Sunday, February 26, 2012


Why the Inferno is the most interesting part of Divine Comedy

While the Purgatorio and especially the Paradiso tend to bore the modern reader, the fascination with the Inferno, that “Canticle of Pain,” only keeps growing. One reason for its literary success is vivid imagery wed to a concise narrative. When we call a landscape or a scene “Dantesque,” we mean something resembling the Inferno – never his tedious Paradiso.

Let’s consider this passage showing Bertrand de Born, a famous troubadour (1140s – 1215) who finds himself in hell for ‘sowing discord.” The sowers of discord are paraded before us in various degree of mutilation (“as they tore others apart, so they are torn”). The most mutilated of all is the prophet Muhammad, whom Dante regarded as a sower of religious discord. But let’s turn to Bertrand de Born, met by Dante the Pilgrim and his guide Virgil in the 8th Circle of Hell:

I saw it there; I seem to see it still –
a body without a head, that moved along
like all the others in the spew and spill.

It held the severed head by its own hair,
swinging it like a lantern in its hand;
and the head looked at us and wept in despair.

It made itself a lamp of its own head,
and they were two in one and one in two;
how this can be, He knows who so commanded.

And when it stood directly under us
it raised the head at arm’s length toward our bridge
the better to be heard, and swaying thus

it cried: “O living soul in this abyss,
see what a sentence has been passed upon me,
and search all Hell for one to equal this!

When you return to the world remember me:
I am Bertrand de Born, and it was I
who set the young king on to mutiny,

son against father, father against son
as Achitophel set Absalom and David;
and since I parted those who should be one

in duty and in love, I bear my brain
divided from its source within this trunk;
and walk here where my evil turns to pain,

and eye for an eye to all eternity:
thus is the law of Hell observed in me.

Canto 28, tr. John Ciardi

Gustave Doré

“It” is the headless body, no longer a “he.” In Italian, “lantern” is the beautiful word “lucerna.”

The “law of hell” in Dante’s Commedia is contrapasso – “counter-suffering” or maybe “equivalent suffering” or “symbolically correct suffering.” What Bertrand de Born actually says is Cosi s’osserva in me lo contrapasso.

Francesca and Paolo da Rimini were once unlawfully joined; now they are stuck together, unable to separate, tossed by the whirlwind (which reminds me of the song by Charles Aznavour: “Love at last you have found me. Now the storm begins.”)

Below: another example of contrapasso: the circle of fortune-tellers in Canto 20. Now their heads are twisted backwards, so they see only what’s behind them. In life they tried to see into the future. Now their sin is “reversed” – some might say, not reversed but literalized, since now they can’t see what’s immediately before them, compelled to walk backwards for all eternity.

Giovanni Stradano: The Fortune Tellers

Of special interest in Canto 20 is Dante’s show of pity for the sinners and Vergil’s reproach:

Reader . . . ask yourself
how I could check my tears, when near at hand

I saw the image of our humanity
distorted so that the tears that burst from their eyes
ran down the cleft of their buttocks. Certainly

I wept. I leaned against the jagged face
of a rock and wept so that my Guide said: “Still?
Still like the other fools? There is no place

for pity here. Who is more arrogant
within his soul, who is more impious
than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?

The modern reader is of course moved by Dante’s weeping, and dares to feel compassion for those who suffer -- a matter of empathy that is taken for granted in our relatively comfortable and secure age. The Commedia, however, was written during hard-hearted times when public executions by disemboweling, being broken on the wheel, and the like hideous tortures were popular entertainment, the whole town or village gathering at the market square, the on-lookers jeering at the victim. The idea of compassion was centuries in the making; life had to become more secure first and, paradoxically, less overwhelmed with suffering.

It’s only natural that when earthly life is mostly unhappy, people yearn for bliss in heaven. But Christian heaven was never depicted with any specificity. For one thing, humans need variety, and that’s just where images of heaven are deficient. Duration of any mental state is an important determinant of the pleasure it can provide. If pleasure lasts too long, it becomes painful. Unless there is sufficient variety, an eternity of harp-twanging heaven morphs into hell. William Blake spoke about this:

Time is the mercy of Eternity.
Without Time’s swiftness,
Which is the swiftest of all things,
All were eternal torment.

Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, makes this acute observation:

“One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’. What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is by its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Goethe indeed warns us that ‘nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.’ But this may be an exaggeration.” 

Not having lived in Southern California, how did Goethe know that endless sunshine is a form of torture? Come to think of it, he lived for a while in Italy. But there is nothing like Southern California if you want to discover how much you love clouds and rain. By the way, Freud really makes a good point about happiness. The most intense kind is based on contrast. Fortunately there is also contentment and a sense of well-being.

Has it really been a tragedy for the imagination, the loss of Satan and hell for many (perhaps most) of educated readers? Milosz lamented that we lost the metaphysical “second space” – in John Lennon’s famous words, “Above us, only sky.” Heaven and hell are now thought to be states of mind, and not actual places (actually Milton said much the same, noting that the mind can make “heaven of hell, and hell of heaven”). Wallace Stevens lamented it too, though not from a believer’s viewpoint. Yet his lament is even more poignant:

Phantoms, what have you left? What underground?
What place in which to be is not enough
To be? You go, poor phantoms, without place
Like silver in the sheathing of the sight,
As the eye closes . . .  How cold the vacancy
When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist
First sees reality.

~ Walace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal”

Of course for an astrophysicist, and basically for any scientist, this world – the reality of matter and energy – is totally fascinating and rich with mystery, beyond what believing in ghosts and angels and devils could provide. (This is off to the side, but I love what a friend said about religion and politics: “It’s when a politician says Satan that you know he’s crazy.”)


Let me mention that recently I happened to be in Encinitas, that Mecca of New Age eclectica. In one of the several Lotus-something bookstores, I saw the title “To Heaven and Beyond.” This totally amused me, something I needed at the end of a day full of idiotic frustrations it would be a sin against the reader to enumerate. 

“To heaven and BEYOND.” Heaven is not enough any more. Heaven is so yesterday!

I stood there with a smile on my face – and suddenly the title of my third book came to me. You see, years ago I had an unforgettable dream of trying to save the manuscripts of my three wisdom books from the fire – then realized I’d have to re-create them. The title of the first one was The Serpent and the Dove (“Be ye as subtle as the serpent and gentle as the dove”).

It took me many years after the dream to “see” the titles of the other two books. The title of the second book was to be Letters to a Middle-Aged Poet. The third book remained a puzzle until the doors of perception were cleansed that evening in Encinitas and I saw it: Spiritual No More.

And the weight I didn’t even know I was carrying fell off me, and a feeling of great joy enveloped me as I ascended into clarity.

Now I can agree with Mary Oliver’s “You don’t have to be good” if I translate it into “You don’t have to be spiritual.”

Furthermore, I’d like to translate “what the animal of your body loves doing” to “what your mind loves doing.” If my mind is happy, my body is also happy.

I had this thought before, but now the realization was complete: instead of attending lectures on emptiness, chanting, meditation classes and the like (all wonderful for those who find nourishment in those activities), I needed to spend more of my time doing what I love doing. Insights tend to have a stunning simplicity: forget “spirituality.” Just do what you love doing.

The energy and sense of effortless accomplishment that comes from doing what you love, and afterwards, blissfully tired, falling asleep smiling to yourself – it’s a magnificent surprise. It’s “beyond heaven.”


Some people are likely to ask, “But isn’t writing your spiritual practice?” No. To me writing is writing. It’s not a ritual. It’s not the least bit like prayer (at least as I’ve experienced prayer – practically the opposite of writing).

For me writing is writing, just as a tree is a tree, and not a manifestation of the Spirit. Others are welcome to see the Spirit in it, or the Earth Goddess, or Intelligent Design. “It’s a free country,” as people in Milwaukee like to say (at least that’s where I learned the saying, along with all the “bad words” in English). I see only the tree and the wind in the leaves, and love the tree as a tree and the wind as wind.

From a poem of mine:

The same moon moved between
darkness and light-wounded clouds,
winter’s hungry Wolf Moon,

adding phantom beauty to beauty.
“That is all,” a master said.
That is all but it is splendid” –


Below: as I see the Spirit of Milwaukee

I don’t have any special time set aside for writing. It’s not a practice – it’s writing. I write whenever quiet opens up and I feel like writing. In the case of poetry, I write if the knocking of words inside my head becomes too painful to ignore.

Deep reading actually comes ahead of writing. Joseph Campbell was once asked, “What kind of spiritual practice do you have?” He replied, “I underline in pencil sentences in a book.” Now that brings a big smile to my face. Yes, that’s my “spiritual practice” too.

At the same time, I am happy to announce a new arrival in my scriptorium: a heart geode – it could also be called a womb geode. It’s gorgeous: beautifully polished, lined with a wealth of amethyst crystals. It’s the most beautiful thing in the house, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever owned. We carry on little conversations, the geode and I.  “Amethyst” means “not intoxicated.” In the past, my chief intoxication has been delusional, depressive thinking. Amethyst, a rationalist stone, keeps me cool-headed. How can I sweat the small stuff with such beauty next to me showing me what’s really important?

A friend observed, “So you too are a crystal-waving rationalist. Welcome to the sisterhood.”

At last I belong.


My special thanks to Sarah for the lines by Blake and for the “crystal-waving rationalist sisterhood.” 

And thanks to Marjorie for "Fish of the Day." 



The new blog speaks directly to me. Even my dreams are telling me I need to face the fact that I have been dabbling in various spiritual practices over the past few decades as a way to not go completely into my atheism, perhaps holding out for something else that might really be "out there."

What would it be for me to just forget spirituality?  Some spiritual practices (meditation) etc. have brought me great pleasure, particularly during eras of my life when nothing else was bringing me pleasure.


I envy your for having experienced pleasure in meditation. I have found meditation extremely difficult and maddeningly boring. I could do a "listening" meditation (e.g. traffic and other random noises) and experience some slight pleasure, but never the bliss that some people report. For bliss, I go to music and nature, and of course good books, though it’s pleasure rather than bliss – except after a period of reading deprivation.  

I too once dabbled in “spirituality” – in California, who hasn’t? I’ve had a few interesting experiences, but once a more clear sense of my vocation as a writer emerged (though it was never just a straight line – always zigzags and spirals – now poetry, now journalism, then back to poetry, then into prose, etc.), there simply was no time, and delving into astrology, say, lost appeal. There was no longer time for this dubious stuff, and I wasn't gaining any real nourishment from it, any true wisdom.

Oddly enough, I was given a gift of a Polish New Age magazine, and found it a quantum level of sophistication above what I’d learned to expect. The articles used the various disciplines (should we call them “occult” or “spiritual”? is going to a psychic – and I suspect psychics are becoming more popular than psychotherapists – spiritual or occult? that’s another issue here) as platforms (I almost want to say “excuses”) for discussing psychology, mythology, history, art, and philosophy. There was also quite a bit of humor. I could see that the magazine was slanted toward the educated.

But I’m glad I basically dropped it all. It was a drain on my time and a distraction. Yes, it’s possible just to drop “spirituality.” If I ever miss it, I know where to find it. I can understand the popularity of psychics among the educated. It’s not the claims that these people can hear messages from the dead or from the fairies and so forth. That’s what I call the platform. It’s that something unexpected is likely to be said, something “out of the blue” that can change our whole perspective. Another benefit is getting empathy. And the atmospheric touches such as various crystals and other magical objects, silk and velvet, the low lighting – it’s not the sterile semi-medical setting we’ve come to associate with various “helping professions.” So I can see some positives. A bit of irrationality can be so soothing, e.g. the idea that "there are no accidents." Of course we want to believe in an ordered universe. And then there is the lunatic fringe, and books stuffed with the most outrageous nonsense allegedly dictated by extra-terrestrials, and stories of abusive and downright dangerous gurus. 

But all this is minor stuff. You hit on the important issue when you say that “being spiritual” may be holding out for something else that might really be "out there." In the West, the whole “spiritual” business started with the body/soul dualism for which Plato tends to get more blame than anyone else, except perhaps Descartes. Yet already John Locke, in his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding. suggested that it wasn’t necessary to posit a material body inhabited by an immaterial soul. We might just as well suppose that matter is capable of producing mental life.

In modern terms, we’d say that mental life results from brain function. We don’t think we have an immortal mind – we realize that the mind is not a thing, but a form of brain function. But because of millennia of ignorance about the brain, and our great longing to believe that death is not the end of us, many people believe that we contain an invisible little self that survives our death and goes somewhere afterwards, hopefully to paradise or at least to the “astral world.” In Islamic paradise, the soul even gets to have sex with beautiful virgins. It’s interesting that only Judaism, at least before being influenced by Christianity, has managed to avoid wishful thinking about the afterlife.

“All is matter” and “all is spirit” are both obsolete positions. What works best is the assumption that matter (specifically the brain) has evolved to be capable of producing mental life (a process, and not a thing). Once we drop the ancient baggage of an immaterial soul as a thing separate from the body, we still have all the richness of our mental life. Atheism does not deny that richness. The brain keeps on working as it always did. But we are forced to recognize that “this is it.” There is no “pie in the sky,” and thus we better not waste the “now,” the unique moment of our lives. That’s all we have, “but it is splendid.”


I love the “Spiritual No More” section.

Art, not politics and not religion, is the universal language of healing.


Yes, art that is real art – not propaganda or pointless uglification – something that hushes us into delight. Art lifts the mind to a different mental plane.

I love all men who dive. ~ Melville


The pictures by Doré are among the most haunting of all illustrations, especially of Dante and Coleridge's 'Ancient Mariner.' ( I only wish  he could have done Moby Dick, I believe he could have captured Ahab  perfectly)

Your mention of Zen brought to mind the 'kinder, gentler' aspects of the world's main faiths. Of course, the Quakers come to mind, as do the Sufi's.( There needs to be a conference in Jerusalem of leading Quaker and Sufi elders!)

The older I get the more convinced I become of poetry's power  to awaken one to a new awareness of the beauty and joy of the world. Kazantzakis comes to mind as well, his bold 'Odyssey' is a quest into  the deep corners of the mind; as Melville would say, 'I love all men who dive.' We all must dive and dive deep, life is indeed a wonder and something to be treasured every day....and your blog is one I count as  one of those wonders to treasure.


Yes, I think Doré would have been the perfect illustrator for Moby Dick. Doré knew how to render emotions. I love the Melville quote. Yes, if only we could have the “kinder, gentler” sorts of faith. I think they are emerging. The old hell-fire based religions aren’t working anymore, and both “gentler faiths” and humanistic life philosophies are emerging. It takes time to make a full transition to loving the world instead of rejecting it. It takes generations of living in relative peace and comfort.

Perhaps it’s too daring to use words like “paradise.” It’s religion that taught us to think in terms of extremes: heaven and hell. Maybe the goal should be modest: more good days than bad days. More kindness than meanness. Imagine: interactions that are 90% kindness. This leaves room for occasional melt-downs, but not habitual falling apart and taking it out not necessarily on someone, but on yourself (I was an expert in taking it out on myself).

Basically I’m in agreement with Ginette Paris who says, in Wisdom of the Psyche, that it’s still early after the death of god (the traditional toxic god), and it will take generations to form viable philosophies that can sustain us through life’s challenges. And I am all in favor of taking all the wisdom and poetry we can find in the past, including religious traditions. I’ve just been told not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. To me the supernatural elements are the bathwater, and the baby is the wisdom that can sustain us. The Golden Rule is the main example.

And the bathwater – well, we enjoy the Greek and Norse myths without any need to worship Zeus or Wotan. I think the Judeo-Christian stories will eventually be appreciated in the same manner, though they are more disturbing, e.g. Abraham’s blind obedience when he’s told to sacrifice Isaac. There will have to be a lot of collective thinking on how to deal with the toxic part. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012



It happened on Valentine’s Day, or rather night. I “laid me down to sleep” and experienced a wave of total bodily delight just stretching out and feeling the coziness of being cocooned in my comforter. (Comforter! I love the word. Not the Holy Ghost, but something light and fluffy that keeps you warm.)

It was perhaps as close as I can ever come to mystical ecstasy. The revelation, alas, was modest: my favorite place in the world is my own bed. Not original, I know. Not even new to me, though for the first time confirmed by the feline pleasure of the body. But every bit of clarity counts. Old grudges against life have been falling into oblivion, the way one kind, supportive lover can heal the wounds caused by a number of previous narcissists.


A more original insight was that “God is affection” is something I could buy, were I to redefine God as well. I never cared for “God is love” – not only because it’s a cliché, but because love carries so much darkness. Even parental love is not free from narcissism and possessiveness, or from the desire to punish when expectations are not met and the child’s values and interests turn out to be “wrong.” Even when a parent tries to be tolerant, the disappointment in a mother’s or father’s face still shows and weighs on the child (regardless of the child’s age). Affection, on the contrary, seems entirely positive. Only affection can forgive and forget (love may forgive, but does it ever forget?) Only affection is not “ego-invested.” Tell me that God is affection. I could run into the arms of affection.


I’m going over Tranströmer again, in Bly’s marvelous volume, The Half-Finished Heaven. Just the title should alert us that a lively poetic sensibility has presided over this selection. Here is a passage from “Below Freezing”:

One can’t say it out loud, but there is a lot of repressed violence here. That’s why the furniture seems so heavy. And why it is so difficult to see the other thing present: a spot of sunlight that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces, a biblical saying never set down: “Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you.”

If only we had such an honest biblical saying. If only we stopped yearning for blind submission to a “great cause” and noticed the wonderful small beauties of a spot of sunlight slipping over the flickering faces. Now that is an image of affection.


One of the things I’ve learned by living and making mistakes (like posting on Facebook) is that I don’t want to spread myself too thin. I enjoy doing just a few things, but doing them well. I’ve just re-read the marvelous New York Times article on the benefits of concentration:  Let me just toss some quotations your way:

William James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” You can lead a miserable life by obsessing on problems. Or you can recognize your brain’s finite capacity for processing information, accentuate the positive and achieve the satisfaction of . . . THE FOCUSED LIFE.

People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money. Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endlessly Twittering, [posting on Facebook], or Net surfing or couch potato-ing? You are constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience."

Why is the focused life so conducive to happiness? Because it’s much more likely to include periods when we are in FLOW. Flow is also known as being “in the zone”; I prefer flow, a beautiful, liquid word that suits this state of being so immersed in what we are doing that we cease to be aware of time, self, and other such childish things.

It is a truth universally accepted that you can achieve flow even if you never learn how to pronounce Mihaly Tsikszentmihalyi.

Flow, like heaven and hell, is a state of mind. Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”


On and off I’ve been reading a biography of Leon (or Lev, the Russian variant) Trotsky (real name: Leiba Davidovich Bronstein; a Moscow rabbi remarked, prophetically as rabbis seem to, “It’s Lev Trotsky who signs the mortgage, but it’s Leiba Davidovich Bronstein who will have to pay the price.”). No prophet of the ironies of history, it was Trotsky who said, “We want to create on this earth a real paradise for people.” The author of the biography, Robert Service, is hostile to Trotsky. Yet in the Introduction he also says, “More than any other leading Bolshevik he conserved in his head a vision of a future world where each man and woman would have the opportunity for self-fulfillment in service of the collective good. He proclaimed this with passion to the day he died” [assassinated in 1940 by a Stalinist agent].

The idea of that paradise on earth included free or nearly free access to education (including university education) and cultural life (by “nearly free” I mean that anyone could afford to go see an opera, for instance, and not just in terms of having to be content with the worst “student seats”). Now, I’d be the last to praise the Soviet system just because in Warsaw I could afford to go to the opera – or even because of free higher education and free medical care and other well-known features of socialism (which in its moderate form is not totalitarian, but can, and does, co-exist with democracy). Yes, that spoils you, but for the whole Eastern bloc the word became tainted with dictatorship.

It gives me a melancholy pause, the fact that the dream of the kind of paradise of earth that isn’t just the elimination of hunger and poverty, but also “the opportunity for self-fulfillment in service of the collective good,” is no longer spoken of. Oddly enough, the last time I read about it was in a class on Victorian literature, where I did a paper on Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891).

In it, he says, “Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” Wilde imagined a system that would make it possible for everyone to realize their talents. Who, then, would do menial work? Wilde assumes that in the future, machines would: “The fact is that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.” (To this a woman writer replied that there will never be a machine that can change a baby’s diapers.)

Let me swerve even more and give you this little-known Wilde quotation: “Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

A quotation from Trotsky’s Autobiography that I can’t resist – its opening paragraphs:

Childhood is looked upon as the happiest time of life. Is that always true? No, only a few have a happy childhood. The idealization of childhood originated in the old literature of the privileged. A secure, affluent, and unclouded childhood, spent in a home of inherited wealth and culture, a childhood of affection and play, brings back to one memories of a sunny meadow at the beginning of the road of life. The grandees of literature, or the plebeians who glorify the grandees, have canonized this purely aristocratic view of childhood. But the majority of the people, if they look back at all, see, on the contrary, a childhood of darkness, hunger, and dependence. Life strikes the weak – and who is weaker than a child?

My childhood was not one of hunger and cold. My family had already achieved a competence at the time of my birth. But it was the stern competence of people still rising from poverty and having no desire to stop half-way. Every muscle was strained, every thought set on work and savings. Such a domestic routine leaves but a modest place for the children. We knew no need, but neither did we know the generosities of life – its caresses.

(I’m thrilled by the phrase “life’s caresses.” I feel infinitely grateful to my mother for flowers on the table. And for taking me to the High Tatra mountains during the Easter break, once, just to show me the wild crocus blooming in the snow.)

The passage by Trotsky is a translation from Russian, and an imperfect one, to put it mildly (I assume “competence” means “financial security”) – and yet Trotsky’s intelligence shines through. He was a born writer – later pages show a gift for vivid detail as well. He was a stylist; he could not bear writing an ugly sentence. If only he’d confined himself to writing, becoming a harmless novelist and/or essayist. I’m coming to the strange conclusion that an education in the arts might serve to keep the gifted from going into politics, where they could do real harm. But get a young man seriously interested in poetry, and he’ll be harmless. Poetry will keep him off the street, including Wall Street.

Trotsky before he became Trotsky. If only he’d become a poet instead.


As for what Trotsky says about childhood, I don’t remember ever believing that it was the happiest time of life. Indeed, to quote Trotsky, “who is weaker than a child?” Has any child ever completely escaped bullying or being otherwise hurt by those bigger and stronger? There are wonderful moments in childhood, but the nightmarish part stays with us. People may want to be young again, but never to be a child again.

Incidentally, Lenin seems to have had the kind of affluent “happy childhood” that Trotsky mentions as the privilege of the few — including summers at his [Lenin’s] grandparents’ country estate.  

I grew up with the myth that youth is the happiest time of life. My parents and others gladly reminisced about their youth (until its sudden end with the outbreak of WWII). In novels and most movies, the protagonists were usually young, beautiful, and in love. Love songs were almost all about young love, before marriage (no song ever advised, “All you need is marriage”). Since I had a miserable youth, I thought I was a pathological exception. The confidences of women friends eventually made me see that a lot of us were “exceptions.” 

By now scores of studies have established that older adults are happier than younger adults. The older = happier relationship holds until the “elderly” stage sets in, with its accelerated aging and sickness. Thus, new research indicates that, on average, the years past fifty are the happiest time of life — and the seventies tend to be happier than the fifties. When time starts running out, people begin to revel in life. Seeing that the future is not what it used to be, they begin to live for the moment. This, maybe, is the happy second childhood, without the derogatory overtone. Or a kind of second adolescence, the way it should have been. Happiness! Not for pigs after all, but a sacred calling. Let’s enjoy it while we can.



Another beautiful blog, effortlessly written.


Thank you. I’m glad it seems effortless. This one essentially was. I scribbled down “thoughts from all over,” and realized that they were all related to happiness in some way. One of those mysteries of how writing comes together. The less conscious effort, the better it is.

Another reason for the effortless feeling is that my mind has grown richer, I feel. I’ve gained clarity about my values, my real interests.  For me the danger is that I have such an abundance, I have to restrain myself from writing on and on.

Here is what Rilke says in his letters (My thanks to Lois Petit for posting this): For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey. 


You've said about what I would have said. I did find among my notes this: well-being equals happiness for me. An out of body experience I get from music or nature and art, as if I'm looking down on myself from an elevated place.

About childhood:

Childhood is so brief a thing

a time of crayons and comics and fireflies against
a blurred background of war, polio, breadlines; against

the undertow of fear, nightly shouting, thuds, the final
snores. Some childhood memories should be burned,

with respect, like a flag, full of stains and tears. And even
then we’d carry around the ashes. The end of childhood

is sudden. No longer scuffing through
the fragile architecture, now we are  responsible

for keeping things upright like building blocks.
And the rest of our lives we suffer a vague

homesickness for a time when we could believe
we left our missing sock in a dream.



It’s only in the recent decades that Western society started owning up to the fact that a lot of children have an unhappy childhood – some seriously so. Interestingly, this happened at the same time as child rearing became more affectionate and less oppressive. 

I wonder about the future generations: will they interact with electronic devices more so than with parents and peers?

Isn’t it time to admit that our Hyacinth is a better poet than Ruth Stone, for instance? Now, I’m glad that Ruth Stone got to be famous, but Hyacinth has more striking lines and more lyricism (not this particular poem, but those with nature imagery).

That the ending is fabulous goes without saying. I also especially like

. . .    Some childhood memories should be burned,

with respect, like a flag, full of stains and tears. And even
then we’d carry around the ashes.

~ how is that for an unexpected simile?

I wish Hyacinth could be declared a national treasure.


I just read your blog on happiness and childhood and was staggered by your declaration (in question form), that it was time that we (the greater WE), recognize Hyacinth as a better poet than Ruth Stone. I like Ruth Stone's work but Hyacinth’s strikes me in the heart far more often.

I concur, not that I would have ever thought of grading poets but I do think, setting aside publishers and width of reputation, that Hyacinth is greatly unvalued, perhaps somewhat by herself. What a warm fire you are.


Yes again on Hyacinth. Her craft is better too, tighter, more musical. Hyacinth has more lyricism by far. About Ruth Stone’s work some people would say, “This is not poetry” – but nobody would say this about Hyacinth’s work. We immediately know that it IS poetry.

The trouble is that it takes so much energy, even if we e-submit, to keep on submitting in a system that’s not efficient at recognizing quality. The whole marketing aspect is simply too much for someone who’d rather give it all to poetry itself.  But at least Hyacinth has gained local fame. This is supposed to be a growing new phenomenon: many poets are very good, but remain unknown at the national level. They enjoy a strong regional reputation, though. And after all, a region is like a small country. Think Lithuania. A poet this wonderful would not be ignored in Lithuania. Or rather, let’s not think about po-biz at all. Let’s simply love the poems and poets that we love. Let’s bless our luck in having her and her poems.


Your statement about your bed being your favorite place reminded me of  mine: my chair in the living room beside a lamp stand where sit  several books that I am reading and a coaster for my coffee cup (a close second is looking out my French doors observing my bird feeder).  It brings to mind too that line about being surrounded by a 'warm  river of books and black coffee' in Robert Morgan's poem 'White  Autumn'.

Trotsky was an interesting fellow, a biography about him and the rest of the early Russian revolutionaries would make great reading; too bad they were not poets and chess players!

I can't help but concur with the 'oldest = happiest' conclusion. As I am almost 50, it is so much better being 50 than 15; to be secure in one’s own skin is a worthy goal I think.


OMG, what a nightmare: to be 15 again! On the other hand, I’d love to stop aging. In fact some rejuvenation would be wonderful, but we all know the irony of the human condition . . . it seems that life gets richer in various ways just as the body starts declining. Only today I had yet another profound insight that led to even more self-acceptance – but it was about something in the past, and I can only smile a melancholy smile at wisdom coming late, as usual (Hegel: “The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk”).

Alas, the revolutionaries were poets and chess-players only on the side; their true dedication was, naturally, to the revolution. I grew up with the portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Engels arranged like a new holy trinity in every classroom (Marx’s facial hair outclassed everyone else’s) – that’s why I say they feel like a family to me. Of course we studied the Communist Manifesto in high school, and knew the biography of Lenin in some detail (not about his mistress, to be sure).  We knew all kinds of details about the October Revolution – the warship “Aurora,” the Winter Palace, the fact that the Smolny Institute (the first revolutionary headquarters) used to be a boarding school for aristocratic girls – BUT! Trotsky was never mentioned, and we had no idea that the revolution would have never succeeded without him. Long after Stalin’s death, history books still never mentioned him. To do so would have been a thought crime, to use Orwell’s magnificent coinage.

As for the revolutionaries in general, it’s only now that I stop and think, stunned – these men, and some extraordinary women like Rosa Luxemburg (lots of streets in Poland were named after Rosa, since she grew up in Poland, and Polish remained the language of the heart for her) – these incredibly bold men and women decided that capitalism had to be overthrown, and eventually, thanks to superhuman-seeming will power (some would say: fanaticism) and courage and self-sacrifice (and, to be fair, their willingness to sacrifice others as well; Rosa was perhaps the least inclined that way, being pro-liberty and pro-democracy) – in the end, in some countries they succeeded. The results proved disastrous, but I’m stunned that the experiment was even tried! Maybe it had to be tried, so that we could see how a balanced approach is needed, with creative capitalism encouraged, but predatory capitalism restrained, and some mechanism in place to moderate the boom-bust cycle (already described by Marx).

Just a quick note on Trotsky. Trotsky started out as an anti-Bolshevist, correctly predicting that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would soon turn into a dictatorship OVER the proletariat. Alas, Lenin had legendary powers of persuasion, and managed to convince Trotsky to join him. Not that Trotsky is to be excused for having been persuaded; once he starts defending, advocating, and in fact exercising “revolutionary terror,” he loses my sympathy. As one of his biographers put it, he was a brilliant man who became a “prisoner of an idea.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


TOP FIVE REGRETS OF THE DYING (according to a hospice nurse)
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What's your greatest regret so far, and what will you set out to achieve or change before you die?
This may change, but at this point I agree most whole-heartedly with # 5: I wish I had let myself be happier. In my case, I wish I’d let myself be happier sooner in life. My philosophy used to be, “Happiness is for the pigs.”

Where I diverge is in thinking, “I wish I had worked harder.” This is pretty much the same as letting myself be happy, since the harder I work, the happier I feel (I mean what a friend called “soul work”: writing and teaching). When I think of the time I wasted on depression when I could have been writing or otherwise been productive, or even just reading, developing myself – or, if nothing else, enjoying myself in some other manner, though nothing makes me as happy as doing the work I love – this waste of time is something I can hardly bear to think to think about. (So I don’t; living in regret would also be a waste of time, that is: of life.)

I also differ when it comes to “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.” I wish that in my earlier years I’d had the courage to keep my mouth shut instead of so readily expressing my feelings, without thinking how it might hurt another person. This mistake is long behind me, except that, I’m told, my facial expressions still give me away (and my feelings are intense, including disgust – at least I don’t do that deliberately any more).

Finally, it’s possible that I’ve stayed in touch with friends a bit too much. I used to write long letters, and I do write a lot of email. It’s quick, facile writing, but it does take up time. And time is the greatest wealth. I treasure friendship, but I need to guard my time more carefully. (It’s beyond me how Henry James could write those 16-page letters and still have time to compose his long novels. Maybe that’s part of the “energy of genius.”)

My greatest regret is having wasted a lot of time, mainly but not only on being depressed. I wonder where I might be intellectually if I’d been more self-disciplined in the use of time. It’s only now that I ask myself, “Do I really need to browse through the New York Times every day? or Psychology Today? Or is this kind of reading simply my television? (Susan Sontag delighted me by saying, “Reading is my television.”)

You may say, “But everyone needs some R&R. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Go ahead and browse the New York Times.” I’m sure I will, now and then, out of sheer curiosity. But mostly, after a browsing session, I feel no gain at all. Only rarely does anything stay in my mind and makes me think. And if there is a truly important article, friends will let me know.

I hope to develop further as a poet and writer (I love doing my blog), and to grow in wisdom, which automatically means growing in kindness too. I hope to keep on working as long as possible (Christopher Hitchens is my role model here – this is how an atheist dies with grace).

Work is my lifeline, but it has to be quality work, something at which I can excel. Producing excellent work takes time. Thus I had to take a good look at my time wasters, such as Facebook and New York Times and Psychology Today.

The reason that Christian heaven has always struck me as BBB (“boring beyond belief”) is that there is no productive work there. For me that would be hell.

One time, when I spoke of being busy with work, a male friend objected, “What you do is not work. It’s play. You get to use your talent. You enjoy it.” I could have told him of the bloody sweat aspect of writing poetry, and the chores and headaches that come with both writing and teaching. But I let him think he was right: my work was play. Or rather, a privilege. In my youth I worked at various “survival jobs” that I did not enjoy, such as being temporary office help, and I realize that people who say they wish they hadn’t worked so hard mean jobs that did not feel like soul work.

However, one lesson I learned from my survival jobs was that even those jobs became more satisfying if I worked with dedication. Dedication energizes; boredom makes one tired. The Preacher knew it well: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). And the hospice nurse who interviewed the dying about their regrets is most likely a very dedicated person, like all the hospice workers I’ve met. I don’t think she will ever say, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

But I am truly grateful that my work utilizes my talents. Everyone has some kind of talent. Ideally, schools should help a young person discover that talent, and start developing it. Job satisfaction is one of the best predictors of health and longevity.

And of course “work” and “job” are not necessarily synonyms. I remember one time when I went to the lab for blood tests, and the technician told me right away, somewhat out of the blue, “This is what I do for a living, but my real work is photography” (yes, that was in Los Angeles, where the perennial joke is that every waitress is an actress-in-waiting).

Like everyone, I have seen a lot of older people merely vegetating, even when they are still healthy. They have failed to discover what it is they love doing, so they watch TV a lot, and grow more and more depressed. I think that’s tragic.


I had an interesting experience in the late fall of 2011. I read a biography of Lenin, mysteriously and wonderfully available at the give-and-take book shelf at the Y (or not so mysteriously, since it was part of Reader’s Digest condensed books).  I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of intense envy that I experienced, especially while reading about Lenin’s quiet life abroad, when pretty much all he did was read, write, and take long walks. Of course he read and wrote with a terrific sense of purpose, and I envied him that more than anything. I knew that his dedication was to the wrong cause, that what he wrote was wrong, that the world would be a better place had Lenin never been born. And yet . . . I admit I was consumed with envy. The deliberate, dedicated life. The clarity of purpose. The regular daily output – here was a man who obviously loved working very hard.

The paragraph above is not meant as an homage to Lenin. I repeat: the world would be a better place if Lenin had never been born (I don’t think Trotsky and Stalin would have accomplished the revolution by themselves; young Trotsky wasn’t even interested in setting up a dictatorship, inclining to democracy). It’s only that reading about Lenin’s daily routine opened my eyes to how much I loved that kind of focus and simplicity.

It would be fascinating to know what kind of regrets Lenin had toward the end of his life – when he could still think clearly, before his three strokes damaged his brain. He probably had some regrets about mistakes such as the 1920 invasion of Poland or the appointment of Stalin to high office . . . but I truly wonder about was whether he missed the quiet life he had in Switzerland. He loved being an intellectual, a writer; party meetings exhausted him (if only he had “followed his bliss” and remained a theoretician!). Whatever his regrets might have truly been, I don’t think he ever thought, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Nor have I ever heard an artist say, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time in the studio.” When work and vocation are synonyms, work is life’s greatest blessing, ahead even of love and friendship. Ahead, but by not a great deal. After all, even though I’m a work person rather than a people person, where would I be without people who appreciate my work?



But I don’t mean to elevate “creative work” at the price of putting down what might be called “ordinary work.” Deep respect for any work that’s useful has been one of America’s gifts to me. Europe is definitely more elitist, and yet it was Britain’s Philip Larkin who, in the last line of his famous “Aubade,” wrote what for me is the most moving tribute to the healing role of work:

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape. 
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know, 
Have always known, know that we can't escape, 
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go. 
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring 
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring 
Intricate rented world begins to rouse. 
The sky is white as clay, with no sun. 
Work has to be done. 
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Larkin’s biographer, Andrew Motion, writes, “Larkin had died at 1:24 a.m., turning to the nurse who was with him, squeezing her hand, and saying faintly, I am going to the inevitable.” Larkin always knew that the inevitable would prevail. I am glad that he didn’t die alone – there was at least the nurse whose hand he could take. And above all I am glad that he managed to leave us his poems, including “Aubade,” whose last lines were the first praise of work in poetry that I ever remember reading.

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


By the way, besides being a poet, Larkin was a dedicated librarian, admired by his staff. To quote the Preacher in full: Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

“Above us, only sky” ~ John Lennon, “Imagine”


I found this in a fascinating article posted on the Psychology Today website:

Terminally ill movie mogul: I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything important.
Mark Goulston: How can you say that?  You have a hospital wing named after you, you’ve created many jobs and the public loved you.
Patient: I have all the love that money can buy and that’s all it’s worth.  I also have some ex-wives that I screwed over financially, a bunch of kids who can’t support themselves, and the utter foolishness to think I could beat the odds by smoking two packs a day… and now I’ve dying of lung cancer at 54.
Eventually Mark succeeds with this approach:
MG: Look you aren’t evil.  You’re flawed, but so what? Everyone else is.  So you were an a**hole.  Big deal. You did do a lot of good. Just let it go.
Patient: Maybe you’re right.

After two weeks and a handful of subsequent meetings to spackle together as much peace of mind as possible, my patient died peacefully.
This man certainly had regrets . . . and they were creating hell for him in the last weeks of his life. I am so glad that the right healer came along with the correct antidote. It’s so interesting that the man who created jobs and delighted the public was refusing to see the good things he did. This is in line with the observation that we often project our good qualities on others, instead of owning up to them. Everyone seems to know that we project our own bad traits (e.g. the tendency to procrastinate, or being indecisive) on others, but we probably go the other way just as much if not more. I hope that the hospice nurse who interviewed patients about their greatest regrets also asked them about the best things those patients did. Some people have tremendous trouble acknowledging themselves (having been raised in a culture that frowns on self-praise as boasting and the deadly sin of pride, I know this well). Ideally, this post would have a companion post about the five top things that the dying are happy they did. Now, that might turn out to be a truly inspiring post.

I’ve also just recalled the Interfaith Panel on Death and Afterlife. Both rabbis said that never talked to the dying about “going to heaven.” Instead, they tried to make the person remember his or her accomplishments, and the love this person gave to and received from others. 


Your comments on the Lenin bio were very interesting. I have read Lenin was an enthusiastic chess player and poetry reader. At first glance the two would seem to be opposing interests but chess is structured and orderly and of course poetry in various forms is just as formal. But chess can be played with abandon too, just like a free verse poem. You are so right, if only Lenin had remained a theorist.


Nothing surprising about Lenin’s love of chess and poetry: he obviously loved structure, strategy, clear outlines. Yes, if only he had remained a theorist.

I am somewhat embarrassed about having felt my “Lenin envy” while reading his biography – especially the years in Switzerland. The modest, orderly, quiet life of reading, writing, and long alpine walks (my vision of paradise, I confess). Tranströmer begins his poem “Citoyens” with this invocation of the type of person Wallace Stevens would later call a “rational lunatic”:

The night after the accident I dreamt of a pockmarked man
who walked along the alleys singing.
Not the other one – Robespierre took no such walks.

Alas, his walks over and the October Revolution begun, Lenin turned into Robespierre – except worse. “Revolutions are the locomotive of history,” he wrote, as if not aware that soon they become runaway locomotives and a reign of terror follows. “Revolution devours its children” – those famous words are attributed to Danton, himself in the end one of the devoured. But I digress.

Lenin was known for exceptional dedication and single-mindedness – some might call it obsession and narrow vision. Reading about his hard work, I envied that kind of sense of purpose, forgetting that it might be blinding. Christopher Hutchins, remembering his loss of Marxist beliefs, brought me back to reality:

“There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.”

Yes, I do feel better now that Catholicism is a semi-nostalgic, semi-hateful memory, and no blind obedience to absurd doctrine weighs on me, no suppression of thought. My most common sin was what Orwell wonderfully called “thought crime” – my mind seemed to have a “mind of its own,” prone to wondering and “sinning in thought.” So at least as the Church goes, no regrets about leaving it. And no regrets about all the subsequent spiritual seeking having come up empty, rejecting every theology – but gaining a belief in kindness, generosity, and moderation. No regrets about no longer being on a spiritual quest.

My fervent energy has never quite found a fully satisfying outlet, but the positive side of that is that I haven’t become a fanatic of any cause. As my friend Hyacinth pointed out, potential regrets can morph into blessings. Not having total faith in something, anything, once seemed a loss, but now I see it as intellectual freedom. I am not a prisoner of any idea. Kindness and generosity are guiding ideals, but so is moderation – I don’t try to be a saint (at the height of my Catholicism, I did nurse that secret ambition, though worried it too might be a thought crime, the deadly sin of pride).

So, in the end, no “Lenin envy.” True, I have an inkling of the tremendous energy and enthusiasm of fanaticism. My mother often remarked that I had the temperament of a fanatic, but blessedly I have developed detachment and the ability to see many sides to every issue. Let me quote Tranströmer again, the middle section of “Below Freezing”:

One can’t say it out loud, but there is a lot of repressed violence here. That’s why the furniture seems so heavy. And why it is so difficult to see the other thing present: a spot of sunlight that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces, a biblical saying never set down: “Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you.”

If only we had such an honest biblical saying. If only we stopped yearning for blind submission to a “great cause” and noticed the wonderful small beauties of a spot of sunlight slipping over the flickering faces. Imagine, if the closed medieval mentality truly receded and true, difficult thinking came to be appreciated rather than Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum – “I believe because it’s absurd” or “it’s impossible, therefore it must be true” (that’s why the “leap of faith” is needed to reach that blind submission that makes Abraham willing to kill his son). I know I am a dreamer. But imagine: nothing to kill for or die for. Yes, sooner Lennon than Lenin. 


A great post, Oriana, but aren’t you overdoing the work part? What happened to the idea of a “balanced life”?


Did any great artist or scientist or business genius ever live a “balanced life”? Would anyone say to Dickens, “Come on, you’ve written enough novels. Time to take it easy”? Great achievers have always been, above all, workaholics. It’s much more appealing to believe that all it takes is talent, but in fact it takes talent and all the focus, self-discipline and endless practice that’s humanly possible, ideally starting at the age of nine. True, some people can be too compulsive and not get enough sleep, for instance; chronic shortage of sleep will exact its toll. And yet I never sleep better than after a day in which I’m truly satisfied with the amount and quality of work I’ve accomplished. When I lie in bed smiling to myself, I know I’ll sleep well. 

In a recent article, Seinfeld and Glee Won’t Make You Healthy , Howard Friedman says the following:

Our striking findings in The Longevity Project upend the common advice from the lands of laugh therapy, self-esteem clinics, and indulgent parents. In fact, sometimes worrying turned out to be a very good thing. Many of the boys, girls, men and women we studied for so many years were happy and healthy because of the meaningful lives they led—that is, lives full of dedicated work, genuine friends, and dependable lifestyles. Laughter from the joys of accomplishment and involvement turned out to be an indicator of thriving, but watching the funniest TV shows all evening while you sit alone and eat is definitely not the ticket to health. "Cheer up and live long" is a dead-end myth. (emphasis mine; I assume that by “dependable lifestyles” the author means a settled lifestyle and a steady routine).

Dedicated work means going the extra mile. But “genuine friends” come as a close second. That’s really what Freud said is most important in life: “love and work.” I interpret “love” here to include deep friendship and the “true love” that follows the initial infatuation stage for the lucky few among lovers. And I strongly suspect that by “work” Freud (an intense workaholic) meant the kind of work that you love and find meaningful. Perhaps the happiest life is the kind in which you’d never even think of saying, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
But yes, you have to time for friendship. At least in between creative retreats.