Saturday, July 23, 2011


Michał Chruściel wearing a T shirt with Milosz’s poem “Love.”
Photo: Ewa Chruściel


Love means you look at yourself 
The way one looks at distant things 
For you are only one thing among many. 
And whoever sees that way
Heals his heart from various ills. 
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend. 

Then he wants to use himself and things 
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness. 
It doesn’t matter if he knows what he serves: 
Who serves best doesn’t always understand. 

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Warsaw 1943



This is the translation in Milosz’s Collected (Ecco Press, 2001). I touched it up very slightly. I was tempted, however, to render the last line in a way that would be more faithful to the Polish original, with its different emphasis: “The one who understands is not the one who serves best” (Nie ten najlepiej służy, kto rozumie – literally, “Not he serves best who understands”). It sounds awkward in English, but it’s an interesting statement, possibly an expression of a certain disdain for intellectuals, including theologians and ideologues and all those who are dogmatically committed to serving this or that grand cause. In fact the rationalist mind can easily end up serving evil, as Milosz discusses in The Captive Mind. The real cause we serve remains obscure to most “workers in a vineyard,” as Milosz was to say decades later in the great poem of his old age, “Late Ripeness.”

          Giotto: St. Francis preaching to the birds, 1297

But I digress. The last line is fairly marginal to the impact of the poem, which derives from the surprising first two lines, followed by a third with which there can be no argument. Is that what love means? the startled reader asks. Looking at yourself with detachment, knowing you are “only one thing among many”? And if you see yourself as “one thing among many,” then your beloved too is “one thing among many.” Don’t lovers adore the person their love and also themselves as reflected in his or her eyes? Don’t they adore even the little quirks and flaws (my favorite here: “I love your sweet little neuroses”)? Isn’t love closer to what Lorca means when he exclaims: “Flower of love: narcissus”?

But if the flower of love is narcissus, next we have the earth opening up, the black horses of Hades, and an abduction to the country of the dead. Or, to switch to the actual myth of Narcissus, we can’t see anything except our own reflection, which also leads to losing the world. Milosz claims that to love, to be genuinely loving, we need to drop the attachment to the self as special; we need to see ourselves from a detached perspective, humbly acknowledging that we are only “one thing among many.”

Milosz further claims that seeing oneself with detachment is a way to heal one’s heart of many griefs (the Polish words could be literally translated as “worries,” but that word contains the root of “death” [think of “mortification”] – worrying is a degree of dying). After all, our troubles are only part of that sea of troubles that life is for everyone.

It’s only after we have achieved this detachment, this humility, that we are capable of loving kindness and selfless service. Furthermore, it’s not necessary to know what it is we are serving – in fact, the person who understands is not the one who serves best, Milosz claims. When we aren’t self-absorbed, we feel united with others and with nature. My favorite line in this poem is “A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.”  

I am glad that I discovered this poem only recently. Years ago, I would have shrugged it off. My thinking was opposite: love (and not only romantic love) is passionate attachment, a total giving of oneself that paradoxically serves to shape individuality. Nothing could lessen my intensity. As my mother kept observing since my early teens, “You are a fanatic.”

I had to agree. I saw myself as an extremist. Only extremes interested me: the saints and heroes, the supreme workaholics, the wild-eyed “intensives” who had no fear of going too far. I rarely met people who had my kind of intensity, so for a long time I didn’t realize just how overwhelming and often stressful such intense emotional energy can be to those who seek relaxation instead, the sweet chirp of meaningless chatter. (I don’t mean to put down that kind of soothing chatter; it took decades, but I did come to appreciate it myself. There is a time for intensity, and a time for peacefulness.)

Love as non-attachment, an erasure of the special, unique self? I wasn’t able to understand the idea. One aspect of new love or friendship or a new creative project or an intellectual pursuit that I particularly enjoyed was discovering a somewhat different self emerge in the interaction with that person, or as a result of the new engagement with work. “Oh, so I can be that calm,” I’d think with joy. Or, “So it’s true: I can listen with great empathy; people are attracted to my warmth.” “I’m capable of being very meticulous,” I’d conclude, amazed at how I could integrate and organize a complex article.

In was through a process akin to falling in love that I’d discover my positive traits, for instance a new kind of patience and wisdom that I didn’t yet know I possessed. I’d surprise myself, and I confess that I’ve always loved being surprised by myself. In the presence of someone accepting, or in response to the challenge of a work project, I’d be bolder and funnier than I thought I could be. If I felt valued, I blossomed. All this helped my self-esteem, shredded by earlier rejection and misfortunes, the persistent sense of being a failure and not living up to the social and parental standards (later in life I made the unsettling and liberating discovery that in terms of social standards, once I left Warsaw and was no longer seen as the “bright child of educated parents,” practically nothing was expected of me. I was a small woman from Eastern Europe; nobody cared if I accomplished anything; it was all in my head).

(By the way, if my examples of self-discovery sound like narcissism, I echo Tony Hoagland’s What Narcissism Means to Me, and state that in my case any degree of positive narcissism was a heroic achievement. Masochistic narcissism, better known as self-loathing, came naturally. I am afraid that only depressives and lapsed Catholics can understand this.)

None of that has changed. I value non-attachment, but I continue to value passionate engagement. And for that matter, those who’d cite “Love” as evidence of Milosz’s early awakening to Buddhism – in wartime Warsaw, at that – would have to deal with those poems and essays of his that assert the unique and infinitely precious value of each personality and each thing, no matter how ordinary. Worse, he explicitly states his desire  to have them preserved for eternity, be it in some transcendent realm. He could not endure the constant, massive vanishing that he experienced with special acuity. The promise of early Christianity was, after all, total resurrection. Milosz rightly insists that if a person is to be properly resurrected, then his or her entire context must also be resurrected; not just a particular woman – let’s call her Tamara – but also her nightstand, her tube of  lipstick. All, all must be preserved.

His love for Lithuania and especially for his grandparents’ estate was also legendary. And yet Milosz also wrote one of the most moving examples of non-attachment, “The Manor” (a subsection of the sequence Lithuania, after Fifty-two Years). The poem starts:

There is no house, only the park, though the oldest trees have been cut down.
And a thicket overgrows the traces of former alleys.
The granary has been dismantled, white, castlelike,
With cellars where the shelves harbored winter apples.

~ The linden alley is gone, and the orchards. The river is unrecognizable, reddish with pollution, without rushes and lily pads. He stands looking at his lost paradise, now reduced to thistles and nettles. And he blesses life, and the vagrants in a shack with a metal pipe instead of a chimney. He’s glad that there is enough wood left for them to cut down for fuel.

As Robert Hass observed, a small truth is either a yes or a no, but a great truth is both a yes and a no. And Milosz too knew that he lived in contradictions. His poems and essays were a polyphony, one voice contradicting the other. In the past, I could understand that side of him that was love as passionate attachment (to nature and to ideas more so than to people, I thought). It took me a long time to accept the side that assented to the passing of things and to personal dissolution.

Now I can finally understand Milosz’s non-attached perspective as well. That’s because my relationship with poetry has changed. When a friend once remarked, “It’s only a poem,” I felt furious. What could be more important than a poem? Or even a single word in a poem? Years passed, and suddenly I understood: it is only a poem. And that turned out to be my salvation. From a non-attached position, I could view several variants of the same poems, each with some merit. I also realized that a poem either has magic, or it doesn’t. If it does have magic, it doesn’t matter all that much if it’s in couplets or tercets, short lines or long lines. As long as a poem has magic, it can even afford to be flawed here and there – no need to agonize.

Milosz also remarked, “The secret of poetry is distance.” This can be understood both in the sense of the Joycean insistence on exile as indispensable for an imaginative account of that which one has lost, and Proust’s emphasis on the importance of distance in time – but also, more importantly, in terms of aesthetic distance. Screaming in pain is not art. The same pain, skillfully transmuted into images, metaphors, and form, can be art. Only as art it has a chance to last for centuries and be part of the collective psyche – no longer as pain, but as melancholy beauty.

And yes, we also have Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” It may not be the only the origin of poetry, but there is something striking about the phrase. Tranquility – a meditative mood, doing nothing in particular, staring at the ceiling, strolling in a park, browsing idly in a book – is often the first step toward finding the necessary distance from the subject. In order to remember in a manner that might lead to art, we first need to forget – to let the scene settle in the mind.

   The Lake District

Tangentially, writing about oneself in the third person has been found to help with recovery from trauma. Writers know this: they tend to be all the characters in their book. This freedom and multiple points of view can be healing. It’s a transpersonal and imaginal perspective, a polyphony rather than the plaintive song of oneself and “what really happened.”


As I pondered this matter further, it occurred to me that distance is the secret of everything. A teacher, for instance, needs to learn that her class is only one among many, and the subject is not likely to be a fraction as important to the students as it is to the teacher. And that is fine. Nor is a student’s mistake a reason to lose one’s temper, as I learned from my own teachers through a negative example. And my own experience taught me that the less I cared about lateness, missing assignments, strange excuses, bizarre spelling and grammar errors, and other typical problems, the more I enjoyed teaching.

I remember a mundane example that helped me understand the beauty of the detached perspective. I came across a men’s movement manual trying to teach men how to deal with women. One section was titled, “Do not burden the female with decision making.” Many men make the mistake of refusing to make a choice that a woman obviously wants them to make, to spare herself from the torment of choosing, the manual said. I quote from memory:

When a woman asks you, “Should I wear the red dress or the blue one to the party?” do not reply, “Either one looks fine” or “Whichever you prefer.” Without a moment’s hesitation, say, “The red one.” After all, it doesn’t matter.

It was a revelation: “After all, it doesn’t matter.” Who could argue with that, especially from a larger perspective? The red dress or the blue one, it’s completely immaterial. It’s only a dress. Why waste the precious time of our lives putting one dress on, taking it off, trying the other one on, taking it off, trying on the first one again, and so forth, working yourself into an agony? “After all, it doesn’t matter.” After a stunned moment, I loved it: it was a pure gift from the men’s movement to this choice-burdened female.

Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich advised dressing in black and white – you eliminate the whole trivial question of color coordination. Which brings me back to the beauty of distance, and “It’s only a poem.”


Somewhere I read a Buddhist saying, “No self, no trouble.” Again, it’s impossible to disagree. Who wants to be self-conscious, stumbling over words? Don’t worry about how you look, how you sound – that’s mortification, that’s dying instead of living. I wish I had known this saying much earlier in life. To show a glimpse of my younger, over-involved, non-detached self, let me quote a poem that goes back to a relationship I had in my twenties. The man was eighteen years older than I. I loved him the way one can love only once. 

Self Is a Metaphor

In an old dresser in the garage
I find a tape with his
name on the label
I hold it by the edges
like a photograph
I must believe
that I will not break

I take the cassette
from its plastic case
clouded with twelve years
that voice I loved so much
on the cheapest tape

it’s hours before I can bring
myself to press
the button that says

We must remember words
do not correspond
to anything real
everything is against us
knocks rattles buzz
the hiss of passing cars

It horrifies me, the accidental
nature of language
I despair we can ever
think precisely
his words quiver around him
like a nervous halo

Do we really like
to share our experiences?
I think it rarely happens
I think we dislike it intensely
his viscous voice  
as though filled with smoke

The self is a metaphor
we are fictions
in each other’s minds
look little mouse
I keep telling you
I don’t even exist

and suddenly we talk
as only lovers talk
pretend to argue, laugh
there is the sound
of a kiss

Once when we were making love
I started breathing fast
through half-open mouth and he
began breathing in rhythm
upcatching my breath
the warm moist air

like another body between us

our body, little soul

made of air 
When I was a child
I wanted to know
the difference between
an ocean and a sea

Here the tape

I throw it out

~ Oriana © 2011


This tape was the result of a taping session was supposed to be the first one in a series. Caught up in my dream of helping a man I loved toward greatness, I conceived the project of taping this particular man’s brilliant (I took that as a given) discourses on various subjects; I was then going to transcribe the tapes and shape them into a book manuscript. But he lost interest after the first session.

He wasn’t the only man whom I vainly tried to “help toward greatness.” Time and again, I was to be Calypso offering immortality, only to have this or that Odysseus, who washed up on my shores and whom I lovingly nursed back to health, prefer to go home to his small barren island. I know what feminist would say about my pattern, but that is an old story that no longer interests me. Life has indeed forced me to focus on my own development. What interests me now is the issue of over-involvement, not just with a lover, but with anything.

I’ve considered using the following epigraph with this poem:

I remembered why I liked Buddhism, despite being unable to adopt it: because there is no drama of love at its heart. ~ Lawrence Osborne

I think the West is unable to fully embrace Buddhism because the West is on the side of love, for all its dark side. I am drawn to the serenity of Buddhism, but my emotional intensity and what might be called my "individuation" also make me unable to adopt it – even though I find its teaching on detachment quite useful, a warning against getting over-involved. Milosz writes about his rejection of the Eastern tradition in his Berkeley poem “To Raja Rao.”

No help, Raja, my part is agony,
struggle, abjection, self-love and self-hate,
prayer for the Kingdom
and reading Pascal.

Yes, sooner the pierced heart of Catholic mysticism.

Buddhists might object to Osborne’s statement by pointing out that compassion is very important in Buddhism. But Osborne doesn’t mean compassion; I’m pretty sure he means romantic love, or any other kind of love that involves intensity. The West has not been blind to pain inherent in romantic love, but has found the gifts of this love to be so great that falling in love worth the inevitable suffering. Jack Gilbert, at the threshold of old age, pleads with the gods: Let me fall in love one more time. A friend of mine who is 85 recently said the same thing: love is worth all the pain that may follow. And looking at my own most traumatic love experience, I was finally able to say, “But the gift was so great.” Only then I was at peace. For me that gift was and is personality enlargement, the intellectual and experiential expansion.

I suppose it all comes down to the attitude toward individuality: the West treasures individuality and a rich, differentiated self. “Life is suffering” seems a partial truth, just as “life is happiness” would be a partial truth. I appreciate both peacefulness and passionate intensity. Sometimes I want peacefulness; at other times, passion.

I realize that in the recent decades Buddhism has had a huge impact on the Western culture, including even Christianity. Father Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk, asserts that our deepest self is the Christ. The personality does not survive death; what happens is that the Christ consciousness chooses another container. But that is the opposite of the promise that meant so much to Milosz: all, all will be preserved. The flowers on the table, the tube of lipstick on the bed stand, even the “sweet little neuroses” of our beloved. And even in Hell (as well as in Purgatory and Heaven), Dante shows the personality as preserved; his dead are as individual and recognizable as Homer's and Virgil's shades in the Underworld. 

Romantic passion has often been called a delusion, and there is really no arguing with that. Passion can’t stand up to rational scrutiny. The beloved is a flawed human being, and not an almost supernaturally wonderful person. So let’s admit that it’s a delusion. Ah, but it’s a glorious delusion, often transformative, a driving force of growth. And yet, and yet . . . excess intensity can ruin everything.

Introverts are prone to this excess intensity, both in relationships and in the kind of work that they perceive as their vocation. Until they learn the value of distance, they are apt to overdo it, to try too hard. In romantic love, the introvert’s fantasy life is vastly more rich and satisfying than reality; sometimes so much so that reality comes as an unpleasant jolt. “Unpleasant” is an understatement; ultimately most such love is unrequited and becomes synonymous with pain.


In spite of the pain, and also because of it, and mostly due to luck, both genetic and circumstantial, I slowly developed a reliable source of happiness outside of romantic love. True, I always had my love of books and learning; but writing became my secret garden, my private paradise beyond the passive pleasure of reading. This hidden life, once I knew it was primary, helped me develop distance in relationships. I remember the first time I turned down a date because I preferred to have those hours for writing. It was like walking out of a slave camp. Or, to use a more pleasant metaphor, it was like finding myself married to Dionysus, the god of ecstatic art.

That, of course, is the happy ending of the story of Ariadne. Even though she did succeed in helping her love object to greatness, and maybe because she succeeded in helping him, she was abandoned by him on the nearest island. But as a result of losing that dubious fiancé, she became the bride of a god (which can be translated as finding her art). I have two poems about it.

Ariadne Thanks Theseus for Abandoning Her

I was the path home
that unwound behind you.
I held you by the thread
of breath – who could endure
such love? Your ship

growing smaller,
its tapering black sail,
tried to teach me
the essential stone,
but I only cried.

Then among the lament
of the waves I heard
my childhood name,
calling me home. If you
hadn’t left me,

I’d never hear,
laughing in the wind,
serving heated wine.
If you hadn’t closed
the small doors of mirrors,

I’d never see beyond.
If the horizon
hadn’t swallowed you,
I’d believe in it still,
let it hold me in like a wall.

Deceiver, I thank you.
betrayer, I bless you.
You can’t imagine
the labyrinths I travel.
I’m entering

such music, such light,
you seem no longer a giant.
Time smooths you down
to a roadside post,
a place I had to pass.

~ Oriana © 2011


Ariadne on Naxos

On this island it is always dawn.
I stand, a stone
on a beach of stones
the surf rattles and drags

and spits back.
foam slimes my feet with seaweed.
A sail unravels
the hem of the horizon.

The wind tangles me, frays me.
grains of salt rim my mouth.
waves gather their white veil,
breaking with a why? why?

I am neither the first
nor the last, only another
crying, crushing petals 
of red flowers. The name of all 

women is Ariadne,
Ariadne with a snarled
skein thrust 
back into her hand.


The waves die and hiss. But I
I hear another sea, 
an overlay of sound
preparing for its meaning.

Look how a forest rises
from salt-crusted sticks,
green flame of cypress and pine.
And far, a ship sails toward me,

a luminous cloud,
its wind the breath of a god.
It's endless to love what’s immortal.
It does not take being loved.

~ Oriana © 2011


I wish to thank Megan Webster for telling me, “It’s only a poem,” and Sarah Luczaj for making me feel more confident about the statement, “Distance is the secret of everything.” 



About nonattachment: is it the relinquishment of the attachment to oneself as special and unique? Or is the recognition that all beings including oneself are special and unique? I'm inclined towards the latter.


Mary, I am so grateful to you. The post turned out to be very difficult to write, more so than any other, since I was doing that difficult dance of yes, he’s right, but this is only a partial truth . . .  And yet I couldn’t quite formulate a clear response, an alternative view. You have just provided it.

There is a coldness inherent in just seeing yourself as “one thing among many.” We need to keep humble, and we need to achieve some distance if we are to think clearly, but overdoing this attitude is harmful. Recognizing how precious and lovable things are, including yourself, strikes me as the more appropriate attitude. Thank you for this insight. 

To be fair to Milosz, most his poems, especially the later ones, but not only, also incline to the view that everyone and everything is unique and precious. The hunchbacked librarian who could not be saved after a bombing raid is special, hardly one of the millions of forgotten victims. Her presence is resurrected, her heart-rending wanting to live. Even a fictional character can become special, can enter our psyche like someone we love. Anna Karenina is not “one thing among many.” Even the old pawn-broker, that “useless old woman,” killed by Raskolnikov, lives on forever.

To be sure, one can overdo both attachment and non-attachment. Perhaps the crucial question is timing. There is a time for strong coffee and a time for chamomile tea. The gift of non-attachment is peacefulness, and peacefulness is immensely attractive during a period of turbulence. The gift of attachment can be immense energy (Blake: “Energy is eternal delight”) that can be channeled into accomplishing something extraordinary. We need both modes, in the right proportion. 

    Julio Romero de  Torres: Femme, ca 1930


I've read that the great fear of the narcissist is that he might look in the mirror and no one will look back. This last year, as I chased after my self/Self, my great fear was that after all the stumbling in the dark cave of the self, hearing the torturous cold drip of far-off moisture (yet never slaking my thirst), and driven by the possibility of deep treasure, I'd get to the bottom and find nothing there. And in a sense, that is what happened. 
I speak of this in different terms than Milosz, but I think we may mean the same thing --there isn't a self, per se, at least not one apart from everything else. The small s self is nothing more than incestuous chatter among my archetypes, the erstwhile heroes of my soul. When I first became aware of the chatter, it was interesting. Now I know it as a repeating, endless, unnecessary, mostly meaningless conversation, and it is tiresome. So I concluded this about self -- self is the act of organizing experience, and there is no essence (rise up philosophers and take me on!).

Self, my big S self, on the other hand, is an amalgam, constructed by my past experiences, education, awareness, and a mindfulness of my interconnectedness -- Milosz's love. I am then, essentially, nothing apart from everything, and I love the view of this "distant thing." The Self is not lonely, as is the self, nor does the Self carry the ridiculous burden to inflate. Quite the opposite.

And it may be the self that carries the death wish (and understandably), it may be the self that Rilke alluded to, "No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond, no belittling of death (all small s self talk), but only longing for that which belongs to us, and serving earth, lest we remain unused (big S Self desire, as Milosz recognized).

But now that the self/Self has been dissected, we must stitch the incision together and hope we will still have a pulse.

I agree that writing of the Self or self in the third person has an interesting therapeutic benefit, a necessary distance-making to aid healing if or when wounded. I recently heard a traumatized vet recounting his experiences in the quickly tiresome 2nd person, a necessary distance to keep himself from crying. But I impoverish myself if I speak of my Self in the 2nd or 3rd person. I want to value me with 1st person status, remind my self, my Self, that I am mine. The Self is far, while not so far away. I want to hold the distance closely, .

Milosz's first line love must be kin to phileo or agape love, because eros cannot be found in the distance, it knows nothing of detachment. So when speaking of intensity, or passion (at least of the sexual variety), we'll have to leave him out of the discussion. I've tried to find the connection to introversion that you write of but I can't make it out. It seems to me that the kind of intense, extreme, beyond-bounds passion you experienced (as I do) is born out of the intuitive-feeling combo (to stick with Jungian terminology--those with this combo travel in the dark, groping...and with touch find the way). (Yes, I just distanced myself with the 3rd person... It's a little hot in here...)


Thank you, Michael, for your rich response. I loved the opening about Narcissus looking in the mirror and finding no one looking back -- that's a poem. And I was thrilled by this statement: When I first became aware of the chatter [of the self], it was interesting. Now I know it as a repeating, endless, unnecessary, mostly meaningless conversation, and it is tiresome.
This was my crucial discovery not about the self, but about the automatic negative thoughts that accompanied (cognitive psychologists would say “caused”) my depressive episodes. At first those thoughts seemed interesting; I assumed I was discovering something profound; I was “learning from depression.” But in the end I recognized those thoughts as repetitious and delusionary drivel. I was learning nothing, except – in the sense that practice makes perfect – how to produce more such drivel at the slightest provocation (e.g. missing my exit while driving on the freeway – another proof of what a failure I was). As you state it: repeating, endless, unnecessary, mostly meaningless, tiresome.
Your experience of “no essence” reminds me of the time I was driving past one of our marvelous lagoons and was privileged to see what’s at the end of a rainbow. Nothing. Just air. The color bands visibly oscillated (I’m tempted to say: twitched), unraveled and disappeared an inch or two above the surface of the water. I did not expect to see a pot of gold, but I was still stunned to see with such clarity that there was nothing at the end of a rainbow. (Yes, I do have a poem about it, but will exercise self-restraint.)
As for Jung’s Self, my understanding of it changed once I heard Father Thomas Keating say, “Our deepest self is Christ.” This was obviously a variation on the Eastern belief that each person is both human and divine. Jung was very influenced by Eastern religions (even his near-death experience was an interesting mix of Eastern tradition and the Swedenborgian system). I remembered the initial excitement when here in Southern California we discovered the phrase, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”
Before hearing Father Keating, I was rather confused about the Jungian Self. Now, I’m not saying that to Jung the deepest Self was Christ, but the label of “Christ” can be understood at the generic rather than specific level. And I said, “Oh!” And “You are That” from my comparative religion class bowed to me.
This brought back the memory of a New Age woman who said, “All my friends can’t wait to disincarnate.” I have always been in the opposite camp. Even at my most suicidal, I never imagined a happy afterlife. Once I left the church, I had no doubt that heaven and hell are here and now, as well as the purgatory of learning “life lessons.”
The divine has been a slippery concept – was it a cosmic force, like gravity? Was it beauty? I worshipped beauty, but I knew that wasn’t what most people meant by the various god terms. Rather than speak of the human self as opposed to the divine self, I have found it more useful to speak of the depressed self, which I also call the anti-self, and the sane self, meaning those neural circuits that reorganized my perception (what cognitive psychologists call a “paradigm shift”), and the anti-self drivel fell silent. And there was no going back.
This is a bit scary: once you have an insight, there is no going back. “I miss the drama queen,” a Buddhist Jungian admitted about her journey toward less attachment. “Sometimes I miss depression, but there is no going back,” I sighed. “No, there is no going back,” she confirmed. “But the world becomes such an enlivened place.” She was right. It’s just that the process takes time.
“Everyone’s life could make a novel,” my father told me when I was eleven or twelve. Instantly I sensed the truth of it; later, when I began writing, it was glaringly obvious that the novel based on anyone’s life could exist in many (endless?) versions. Thus, I feel an enrichment rather than impoverishment if I speak of myself in the third person. It’s an exhilarating experiment to be your own omniscient narrator (though in fact you are what critics call an “unreliable narrator”). I realize that I started playing at being a writer already in childhood, almost as soon as I started reading fiction – making a statement, then adding something like, “she said, glancing at the pink peonies in the vase. She called them ‘fake roses.’ She wanted real roses, the reddest red. ‘Angela!’ Peter rudely intruded on her thoughts. ‘These peonies are full of ants!’” And on and on, usually turning to humor, the real undercutting the ideal.

Ah, the beauty of multiple perspectives! In Milosz’s poem, I was particularly struck by the phrase “one thing among many.” We’d have a different world if nationalists managed to see their country as one among many, and religionists, likewise, saw their religion as one among many. I think it’s slowly happening. Absolutes have been falling like dictatorships. 

One of the men in my past was startlingly double, as if to prove that astrology is right on about Gemini, the Twins. He was both a flamboyant social charmer and the hidden solitary artist who suddenly emerged when I touched his hand, very lightly, and he reacted as if to a jolt of electricity (“as if touched by another Power,” he later wrote me). His voice changed too, suddenly hushed and soulful. There was depth, privacy, feeling, sensitivity.

You have two selves, I told him,
a lawyer with his exit
strategy, and Orpheus.

And you have two voices, he said,
a dark one from a Slavic forest,
and one like bright wine,

Hispanic. Barthelona, I said


Of course it was the artist self that I fell in love with. I knew it would be brief, so I didn’t have to wrestle with the other self.

It’s interesting that he said sometimes I sounded Hispanic, since I think the only happy immigrants I know are Hispanic. His two selves were dramatically obvious, but my two voices? I assume those go with different selves too, perhaps the sad one without hope, and the radiant, happy one, the highest degree of the sane self.

In “I Sleep a Lot,” Milosz posits a pagan soul and a Catholic soul.

And alcoholics seem to have a sober self and a drunken self. The sober self is not necessarily all positive; both selves dance a maddening tango of generosity and cruelty, sensuality and repression.

In summary: for myself, without universalizing, I posit not the human self and the divine self, but the depressed self and the sane self. The depressed self was a lot more about ego, since low self-esteem is all about ego; to universalize it after all, I could call it the egocentric self, in my case the masochistic narcissist. The sane self has an interest in the world and in others; it has connectivity and a larger perspective. (How come the good self sounds so boring? Maybe art has conditioned us to the seductions of badness, which sounds so daring, so gloriously different: an illusion.)

I keep congratulating myself on having chosen the sane self, which fortunately is not as dull and pedestrian as it used to seem to my agitated depressed self. At the same time, a teeny part of me is still surprised by the choice, because isn’t passionate turbulence always to be preferred? And sanity, isn’t that a synonym for artistic decline? (As the Buddhist instructor said, “I miss my Drama Queen.”) (And Milosz said that after the poetry of vitality [i.e. youthful levels of sex hormones], there comes the poetry of the mind.)

I stand by what I said about introversion and low self-esteem, and excessive, obsessive, self-destructive love. I sensed the truth of the advice to “get a life” and be “more in the outer world,” but those words didn’t seize my imagination. A friend said, “You need to spend more time with people, revolting as it sounds.” I instantly knew he was right; alas, my imagination didn’t budge. “Do more things!” he screamed, exasperated by my lack of interest in what others call a “balanced life.” But a “balanced life” never interested me. "Things” was an empty term.
I found the right metaphor by remembering the title of one of the favorite novels of my childhood. I needed a “secret garden,” which for me turned out to be writing. Finally I had something more important than romance. If anyone disrupted my writing, he or she had to go (this included friendships). Once I had total clarity about what mattered to me most, letting go of certain people was easy. The real challenge was gaining distance in relation to writing as well, or else one’s art also becomes a “cruel mistress.” Distance is sanity; but as Sarah wisely observes in the Comments section, it has to be the right amount of distance.
I will end here, knowing that another infinity has just opened up, and the Unseen Reader for whom I write is getting tired. 


Milosz claims that to love, to be genuinely loving, we need to drop the attachment to the self as special; we need to see ourselves from a detached perspective, humbly acknowledging that we are only “one thing among many.” This is profound Oriana. I enjoyed your entire blog post, and agree that attachment has to do with Ego and acceptance with spirit. When we are in acceptance, new roads of opportunity and possibilities can is a change in perspective of how we see others..I correlate Ego with darkness and negativity. Acceptance brings positive, love, and light...So, why do we hang on as we do..when such gifts are waiting in the wings..?"


I love what you say here: “When we are in acceptance, new roads of opportunity and possibilities can is a change in perspective of how we see others.” Yes, definitely.

But note that Milosz uses the word “things” a lot, and then bird and tree. He does not mention a woman – since he knew he couldn’t be a sage and saint enough not to want to be special in a woman’s eyes. He got himself into plenty of romantic messes and had an unhappy marriage. Still, it’s not necessarily the humble who can write so well about humility. And it could be argued that his deepest love was for nature, and that he loved people “in general.”

I think it’s actually low self-esteem (or call it masochistic narcissism) that is the worst trap when it comes to love. You worship someone, but you’re really constantly thinking, does he love ME? It’s insecurity that breeds pain.


I understand what you are saying about Milosz, "things," "birds." And, I agree about the low self-esteem and worship in sexual love. When two people come together selflessly in the attitude of acceptance with one another, it can take you to new heights together in your relationship, because you are joining body, soul, and spirit . . .


Selflessness is an ideal for me, like “love thy enemy, pray for those who persecute you.” Few people can, but I love those “over-the-top” ideals as a challenge, a reminder to go against our innate aggression (harder for men, whose brains get “virilized” for sex and aggression already in the womb). But acceptance, oh how I love acceptance. I love being valued, and making another person feel valued also. That’s what makes human blossoming possible, the security of being accepted and valued.

Ideally, the union of the bodies should be a celebration of the union of souls (in the broadest sense of the word) that has taken place first. I’m reminded of Rumi’s claim that lovers don’t meet without preparation; they have already lived in each other. They have shared similar values and interests, a similar level of intensity and complexity, the same love of music and/or whatever else spells beauty for them. For me the intellectual connection is primary (but “intellectual” may not be the best term for that realm). And the fascinating thing is that if the intellectual connection is deep enough, the sensory stimulation is also heightened. Then yes, those heights that you mention.


Dear Oriana, So many great thoughts here; I'm loving the synergy. "But acceptance, oh how I love acceptance. I love being valued, and making another person feel valued also. That’s what makes human blossoming possible, the security of being accepted and valued." Yes, the most important aspect I think, then everything else just falls in line. But, when one partner falls into the Ego, then there can be no relationship without the acknowledgement and correction of it. Then, it is not about you and your partner but, between your partner and spirit. You must detach and let spirit, divinity, God, do the work, whatever the outcome. Also, loving the Rumi quote. I hadn't heard that one before...very enlightening!


The greatest thing to have come out of the 12-Step programs: “Let go and let God.” In secular terms, this can be translated as Let go and let life. I find life is already such a mysterious process, with so many factors beyond our control. In painful situations, letting go and letting God/life take care of things is the kind of surrender that at least leads to peace, and with peace, everything is possible.

A friend of mine said that for her it’s neither the pursuit of happiness nor the pursuit of excellence (a motto I was trying to use instead, when I was desperately hanging onto living for achievement). What she practiced was the “pursuit of peace.” She said, once you have peace, everything else follows – close to what you and I are saying about the security that comes from acceptance: both the acceptance by another person, and/or the acceptance of the mystery of life. 


I agree, arriving to the place where we can let go in painful situations, requires letting go of our beliefs and remembering that it is not about us and the person/circumstance but god the person/circumstance. When we can come to that place of acceptance, then as I said before, new roads, possibilities, etc. and new rivers pull us back into the stream of life. "the pursuit of peace" is what I also try to follow. I know when I am in the right space in my mind and body when I have that knowing and peace...


Twice, at the beginning of two very important relationships in my life, I experienced great peace instead of the usual storm of emotions. I was almost in a trance, and knew with mystical certainty that this was to be, this was FOR me. Maybe the closest I’ve come to having a mystical experience. Thank you for sharing your wisdom about peace and the greater dimension than just "us."


Love brings peace and serenity, infatuation brings chaos...


Yes, Robert, I agree, but love starts with infatuation. We are wired to be set on fire – there seems to be other way.  Then the infatuation either burns out or gets transformed into the kind of serene love that takes a while to grow. The glory is that it can keep growing. Long-term love evolves – every few years it’s a different stage, a different marriage (I’m using the term to cover any significant partnership).

The main point of my response to Milosz was that it’s not either/or: it’s both. Both passion and affection are a treasure. The more I think about infatuation, the more exciting it seems, in spite of the chaos and havoc it can cause. It’s the unpredictable nature of it, the uncontrollable nature of being swept away. And of course the high, so often resulting in poems later.

In brain imaging, the brain on love looks just like the brain on amphetamines; the dopamine pleasure circuits are all lit up. It takes a more discriminating analysis to see that it’s not all the sex and pleasure centers; the frontal lobes are active too, since we are processing not just the love object’s body, but also his/her mind. Personally, I am turned on by intelligence more than anything else, and if my love object can make a reference to Homer, say, or recite two lines of poetry – OK, one line is enough – I’m a goner.

I think, though, that there is a significant difference between what we know will (with luck) be a dazzling three-night affair, and falling in love with the “right person” and playing for keeps. I think it’s something we sense very quickly. Or at least we the intuitive types. That doesn’t mean that a brief intense encounter is not worth it. With maturity comes more emotional security, and then we see that every kind of love, from whirlwind passion to sweet and steady affection, is a gift, perhaps the greatest that life has to offer.


I took love in Milosz’s poem to mean spiritual love, something like the Greek agape, not erotic love.

In your poem about Ariadne and Theseus, I don’t understand the reference to the essential stone.  But I love that poem’s last 3 lines.  And in the next poem, I love the image of the sail opening the hem of the horizon.


By “essential stone” I mean the essential hardship of life. At some point or another, usually many times over a lifetime, we come up against a stone wall that we can weep against, or beat our heads against. Milosz says it best in his late poem “This”:

This. Which signifies knocking against a stone wall and know that the wall
will not yield to any imploration.

As we read Milosz’s “Love,” it becomes obvious that he means what I’d call “loving kindness.” And he could have certainly used a different Polish word than “love,” which in Polish is not for everyday use as is more common in English, but is more restricted to romantic love (though, by using qualifiers, you can indicate parental love, or the “love thy neighbor” meaning). So the opening three lines are all the more startling in Polish: the title and the first word set up the reader to expect a little discourse on romantic love.

While Milosz’s poem is both surprising and quite wonderful, I have to admit that I find erotic love fascinating in ways that do not apply to spiritual love (which I value). Erotic love is powerful and exciting because it’s unpredictable and largely uncontrollable. We are “swept away” for reasons we don’t understand, shaken up to our psychic depths. Erotic love can be transformative in the most positive sense, or it can be traumatizing,  catastrophic. The great love of my youth (“The Self Is a Metaphor”) was both. In spite of the pain, I am enormous grateful for having gone through it. 

John Guzlowski:

In response to Cecilia’s comments: Yes, poetry gives us something--the resurrection of presences. I like that. Yes, why not? For me, it slows down time, opens time up, gives me so much time – all in the same way the act of love slows down and opens up time, gives us the time we need for understanding and healing and closeness and understanding.


That’s why I started saying that poetry is about love. Aesthetic distance is necessary to convey that love, but love must be there to start with. Perhaps a better term is tenderness.  Galway Kinnell: “Tenderness towards existence.” Adrienne Rich: “Without tenderness, we are in hell.” Poets remind us of that.


'Ye Gods', that is profound. If we could learn to accept that it would be the alleviation of many a sorrow. I have you to thank for introducing me to Milosz, incredible poet. Your blog is akin to sailing with Reep on the Dawn Treader in the Last Sea, very serene and a pool of sanity in an increasingly insane world. The recent tragedy in Norway reminds us so well that as Melville stated in Moby Dick, 'it's  a wicked world in all meridians' Next to Hawaii, Norway is the most  beautiful place I have ever seen, it's straight out of Tolkien). In another aside, if ever I could truly get to the heart of Moby Dick, all would be solved. I think I'm close though, one school of thought is Ahab's end resulted from revenge and hate and the absence of the  female presence (many whalers did indeed bring wives aboard in the latter half of the 19th century...sorry for all the digressions!) As usual, your blog is timely, the pictures are incredible and your commentators thoughtful. As I have often said, your blog with a good cup of coffee is time well invested.


Thank you, Scott. I've always dreamed of going to Norway, precisely because of the legendary beauty. I also thought it was one of the safest places in the world. I feel very unsettled by the recent tragedy.

Interesting how Moby Dick keeps coming up for you . . . Ahab's pathology is not very different from those people who keep calling for justice, but what they really mean is revenge. Hatred is an energizing passion, and I think the West has always been in love with energy rather than any Buddhist serenity. I hope we'll move toward balance. Milosz's amazing poem (written in war-torn Warsaw of 1943!!) is a good reminder that it's good to step back and see things from a larger perspective.