Thursday, June 30, 2011


Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Persephone


            At least I have the flowers of myself.
                                    ~ h.d.

“Your life would have been
so much happier,” a neighbor sighs,
“if you had been born

in this country.” Then I wouldn’t
have had Warsaw, trembles
my first thought. Memories rush in:

Eurydice at seventeen,
from a Milwaukee suburb
I take a bus downtown –

seeking that giant hum,
that multiple living heart.
I get off when I see the first

tall buildings at last.
But these stand empty, dead,
block after abandoned block.

I walk on and read the scars
of torn-off signs and names;
I’m fractured in cracked mirrors

of the gutted stores.
Sheets of old newspapers
fly at me like crumbling ghosts.

On the pavement, mildewed files,
frayed tangles of electric cords;
in the windows, crooked, stained,

half-shut yellowed shades.
Still disbelieving, I walk on
in tunnels of hissing wind.

Echoes crash in my wake:
alone alone alone –
as I walk toward the blue

window of Lake Michigan
glistening at the end. (Old friend,
are you still waiting for me there?)


Talent is how deep you go in,
walking against the wind
in empty labyrinths. Kind

neighbor, can you understand?
Some of us are driven
by a hunger more terrifying

than the pursuit of happiness.
Call me Eurydice –
I’ve lost a world, but gained

the dark flowers of myself –
not the brief blossoms we give
to brides and to the dead.

~ Oriana © 2011

This poem is not about my loss of Warsaw so much as about my loss of America. I mean the idealized, imaginary America in my mind after I arrived in real America. I was seventeen. That combination – loss of both Poland and America – was to be the first in the series of my “Persephone experiences.” (Eurydice can be seen as a version of Persephone.)

In my early teens, in Warsaw, I fell in love with Greek mythology. I thought it was possible to choose your own special goddess. A fierce young intellectual, I longed for Athena at my side – Athena the super-intelligent, with her brilliant strategies and unfailing guidance and protection of heroes. Now and then I also longed for Aphrodite to lend me her charms and help me in matters of love, but with the understanding that this was a secondary goddess. As my personal goddess, I chose Athena.

Soon enough I learned that you do not choose your god or goddess. Life (or call it fate, or circumstances), in combination with your deep self, chooses for you. Past the age of seventeen and a half, the only goddess I identified with was Persephone.

Persephone is a dual goddess, with two manifestations. The more familiar one is the traumatized maiden, Kore. Yet there is also Persephone the queen, the wise woman who understands the deepest mysteries. She “has been there.” But here is the most wonderful part: when the season is right, Persephone ascends from the Underworld to bring the gift of springtime to the world. Flowers spring up where she steps. She also has a fascinating companion. Hecate (who stands for wisdom and magic) is said to both precede and follow Persephone/Kore. 

I was so identified with the traumatized maiden part of the Persephone myth that I rarely remembered the mature Queen – paradoxically the death goddess who is also the goddess of life. But even when I did remember her, did I ever want to become Persephone the Queen? Does anyone want to be Persephone? The youthful trauma marks the Persephone woman forever. The only good part seems to be having more empathy for the suffering of others. And traveling between worlds (in the sense of re-visiting trauma, though the underworld can be defined in many different ways) may be connected to creativity, but is it the only way?

Trauma may be the necessary ingredient for becoming an artist. But creative work later on can be motivated in other ways, can’t it? – or so I’d love to believe. (If there is a god who comes close to being the male equivalent of Persephone, it’s Hephaistos. Rejected by his mother, lame as a result of his forced fall from Olympus, he becomes a craftsman and an artist – the wonderful shield of Achilles goes beyond mere craft. As Lionel Trilling observed, it is not trauma that distinguishes the artist, but the ability to rise above it.)

Most men in my life seem to have related to my Aphrodite side, unaware of the traumatized girl. I think only one man saw me as a young Persephone, orphaned in an alien world, and that brought out his protective side.

Possibly my first great love also saw that vulnerable side, the nervousness, the low self-esteem – but his response was cruelty, which, along with other misfortunes, imprisoned me in trauma for the rest of my youth. In fact I’m not sure if it’s even possible for me to be happy in a carefree way because I was so deeply devastated in my young adulthood, my spirit broken, my faith in myself shattered. But carefree happiness is not the only kind.

It took many years, but I dare say I have recovered. I have developed skills and acquired resources. But the awareness I gained in my youth – that the worst can happen, and not just to someone else, but to me – that knowledge cannot be erased. The duality of Persephone is my duality as well. The darkness is always at the edge of my consciousness. It doesn’t mean that I can’t have plenty of happy, even ecstatic moments.

Still, I realize that while I have had a good share of “Persephone experiences” (which, Frightened Reader, I am wise enough not to enumerate), in the end I have been spared the worst fate which can and does befall some Persephone women: they never come out of chronic depression, their gifts ungiven, their lives wasted. I saw what was in store for me, and, practically in the last moment, I managed to rescue myself. In an instant that was years in the making, I realized that it was simply too late in life for depression.

It’s not that I decided to be happy – my revulsion against happiness was too long-standing for that. (I couldn’t understand why a brilliant man like Jefferson could even come up with that absurd phrase, “the pursuit of happiness.” Wasn’t his life about the pursuit of excellence instead?) I did not decide to be happy. But I did decide not to be depressed, and that changed everything. I have not had a single relapse, and after two years I am – surprise! – rather – dare I say it? – happy. I love my quiet life – outwardly the same life I had before my perception changed.

I have met three other people who also told me they made the decision not to be depressed, so I know I am not the only person to have followed the path of closing that familiar door and making a commitment. But I would never claim that this is a solution for others. Everyone is different, with a unique life history, and deep decisions ripen strangely, slowly, suddenly. The insight that changes everything may seem to come a fraction of a second, but in fact it was years in the making. I stood there, thrown out of depression, stunned by the slamming door of “too late,” knowing that there was no way back in. I stood there homeless, so to speak, barred from my old shelter and forced to cope and engage with the world – so I did.

[Persephone and Hades depicted on a vase, the British Museum. Note that Hades holds the cornucopia, a symbol of plenty. Scholars are unsure as to what it is that Persephone holds -- a pomegranate fruit? At first glance, I thought she was knitting.]


The transformation from Persephone the Traumatized Maiden to Persephone the Queen does not mean that the woman becomes invulnerable to trauma. Alas, unlike in the myth, in life the rape of Persephone may happen more than once, in various forms – the shattering of dreams and hope can happen in various realms. But the inspiring part of the myth – the transformation from Maiden to Queen – does make the woman less vulnerable to being devastated/destroyed by trauma. I want to emphasize here that this is not the effect of the transformation, and not repeated trauma in the absence of transformation, which is disastrous.

Strength and maturity matter – if you’ve survive once, you know you can survive again and can build on that knowledge. Learning valuable skills matters. It matters tremendously. Knowing how to turn pain into art – or turning to dedicated work in any field – is a triumph of the spirit that makes us less afraid of suffering, since “even the bad is good” – it’s a goldmine of material and/or “learning experiences” (barring extreme circumstances).

Thus, the “pursuit of happiness” is the wrong motto at the early stage of the Maiden-into-Queen transformation. A misguided – or simply unlucky – pursuit of happiness may have brought on the initial trauma in the first place. A more appropriate motto might be the “pursuit of excellence.” Once Persephone gains excellence at doing something, in any field, she builds a foundation of strength and more secure self-esteem. Once a valuable skill is gained and excellence achieved, she may then discover, to her great surprise, that in fact she lives for pleasure – for delight of the deepest kind.

Another set of helpful skill is psychological and social savvy that come simply from life experience: being able to recognize red flags. This can work very well for trauma prevention. A recovering Persephone also learns the value of cultivating supportive friendships, including at least one with an Athena-type woman, with her practical intelligence and disdain for romantic follies. Add to this having not just “a room of your own” but an income of your own (for some reason, Virginia Woolf’s second requirement is rarely quoted) – and even Persephone has a chance of leaving bad memories behind and stepping into a productive and fulfilled life. From crying fits over the past to meaningful work, endurance and splendor – this is what Persephone teaches.

Recognizing that what seems bad can be a hidden blessing is certainly valuable skill. One interesting New Age writer, Byron Katie, suggests that when something adverse happens, we should say, “This is happening for me” rather than “to me.” Persephone women who manage to transform into Queen may be late bloomers, even very late bloomers; but the flowering can be astonishing indeed.

Anna Kaminska, a Polish poet, made a statement that at first struck me as outrageous: “We always receive more than we desire. We receive what we ask for, but sometimes in a different currency, a currency that turns out to be of greater worth.” Since my life has been so rich in shattered dreams and outright travesties, my first impulse was to exclaim, "Hey, mystic poet, wake up! The essence of life is that we don’t get what we desire." (Well, once in a while we do, and the shattering of the dream happens with delay; as Teresa of Avila famously observed, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones.”)

That larger consciousness goes hand in hand with “having a life” – and that matters most of all. If you love your work, you have a daily, reliable source of happiness. You have a practice, a creative routine to which you turn even during hurricane season. It now becomes difficult for a demonic-type man (for instance, a charismatic man who turns out to be a cruel narcissist) to destroy you; he will seek easier prey among the innocent and the weak, those who “don’t have a life” and are waiting for a male savior.

That the presumed male savior may turn out to be one of life’s cruel jokes – an alcoholic, for instance – is not as interesting as arriving at the transformed vision of the life you already have. The marriage that in youth may have been experienced as a prison may in middle age come be perceived as exactly the kind of stable foundation that you need. You married the right man after all! 

As for the Prince, how lucky that he didn’t come, with his demands that you become his “service person.” Perhaps the only way for a woman to become a Queen is not to marry a Prince, especially not in youth, when you haven’t yet found your own path.

One of the important events that led to my insight was a lecture on Aphrodite and the “Aphrodite woman.” To me, most of the lecture seemed to pertain to Persephone rather than Aphrodite. And then I saw the fusion of the two goddesses.

October, the month of Persephone’s descent, seemed to be a month of fate for me, along with my birth month, April, Aphrilis, Aphrodite’s month, sometimes equated with Persephone’s ascent. The pomegranate was sacred to both goddesses. If the golden Aphrodite is another phase/face of Persephone, the circle is completed, the suffering transmuted into art and/or of personality enlargement, similar to what happens when a person falls in love (often a combined Aphrodite/Persephone experience).

In neurological rather than mythic terms, the traumatized young Persephone is mainly the dysfunctional, hyperactive amygdala that causes so much suffering in the post-traumatic stress disorder. But there is another part of the brain that can calm down the screaming amygdala, and that’s the left pre-optic frontal cortex: the seat of (dare we say it?) reason, focus, insight, creativity. Here was Athena after all. But when it comes to the healing power of music and beauty and pleasure, we are back to Aphrodite.

Perhaps the worst part of trauma, of being identified with Persephone, is having a well-developed inner hell, with many mansions. An innocuous-seeming detail, a minor stressor, can drop a traumatized woman down into one of those inner infernal mansions, into the corridors of howling. Yet even in the darkest hell, what is that glimmer? It’s Aphrodite who glows and smiles, reminding a woman that she, too, is Aphrodite and has some of Aphrodite’s charisma, the magic that can transform anything into beauty. Let me repeat what Lionel Trilling said: it's not trauma that distinguishes the artist, but the ability to rise above it. 

The challenge of a Persephone-identified woman is to learn how to rescue herself from her inner hell. Athena provides insight, and that may be enough. But it also helps to focus on Aphrodite’s smile. Aphrodite imparts the glow of positive emotions, the memories of being loved. Persephone must learn to remember that she is also Aphrodite.

But this is not the only way in which Aphrodite can function as a savior. I have recently re-read the Aphrodite chapter in Jean Shinoda’s Goddesses in Older Women (Harper and Collins, 170-176). Already the subtitle struck a chord: “Lover, Creative Woman.” For Shinoda, Aphrodite is also the goddess of creativity. It’s not only that she is attracted to creative men, becomes their muse, believes in their talent and nurtures them before they gain recognition. What is even more important is that Aphrodite has her own artistic side. The Aphrodite woman can be intensely engaged in her own creative work.

As Jean Shinoda puts it, “Aphrodite is also the archetype of creativity. The same intensity and total absorption that happens when we fall in love is essential to the creative process” (p. 173). My own experience bears it out: the artist falls in love with the work in progress. Like Aphrodite the lover, s/he must be intensely in the moment, and both focused and receptive.

This is possibly the most original contribution of Shinoda’s presentation of the goddess archetypes. Aphrodite as the goddess of beauty and love has been with us for a millennia; Aphrodite as the goddess of creativity has not been paid much attention. Persephone is in part a goddess of creativity through her gift of travel between the worlds and imparting an aura of mystery (and poetry thrives on mystery). But Aphrodite can be a particularly empowering archetype for creative women – as well as for intellectual women such as scientists, or any other women whose work is intensely absorbing, and creates experiences similar to falling in love.

When such women are fulfilled by their work, I’ve often seen what I call the “smile of Aphrodite” on their faces. It’s like the radiance of a woman in love. I’ve seen on the face of a woman mycologist explaining to me why the study of fungi is the most fascinating field in the world; I’ve seen it on the faces of dancers and weavers. I remember the liberating moment when I realized that I can be totally intellectual and totally feminine; not only was there no contradiction, but it created a special charisma. After all, Aphrodite is the goddess of love; that love need not be focused exclusively on relationships with men.

I happen to know many creative women, and they strike me as Persephone-Aphrodite women – with enough of Athena and/or Artemis traits to enable them to cope with the world. Yet their mystery and creative powers seem to stem from that ability to take Persephone’s suffering and transmute it into Aphrodite’s gold.

If Aphrodite stands for the happy woman, and Persephone for the unhappy one, that division is of course an oversimplification and downright distortion. Aphrodite does experience love’s sorrows; it’s that she has learned that the gifts of love are worth it in spite of the pain that love also brings. And Persephone who matures into the Queen also comes to realize that it is blissful to withdraw from the world into the inner world (for me the underworld means primarily the inner world, which requires solitude). When the time is ripe, she finds it just as blissful to ascend into connection with others. Maybe because she has already suffered so much before maturity, Persephone is dazzled by all the happiness that is now hers. I dare put forth this radical thesis: mature Persephone is the happiest goddess.

Needless to say, Persephone’s empathy, depth, and rich inner life are indispensable creative assets as well. And besides, is Persephone the Queen perhaps none other than Aphrodite, dewy with reflected light?


Deep summer. I eat gold squash

and black plums. Persephone says
she makes the soul at high heat,

out of darkness and desire,
that first fatal pomegranate seed.
Aphrodite makes her half of the soul

stirring in birds, the dolphin leap.
“Be happy like God,” Aphrodite
dares. Persephone regrets

nothing; Aphrodite sings
for her dead. I’ve feasted on grief
long enough. My youth is gone,

I’m ripe for life. Autumn fog,
Persephone’s wind-riven veil,
will sweep us away, but it’s August,

sun spills into the lucent grass,
and you say yes, tonight,
let’s consume

our bodies while they last,
the ground split with fallen figs,
golden apples, plums.

~ Oriana © 2011
Thomas Hart Benton: Persephone


Some favorite lines:

let’s consume

our bodies while they last,
the ground split with fallen figs,
golden apples, plums.

"I'm fractured in cracked mirrors"

"crumbling ghosts"

"the dark flowers of myself"

~ each one could make a whole poem


Yes, that's the power of imagery -- each image holds so much in it. When I research the pomegranate, in particular, the symbolism was all over the place, but what particularly struck me was that the pomegranate was sacred to both Persephone and Aphrodite. 

Mary (in Chicago):

Lovely poems and reflections, Oriana. And yes, your old friend Lake Michigan is still there, right where the last Ice Age created her. Just a few blocks from where I live, in fact.


I have a poem about Lake Michigan that’s more like a fragment:


Seventeen, alone and scared,
I thought, “I exchanged
Warsaw for this?”
looking at stunted suburban homes,

downtown’s abandoned streets.
You were my sole sublime:
a lake so huge I couldn’t see
the other shore.

A lake with respectable waves,
like a sea bay!
I watched you slap at the stone jetty.
Cold spray lashed out at the lamp posts.

During those months of weeping,
I knew you were there,
waves without end,
gray water underneath white fog.

In November’s stinging sleet,
I loved how you owned the horizon.
You were an image of my life:
I could see only gleaming distance.

Great Lake of memory,
you are still like life:
I cannot see the other shore.
When winter’s winds come like knives,

before I say “I know, I know,”
I will remember you,
that year my only friend,
the dancing way you had with light.

~ Oriana © 2011


I am still awed when I think about the Great Lakes – the largest fresh-water lakes in the world: amazing!

It was an extremely difficult time in my life, but for a writer, “even the bad is good,” as a poet-friend observed. Not that I knew it at the time. It’s only now that I am grateful for at least some of my Persephone experiences. 


Perhaps you can put these poems in a collection: "Immigrant," "The Girl from Warsaw," "The Myths of the Immigrant." Each one of them captures the experience in a different way. I read so many stories when they arrive, they work hard, success! Your poems are real. Like adoption, immigration is based on loss and the loss never diminishes.


Thank you for that interesting analogy with adoption. Yes, immigration is adoption after all, but without kind new parents to nurture and instruct you, and any immigrant could use such parents . . . And the loss is double, because after a while (sometimes even a short while) you don't fit in the country of origin; you have unalterably changed by having stepped out of your circle and experienced what may be a radically different world. You’ve eaten the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. So the original "I could always go back" escape clause disappears.

What I read decades too late is that immigration is something you do for your children. This strikes me as a wise statement. Now if that bit of wisdom had gotten through to me at the age of, say, sixteen, I dare say it would have hit me between the eyes!! It seems incredible now, but I had zero awareness of immigrant realities. Sure, I'd heard about homesickness, but -- I know this will sound crazy, but remember the teen brain is not very developed -- I thought it wouldn't happen to ME!!! What propelled was definitely not any idea of sacrifice for the sake of my future children. I expected no homesickness, no hardship, no tears -- just each day being an exciting adventure of a sort I couldn't quite imagine . . . 

That day when I set out to “see Milwaukee,” I found myself walking in a nightmarish, deathly landscape of abandoned streets, the Dead City, one of the several underworlds I was to experience. Many years later I managed to capture the experience.

A friend told me she once found herself in an abandoned section of New York, and it was profoundly unsettling.

Even normal, "live" parts of any American city can unnerve an outsider because of the absence of people on the sidewalks (typically). A European thinks (or used to think) that a city is supposed to be "humming with life."  When I was in my teens, crowded sidewalks also meant safety and a kind of anonymous community. In addition, streets were a part of history. To abandon any part of the city, to just let it decay, would have been a sacrilege, a heartless abandonment. But then I myself could have easily been accused of heartlessness back then, having just abandoned the familiar streets for an imaginary “promised land.” 


It’s wonderful that in Persephone women have this role model of transformation from victim to queen, but what about men? Men also suffer from trauma and depression. Is there a myth that addresses that?


Thank you, Charles, for asking a very important question. Even though men on the whole rate themselves as more happy as women (the notorious “happiness gap”), and even though testosterone is the “happy hormone” that produces an orientation toward action rather than brooding, there is no denying that trauma and depression affect men as well, often with tragic consequences (men are more likely to succeed at suicide).

In Re-Visioning Psychology, James Hillman tries to make the “Persephone experience” relevant for men as well:

“Each of us enacts Persephone in soul, a maiden in a field of narcissi or poppies, lulled drowsy with innocence and pretty comforts until we are dragged off and pulled down by Hades, our intact natural consciousness violated and opened to the perspective of death. Once this has happened – through a suicidal despair, through a sudden fall from a smooth-rising career, through an invisible depression in whose grip we struggle vainly – then Persephone reigns in the soul and we see life through her darker eye.” (p. 208)

This universalizing is impressive, but emotionally there remains a gap: a man is simply not going to see himself as Persephone, while for me the identification was both unwelcome and unavoidable. Eventually I managed to perceive and welcome Persephone the Queen, the form of the goddess to which I was blind in my youth. And thus the myth became not frightening (the way the Dead City was frightening in “Eurydice in Milwaukee”), but healing. If a man hopes to be empowered by a mythological story, I think the story practically requires a male protagonist. 

The myth that can empower at least some men is that of Hephaestus, whom I see as the “wounded artist.” Hephaestus experienced parental rejection (to put it mildly); afterwards, he suffered because of Aphrodite’s betrayal. Nevertheless, we don’t think of Hephaestus as a victim. That’s because he became a wonderful craftsman and visual artist. No, we never think of him as a victim; we think of his excellence and his marvelous creations. His salvation and his joy lay in giving himself to creative work.

A more problematic myth is that of Dionysus, the god of ecstasy. Dionysus is often called “twice born.” He is dismembered, then resurrected. He stirs women to both ecstasy and madness. As a male savior, he rescues his mother from Hades and marries the abandoned Ariadne; on the other hand, as the leader of frenzied Maenads (think of today’s celebrity groupies), he is hardly a role model. There is a bipolar pattern here, not the security of the daily smithy of Hephaestus. But as the god of ecstasy, Dionysus cannot be ignored. He may serve as a reminder to “let yourself go.” Jean Cocteau said, “Genius, in art, consists in knowing how far we may go too far.”

Remembering Dionysus may also be helpful in recovery from trauma. What does Dionysus learn from being torn apart, then resurrected? He learns that he can survive. And this may be inspiration enough. Dionysus, the god of the life force, cannot be destroyed. This is a message that turns against despair. Something in you is inviolable; it will survive and heal you.

Dionysus reminds me of another myth that helped me: the story of Ariadne abandoned on the island of Naxos. Dionysus comes to her in her despair, and she becomes the god’s bride. For me the equation was simple: marry your art. I’ll develop this in the next post.


So it is a shared experience for those who have been in Persephone's kitchen, male or female, to learn to walk with Persephone's face – the cover, the mask, and only by looking closely can an observer see the knowing that lives in the eyes or in the subtle folds of the face (the sad knowing). If divined, it would reveal the truth about that place in which we grew, as Rilke knew, and lamented: "If I had grown in some generous place, if my hours had opened in ease, I'd make a lavish banquet for you, my hands wouldn't clutch at you like this, so needy and tight."

Recently I spent two weeks with my mother.  It was the first time I saw clearly the world in which I'd grown. I was compelled to verbalize that place, which meant wrapping my mother and father in words, and the words were reluctantly called up, they were harsh and unpleasant, and haltingly whispered. And still, I can only say them to myself. At first I thought I'd lost the idealized dream of what I thought I'd been, what my family was, and how I'd grown. I welcomed yet another painful departure, yet another good-bye wave I've learned so well at mid-age. And this got me thinking about loss, which I'm now thinking is more about finding than losing. And isn't this the essence of your thought here?

I’ve lost a world, but gained

the dark flowers of myself –
not the brief blossoms we give
to brides and to the dead.

Naming the stark place of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual poverty in which I grew has strangely buoyed me along. No wonder, I say, I've struggled so. I've had a long journey just to catch up, much less to excel. And I remain at the threshold of that world, foot in, foot out, circling, not quite able to look away finally, or forever.
So yes,
My youth is gone,

I’m ripe for life. Autumn fog,
Persephone’s wind-riven veil,
will sweep us away, but it’s August,

sun spills into the lucent grass,
and you say yes, tonight,
let’s consume

our bodies while they last,
the ground split with fallen figs,
golden apples, plums.

Beyond enjoying the profound beauty of these verses (and they are profoundly beautiful), I read them as wistful, and as a surrendering to the only meaning that's left.

"I’m not sure if it’s even possible for me to be happy in a carefree way because I was so deeply devastated in my young adulthood, my spirit broken, my faith in myself shattered. But carefree happiness is not the only kind."

I can only sigh. This is out of my soul.

Related: I’ve been thinking about time and the psyche. No questions, per se, just thinking. I’m awed that I can be child again, or infant, or young man, that I can smell in those places, feel and touch, and memories are alive in my body, pulsing with a joy, a pain, and in an instant, I return to the present. And I've puzzled over time on the trail – the usual markers for distance and time are not functional, like being outside of time – I see the hiker pause when asked which day it is, the word day being unfamiliar, and then the blank expression while searching for a hold, a marker, to remind which day it is, whatever that means, and the concept of day, of time, remains foreign and very unwelcome.

Stirred by your blog. Thank you.    

Thank you, Michael, for this rich poetic response.
Time is indeed partly foreign to us, since in the inner life we can call up an image from childhood, or imagine ourselves in ancient old age. Also, we think according to our personal landmarks, and not in terms of, say, July 2, 1996, 2:15 pm. So the external time doesn’t feel quiet real. (An Alaska joke: What were you doing on the night from October to April?)
The pomegranate, sacred to both Persephone and Aphrodite, was a symbol of the womb, and thus of fertility. This fits Aphrodite, but it is particularly striking when we consider Persephone. Of course we must not forget that each spring Persephone becomes the goddess of life. Still, it is because she ate those “fertility seeds” that Persephone must return to the Underworld. Is there a hint here that fertility requires some degree of withdrawal from the busy upper world, some quiet time? This would hold true for artistic creativity. But pregnant women also often seem withdrawn, as Rilke beautifully observed in his masterpiece, “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.”
A friend of mine calls her meditation “doing my gratitudes.” This is coming easier and easier to me as well. What you say about the way you grew up made me feel grateful for my very rich childhood. I don’t mean material wealth, especially not in the American sense – what a laugh that would be, our cramped make-shift apartment in Warsaw (I will never forget how a visiting American scientist exclaimed: “You are so poor! Yet everywhere I go, there is art on the walls, there are flowers on the table.” I was astonished at his astonishment.)
Yes, there were flowers on the table. There was money for vacations and ballet lessons, private English lessons and German lessons, and certainly for what books were to be found in the rather bizarre bookstores behind the Iron Curtain (I wonder how many people still remember that phrase). As a daughter of two Ph.D.’s, I grew up with what might be called “intellectual privilege.” This had both benefits and drawbacks, since as soon as I left Warsaw, my life went downhill in some important ways, and I could never regain the intellectual richness of my original milieu. That was my first “Persephone experience.” Some losses are just losses, impossible to translate into a gain – though on the whole I agree with the idea that a loss can be a hidden gain. 

Or maybe the human brain is so creative that it will find a gain in almost anything, given the innate drive to do so. Once I said, "I came to America in order to be traumatized enough to become a poet." Only when I noticed the expression of shock on the faces of my friends did I realize how extreme that sounds. Of course there is no real answer here in terms of purpose; it's just an instance of how the mind will latch onto anything rather than admit the suffering was useless.
Or else the loss and gain are in different realms. Not long ago I was “doing my gratitudes” and pondered that just being able to watch the sunset on the Pacific is paradise. On the other hand, I also felt mournful thinking of two of my friends reading at The Tender Barbarian (named after the title of a Czech novel), a cafĂ©/bookstore near the University of Warsaw. I also thought of a local poetry workshop I once attended, in a place with a glorious view of the Pacific. I presented a poem with Orpheus in the title. The two male participants were both indignant. One (a former lawyer) said with passion, “I don’t know who Orpheus is, and I DON’T WANT TO KNOW.” So I too can only sigh . . .  and then resume “doing my gratitudes.”
Nevertheless, carefree happiness may be possible yet – moments of it, but that is enough. One of the surprises in recent years has been the much-replicated finding that people grow happier as they grow older. True, it took me a very long time to disassociate myself from Persephone as the traumatized young girl, but the privilege of growing older (and we must remember that not everyone has had that privilege) finally exerted its transformative power. Yes, I am aware that everything could be taken away in an instant, but I don’t focus on that thought. I’ve learned to do more and think less. I’ve learned to “gaze at the world” rather than constantly introspect. The practice of contentment is becoming easier. That feeling of not belonging becomes irrelevant; we belong to the universe; we belong to ourselves. How rich we are after all! Persephone, let us not forget, married the richest of the gods. AND she wasn’t confined to one world or the other.
Besides, as I write in one of my poems, “Asphodel,”
The ancients understood
the soul feeds on flowers. Even
in hell, a life filled with flowers.


John Guzlowski:

The blue window of Lake Michigan is a perfect image. I grew up in Chicago, in the ruins of so many dreams, the broken factories around various corners, the workingman's taverns, the long blocks of small shops that sold nothing, but there was always Lake Michigan and the streets and parks along its length.  In Chicago, the lake and the city came together for 38 miles and when I was a kid I spent so much time on that edge. The blue lake and the green parks in front of me and the city at my back. I didn't want to turn around.  When I finally left home, moved out of my parents' house, I rented a room in an apartment near the lake, and I tried to go there every day for a walk or a bike ride or just to sit.  

I hadn't thought about how much the lake meant to me, but of course it did.  It was the perfect place to dream. I remember riding my bike down there – the paths and sidewalks along the lake where great and you could go for hours and hours and never cross a street – amazing. 

I've written so many poems about the lake: its dreaming center.

But it's also the place where I went crazy.  When I did acid or smoked too much dope or got really drunk, I'd go to the lake -- like I was trying to get it all out of me in those cold waters, but most of the time I just ended up getting crazier or running into other people who were as lost as I was.  

And one winter after graduating from college I worked on the lake as a long shoreman.  There's a pier that sticks out into the lake about 1/2 mile, and boats used to line up along it and take on and drop off cargo. It was the only pier in the middle of the city and sitting at the end of the pier during lunch time and looking back into the city with all the sky above was always something.


Thank you, John for this dreamy post and poem. I especially love “I grew up in Chicago, in the ruins of so many dreams, the broken factories around various corners, the workingman's taverns, the long blocks of small shops that sold nothing, but there was always Lake Michigan.”

Even my first glimpse of the lake was amazing – another reality opening at the end of that long abandoned street: something  huge and primeval against the heartless capitalism that I felt back then in my first encounter with urban decay. Something beautiful in an eternal way.

That feeling of being lost may be part of being human, but it’s especially acute, I think, when we are leaving adolescence and experiencing the first shattering of dreams. Sometimes the city-scape mirrors that. The experience I describe was uncanny and unforgettable. It would have been an experience of despair – except for the jewel-like lake that suddenly came into view. It was a moment of grace. I was too exhausted to continue all the way to the strand, but I knew the lake was there. 


Enjoyed your posting very much. It hit home in many ways. I like how you stated you made the decision to not be depressed. Too many times I will find myself focusing on negative things or things that COULD happen and letting it rob me of the here and now. Your blog should be required reading for many people. The insights and openness of yourself and the people who comment are refreshing in a world of blogs where so many are meaningless drivel. Your writing on loss of Poland and the idealized America you had would make a great book, very poignant. Thanks as always for your engaging blog. I recommend it to everyone.


Thank you, Scott, for praising the openness – not just mine, and that of the people who comment in this blog. For me the whole point of prose is not to produce forgettable upbeat chatter, but to share from the depths. If the story we tell is true – insofar as we are able to tell the truth – then complexity and subtlety, and even mystery and beauty will follow.

What startles me now is that for many years I realized I could indeed make the decision not to be depressed, but I had no motivation to do so. I don’t mean I could have made this decision in my youth, when most of the bad stuff was happening. That was an overwhelming situation, and I had neither wisdom nor other resources. I am grateful just to have survived. That I did not manage to stay sunny and keep smiling, that many times I sank into despair – I don’t blame myself for that. I don’t blame myself for not having been a Buddhist sage who could laugh at how every dream turned into a travesty.

But later I did have the skills and resources, and I still wasn’t motivated not to be depressed, preferring to brood over the misfortunes of the past (even that is understandable from the point of view of what neuroscientists call the “negativity bias”). It took the pressure of aging. What finally motivated me was the desire not to waste the rest of my life – once I truly understood that simple phrase, “the rest of my life.”


I remember when the Jean Shinoda Bolen book was so popular (was that the late 80's or early 90's?) and everybody was talking about what goddess they most identified with.  In fact, that book was one of the many that I ditched in my move this year, threw it in the dumpster.  Coming from the "pop psychology" point of view, her books were accessible to the new agers, and sold very well, as I recall. 

Grounded in the mythopoetical, as you are, as well as being an artist who has gone through the depths (and a genuine intellectual to boot), your writing about myths within us is powerful and true beyond anything a pop psychologizer could come up with.  I can see an entire book of yours, both prose and poems, about overcoming depression through living Greek mythology.  And it would be a far better book than Bolen's. But are we beyond the era of the book?  If so, the world has your wonderful blog to read.


Thank you, Lilith. I blush. And I think you are too hard on Shinoda, who was a pioneer after all, back in the mid-eighties. “Which goddess are you?” was an unfortunate sales gimmick, and Shinoda quickly points out that few women fit just one pattern – although now and then I do meet an overflowing Demeter, a tight-lipped, efficient Athena, or an athletic Artemis running with her dogs.  

The bigger question is whether the knowledge of mythology is helpful to us. There are those who claim that it’s time to drop those archaic stories. Who cares? they ask. Some of us do care because something in the story speaks to us deeply. And stories have a power to heal. In fact, certain myth could be perceived as stories about healing: Persephone’s transformation, Psyche’s tasks and journey through the underworld, the abandoned Ariadne’s marriage to Dionysus. In all of these, the young woman is traumatized, and then manages to unite with the divine.

It may be a different element of the story that speaks to us at different stages of life. At first, I identified with Persephone strictly from the point of view of trauma, of finding myself in the Dead City. Eventually I was able to connect with Persephone the Queen, a powerful image of transformation from trauma to royalty. 

But another woman might respond most to the notion that Demeter, with enormous love, went searching for her daughter. And yet another person might see a girl coming out of the earth, and it’s springtime.
After writing most of this post, I had a dream about a flood. The waters kept rising. And what was I trying to save? Books. Not any special books, just the first stack that was at hand. Because books stand for culture. The flood of illiteracy is rising, but there are always those who try to be the bearers of light. In the words of Hoelderlin, “Where danger grows, that which saves us grows also.” 


I was re-reading your latest entry and fully agree with Lilith: your story of leaving Poland, coming to America and your life here would make a great book.

I think too that not only is myth not dead, we need  it more than ever and it continues in film and books in many different  forms. In your home of San Diego this week the Comic Con event is  going on, so much of the goings on there are taken straight from myth  or a close cousin. My teenage daughter is a big fan of the Greek and  Egyptian myths, I have been thinking of re-reading Kazantzakis'  fantastic epic on Odysseus this summer. A monster of an epic poem, it would keep me occupied until October when two Moby Dick related books  are due out!

Just last week I visited an old friend and was introduced to his girlfriend. After talking some I discover she is a big reader and is of Polish/Jewish heritage, her father came here in the 20's. My  friend is a devout atheist and big reader too. His favorite writer is Tolkien( which I find oddly ironic in that he was a lifelong devout  Catholic); I told them both to check your blog out. Please consider a book, it would make great reading.


First, a minor comment: a lot of atheists, especially if they could be described as “devout atheists,” have a basically religious temperament. They are bright, educated, and hungry for meaning. Organized religion has failed to nourish that hunger, but intelligent religious writers, those who don’t mechanically mouth the dogma, can be satisfying. At least they are concerned with the large issues and are themselves spiritual seekers and questioners who dare to think on their own. My favorite C.S. Lewis piece is the one with a rather Swedenborgian flavor: a bus to heaven makes its stop at the gates of hell. Any soul in hell that would prefer heaven is free to get on the bus. The bus leaves empty.

I think that like poetry, mythology (in all forms) has its relatively small but dedicated audience, and will not vanish from the culture. Those stories are an eternal comment on the human condition, and can be surprising (Odysseus rejecting immortality, returning to his palace in beggar’s rags), and inspiring (Psyche in her journey through the Underworld learning to “stay on task” and refusing to “feed the hungry ghosts”). Like a good preacher who makes the Gospel stories come to life by using modern-day examples, we keep re-interpreting the myths so they continue to have meaning for us.

The book that you and many others have been suggesting I write would go against the “happy immigrant” stereotype. It wouldn’t be exactly like I.B. Singer’s Lost in America, but that title immediately rings true for me, brings me back to that shattering first year. Native-born Americans would not care to hear about it. They want to hear about immigrant success, happiness, and gratitude for finding yourself in paradise. They don’t want to know about what I call the “immigrant trauma.”

After all, isn’t a person supposed to be happy just to be here? The last thing the readers would want is my starting with the sentence, “The greatest mistake I made in my life was leaving Poland.” I have given a lot of thought to this matter, and this continues to be my conclusion. I hasten to clarify that this was my greatest mistake from the point of view of personal happiness, but not necessarily from the perspective of becoming a writer, if that is given a superior value over the “pursuit of happiness.”

Interwoven with the immigrant trauma is, to use Milosz’s phrase, “the history of my stupidity.” And I have to concur with the ending of his poem (“Account”):

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.

So I don’t foresee a book, but a continuation of what I have been bringing forth: poems and prose entries that reveal this or that aspect of a very complex story that's by no means finished. Vignettes. See, for instance, in this blog, The City of Tomorrow or the poem My America. 


I have always realized a room of one's own is only part of it. We also need an income of some sort.

The room must be quiet and have a door for privacy.  A writer needs a time without interruptions.

One line stood out for me: "the flood of illiteracy" – and a flood it has become. Most households have so many electronic devices, the way we used to have books everywhere. Children are "entertained" all the time and are not using their own creative minds, and they are not outdoors playing. This contributes to obesity. Play is a child's work of growing up and learning.

I loved "the blue window of Lake Michigan.” I’ve never been there but all waters for me are blue windows to nourishing the creativity of a poet.


Yes, ultimately there is no evading it, and Woolf was explicit: a woman writer needs sufficient income so that she doesn’t need to work for money. She needs to have enough money to buy her the time for writing, a time without interruptions. The destructive aspect of email is that it’s a constant interruption.

It seems that everyone loves that “blue window” of Lake Michigan. It was a glimpse of beauty at the end of the frightening street lined with abandoned buildings. I didn’t need to walk that far; it was enough to see that blue window to regain my connection with something real and lasting, something I could love.