Monday, June 18, 2012


photo: Qarrtsiluni

* * *

My grandson Woody 
fell in love with a pine cone once in Yosemite
By statute, you are not allowed to carry anything out of the park, 
but no one, not even the ranger, could separate that young man
from the single pine cone almost as big as his head 
he had chosen for his soul to feast upon. 

They open, you know, as roses do, pine cones, 
from being tightly wrapped in themselves 
to being how we all might become
this very moment, pointy, sinewy,
and ready for the fire of someone else’s presence.

~ an excerpt from Coleman Barks, “Lightning Bugs and the Pleiades”

It’s a wonderful observation, that pine cones open as roses do, from being “tightly wrapped in themselves” to being ready for the fire of someone else’s presence. But what is it that makes us ready to open to another human, rather than staying defensively wrapped up in ourselves? I’ll explore this using the unlikely duo of Dostoyevski’s experiences in the Siberian prison, that “House of the Dead,” and Louise Hay’s rise from victimhood and the central principle behind You Can Heal Your Life.

Do I hear someone say, Oriana, are you out of your mind? Dostoyevski and who? Outrageous? Yes. You won’t find a post like this anywhere else in the known universe.


But first I must say that
I am stunned and delighted by the phrase “the fire of someone else’s presence.” I can’t imagine this poem being written before the twentieth century. Ascribing so much power to a “mere” human being would be seen as blasphemous (think how often we say, even now, with derision: “It’s only human). The readiness to open to love, here metaphorically rendered as the pine cone opening up, would need to be translated into religious (“Someone Else” would be capitalized so as not to be mistaken for a “mere human”), or vaguely transcendental terms (think Wordsworth, Emerson – divinized Nature with a capital N).

It’s only now, in the recent decades, that we have become more and more humane – and with it, more able to see the beauty and power of being human. Yes, the road ahead is still long, but let’s admit how much has been accomplished. At last we are ready to celebrate how extraordinary it is to be human. No, we are not sinful, not inferior, not “fallen” and evil by nature (the toxic harvest of toxic religions). Only now we realize that it is high time to drop the emphasis on sin and punishment, and instead to acknowledge the transforming power of human love (affection might be a better term, I’d argue), the powerful impact that one individual can have on another.

Ah, the fire of someone else’s presence – that’s the power of the mystery of another human being. We experience that power when we fall in love. Passion and fire – is there an older metaphor? It’s the greatest feast life has to give. But it’s a dangerous feast – fire burns. A storm must end, the glory of a sunset fade. Erotic passion is not for daily life. It’s too close to mania; the brain cannot keep on producing its own stimulants (a brain in love lights up on a PET scan very much like a brain on cocaine). There is another fire to keep us warm, a healing green fire – that’s affection. The warmth of someone else’s presence.

When children are brought up harshly (“spare the rod and spoil the child”), with a lot of criticism and punishment, they interiorize the harshness and pass on the violations that they themselves experienced. But when a lot of affection is given to a child, the child interiorizes the affection. The popular self-help author Louise Hay, of all people, rather than any of the big names in academic psychology, opened my eyes to this simple but extremely powerful phenomenon. The triumph of the Nazis (bullies, etc) is to make you feel ashamed of yourself; to make you believe you really are an Untermensch, a subhuman. It’s more efficient when you punish yourself.

Stop punishing yourself, Louise Hay says. Immediately stop criticizing yourself. “But how can I improve unless I criticize myself?” you may ask. You’ll never improve until you stop verbally abusing yourself, Hay replies. You are scolding the three-year-old that you were. You are slapping your own hand for reaching toward some forbidden beauties. 

So the real first commandment is: “Stop criticizing yourself.” Could it be that simple? Yes. It’s stunning. It’s revolutionary. The more affection you give to yourself, Hay states, the more little gifts and endearments you shower on yourself, the healthier and stronger you will be, capable of accomplishing more than you dared dream of.

Nietzsche was wrong. It’s not suffering that makes you stronger. It’s loving yourself. And loving yourself is the only therapy that Louise Hay prescribes. “When people come to me with a problem, I don’t care what it is  . . . there is only one thing I ever work on, and that is LOVING THE SELF.” [emphasis in the text].

Loving the self begins with never criticizing ourselves for anything. Criticism locks us into the very pattern we are trying to change. Understanding and being gentle with ourselves helps us to move out of it . . . It is as if little miracles are everywhere. Our health improves, we attract more money, our relationships become much more fulfilling, and we begin to express ourselves in creatively fulfilling ways. All this seems to happen without our even trying.”

“It’s not because you are fat that you don’t love yourself,” Hay says to an obese client. “You are fat because you don’t love yourself.” The diet she prescribes is the “mental diet” of nourishing yourself with loving thoughts, with tenderness. Praise yourself for taking even the tiniest steps, Hay advises. Do loving things for yourself. Be as tender to yourself as you’d be to a lover (for women in particular, this is a revolutionary proposition: that they could give to themselves what they give to a lover).

Knowing how frightening it can be for someone raised without sufficient affection to love herself, Hay suggests the affirmation: It is safe to love myself.  Repeat this a hundred times a day, for as long as it takes to embrace the idea.

Hay speaks with the authority of personal knowledge of hell. Raped by an alcoholic neighbor at the age of five, physically and sexually abused by her violent stepfather, she ran away from home at fifteen. She worked at menial jobs and had a series of abusive relationships. On her sixteenth birthday she gave up her newborn daughter for adoption; she never saw her child again. The husband she loved left her to marry another. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer – but, already on her way to building a different life, she managed to get well using alternative medicine. By learning to accept and love herself without judgment, she rose from victimhood to being a successful author and businesswoman. You Can Heal Your Life has sold over forty million copies all over the world.

She speaks in a calm, soothing, non-judgmental voice. “People who love themselves and their bodies neither abuse themselves nor others,” Hay says. They find it easy and natural to give affection to others. And in accordance with the saying that as we give, so we receive, affection flows to the affectionate.

It’s easy to ridicule the New Age aspect of Louise Hay’s philosophy and dismiss it all as wishful thinking. Physicians would be appalled by her theories of health and disease (which she insists on spelling “dis-ease,” to show the mind-body connection). But her intuitive psychology, her one healing principle put in the simplest of words, cuts a path of light through the murk of various psychotherapies. I sense that with her principle of unconditional affection for yourself she is getting at something monumentally important.

Do not dwell on your problems, she warns: “Whatever you give attention to, increases” (this is perfectly in line with the view that neurosis is paying attention to the wrong things). When she says, “Immediately stop terrorizing yourself,” this may sound exaggerated to those who have not experienced the phenomenon. I have. Likewise, I have seen the “little miracles” of giving affection to yourself – as well as receiving it from even one person. All it takes is just one person. Or even a dog.

In fact I once saw a tremendous personal transformation in a bitter, sarcastic woman when she got a dog. That was enough: love entered her life. She put a photo of her husky on her desk, and grew radiant when she looked at it. In a very short time, people began to like her, even to adore her. She went from bitter to sweet, and all because of a dog’s simple affection. I can’t really call it a “little miracle”; it’s one of the most amazing miracles I’ve ever witnessed.

And it reminds me of the time I briefly taught in prison, and had the inmates write about their pet. Smiles blossomed on their faces, miraculously softened and filled with affection. Several stated in their short essays, “My dog was the only friend I had.” They read those words without any bitterness, still grateful for the unconditional affection.


On the other hand, there is Sartre’s famous l’enfer, c’est les autres: “Hell is other people.” Reading about Dostoyevski’s four years in a Siberian prison, his years in the “house of the dead,” “buried alive and closed in a coffin,” I am still astonished that he even survived this hell, much less gone on to become both a great writer and a loving person (“My husband worshipped me,” his second wife, Anna, writes in her memoirs).

Soon after his release in February 1854 (“The fetters fell off. I picked them up, I wanted to hold them in my hand, to look at them for the last time. I seemed already to be wondering that they could have been on my feet a minute ago”) Dostoyevski’s wrote to his brother:

We lived in a heap, all together in one barrack [150 men] . . . In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. The floor was covered with over an inch and a half of filth; one could slip and fall. The little windows were so covered with frost that it was almost impossible to read at any time of day. An inch of ice on the panes. Drips from the ceiling, draughts everywhere. We were packed like herrings in a barrel. The stove took six logs at once, but there was no warmth (the ice in the room barely thawed), only unbearable fumes . . . There was no room to turn around. From twilight until dawn no one is allowed outside to take care of his needs, for the barracks are locked, and a tub is set in the passage, and consequently the stench is unbearable. All convicts stink like pigs, and they say it is impossible not to act like pigs . . . We slept on bare boards and were allowed only a pillow. We spread our sheepskin coats over us, and our feet were always uncovered. We shivered all night. Fleas, lice, and cockroaches by the bushel . . .

But an even worse ordeal was being surrounded by constant hatred: “. . . the eternal hostility and quarrelling around one, the wrangling, shouting, uproar, din . . . the clanking of chains [the inmates wore shackles], shaved heads, branded faces, ragged clothes.” And this, somehow, is what I can imagine most vividly: the incessant cursing and quarrels, obscene songs, gambling, drunken brawls (illegal vodka was easily obtained), the thievery, the hatred of all for all.

And then there was the sadistic overseer, the purple-faced Major Krivtsov with his drunken rages, invading the barracks at night and waking the exhausted prisoners if they slept on their backs or the right side. Those caught sleeping on their right side were flogged, since, according to Krivtsov, Christ always slept on his left side and everyone was required to follow his example.

(Fortunately Krivtsov’s reign of terror ended after two years; he was arrested, tried for misconduct, and removed from government service.)

Dostoyevski's "mock execution"

It was after reading this harrowing account in Joseph Frank’s biography that I considered again Anna’s simple statement: “My husband worshipped me.” Dostoyevski was also a loving father: he stayed up nights when the children were sick. I’m embarrassed to admit that until recently I thought only dogs had that kind of capacity to forgive abuse and be all affection again when shown kindness – forgetting that my own grandmother Veronika was not emotionally destroyed by Auschwitz, as was true of most of the survivors, aside from some inevitable degree of post-traumatic disorder.

Dostoyevski’s physical health suffered, his epilepsy worsened – though luckily he had some respite during his frequent stays in the prison hospital, which Frank describes as a “fetid ward” where one risked catching an infection, but where he could rest from the “morally unbearable” prison life. Yet in spite of the “total stifling of the soul” during those prison years, his writer’s mind survived, as did his capacity for love.

At first being surrounded by hatred took its toll. In a letter, Dostoyevski confessed:

There were moments when I hated everyone I came across, innocent or guilty, and looked at them as thieves who were robbing me of my life with impunity. The most unbearable misfortune is when you yourself become unjust, malignant, vile; you realize it, you even reproach yourself – but you just can’t help it.


Luckily, something happened that made it possible for him to see the inmates with new eyes. It was an involuntary memory of the affectionate help he received once, when he was a terrified nine-year-old, from “the peasant Marey,” one of his father’s serfs. The boy was walking through the woods when he thought he heard someone shout, “Wolf!” He ran out of the woods toward the peasant he saw plowing nearby. Joseph Frank recounts:

The surprised Marey halted work to soothe the white-faced and trembling child, and assured him that no one had shouted and no wolf was near. Dostoyevski recalled Marey smiling at him gently “like a mother,” blessing him with the sign of the cross and crossing himself, and then sending him home with the reassurance that he would be kept in sight. [Dostoyevski writes: “Only God, perhaps, saw from above what deep and enlightened human feeling, what delicate, almost womanly tenderness, could fill the heart of a coarse, bestially ignorant Russian peasant serf . . . ]

The memory of Marey’s kindness made Dostoyevski get up from his plank bed with a smile on his lips. “I gazed around, and suddenly felt I could look on these unfortunates with quite different eyes, and suddenly, as if by miracle, all hatred and rancor had vanished from my heart. I walked around, looking attentively at the faces that I met. That despised peasant with shaven head and brand marks on his face, reeling with drink, bawling out his hoarse, drunken song – why, he may be that very Marey; after all, I am not able to look into his heart.” (p. 209 -210)

Dostoyevski became interested in the inmates’ life stories. Except for a couple of clear psychopaths, he discovered a pattern of heart-rending abuse, of previous suffering worse than that experienced in prison. Thus he learned to separate the essential humanity of the inmates from the “alluvial barbarism” and to find “diamonds in this filth.”


He also noted that when they were allowed to work on their own projects, producing articles they could sell to the local population to earn a little money, for the duration of the task the prisoners were transformed into quiet, dedicated workers. Dostoyevski writes: “If it were not for his private work to which he was devoted with his whole mind, his whole interest, a man could not live in prison.” It wasn’t the money, which they typically wasted on drink, that motivated them; it was the self-chosen skilled work that humanized these men and, unlike forced labor, gave them obvious pleasure.

Dostoyevski also saw the immense importance of hope. A man can endure anything if he intensely concentrates on hope. One of the writer’s most nightmarish recollections is that of prisoners chained to a wall in the Tobolsk prison (Tobolsk, in Western Siberia, was a transit point for most convicts). Not able to move more than seven feet from the wall, and kept like that for five or even ten years, they were surprisingly quiet and well-behaved. “I will tell you why,” Dostoyevski writes in The House of the Dead. The man on a chain can endure it because he has hope; he knows his sentence will end. “He will get out of the stifling dark room with its low vaulted roof of brick, and will walk in the prison yard . . .  and that is all. He will never be allowed out of the prison . . . He knows that and yet he is desperately eager for the end of his time on the chain. But for that longing how could he remain five or six years on the chain without dying or going out of his mind?”

Dostoyevski's monument in Omsk


Doing the work you love and the importance of affection: two of my central themes. So far I have written mainly about the healing power of dedicated work. But I also strongly believe in the healing power of affection. I’m insatiable for affection: kindness, respect, non-violent communication, gentleness, tenderness.

Cruelty versus kindness, the emotional damage caused by abuse versus the healing power of affection – that’s the eternal story of humanity. Steven Pinker, in his The Better Angels of Our Nature, amply supports the claim that violence has remarkably diminished. Robert Wright, in The Evolution of God, points out that as hardship decreases and life becomes more secure, religion becomes less cruel, with more and more emphasis on kindness and compassion. Personally I suspect that the greatest factor in the decrease of violence (at least in the developed world) has been less abusive child rearing, with widespread knowledge that children thrive on affection.

Hay may not explicitly say it, but her book makes it clear that not loving yourself  stems from being ashamed of yourself. When you don’t love yourself, it’s not just that you are not particularly fond of yourself. It’s always worse than that: you are ashamed of yourself, you feel inferior, a failure. And this is where Hay and Dostoyevski meet. When Fyodor Karamazov, the father, comes to visit the monastery and plays the buffoon, Father Zosima tells him, Don’t be so ashamed of yourself, for this alone is the cause of everything.

Astonished Reader, do you see Louise Hay nodding her head? Do you find a sequel of Dostoyevski’s insight in Hay’s insistence that you must be “willing to release the need to be unworthy” and “immediately stop criticizing yourself”? Do not belittle yourself, Hay says, and then you will not belittle others. Be kind to yourself, and then you will be kind of others “Be loving, and you will be lovable.” Don’t be so ashamed of yourself; love yourself, and you will be loved.

Someone said that maybe heaven is our dream of a world where everyone is kind. Imagine! This is what we must imagine, a community of kindness and not some city in the clouds, of jasper and gold. If we must make gods in our own image, as humanity as done for tens of thousands of years, then let god be affection. I could run into the arms of affection.

But before I do, let me end with a poem of mine that I know is minor, but revives a memory that is close to my heart:


“When will you lose the dog again?”
I was sure my cousin Stash would tease,
greeting me after twenty-seven years.
Medor was Uncle Dobroslav’s piesek,
a handsome German shepherd.
I took him for walks along the river,
to chestnut tree-shaded parks.
One time I lost him; Stash, the hero,
found him the evening of the same day.

But Stash never mentioned Medor.
Head tilted in concentration,
he studied me for a moment:
“What did I use to call you?
Ah, yes, królevna.” A royal princess.
I cringed, just as I did then.

“Do you remember that bad dog?”
he suddenly asked; reminded me,
across the Vistula we had visited someone
who kept a “bad dog” on a chain.
The dog had once bitten Stash
and two of his friends.
In the end, Stash said, the dog broke loose
and charged a group of passing soldiers,
who shot him dead.

But the day we visited when I was a girl,
I did not see a vicious dog.
I saw a dog on a chain,
and felt sorry for him.
The grown-ups were busy talking.
I went out into the yard.
When he came out to look for me,
Stash froze with terror.
The dog had both paws on my shoulders.
“Oh God, what if he bites her
on the cheek,” Stash thought.
But the bad dog was licking my face.

What a gift, that my cousin remembered.
I was no longer the bumbling girl
who’d lost the family dog,
but a royal princess, a magical child
who’d tamed a dangerous animal.
Now I remembered: Piesek, pieseczek,
I spoke to the dog, slowly coming closer.
Piesuniu, I spoke caressingly.
The dog squealed faintly, stretching his neck
to smell me, greet me. And I let him.
“That was such a bad dog,”
Stash said, still wincing after years.

~ Oriana © 2012



Your opening poem reminded me very much of a favorite haiku of mine by Paul Muldoon:

I, too, nailed a coin
to the mast of the Pequod.
A tiny pinecone.

Dostoevsky's prison experiences were akin to Melville's time aboard 3 whalers as well as his service aboard a Navy frigate. Like the Russian writer, he was confined for months at a time with men from all walks of life – but now forced, for better or worse, to survive their experiences together as best they could. Melville recounts in his semi-autobiographical 'White-Jacket' how, like Dostoevsky, he was spared at the last minute from receiving a flogging for some minor infraction. This was thanks to an act of kindness in which a shipmate interceded for him in his defense.

You are so right on the mark in your emphasis on kindness. I can think of few character traits as important as the simple act of showing a fellow 'shipmate' of the world (as again, Melville pointed out in the aforementioned novel, how the world we inhabit is truly a 'celestial frigate' and we all share its voyage) the simple act of a kind word or action.


When I think who in American literature is most like Dostoyevski, Melville’s name comes up immediately. Of course no one in the whole world literature is quite like Dostoyevski, with his fearless intensity and characters who stand for ideas, but nevertheless seize our imagination in an unforgettable way. But when I think of the demonic character of Captain Ahab, he could (aside from the whaling context) be a character out of Dostoyevski.  He also seems to be in hell in a way that Father Zosima defines hell: not as a place, but as a state of mind: specifically, no longer being able to love. (Zosima’s views are not really those of the Russian Orthodox church; Anna Akhmatova called Dostoyevski a “heresiarch.”)

Jack London’s Sea Wolf also comes to my mind as Dostoyevskian in a minor way, trying to present a demonic character who is like Nietzschean Overman, setting himself  beyond good and evil, the opposite of “slave morality.” But in all of American literature, it seems to me, only Moby Dick deals with the great questions of psychology and philosophy the way Dostoyevski does.

Scott, you mention barely escaping flogging. This happened to Dostoyevski as well. The sadistic Krivtsov gave the order and preparations were being made, when, alerted by a messenger sent by a cadet friendly toward political prisoners, the general in charge of the prison arrived in the last minute to countermand the order. So in the inferno of the prison, Dostoyevski also experienced instances of kindness that must have seemed miraculous. And Zosima's ideas of universal brotherhood and how we are all responsible for all seem at least somewhat similar to the kind of brotherhood that develops among Melville's crewmen. 


I don’t see you as "late in life." You are just beginning. I am so happy you have reached the conclusions you have, and are able to think well of yourself and all you've come through and accomplished. I agree with Louise Hay that we must say only good things to ourselves and praise ourselves. I tend to yell at myself for mistakes – not good.


I’ve had my awakening – “It’s too late in life to be depressed” – just in the nick of time. Lateness is a relative term – once we are adults, it’s “too late” for wasting time being miserable when we could be happy and productive. Or, to use an alternate phrase, “Life is too short to be chronically depressed.” My apologies for always coming back to that special moment when I finally understood this.

I was very lucky to have had that “moment of truth” at a time when energy and health were still sufficient for accomplishing something. Ten years from now I know there will be special challenges. So I want to acquire all the wisdom I can, and do as much as I can while it’s still possible.  

Louise Hay, no intellectual, made a discovery that may not seem like much, and it didn’t originate with her – she just put it in the perfect sound-bytes. You yell at yourself because you got yelled at. We interiorize whatever abuse we’ve received, and abuse ourselves even more severely . . .  To use an extreme example, children in concentration camps played at being Nazis. When we are young and powerless, we imitate whoever has power. Afterwards, we’re on automatic – unless we experience an awakening.

When it comes to verbal self-abuse, I could certainly outdo any mere childhood bully. Oddly, though, in adulthood I always did it in English. Since I am bilingual, you’d think I’d call myself “stupid” in Polish for a greater emotional effect, but that simply didn’t happen. Taking Louise’s advice, I tried to use endearments in my self-talk, and those are strictly in Polish. The English endearments, few as they are, have almost zero effect. Polish has rococo endearments, hundreds of them, thousands (since every name can be transformed into several affectionate forms). Fortunately, these have blissful emotional power to make me feel loved. I never dreamed that something in my native language would be my best therapy. There are certain Polish words that never fail to relax me and make me smile. It’s like Dostoyevski’s memory of the kind peasant Marey, except that a single word is enough.


I love the opening poem. It sounds like one of your poems.

And the first few paragraphs – the green fire of affection – the prose sounds like a poem.


Oh, how I wish I had a pine-cone poem. I love pine cones and have seen plenty of those huge ones, and yes, have been tempted to steal at least one. I vaguely remember that I did, long ago, though from a national forest rather than a park. The cone got lost somehow in the chaos of moving, one of life’s lessons showing me it’s not the thing but its image that survives, becoming magical in memory and especially in art.

My blogs are uneven in terms of artistic level. I like to be literary when it happens without much effort (oh, what a confession). But the blog is my “communications playfield” and much of the time I want to communicate clearly, directly, without metaphor. After decades of writing mostly poetry, where you are so constrained, so terrorized into “show, don’t tell,” I want to tell and tell and tell!

The price is being inartistic. But once I understood that my poems, no matter how artistic, will not live on – and better poems than mine won’t live on either – that’s the current reality if you are not super-famous – once I stopped deluding myself and understood that 99.99% of poems, too, are only of the moment, I realized that I might as well have fun writing. The blog has been an avalanche of pleasure. 


I agree that this post is unique, but . . . there is a reason. We don’t write posts like “French cuisine and MacDonald’s.”


Darlene, you’re breaking my heart :) I was already planning a sequel of posts: Tolstoy and Deepak Chopra; Henry James and Madame Blavatsky; Kafka and Richard Carlson (Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff ); Proust and Oprah.

Seriously, there is a strong theme of feeling guilty and ashamed of yourself versus unconditional self-love and self-acceptance. There is also the theme of not judging others. When Louise says, “We are the victims of victims,” that’s a magnificent call to understand rather than take revenge (either by becoming victimizers, or by internalizing the abuser and punishing ourselves). Break the chain, she says. What Dostoyevski says is more complex, but I think it’s close to “You are a beloved child, and so are others. Be loving toward everyone.

I admit I’m pushing the envelope here, but both Dostoyevski and Louise managed to survive horrible stuff, and emerged not as victims but victors. Both ended up with insights that provide resilience.

I don’t fully share the belief system of either author. The point is to “take the best and leave the rest.” One of the many wonderful things about the modern times as contrasted with the past is that you can be selective. You don’t have to swallow anything whole. For whatever reason, in any religion and philosophy, wisdom is mixed with garbage, or maybe just archaic stuff that no longer applies. Let’s be selective. Let’s be VERY selective.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


More than once, Kott [a literary critic] describes a drunken party taking place after the curfew in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Kott enters a room, where he sees two people, Jerzy Andrzejewski (author of Ashes and Diamonds) and Czeslaw Milosz, on their knees making faces at each other.

They were making the most horrible faces at one another. They banged their heads on the floor and then, one, two, three, they raised their heads and made faces. Private and public faces, innocent and obscene faces, military and civilian faces, the faces of virgins and pederasts, and great historical faces—Beck [a German general], Hitler, Stalin. They made the faces of the archetypal father and king. Perhaps Czeslaw’s last face was Almighty God, after which Jerzy collapsed on the floor. Who or what were they bowing to? To the prewar years or to what lay ahead?
Kott was impressed that Milosz found the face Kott had been looking for in the Thomists and the surrealists, in secular humanism and Marxism—a face with which to confront a world of nihilism and cruelty, a world of round-ups and summary executions. 

~ Adam Michnik, “Gogol’s Venom: A Study in Lost Illusions,” Partisan Review 3, 2000

Reading Milosz, one needs to remember that he had the experience of walking out of a burning city. He had witnessed the Apocalypse, but what followed was not New Jerusalem and the Peaceful Kingdom, but the Cold War, and the Moloch of the Soviet Union swallowing up Milosz’s beloved Lithuania.

What saved Milosz from being locked in a kind of literary post-traumatic stress syndrome?  I think it was his ability to think in universal categories, beyond nationalism, beyond contemporary history. In one his essays, “Tiger,” I was struck by this passage:

I was convinced that as long as we live, we must lift ourselves over new thresholds of consciousness, that to aim at higher and higher thresholds is our only happiness. While living [in Nazi-occupied Poland], I crossed one of those thresholds – when we finally begin to become the person we must be, and we are at once inebriated and a little frightened at the enormous distance yet to be traveled. (Selected Essays, p. 150, emphasis mine)

It so happens that my mother, who was extraordinary, also said that she began to become herself “during the worst of times,” when she joined the Polish Resistance and said “Yes” when asked if she was willing to die. “That’s when I developed the most,” she said.

I can’t compare my own travails on my “long and winding road” to becoming a writer with my mother’s heroism. But the invocation of the worst of times reminded me that I took my first stumbling steps during the most miserable years of my life. First steps? No, that’s not quite accurate. What Milosz describes makes total sense to me:

Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, and only late we discover
how obedient we were.

The river rolls its waters, as it did long ago, past the church of St. Jacob, I am there along with my foolishness, which is shameful, but had I been wiser it would not have helped.

Now I know foolishness is necessary in all our designs, so that they are realized, awkwardly and incompletely.

And this river, together with heaps of garbage on its banks, with the beginning of pollution, flows through my youth, a warning against the long for ideal places on the earth.

Yet, there, on that river, I experienced full happiness, a ravishment beyond any thought or concern, still lasting in my body.

Just like the happiness by the small river of my childhood, in a park whose oaks nad lindens were to be cut down by the will of barbarous conquerors.

. . . Who will dare to say: I was called and that’s the reason the Supreme Power protected me from bullets ripping up the sand close by me, or drawing patterns on the wall above my head.

From a casual arrest just for elucidating the case, which would end with a journey in a freight car to a place from which the living do not return? 

From obeying the order to register, when only the disobedient would survive? 

Yes, but what about them, has not every one of them prayed to his God, begging: Save me!

And the sun was rising over camps of torture and even now with their eyes I see it rising.

. . . All of us are called, and each of us meditates on the extravagance of having a separate fate.

. . . If I accomplished anything, if was only when I, a pious boy, chased after the disguises of the lost Reality. 

After the real presence of divinity in our flesh and blood which are at the same time bread and wine,

Hearing the immense call of the Particular, despite the earthly law that sentences memory to extinction.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, from “Capri,” Facing the River, 1995


I caught a couple of glimpse of my future calling early on, but they didn’t make much sense. In “Caterpillar of Smoke,” a poem that records my first encounter with unrhymed modern poetry and the wild excitement I felt reading it, I say

I was fourteen. The future flashed

as though a careless angel
opened the wrong door in time.

I didn’t start writing until English gave me a distance from words. Polish was too emotionally charged. In English I could say anything. In fact by the time I turned eighteen, I knew all the bad words in English, quickly learned during my immersion in working-class Milwaukee. A “girl from a good home,” I didn’t know the Polish equivalent for more than half of them, and still don’t.

In college I started writing short stories and what might be called “verse.” I don’t want to apply the word “poems” to those beginner’s attempts at poetry. It was the latter that brought the verdict, “Maybe the talent isn’t there.” Ignorant of the fact that even the greatest poets started by writing the most embarrassing drivel, I translated this to mean that I had absolutely no literary talent, so there was no point pursuing that path. I went through a severe depression, the worst one in my life, descending into stupor. But I knew better than to trust psychiatry. The thought of being at the mercy of an insensitive MD who’d want to treat me with electric shock kept me on this side of sanity. I settled into chronic rather than acute depression and began to study psychology.

After no end of storms and dead ends, I began to become a writer (mainly a poet) in earnest around the age of 36. This time no one and nothing could stop me (or so I thought), even though I wasn’t done with anti-mentors, and there were more setbacks ahead. Still, looking back, my mid-thirties were indeed the time when I crossed the threshold and began to become the person I had to be.

So much delay, so many blind alleys . . .  Did it have to be so miserable and chaotic? I know better than to start brooding on that question. And I find solace in another poem by Milosz:


Did I fulfill what I had to, here, on earth?
I was a guest in a house under white clouds
Where rivers flow and grasses renew themselves.
So what if I were called, if I was hardly aware.
The next time early I would search for wisdom,
I would not pretend I could be just like others:
Only evil and suffering come from that.
Renouncing, I would choose the fate of obedience.
I would suppress the wolf’s eye and greedy throat.
A resident of some cloister floating in the air
With a view on the cities glowing below,
Or onto a stream, a bridge and old cedars,
I would give myself to one task only
Which then, however, could not be accomplished.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Facing the River, 1995

Yes, youth is wasted on the young, and, worse yet, life is wasted on people (as the protagonist of the movie “Greenberg” observes).  But if not for all that foolishness and lostness, this embarrassing wasting away with passion for the wrong men, living in ghost-empty suburbs instead of the soaring metropolis we dreamed of, or some other Eden – if not for the history of our stupidity, to quote Milosz again, what would there be to write about?


Another sentence in Milosz’s essay made me stop reading and start thinking: “Through poetry I wanted to save my childhood” (p. 156). For Milosz, that meant remaining in opposition to the dull grown-ups around him, entangled in romance, career, and provincial politics. For me saving my childhood meant preserving a trace of something as immense as the twilight over the river, in Carpathia, in late June when the mysterious time between sunset and night seemed to last and last, the river slowly turning gold, then silver dusking to gray sheen.

I was letting the music of that lost world transform me, transcribed into another language. I would have never intentionally chosen this strange path, this serving I didn’t quite know what, or for what purpose. But this is how Milosz defines maturity: not only as continually becoming the person you must be, but also as loving service. In “Love,” part of the extraordinary sequence written during the war, he speaks about those who arrive at the right detachment from the purely personal:

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

I certainly didn’t understand, and when it comes to poetry, I still don’t; I have to restrain myself from asking the hopeless question, Why me? I wasn’t exactly trying to preserve my childhood. It was not volitional. It happened. We don’t choose what we write about. At seventeen, having flown from the Old World to the New, I was eager to assimilate as quickly as possible, without getting mired in nostalgia; but nostalgia had other plans. When I resumed reading the essay, I saw that in the very next sentence Milosz asks, “But what fiery sword protects the artist?” Protects? The fiery sword expels the artist from that “perfection of the life” that Yeats regrets losing in the choice of “perfection of the work.” 

But it doesn't matter; the point is to show things "in the glow of ripeness." But also, of necessity, by how that glow is refracted through the lens of one unique consciousness, that once-per-universe configuration of history, geography, and personality. Making the best of the undeniable determinism of life. We don't choose our mistakes. It's just as arrogant to blame ourselves as it is to take pride in our fleeting accomplishments. 

Milosz answers his question by invoking loyalty to values – the very thing that he was accused by some of not possessing. “No matter where I turned, there was nowhere where I felt at home. A taste for ‘ultimate things’ gave direction to my whole life, although due to various geographical-psychological peculiarities, the Polish Catholic tonality has not been dominant in this religion of mine” (p. 298). Thank goodness for that. 

globalization everywhere

Not everyone admired Milosz’s preference for dealing with ultimate concerns and universal values, far from nationalism or orthodox religion. “Here and everywhere is my homeland,” he said, claiming all human heritage. Milosz’s contemporary, Zbigniew Herbert, always an uncompromising anti-communist, a patriot for whom Poland was a holy ideal, called Milosz “a man without a face, without an identity.” Herbert was given to extreme statements, possibly a part of his bipolar disorder.


But again I am getting away from the subject of Milosz’s essay I mentioned first: a Marxist philosopher, nicknamed “Tiger,” who believed that after the Communist revolution, a humanist revolution would follow; the task of the men of letters was to preserve humanist values during the period of necessary evil.

Milosz tries to defend his Stalinist friend as best he can, saying that Tiger was neither cynical nor shallow; he just believed in historical necessity. He quotes Tiger’s admiration for Hypatia, the first noted woman mathematician and head of the Platonist academy in Alexandria: “Of course Tiger adored Hypatia, the last pagan philosopher of Alexandria, not the dirty, terrifying mob of Christians who tore her apart. And yet, he said, the future did not belong to Hypatia but to the Christians” (p. 155).

But a “humanist revolution” is an oxymoron. Humanism can only evolve, slowly, through centuries of the widening spread of education and debate over ideas. No, we can’t forgive Tiger for having chortled at the notion that Soviet rifle butts will teach Poles to “think rationally, without alienation.” We can’t forgive him for shrugging off the gulags: “although he was splendidly informed about the millions of people behind barbed wire, he did not want to ‘weaken’; that is, to imagine the extent of their suffering” (161).

But then, who’d even remember Tiger (Tadeusz Kroński) if not for this essay? He was indeed on his way to the “dustbin of history.” He was a Hegelian and saw history as the tool of World Spirit (Weltgeist), cruel but always correct (I can’t help but see here the toxic god of “old-time religion” – and Kroński was on the side of the Christian mob who killed Hypatia precisely because Christianity was necessary to produce Hegel). And yet he could say the most amazing things, for instance: “Anyone who crosses himself in public crucifies Christ. I also cross myself, but only when no one can see me.”

During the war, Kroński, the mocker of romanticism and patriotic hyperbole, became a catalyst of that beginning to become the person that Milosz had to be. It is only in the eyes of some Polish readers that Milosz’s friendship with Kroński is a stain on the poet’s reputation. What matters is that Milosz still speaks to us with living words. He is now an acknowledged literary giant of international stature, above those old quarrels. Above politics. The world forgives those who write well enough to win the Nobel Prize and, despite a Leftist past and a degree of cooperation with a Communist dictatorship, become friends with a Pope as popular as John Paul II. Above all, the world forgives those who do penance for the rest of their life, striving never to praise death and nothingness, and to be always on the side of the human.


Should poetry be above politics? But what is politics worth if it’s not about freedom, justice, equal rights – about allowing people to fulfill their potential, to become what they can be? (I have softened “must” to “can” because “must” applies to cases of exceptionally strong vocation.) And what is poetry if not one of the means we have to keep reminding ourselves of the sacred trust in the fulfillment of a person’s potential, of being able to cross one threshold after another? Poetry, with its insistence on the particular that speaks to our essence, with its ability to pierce through to the emotional level (“an axe for the frozen sea inside us”) can be of great value in helping us become the person we can/must be.

Still, typically poetry and politics don’t mix because political rhetoric ruins poetry (note, for instance, its disastrous impact on Adrienne Rich). I am forced to say: yes, poetry must be above politics. But it’s a qualified yes, since I’ve come across some poems that have greatness in spite of (and in a way because of) being political. The most recent example is this poem by Margaret Szumowski (who is also the author of the delightful “into the forest” poem):

the women appear as aurora borealis

One night in the Arctic, the villages saw the “flashing elements
of female souls.” The women kept indoors, women whose windows
had been painted black, who dressed in head-to-toe black.

They floated out f their houses through the cracks to the Arctic
where they could be seen without the burka.

Luminous beauty. Their long black hair, slender bodies from so
much weeping, shadows under their eyes like the dark of the moon.
Look, Mother, with your shadowed eyes.

Soon the aurora of mirth will appear. First their bodies in the sky.
Brilliant ice maidens! Then the laughing of the heavens.
Then the laughing of the women themselves who prefer the cold,
the seals, the walrus, the ice floes, the dangerous polar bear, to
the death of the heart. My mother prefers death to leaving him.

They are laughing in the cold, and we villagers are making ice candles.
See us come out on our dogsleds. Hundreds of ice candles lead the
way to the Yypnik village. These women, a gift from the gods.
My father saw her as no gift but his.

Look how beautiful they are. Northern dancers, we call them.
They are not aurora flowers that open and die in a single hour.
They become aurora snakes to protect themselves from those men.
Poison him.

The women are gorgeous feather boas across the night sky.
Everything is called aurora in honor of the gods.
The aurora of mirth. Hear these women laughing?
You have never heard them laugh before.

They fled the harsh husband who caged them without light.
Mother, you could be all light. It’s not too late to seep from the
crack he forgot in the east wall.

~ Margaret Szumowski, The Night of the Lunar Eclipse, 2005

Originally the poet may have been inspired by the Norse myth of the Valkyries. The opposite of oppressed wives, these are the warrior maidens (“brilliant ice maidens”) who take the souls of slain heroes to Valhalla. The flashing of their shields as they ride the skies is supposed to produce the Northern Lights. What Margaret Szumowski takes from the myth is the joyful dance of the lights (auroras of mirth), and the power of those feminine spirits that are seen as a “gift from the gods.”

This is a poem imagining the escape of all oppressed women, not just the Muslim women forced to dress in black head to toe, with only a slit for the eyes (one Islamic scholar suggested that it would be more pious to leave an opening for only one eye). The poem is strange, surreal, and extremely moving. I can’t read it without feeling my eyes moisten. The address to “Mother” moves me – it gives the poem its intimacy. But mainly I feel its power as poetry because it takes me to the Otherworld – that place in the imagination where we can find refuge, almost no matter how oppressive the reality.

And yet it’s more than just some vague “place in the imagination.” This poem makes us imagine sheer beauty: the undulating lights in the Arctic sky: “Look how beautiful they are. Northern dancers, we call them.” It’s a summons – mostly doomed, we know that – to all oppressed women to connect with their strength and beauty. A political poem, yes, but a poem that does not sacrifice the strangeness and indirectness of poetry.

And here is a more direct poem. If we end up crying, that’s fine: it means that unlike those Hegelians who believed that history was cruel but always right, we have stayed human.

beauty pageant in Sarajevo

The young girls believe
as they parade before my eyes.
They know I have the power
to recognize beauty.

Lana floating, soft as spring leaves
in Sarajevo Park, Biljana’s legs scarred
by shrapnel, but slim and curved.
We judges enjoy their willowy forms.

Low-cut silk over delicate breasts.
Where did she get the silk? I ask
and her mother smiles.

What clothing does a fashionable woman
require? Is virginity important?
What kind of man could you love?

They hold out their arms like children
selling flowers from the family garden.
They hold out their bodies,

step forward on the runway,
speechless chorus,
slowly raising a large, white banner.

~ Margaret Szumowski



PS. Please don't miss John Guzlowski's comment on Milosz's "negative capability" in the official comments section.



I’m surprised you didn’t mention Jung and individuation. Isn’t that about finding your true self, “becoming the person you must be”?


I wanted to mention Jung, but couldn’t find a way do it gracefully, without superficiality and yet without heavy theorizing, getting entangled with terms such as the collective unconscious or the Shadow. Like a good poem, a blog post probably shouldn't have more than two and a half ideas, and mine tend to have twenty-five or more, each opening into infinity. Besides, I have never been clear about what Jung means by the Self. I much prefer the familiar phrase, “finding your true self.”

Of course there is a price for that. The more you differentiate yourself, the more deeply you pursue your calling, the less at home you’ll feel at a family gathering, say. But the rewards are obviously great, even if you end up feeling like an outsider. For one thing you experience less envy, if any. You get your fulfillment from doing what you love doing. Recognition is always nice, but you are not pathetically dependent on it.

Possibly we are out on a metaphysical limb when we talk about “finding our true self” or “finding what we were meant to do.” These are approximations, figures of speech. I don’t think there is some cosmic decree that says something like, “Jim is meant to be a nature poet.” I know that New Age dogma says we choose a particular task for this lifetime just before we incarnate, but immediately after we choose, our memory is erased, so that we are born clueless and must seek and seek.

I don’t believe that there is one pre-destined task, the reason we were born, what we came here for. Contrary to Jung’s “There are no accidents,” I think there are plenty of accidents, for which we later may find destiny-type reasons. We stumble and bumble and walk in circles; then, if we are lucky, we discover the path that feels right, that makes us believe we’ve found our destiny. Then we look back and see even our catastrophes as necessary steps. Maybe. “There is no truth, only perspectives.” The important thing is to keep walking – self-actualizing, to bring in Abraham Maslow, another psychology giant. It’s by self-actualizing that we can be of greatest service to others.

On the other hand, a lot of people say, “I just want to enjoy life.” I used to think that was terribly shallow, but I’ve changed my mind. Where would I be without the palm trees and Pacific sunsets? Somewhere else, I suppose, but not quite as happy. Not thinking “paradise” as I drive down a typical California boulevard. I personally need the kind of work that is its own reward. Others say “I need to be of use.” Still others: “I need a sense of adventure.” Fortunately there are many ways to enjoy life; I’ve become quite tolerant toward those who just go to the park and feed the ducks.


I do love both poems, especially "The Women Appear as Aurora Borealis." The poems, especially "Beauty Pageant," remind me of Nafisi's descriptions in Reading Lolita in Tehran of the women she taught at her home in secret, who "disrobed" (down to their real, street clothes and real selves).


I really enjoyed the Aurora borealis poem in your last blog. The Arctic has always held an attraction to me as it's so connected to explorers, whalers and is the home of my favorite animal, the Narwhal. As you came to consider yourself a poet relatively late in life, I came to appreciate verse in my middle age. Though I have dabbled in it, I feel I will always be more a reader and one who enjoys poetry than an actual poet and that's ok, one must know one's limitations.


Pardon my limited typing capacity at the moment. Margaret Szumowski has written some wonderful, wonderful poems -- easily lost in the static, so I want to help publicize them. More will be coming in future posts.