of losing her. To be in pain is different from being depressed. People deal with loss in all sorts of ways, but I know it was writing that saved me this time around.


Let me address the demons/angels issue of creativity first. There is no question that I’ve produced less poetry since I closed the door on depression. But it hasn’t been down to zero – I have written two strong poems, and several minor pieces. I have been writing a lot of prose, but that’s because of the blog. But then prose has never been a problem – I wrote pages and pages of prose when depressed, too.

For poetry, I need to slow down to a pensive mood. I need to let go of the cheerful go-go-go energy and listen to slow music, and slowly read poetry, and muse over it – then a new poem may happen. Or I need to have a vivid dream.

When I read a lot of poetry, I get the rhythm of it, and that also increases the likelihood that a poem will be born. But it is a tricky matter. Prose flows from me any time I sit down at the computer. I wouldn't say that poetry requires a certain degree of depression, though some sadness helps. I enjoy energy more, and know how to energize myself, so maybe my challenge now is to learn how to become calm and slow. Without some degree of depression, this is indeed not as easy. No wonder so much poetry is about loss. Loss is the mother of poetry.

Speaking of loss, I have experienced reactive deep depression several times. The second time (I think I was 22) I went down all the way into stupor. Making the bed was such an exhausting chore that afterwards I had to lie down. Then I’d sit up, and stay that way for hours, staring at the wall but not seeing it. My mind was empty of thought.

I realized that this was not normal, and did go to a counselor, barely able to speak. He correctly guessed at one of my losses, to which – this amazes me now – I responded with infuriated denial. From zero I went to anger. I left the office before the session was over, and tried to crawl back into stupor, but couldn’t. I was too full of adrenaline. This upset me even more; eventually I managed to calm down to a certain level of depression, but not the shelter of nothing I had before. And pretty soon I had to begin an internship, and luckily received affectionate interaction. This also showed me something unexpected: that depression could end (for instance, if I was busy with work and had enough positive social interaction) even though the causes of it remained unresolved.

Over the years those specific causes became irrelevant, though new losses happened, new sorrows. During the period when I had no friends and no work stimulating enough to engage me, I noticed something extremely interesting. With absolutely no drugs or any other intervention, after a while the deep depression would lift on its own. One sign was the return of my menstrual cycle. Appetite would gradually increase, the sky become more blue (color perception is diminished during deep depression). There was a kind of rebirth. So I learned that the brain knows how to heal itself. I also learned that life has a way of changing, and that in itself was interesting – in some ways it kept me alive.

But chronic depression could last and last, now agitated, now more slow and de-energized. That’s how I discovered the power of music – not yet to heal, but to be a lifeline. The beauty of nature – which I didn’t notice during deep depression – also helped greatly. The palm tree in front of my window became my best friend. I felt connected even to the rats that lived in palm trees – what did they eat? I admired their survivorship.

And there were books. I could still respond to interesting books, whether The Magic Mountain or good non-fiction. Nevertheless, I was experiencing a lot of suicidal imagery. Once I had a dream in which I was walking around a generic sort of campus, having decided to commit suicide and saying goodbye to people, even strangers (this reminds me of the story of someone who jumped off a bridge – but before he did, he waved at a stranger; the most heart-wrenching of such stories is that of the condemned man who said I love you to his executioner). So in the dream I’m walking around a college campus, saying goodbye, when I come in front of the library. It’s all lit up, and through the glassy walls I see stacks and stacks of books. I stand in awe and keep saying, So many books! So many books!

I see this as one of the most beautiful and meaningful dreams I ever had. The paradise of the mind that’s always there for me.

At this stage of life, as you point out, I have plenty of resources. I look out the window, or drive somewhere beautiful, and can’t help thinking that I live in paradise. So there is both inner and outer beauty I can access. True, I also know that any moment we could have the Big One. The fragility of all we have makes it all the more precious.

I haven’t yet experienced a deep pain that wasn’t depression, aside from very intense post-surgical pain that made me want to die. But that didn’t last long. 
I know such pain may come, and I hope I can rely on the new thought that started occurring to me: That’s OK. I can cope. Once falling apart and crawling into depression cease to be an option, something has to come in their place. And generally something can be done. If not, the situation must and can be endured. I’ve endured enough to call myself a survivor.

And writing, yes. For a writer, “even the bad is good,” as Jackleen wonderfully put it. It’s all material, but awful experiences are particularly good material. Journaling doesn’t do much for me, and I know how easy it is to write enough into despair. But the moment you start transmuting experience into art, you gain distance, and that seems healing. Even writing about yourself in the third person (thank you, Jack Gilbert) is already more interesting, a step out into the world. 

By the way, when a bad mood threatens, I don’t “talk myself out of it.” I turn to my favorite music for rapid transport into bliss. Self-talk can come later, after a dose of pleasure has reset my brain. 

John Guzlowski:

I am a gloomy person.  If I allow my thoughts to drift, they turn toward sad memories, sad histories.  I have to shake myself loose from such thoughts.  I know they do me little good, and I know that they don't do my family or friends any good.  

One of my favorite writers is Isaac Bashevis Singer. As you know, he was a man who had seen terrible things. Much of the old Polish and Jewish world he loved got burned up in the Holocaust and World War II. His mother and brother froze to death going to Stalin's concentration camps. He once said that history was made by madmen and murders, that the world was a brothel and a slaughterhouse. Singer was a man with a sense of life's dark side, everyone's dark side. Once he was asked how any of us could live with this knowledge. He said something like: "We have to live as if none of these terrible things are true." 

By this I think he meant, we have to accept that the world is flawed, but we have to act as if it's not. 

Is that possible?

We can only hope.


Thank you, John, for a very thought-provoking comment. I know that story by Singer (I think it’s “Pigeons”) where he says that history is made by the wicked. And who can deny that?

I used to take perverse pride in my “immense sadness,” as one friend put it. The sin of pride truly takes every disguise, including self-loathing, and is the parent of all other sins. By “sin” I don’t mean anything theological, just “wrong, self-or-other-destructive, unproductive thoughts and acts.” Now I feel rather ashamed of  how I deliberately persisted in gloom, how I avoided the music or books or listening to the birds – anything I knew could give me pleasure. The type of depression I remember with most fascination was stupor – a silence inside my head, a resignation so deep that it was peaceful. No wish to do anything, no suicidal urges. The shelter of nothing.

One reason for my unease about that quite recent self is precisely the comparison with what my parents and grandparents went through – and with my grandparents, we are talking about three wars, not only WWII, though that one was of course the utmost in bestiality. Just the way the Nazis liked to amuse themselves is enough . . . even if we didn’t know anything else.

And yet – though my parents suffered from PTSD for the rest of their lives, and after what they saw and lived through, they could still laugh and joke (there was of course a sort of strange humor even in Auschwitz), they could still feel happy. I have no explanation for this except the strength of the human spirit.

In religion classes I was taught that despair is a sin against the Holy Spirit. But now I think it’s a sin against the human spirit. 

Also, I came to realize how selfish depression is, how terribly self-centered, how puffed up on being “separate, different, and superior” (since feeling so inferior somehow showed how superior my sensitivity was, how realistic my intelligence as opposed to that of the optimistic ninnies around me, etc.)

So I have decided to fight against my tendency to drift toward unhope. Of course you realize that what I am saying is in no way a judgment against you, whom I know to be one of the best and kindest human beings around. Please give yourself credit for the radiant self that is your essence, for your courage to be as kind as you are.  

I came across an interesting statement in a book on the Gnostics (whose beliefs otherwise completely turn me off): that the thing is not to be a Christian, but to become a Christ. That’s what your father was at his best. Like father, like son. Not every moment, 24/7 – nobody is that. But at your core. And it’s because of people like you, those with Christ consciousness, Buddha consciousness, the Just Ones, whatever we call it – that we don’t have to give up on the world.