Sunday, January 31, 2016


Michelangelo: Christ the Redeemer, Santa Maria sopra Minerva


I dream you live in the country,
in the helmet of a silver silo.
Slender young women file in,

in Boticellian curls and wisps.
Each greets you with a kiss.
What wish fulfillment is this?

I stand on the side
knowing that you are dead —
in a silo, already harvested.

There’s no room for me here:
you are too busy having
all you’ve never had.

In this radiance I am the ghost,
clanging the chains of the real.
I want my letters back —

I want even the postcards —
I want everything
I’ve given you back —

But why do I protest?
Maybe you do exist
in the unending grain.

What envious myth
makes me plead,
Help me live

I’m not in a silo yet.
That’s what vocation means:
I have to earn my death.

~ Oriana © 2016

Of course you can’t get everything back — or even the tiniest fraction. The amount of life wasted suffering because of an involvement with the wrong person can never be replaced. He did, in the end, help me live because I became determined: never again. I’ll never again wear myself out being around pathology. And I’ve kept that promise to myself.

But in a way, that was cheating. Once I had my vocation, I wasn’t even a fraction as vulnerable. Once I knew that my writing came first, I wasn’t about to destabilize my life for the sake of any man — not even the Prince, or my alleged “Twin Flame.”

There is a total difference between being in love and being in love with the right person, someone who you know will be in your life for many years to come — and not because it’s difficult to disengage from someone with severe pathology.  Even though you’ve officially broken up with the person, the crazy-maker keeps showing up, creating chaos. These stanzas are about the same person when he was still alive (the poem continues, but the opening says it all)


breaching each summer like bad news. 
There’ s always a heat wave,
burn spots on the ivy,
the racket of fans.

You call. Time stops,
sky bleaches to no color.
You erase whole landscapes
until there’s only you,

you and the sky like a wall —
We confess each other’s sins.
Instead of Why me?
I ask: Why you?

In youth, we are practically doomed to end up with the wrong person. A frequent reason is that we want “exciting” rather than nurturing. We also don’t yet know how to recognize pathologies, so are extremely vulnerable to charmers who know exactly how to fool and please until the game is up and now they are the VICTIM. They claim you are using them and victimizing them, along with the rest of society. You, a scarlet woman, seduced an innocent (what do you mean, you thought he was a consenting adult?), and now when they have overdrawn their account by $400 (“I have no idea how that happened!”) you won’t even lend them money — or some variation on that story. And the variations are endless.

True, even a bad relationship provides some growth. Besides, cynical as it may sound, a poet needs material. I can’t complain: I received plenty of material.

Giovanni da Paolo, Creation and the Expulsion from Paradise, 1445

As with all pathology, we need to try to bear in mind that people aren’t born eager to wreak havoc on others and make everyone miserable, including themselves. Something causes it. Alas, at present we can’t say much except the usual: it’s a combination of bad genes and bad environment. Experts have trouble enough dealing with the damage; lay people have no chance. For the average person, the only strategy is: try to save yourself. Again, that is sufficient.

What saved me? Already having a vocation, and not feeling inferior. At a younger age, chances are that I would have been destroyed.


“A naked statue of Jesus was carved by none other than Michelangelo himself to show the King of Kings in all his glory (remember he would have been naked at his crucifixion since the soldiers gambled for his underwear). Of course, this horrified the church leaders, who immediately covered the midsection of Christ the Redeemer with a skirt. This evidently did nothing to deter the curious nuns who kept sneaking into the sanctuary at night for a peek at the Savior’s family jewels. Seeing that nothing would stop this carnal fixation, the priest ultimately took a chisel to this priceless work of art and made a eunuch out of Jesus. They decided it was better for his genitals to be completely cut off than for them to cause another to sin.” ~ Neil Carter, Removing the Fig Leaf: A New Blog About Sexuality Without Shame

Since I already used Michelangelo’s “censored” naked Jesus as the opening image, let me share another of Michelangelo daring creations: Yahweh’s bare buttocks in the panel that shows both the creation of the sun and the moon and, on the left, the creation of plants. 



Oriana: For me, sexual repression was actually the easiest to recover from — but then I left the church at the last moment, so to speak. Still remember when I first looked at my breasts and touched them — to wash them, actually. Stopped thinking of them as obscene in an instant. But the fear of hell — it stayed with me for decades like PTSD, complete with nightmares, literally. My last one in that sequence was very interesting and gave me a poem, but it took me a week to feel OK again and not sick and shaky. Some of my fellow apostates have admitted to having had similar experiences, down to waking up in terror in the middle of the night. Recovery from toxic religion takes a lifetime.

(Facebook comment): what? you never touched your breasts? I was brought up as a good little Catholic girl but never had a single hangup of this sort... weird. on the other hand, I did decide for myself that god did not exist way before I had any breasts to speak of.

Oriana: You were so ahead of me! Thinking back of our literalism/metaphorical understanding discussion, I took fairly tales metaphorically (more or less), but religion — once I decided it wasn't fairly tales, in spite of my first good intuition — religion I took utterly literally, and it was terrifying. I who never believed in monsters under my bed, or witches or ghosts, did nevertheless become completely intimidated by priests and nuns and did believe that a monster in the sky spied on me 24/7, compiling a dossier to be read to me just before I'm tossed into hell.

It seems very comic now, but I felt embarrassed using the bathroom — because the Eye in the Sky was watching!! And there I was, pulling down my pants, how indecent and disrespectful. Ludicrous now, a source of true anxiety back then. (And in the movie Ida, I was especially struck by the scene of the nuns having to take a shower in a special shower robe . . . surely god could still see the body through the robe, so the purpose must have been to prevent the nuns from seeing their bodies.)

That of course was minor next to the real anxiety and suffering about my supposedly horrible sins (and everything was a sin, pretty much) driving nails into the flesh of Jesus. Romans or Jews was never a question for me, since I was the one crucifying Jesus with my sinful thoughts (I sinned mainly in thought -- it was pretty Orwellian).

Only soon after my 14th birthday I had a thought, "This is all a bunch of nonsense" — but my fear of hell still prevailed and I managed to suppress that thought. But soon after the thought, "It's just another mythology" prevailed and that was it — after waiting to be struck with lightning (Adam Zagajewski commented on that, "Sometimes there is a delay”).

(to the commenter): Just consider yourself very lucky. You mean you never felt doomed to end up in one of those big cauldrons in hell, with devils with pitchforks pushing you down if you tried to find a bit of relief by sticking up higher from the burning pitch? My idea of hell was mainly cauldrons rather than the Lake of Fire. An odd similarity to those cartoons of missionaries being cooked by the natives.

By the way, when I read Milosz's memories of HIS Catholic childhood, it was of course even more oppressive and repressive, so as with communism, there was a progressive “softening” with time. I did visit a church a few times more recently, and it's almost totally different now. But my stomach still turns. And there is nothing the new church can offer me either . . .

“Salvation is liberation from fear” ~ Marcus Borg. But the church’s tactic was always to manipulate through fear. That’s why hell was absolutely necessary as the very foundation of Christianity. Now the Catholic church, with its redefinition of hell as a state of mind, has taken a huge step forward. But the fundamentalist right wing is never going to give up hell, their chief tool and means of imaginary revenge. Never.

There is a connection between cruelty, hell, punishment, and hatred of the body and bodily pleasure. People cut off from physical love, from touch, often don’t get any love at all, and it’s harder for them to be loving. Happiness and being loved make it much easier to be warm and kind toward others. Those who learn to be cruel to themselves — forcing themselves to remain celibate, self-flagellating, self-mutilating, wearing barbed wire under the breasts or worse (not unusual in old-time convents — all in the name of “mortification of the flesh”) — people cruel to themselves can quite easily be cruel toward others. That’s why we have so many stories of sadistic nuns.

The Sistine ceiling was called pornography by the clergy and action followed. But later — restoration! We owe a lot to the Greeks, and how much the artists loved the human body. And the church, well, I'm eternally grateful to the church for having falsified the Second Commandment, so at least in Christianity we have figurative art.

Still, there is a bit of figurative art that scholars have found in Islam. Here is Islamic hell: Muhammad visits and sees women punished for showing their hair to strangers


As Oscar Wilde put it, “Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography.” It tells you more about the psychology of the criticizer than the people he or she criticizes. Astute professionals can formulate a viable diagnostic hypothesis just from hearing someone criticize.

Criticism is the first of John Gottman’s famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which predict divorce with more than 90% accuracy. In my clinical experience it is the most predictive of disaster in love relationships, as the other three tend to follow from it—stonewalling, defensive, and contemptuous partners almost invariably feel criticized.

Criticism is destructive to relationships when it is:

    About personality or character, rather than behavior
    Filled with blame
    Not focused on improvement
    Based on only one “right way” to do things

Criticism in close relationships starts out, in most cases, on a low key and escalates over time, forming a downward spiral with increasing resentment. The criticized person feels controlled, which frustrates the critical partner, who then steps up the criticism, increasing the other’s sense being controlled, and so on.

Criticism fails because it embodies two of the things that human beings hate the most:

    It calls for submission, and we hate to submit.
    It devalues, and we hate to feel devalued.

While people hate to submit, we like to cooperate. Critical people seem oblivious to a key point about human nature: The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists. If you want behavior change, show value for the person whose behavior you want to change. If you want resistance, criticize.

Critical people are certainly smart enough to figure out that criticism doesn’t work. So why do they keep doing it in the face of mounting frustration?

They keep doing it because criticism is an easy form of ego defense. We don’t criticize because we disagree with a behavior or an attitude. We criticize because we somehow feel devalued by the behavior or attitude. Critical people tend to be easily insulted and especially in need of ego defense.


Critical people were often criticized in early childhood by caretakers, siblings, or peers. Criticism can be especially painful for young children. They cannot distinguish criticism of their behavior from rejection, no matter how much we try to make the distinction for them, as in the well-intentioned, “You’re a good boy, but this behavior is bad.” Such a distinction requires a higher prefrontal cortex operation, which is beyond most young children. To a child under seven, anything more than occasional criticism, even if soft-pedaled, means they’re bad and unworthy.

The only thing young children can do to survive is attach emotionally to people who will take care of them. Feeling unworthy of attachment, as criticized young children are apt to feel, seems a bit like life or death. So they try to control the great pain of criticism by turning it into self-criticism—since self-inflicted pain is better than unpredictable rejection by loved ones.

By early adolescence, they begin to "identify with the aggressor"—emulating the more powerful criticizer. By late adolescence, self-criticism expands to criticism of others. By young adulthood, it seems to be entirely criticism of others. But most critical people remain primarily self-critical; I have never treated one who was not. As hard as they are on others, most are at least equally hard on themselves.

You’re likely to be the last to know whether you’re a critical person. As the joke goes, “I give feedback; you’re critical. I’m firm; you’re stubborn. I’m flexible; you’re wishy-washy. I’m in touch with my feelings; you’re hysterical!”

If someone tells you you’re critical, you probably are. But there’s even a better way to tell: Think of what you automatically say to yourself if you drop something or make a mistake. Critical people will typically think, “Oh you idiot,” or, “Jerk,” or just curse or sigh in disgust. If you do that to yourself, you most likely do it to others as well.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), Still Life with Pomegranates

Criticism vs. Feedback

Critical people often delude themselves into thinking that they merely give helpful feedback. The following are ways to tell the two apart.

    Criticism focuses on what’s wrong. (“Why can’t you pay attention to the bills?”)
    Feedback focuses on how to improve. ("Let’s go over the bills together.")
    Criticism implies the worst about the other’s personality. (“You’re stubborn and lazy.”)
    Feedback is about behavior, not personality. (“Can we start by sorting the bills according to due date?”)
    Criticism devalues. (“I guess you’re just not smart enough to do this.”)
    Feedback encourages. ("I know you have a lot on your plate, but I’m pretty sure we can do this together.")
    Criticism implies blame. (“It’s your fault we’re in this financial mess.”)
    Feedback focuses on the future. (“We can get out of this mess if we both give up a few things. What do you think?”)
    Criticism attempts to control. (“I know what’s best; I’m smarter and more educated.")
    Feedback respects autonomy. (“I respect your right to make that choice, even though I don’t agree with it.”)
    Criticism is coercive. (“You’re going to do what I want, or else I won’t connect with you or will punish you in some way.”)
    Feedback is not at all coercive. (“I know we can find a solution that works for both of us.”)

If you’re a critical person, you must get a handle on your impulse to criticize before it ruins your relationship.”

The part that now seems obvious, and yet oddly enough I haven’t thought of it before, is that critical people, people who put down others a lot, were themselves criticized and put down as they were growing up. None of us escapes some of this kind of abuse, but of course some children suffer a lot more than others. There are still parents who think nothing of pushing a small child against a wall and yelling, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” It helps to remember that those parents were themselves “done unto” in the same way — and likely they have already taken the abuse down a notch; at least they aren’t hitting the child.

We haven’t eliminated child abuse, but at least it isn’t the norm anymore — at least not in the Western culture. But any experienced therapist could tell endless stories of emotionally abusive parents — that’s what keeps therapists in business.


(It’s been shown that dogs make better therapists than humans, but apparently that goes for other social species — and maybe just for . . . animals?)

Siebert goes on to write about Lilly Love’s [a PTSD patient] residence at a place called Serenity Park, where birds named Julius, Bacardi, Pinky, and Cashew live with 30 other parrots, and where Love received parrot therapy. Before going to Serenity Park Love told Siebert, ‘‘They had me loaded up on so many kinds of medications, I was seeing little green men and spiders jumping out of trees" ... "as a six-inch-tall female caique parrot from the Amazon Basin named Cashew dutifully paced across her shoulders. Back and forth she went, from one side to the other, in determined, near- circular waddles. For the next 10 minutes, Love, her eyes closed, her arms still at her sides, continued to engage in one of the many daily duets she does with each one of Serenity Park’s winged residents, listing her shoulders up and down like a gently rocking ship, Cashew’s slow, feather-light paddings all the while putting Love further at ease."

Love goes on to say, "Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’

Parrots also can be severely traumatized. Siebert writes:

    "Abandoned pet parrots are twice-traumatized beings: denied first their natural will to flock and then the company of the humans who owned them.  In the wild, parrots ply the air, mostly, in the same way whales do the sea: together and intricately. Longtime pairs fly wing to wing within extended, close-knit social groupings in which individual members, scientists have recently discovered, each have unique identifiable calls, like human names. Parrots learn to speak them soon after birth, during a transitional period of vocalizing equivalent to human baby babbling known as ‘‘subsong,’’ in order to better communicate with members of their own flocks and with other flocks. This, it turns out, is the root of that vaunted gift for mimicry, which, along with their striking plumages and beguilingly fixed, wide-eyed stares, has long induced us to keep parrots — neuronally hard-wired flock animals with up to 60-to-70-year life spans and the cognitive capacities of 4-to-5-year-old children — all to ourselves in a parlor cage: a broken flight of human fancy; a keening kidnapee."

According to Lorin Lindner, the psychologist who founded Serenity Park, ‘‘Parrots have so many social neurons. Their brain is filled with the capacity to mirror their flock. It’s so crucial for survival to be able to know what the flock is doing, to know what the danger signs are, when they have to get together, when night is falling and they are called to roost. They’re so attuned to being socially responsive that they can easily transfer that to us. They have the ability to connect, to feel this closeness with another being, another species.’’

Siebert also notes, "Veterans, of course, share similar psychological scarring, but whenever I asked any of them how it is that the parrots succeed in connecting where human therapists and fellow group-therapy members can’t, the answer seemed to lie precisely in the fact that parrots are alien intelligences: parallel, analogously wounded minds that know and feel pain deeply and yet at a level liberatingly beyond the prescriptive confines of human language and prejudices."

Siebert concludes:

    "Nearing Serenity Park’s exit, I decided to turn back and step inside Cashew’s quarters for a moment. I had only to nestle close to her perch and she immediately hopped on my back. Crisscrossing my shoulders as I had watched her do with Lilly Love, she stopped at one point for what I assumed would be the parrot equivalent of a kiss. Instead, she began to clean my teeth: her beak lightly tapping against my enamel, the faint vibrations strangely soothing. Immediately afterward, she took a brief nap in my shirt’s left breast pocket — it felt as if I’d grown another heart — then re-emerged and crawled to the top of my head. She strolled about there for a time before plucking out one of her own deep blue-green feathers and then descending to gently place it on my left shoulder. I have it still."


Just the idea of "Serenity Park" is so marvelous . . . We could design healing environments rather than toxic medical spaces.


I had my big breakthrough when I realized that depression is not a feeling, but a behavior, and behavior can be changed. Now I came across this neat quotation from Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Excellence as a habit, a frequently repeated behavior -- this makes a lot of sense to me.

“We are what we repeatedly do.” I was practicing being depressed, getting better and better at it, descending into despair faster and faster — it got so I could do it in under two minutes. Then a vehement crying fit. Eventually the breakthrough, the insight — and I chose to be productive instead. I very deliberately chose to cope with life, come what may: “I’ll cope somehow.” Now I know that “bravely carrying on” is actually the easiest thing to do — considering the alternatives.


“I had been in Iraq for about two months when I heard about an officer conducting an impromptu habit modification program in Kufa, a small city ninety miles south of the capital. He was an army major who had analyzed videotapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern: Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and, over the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose.

When the major met with Kufa's mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Masjid al-Kufa, or Great Mosque of Kufa. Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 P.M., everyone was gone.

When I visited the base near Kufa, I talked to the major. You wouldn't necessarily think about a crowd's dynamics in terms of habits, he told me. But he had spent his entire career getting drilled in the psychology of habit formation.

At boot camp, he had absorbed habits for loading his weapon, falling asleep in a war zone, maintaining focus amid the chaos of battle, and making decisions while exhausted and overwhelmed. He had attended classes that taught him habits for saving money, exercising each day, and communicating with bunkmates. As he moved up the ranks, he learned the importance of organizational habits in ensuring that subordinates could make decisions without constantly asking permission, and how the right routines made it easier to work alongside people he normally couldn't stand. And now, as an impromptu nation builder, he was seeing how crowds and cultures abided by many of the same rules. In some sense, he said, a community was a giant collection of habits occurring among thousands of people that, depending on how they're influenced, could result in violence or peace. In addition to removing the food vendors, he had launched dozens of different experiments in Kufa to influence residents' habits. There hadn't been a riot since he arrived.

"Understanding habits is the most important thing I've learned in the army," the major told me. "It's changed everything about how I see the world. You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you get up. You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine. I drill my kids on this stuff. My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage. This is all we talk about in command meetings. Not one person in Kufa would have told me that we could influence crowds by taking away the kebab stands, but once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it's like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work.”

"I'm telling you, if a hick like me can learn this stuff, anyone can. I tell my soldiers all the time, there's nothing you can't do if you get the habits right."

In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations has expanded in ways we couldn't have imagined fifty years ago. We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics. We know how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications. We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives. Transforming a habit isn't necessarily easy or quick. It isn't always simple.

But it is possible. And now we understand how.”

From The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Ending on beauty:

Inside every mind
there's a hermit’s cave
full of light,

full of snow,
full of concentration.
I’ve knelt there,
and so have you,

hanging on
to what you love.

~ Mary Oliver

Tuesday, January 26, 2016



Odd, how at home I feel
in a ramshackle Tijuana bus
that stands at the chipped, faded curb,
La vida eterna

advertised on its side.
I could afford a taxi, but no,
I want this wooden seat,
this is third class, I’m loving it.

I only wish there’d be a live chicken
on this bus, it’s not the same
without an animal soul.
I sit on the hard seat,

knowing there is no hurry,
most of the world is like this,
no need to scribble false cheer
in letters home, or get another degree.

The faces around me are browning
and I think I too
am turning sepia, a century ago.
The fare is almost nothing,

like giving the thin flat coins
to beggars — or am I
giving alms to myself?
The bus is like a church, with pews,

Our Lady of the Sorrows
on the dashboard.
And the driver must be
one of the apostles, the obtuse

Saint Peter perhaps, rough-hewn.
He knows the Kingdom
will be his, why rush.
After a long snorting warm-up, we start

toward the U.S. border.
Again I’m going to America,
where I will be poor
and will have to drive —

where I’ll have to take my life
in my own small hands.

~ Oriana © 2016

It’s only now that I completely realize how very personal this poem is, about the Great Divide in my life, when I was way too young (17 and a half) to take my life in my own small hands (which were shaking -- my whole body was shaking — as I was boarding the plane that was about to take me out of Poland — forever, I assumed).

Back at the time of this memorable bus ride, by American standard I was indeed poor. By the Tijuana standard I was a rich gringa. But wealth is not measured by money alone.

In the US I was poor in terms of income, but not poor in terms that mattered to me most: I had a rich mind. As for people around me on the bus in Tijuana, they had rich family lives. The women knew how to cook, preparing feasts from inexpensive ingredients. The men could build things out of scraps or make a thirty-year-old car run. At least one of them on that bus could probably do beautiful tilework; it would not be surprising if several knew ceramics or leather crafts.

Although this bus was hardly an example of public transportation at its best, it was, nevertheless, functional. There is a warmth about being on a bus full of people (preferably also with an animal onboard), as opposed to being alone and cut off from others and the world inside one’s car. The people on the bus are a temporary little society. Someone might be old and very slow. Someone may be drunk and dozing. A woman is knitting a pink baby blanket, but mostly no one is doing anything, just sitting. It’s all as acceptable as a live chicken.  



Today I went to Ralphs, where I haven’t been for several years. And something I didn’t expect happened right away, a minute or so after I entered and began shopping in the produce section. A woman customer was walking in the opposite direction, and she smiled at me (as did a few others, later, both women and men). And without needing to think it out in words, I realized in a flash that people don’t smile at me — or any other customers — at Albertsons, which is in a working-class area.

I started shopping at Albertson’s because the Vons near me changed owners, then closed for good — and Ralphs, I thought, was too expensive.

Albertsons is a nice market. The prices aren’t lower — if anything, they are higher, I just discovered (lower-than-expected prices were another surprise about Ralphs). The variety is quite good. However, Albertsons doesn’t carry the dried shiitake I wanted for a more intense flavor (it does carry the more expensive fresh shiitake) — that’s how I ended up at Ralphs, closer to where I live, and arguably part of my own majority-Hispanic neighborhood.

The minute I walked in, a woman customer smiled at me . . .  And then a middle-aged man . . . and another woman, and a younger man (I was almost beginning to count). It was an unexpected way to realize the difference in social class, if that’s what it was . . .  it wasn’t the goods, it wasn’t the prices, it wasn’t the fancy floral section (the one at Albertsons is larger and more fancy).

I am *not* making a flat statement that working class people don’t smile at strangers, but all of a sudden I was oddly aware that no one at Albertsons ever smiled at me — insofar as I could remember. (I have certainly met charming, warm, helpful, smiling working-class people. This is a specific observation about two supermarkets in different locations.)

At the beautiful Coronado Library I do get smiles. On the way from Coronado, I often stop at Albertsons — no smiles. Not at Walmart either. Rarely, if ever, do I get smiles at Home Depot — sometimes in the succulent section, from a fellow succulents fan. Can’t say that Lowe’s is any different, though one of the nursery checkout clerks does smile at me. Never the other ones.

At Vons there used to be a nice woman cashier who’d smile at me whenever she saw me stand in line — I always picked her line for that reason. Vons wasn’t very smiley, but I’d call it intermediate. I felt desolate when the store closed because I lost “my” cashier.

And today, after a year or so of shopping at Albertsons, this pleasant shock: at Ralphs, smiles from strangers.

My theory is that the non-poor (I wouldn’t call Ralphs shoppers “rich” — at least not at the Ralphs near me) are more relaxed around strangers, and more relaxed in general. Not that I could possibly look threatening to anyone; people tell me I look like a little elf, or Alice in Wonderland.

And the lines in front of the lottery-ticket machines. And the yellow brake that pops up on the shopping cart wheel if you happen to have parked at the far edge of the lot — I guess you’re assumed to be a homeless person who’s trying to steal the cart. Well, no more putting up with that, or the obese vet partly blocking the entry, or, once in a while, someone begging. No more.

I'm wondering if the main factor is education — if it's educated people, regardless of income, who are more likely to smile at a stranger. A different store, and you’re in a different culture, with a different level of friendliness.

At the same time, it seems to me that decades ago people at all social levels seemed to be more likely to smile at strangers. Incomes may have been lower, but they were always rising, and people were more happy and secure. At first I was put off by all the smiling I saw in the US. Now I miss it.

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO KEEP WAITING FOR THE SECOND COMING (this is fun reading, but basically it’s just straight reporting)

“It’s my birthday today. I realized a few weeks ago that I have now lived longer than I ever expected. I am living on borrowed time. It’s a strange sensation.

I can’t tell you exactly when I thought Jesus was going to come back, because I was always reminding myself of Matthew 24:36: no man knoweth the day or the hour of Christ’s coming. So I didn’t make overly bold predictions. But my Dad was fond of saying “It says nobody knows the day or the hour. It doesn’t say nobody knows the season.” We were all sure that Jesus would come back about 2000 years after his first appearance. I’d heard estimates that Jesus’ real birth year was anything from 4 BC to 10 AD, which meant that from 1996 onwards I was in a perpetual state of anticipation. We also expected a brief period of intense global revival after Jesus’ 2000th birthday, immediately followed by the Rapture. One evangelist I knew thought Jesus was coming in 1998. As the turn of the millennium approached, things were getting fevered.

I was both incredibly excited and terrified by this. Although I couldn’t be sure when Jesus would return, I doubted I would ever turn 18, and I was sure I would never turn 21. The thought of turning 30 didn’t even cross my mind. All of my life planning was based around this. The ACE system allows you to work at your own speed. If you complete the PACEs early, you can graduate early. In the academic year 1998-1999 I did 101 PACEs, even though the school only expected us to do 60 per year. Part of the reason I was working so fast was that I hated the school and wanted to get out, but it was at least as important that I believed if I didn’t graduate early, Jesus would come back before I’d even had a chance to leave school. I believed God was calling me to play a vital role in the end time harvest of souls before the day of judgement. God needed me to spread the Gospel to the world. I didn’t have time to sit and stew in school.

In 1994, I’d heard God telling me in a Kenneth Copeland convention that he wanted me to form a band that would bring the world to revival. I never doubted that calling, especially after Jesse Duplantis prophesied that I would play in God’s throne room when we entered into heaven.  The prospect of heaven was so exciting I could hardly contain myself. But I was also sad. I wanted to grow up. I desperately wanted to get married, and I found myself wondering if I could meet the right girl and get married at 16 (the age of consent in Britain), and maybe we’d manage a couple of years together before the Rapture.

Knowing that the hour of Christ’s coming was upon us, evangelicals released the movie Left Behind in 2000. The premise was that the Rapture could happen any minute now. In 2014, there was a Left Behind reboot starring Nicholas Cage. The premise this time was that if Christ was coming any minute now in 2000, he must be coming really any minute now in 2014. The Rapture is perpetually happening any minute now.

This is one of the things people don’t understand about evangelical schools. When you say these schools aren’t preparing children for the future, you’re wrong. It’s just that the future they’re preparing kids for is not on this planet.

Disappointment over Jesus’s non-appearance was not really a factor in my leaving Christianity, but I do find it baffling that the spectacular failures of prophecy in 1988, 2000, and 2012 seem to have left my former churchmates’ expectation of Armageddon entirely undimmed. I think the next really massive bout of apocalyptic fervor will come in the build up to 2033: Christians will decide that all the prophecies about 2000 years after Christ were correct, but that the countdown began with the Resurrection, not Christ’s birth.

Me, I’m just glad I’m alive.”



For me, this is the most poignant part: “The prospect of heaven was so exciting I could hardly contain myself. But I was also sad. I wanted to grow up. I desperately wanted to get married, and I found myself wondering if I could meet the right girl and get married at 16 (the age of consent in Britain), and maybe we’d manage a couple of years together before the Rapture.” There is no marriage in heaven, St. Paul assures us, and presumably no sex. This life has some powerful attractions after all.

The end of the world has been predicted over 700 times now, and the failure of the predictions has never deterred the faithful from resuming their wait. True believers are immune to reality. 2033 will come and go, but the lunatic fringe will simply recalculate. Nevertheless, the example of this young man shows that once in a while someone, no matter how heavily brain-washed, manages to break away.

I suppose that the richer and more satisfying one’s life is, the less yearning for heaven. That “better place” somewhere in the clouds can’t possibly be as good as a walk on the beach at sunset, especially holding hands with someone you love. But evangelicals don’t have the time to walk on the beach, do they? They are losing their chance to experience the real paradise while they are busy preparing for the future in the imaginary paradise.

(By the way, at least the Catholic church didn't burden me with waiting for the End. True, there was the Bomb, so no real need for the archaic developments of the Apocalypse, but still — at least the nuns and priests were not particularly pushing the Second Coming. In any case, it was the Last Judgment that mattered, not Jesus walking — on the earth again. We weren’t even aware that Jesus would not be walking, but riding a horse. The matter of Purgatory for those who die before having had their chance to do time in Purgatory was never mentioned.)

The view that Jesus never existed is gaining more and more adherents. I declare myself an agnostic on the question of historicity (does it really matter? it all ended up as myth anyway), but I find it GLORIOUS that now we can argue that Jesus never existed, and even if he did, he’s certainly never coming back: never, never, never, never.

Yes, that many nevers. I remember when it first truly, deeply sank into me: no cruel Last Judgment. And that was what my mind was singing: “Never, never, never, never.” 

Charon Crossing the River Styx, by Joachim Patenier (d. 1524). Note the little naked soul that Charon seems to be transporting to hell. The soul's destination is not completely clear, but note that Charon is not facing the shore where the angels are. Of course what the soul needs is a good lawyer.

Most of the time we don't notice how good people are. For some reason I started being aware of it almost daily now. I catch myself thinking, Wow, people are so nice! So good! So friendly!

And of course we could be even more so. Ricard is right: Altruism can be increased. Meditation on loving kindness is fine, but I think the first step is treating children lovingly, with respect. Many parents do that, of course, but it's fairly recent. The old way was to dominate children into the ground and teach them blind obedience (you don't have to think Hitler Jugend; just think Dickens.)

What happened at some point in the 20th century? I think stress was reduced. Hardship was lessened. Prosperity and safety increased. Authoritarianism (insistence on blind obedience) wasn’t as necessary for survival. More loving care naturally followed, and more kindness toward others overall.


For many historians, the start of WWI conflict heralded the ‘real’ end of the nineteenth century, when the imperial European powers who had dominated the globe for centuries began to diminish and the powers that would dominate most of the rest of the twentieth century — the United States and the Soviet Union — began their ascendancy.  So, when did this 'longer' nineteenth century begin?  In Europe, many cite the storming of the Bastille on July 14,1789 and the start of the French Revolution as the true bookend for the 'long' nineteenth century, which would stretch out to 125 years, rather than the customary 100.

Those dates, 1789 and 1914, also accord somewhat with an important development in the history of mental illness, specifically, the rise of the lunatic asylum. It may seem strange that the release of prisoners from the Bastille may hark the beginning of the asylum era, but toward the end of the eighteenth century — and because of many of the ideals that marked the French Revolution — many societies were seeking a different solution to the problem of madness, just as they were to other health issues.  The construction of asylums and the passing of legislation to encourage authorities to do so can be seen in some ways as an extension of Enlightenment optimism, that by taking a rational approach, society could rid itself of many health problems, including madness. In Britain, however, it took additional legislation — the Lunacy Act and County Asylum Act (1845) — before the building of asylums really took off. 

Many of the asylums built following the 1845 legislation, along with those built in the United States and elsewhere, were located in bucolic, rural settings, far away from the helter-skelter of urban, industrial life, itself increasingly thought to be pathological.  As with contemporary legislation related to public health, such as that concerning sanitation, such acts were meant to be examples of compassionate social reform, providing state-of-the-art humane care, often in spacious, idyllic settings. The moral treatment on offer was often a mixture of talk therapy, occupational therapy, a familial atmosphere, and simply time to recover from the stresses and strains of modern life. 

Of course the reality was often different. Gartnavel Asylum in Glasgow, which celebrated its 200th anniversary last year, provides an example of how nineteenth-century asylums were complex institutions. Gartnavel was originally built near the city centre in 1814, but was moved to the leafy, more salubrious west end in 1843 to escape noise and pollution.  Occupational therapy was a pillar of treatment and a range of entertainments were available for patients, along with a library and visits from family and friends; rooms were ‘fully and comfortably furnished.’

But at Gartnavel, along with similar asylums, a patient’s treatment and experience also depended markedly on class. Working class patients were segregated from middle class patients, leading to considerable differences in care and treatment.  Although restraint was abolished at Gartnavel in the 1840s, it would return in later decades.  As in many instances in mental health, a profound gulf could exist between theory and practice.

The United States also experienced a book in asylum building beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.  A 'cult of curability' emerged in the 1820s and 30s, with asylum superintendents claiming that nearly 90% of their patients left fully cured after a stay at their asylum.  Later, mental health advocates, most notably Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) advocated the building of state hospitals to house the indigent insane. Influenced by the British lunacy reform movement, Dix inspected asylums and lobbied for legislation to improve services.  Though she managed to convince both houses of Congress to pass the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane in 1854, it was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. Nevertheless, asylum building continued apace in the United States.

If 1789 can be seen as the starting point for the asylum movement, why might 1914 be seen as the year in which this trend in mental health care ended? The answer can be found in the trenches of the First World War and the emergence of a new, disturbing disorder: shell shock.  Recognition of shell shock amounted to a sea change in terms of how mental illness, particularly in a military context,was understood.  At the start of the war, a soldier exhibiting symptoms of shell shock might have been summarily executed for malingering or desertion; indeed many were.

By war’s end, thousands and thousands of soldiers were taken away from the front to receive treatment for the disease.  Although this treatment occurred in asylums, most soldiers would eventually return to their communities, as living testimonials to the horrors — and pathology — of war, much like the thousands of soldiers who bore the physical hallmarks of trench warfare, such as a missing limb, eye patch or prosthetic nose. Shell shock, partly because of its scale, partly because of those whom affected, and partly because of its cause made it difficult to blame the sufferer, brought mental illness to the masses like never before.  Rather than shut away those afflicted in rural asylums, shell shock became central to how the Lost Generation was understood, and was depicted in the writing of Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and others. 

In this way, shell shock became one of the first mental afflictions whose sufferers were treated in a sympathetic, understanding manner, in some ways starting the process by which mental illness was destigmatized and, by extension, seen as a condition that should be treated in the community, rather than in an asylum.  Similarly, the Second World War and the Vietnam War, as well as subsequent conflicts, have had a major impact upon how mental illness has been perceived.”

How interesting that shell shock helped create more sympathy for the mentally ill. By the way, we are just barely beginning to understand what is now called “repeated blast injury” and post-traumatic stress syndrome. The more we understand the underlying brain damage, the less we blame the victim.

 Christian Schloe Digital Art Work

Ending on cats

To stay sane, we need to watch happy cats. There are sixty-five cats lovingly kept at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, allegedly to protect the place from mice.

Scotland, Ben Lomond

Monday, January 18, 2016



hangs a curtain of pearls
threaded with infinite skill:
each pearl reflects every other pearl,
suspended in its moon gleam.

We too are interlaced
more than we dare believe.
We dream of heaven
because we have known hell. 

My mother, already unconscious,
lifted her arm and reached out
as if to lace her hand with the hand
of someone waiting on the other side.

Then she went into that love.

~ Oriana © 2015


“One of the ways to decide whether or not the God of Christianity and Islam really is the same entity is to look at his characteristics as understood by Christians and Muslims, and determine whether they really do represent the same person. To do this, we will look at three aspects of the Christian and Muslim God that each receive much emphasis in both the Quran and the Bible. These are his power, his mercy, and his love.

POWER. Both Islam and Christianity emphasize that God is all-powerful; he knows everything and has the power to do anything. In Christianity this is called his omnipotence; the Arabic equivalent is “ala kulli shain qadir”. There is, however, a distinct difference in how each religion views God exercising his power.

The first stories in the Bible show God not stopping evil, even when he could have, when this was in conflict with the ability he had given humans to exercise freedom of choice. God could have stopped Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, knowing it would have disastrous consequences, but he did not. He could have stopped their first son, Cain, from murdering his brother Abel, but he did not. In theological language, it was not God’s “divine will” for the couple to eat the fruit or their son to kill his brother, but he allowed it to happen.

Parallel to this is the Biblical concept that God acts in the midst of evil to produce good. This is seen in the story of Joseph, a young man who was sold as a slave by his jealous brothers. While in slavery, Joseph was falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison. Many years later he became the Prime Minister and eventually saved his brothers from famine. His comment to them was, “You meant evil against me, but God turned it into good.”

Islam sees God’s power quite differently. Everything that happens is God's will, good or bad. When a planned terrorist operation goes bad, the jihadists interpret it as God's will they were not to succeed this time (which goes along with the Islamic concept of "sabr" or patience; that is, they try again until successful). If a woman's husband divorces her it was "maktoub", ordained by God to happen. Many drivers in Saudi Arabia refuse to carry vehicle insurance because insurance indicates a lack of faith in the God who determines if and when they will have a accident. I was talking to a Muslim friend a few weeks ago when he spilled some coffee on his slacks. His immediate, and serious, response was, "God wanted me to spill that coffee on my pants."

In summary, both Allah in Islam and the Christian God have the power to do anything, but in Christianity God often allows humans to commit evil that is not his will. In Islam, all that happens is the will of Allah. Are these the same deity or not?

MERCY. The next characterization is "rahmah", or mercy, which can be theologically defined as showing kindness to an offender when it is within one's power not to do so. God's mercy, "rahmat-Allah"" is a very important concept in Islam. Muslims who perform the required salat five times a day repeat "in the name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful One" seventeen times. The phrase is repeated before meals and speeches, and is a regular part of daily conversation. It is the opening sentence of all but one of the Quran's 114 suras.

The Bible also places much emphasis on mercy. The prophet Micah instructed his audience that God required only three things of them: justice, humility, and mercy. Another prophet, Hosea, taught that God preferred mercy to sacrifice. Jesus said in the Beautitudes, which are the introductory sentences to his Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."

There is a difference, however, in the emphasis. In the Bible, God's mercy is extended to everyone and Christians are to do likewise. The Golden Rule is to treat people as you would like them to treat you, not to give them what they deserve. Jesus told his followers to do good to those who hated them, and to forgive their enemies. In Islam, God's mercy to the world extends to giving people the choice to accept Islam. In surah 21 of the Quran, Al-Anbiya, Allah stated in ayah 108 that Muhammad was sent as "a mercy" to all mankind. In the following verses, Allah defined his mercy. Muhammad was to invite people to Islam and warn them against associating anything with Allah (this was a specific warning to the Christians not to believe that Jesus was God). If they did not accept the invitation, Muhammad was to pronounce a declaration of war.

I noted above that 113 of the 114 suras of the Quran begin with the verse, "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful One." The only chapter that does not is chapter 9, Al-Taubah or Repentance, which contains Muhammad's final revelation before his death. This chapter contains the famous "Verses of the Sword" which give detailed instructions on how this war is to be carried out against those who refused the "invitation" to become Muslims.

Is the God in Christianity, who extends his mercy to everyone and asks those who believe in him to do likewise, the same deity as the Allah of Muhammad who expresses his mercy by giving people the opportunity to accept Islam or face warfare?

LOVE. The final consideration is love. It is perhaps here that the difference between the Gods of Christianity and Islam is the most striking. The Bible not only uses the word “love” hundreds of time to describe the relationship between God and his people, it even insists that God is love. This in itself provides a theological problem to the Muslim purist, because to state that God is anything at all is impossible. Allah is above human knowledge and the Quran is an expression of Allah's will, not who Allah is.

The Arabic word for love “hubb” appears in the Quran numerous times, but usually in a negative sense. Quran 14:3 is one of a dozen verses that chastised people for “loving this world more than the world to come”. Muslims hesitant to engage in armed jihad were warned in Quran 2:216 not to "love things" that were bad for them while turning away from warfare that was good for them. In Quran 3:119 Muslims were ordered to curse non-Muslims who pretended to love them while rejecting their faith. The Quran warned that God does not love sinners (Quran 2:190) and those who are corrupt (Quran 5:67). His greatest hatred, however, is reserved for all the kuffar, that is, Christians and Jews and everyone else, who did not accept the message and prophethood of Muhammad. Quran 3:32 is one of many verses that state Allah does not love those who do not obey his Apostle.

Muhammad's understanding of Allah's love is perhaps most clearly expressed in this Hadith recorded by Sahih Muslim (Book 032, Number 6373). Muhammad stated that when Allah decided to love someone, he would summon the angel Gabriel and say, “I love that particular person, and I want you to also love him.” Gabriel would then begin to love that person and announce to all the angels of heaven, “Allah loves so-and-so, and all of you are to love him.” The angels then, as the heavenly executors of Allah's will, would arrange matters so that honor was bestowed upon this person on earth and he or she would lead a blessed life.

If Allah, on the other hand, decided to hate someone, the same scenario would take place but with opposite results. God would tell Gabriel to hate that person, Gabriel would pass the message to the angels, and that person would be hated on the earth.

The answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this article, “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?”, is pretty clear to me. It's possible to argue that the true divinity is the God of Christianity or the Allah of Islam — or take the atheists approach and say both of them are equally false. But it's really hard to claim they are both the same.

Acknowledgement: Some material from this post was adopted from the Arabic TV shows Daring Question and Removing the Veil with host Rashid.”



If the article happened to have the title “Are Jesus and Allah the same god?” then the answer would be a thundering No, without any qualifications. In fact, according to Islam, Christians will go to hell for worshiping Jesus (arguably the real god of Christianity). That alone should give us a pause. In fact the discussion could end right there.

But even if god is identified with Yahweh, it turns out that the concepts of the divine are different, both in Judaism and in Christianity. As Harold Bloom pointed out some years ago, there is no “Christian-Islamic tradition.”

For one thing, in Christianity god is called “father.” The most important prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, begins with the words “Our Father.” Allah is far more impersonal — definitely no one’s father. He has no son or sons. Humans are not his children. Within the logic of Islam, since no one resembles Allah, Allah could not have said, “Let us make man in our image.”

Also, it’s telling that the emblem of Allah is the lunar crescent. This clearly points to his pagan origins as the moon god, the chief god of the Quraish, Muhammad’s tribe (a god who by the way had three daughters before Muhammad canceled their existence). The Black Stone of the Kaaba (possibly a meteorite) is still the sacred object in Mecca, receiving veneration. The names Yahweh and Elohim, used thousands of times in the OT, never occur in the Koran. The bible mentions Jerusalem, “the city of David,” 800 times; the Koran, not even once.

And Yahweh-Elohim is specifically the god of Israel, a phrase never used in the Koran. Nor are the Jews Allah’s “chosen people”!

(Of course Yahweh also had polytheistic origins, but those were different — and are still murky: was he the god of storm and thunder, or a war god? Did he live on mountain peaks, and later behind the veil in the temple? Or only in the sky, his throne a winged chariot? Did he come from Mesopotamia, or somewhere in Egypt?)

Close-up of Yahweh in tapestry designed by Pieter Coecke van der Aeist, Palazzo Pitti
To me, the red-gold robe has a Chinese feel. More important, note that Yahweh is not handsome. It's interesting that the Greeks made their gods beautiful, but poor Yahweh was never made to look appealing, not even by Michelangelo, though he modeled him on Zeus.

Muslim also insist that “Allah” cannot be translated as “Dios” in Spanish or “God” in English; it must remain “Allah.” When Muslims speak English, they still say “Allah.” That makes it not a generic term, but closer to a specific name — or at least a deity separate and different from the one worshipped by Christians.

(For those who think that “God” and “Allah” are interchangeable, imagine if it said on our money “In Allah we trust” and children recited every day “one nation under Allah.”)


This kind of list could go on. It is of interest to scholars and to those fascinated by the field of comparative religion — but it would get wearisome to the average lay reader, especially one who realizes that all religions are a human invention. What is relevant today is not the matter of names, but the attitude toward violence.

It has become a truism that the bible is filled with violence, and no one can claim that it is a less violent text than the Koran. There is no denying that both texts show a peculiar duality, since they are both violent and yet frequently mention mercy. The New Testament, however, goes beyond the concepts of mercy and compassion: it introduces the idea of non-violence and even of extreme pacifism (no killing even self-defense).

“Love your enemy” is the most radical statement ever made. Even though most Christians reject extreme pacifism, they are aware that the call to it was made by Jesus. It remains an unerasable fact, and a central part of the Christian ideal.

One may argue that this extreme pacifism cannot be said to define the teachings of Jesus — and yet at no point does he call for killing anyone. It simply cannot be said that Jesus of the gospels is a violent figure. Muhammad, on the other hand, was a warrior, a military leader who engaged in multiple wars. Islam embarked on wars of conquest from the very start.

(Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes a distinction between the Mecca-period Muhammad and the Medina-period Muhammad: it was the latter who became a man of violence.)

Atrocities committed by Christians in the Middle Ages and beyond are now a deep source of embarrassment. Mainstream Christianity, though it hasn’t achieved a complete consistency (it still retains the concept of hell) has evolved in a manner that has brought it closer to the teachings of compassion, forgiveness, and indeed peace. There is also a call for dropping the idea of hell — already redefined by Pope John-Paul 2 as a state of mind, rather than a place of horrific eternal torment. In liberal Protestant churches, hell is no longer mentioned, having become an embarrassment.

Mainstream Islam, on the other hand, still upholds and justifies the waging Holy War. The harsh punishments prescribed by Sharia law find widespread popular support, as do various Jihadist organizations. The belief that a suicide bomber goes directly to paradise has not been contradicted by any well-known Islamic leader.

Hopefully Islam will evolve in the direction of peace, but at present it is not a religion of peace.

Here is Ayaan Hirsi Ali writing in Salon:

My argument is that it is foolish to insist, as our leaders habitually do, that the violent acts of radical Islamists can be divorced from the religious ideals that inspire them. Instead we must acknowledge that they are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in Islam itself, in the holy book of  the Qur’an as well as the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad contained in the hadith.

Let me make my point in the simplest possible terms: Islam is not a religion of peace.

For expressing the idea that Islamic violence is rooted not in social, economic, or political conditions—or even in theological error—but rather in the foundational texts of Islam itself, I have been denounced as a bigot and an “Islamophobe.” I have been silenced, shunned, and shamed. In effect, I have been deemed to be a heretic, not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an apostate—but by some Western liberals as well, whose multicultural sensibilities are offended by such “insensitive” pronouncements.

Now, when I assert that Islam is not a religion of peace I do not mean that Islamic belief makes Muslims naturally violent. This is manifestly not the case: there are many millions of peaceful Muslims in the world. What I do say is that the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam. Moreover, this theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by any number of offenses, including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy, and even something as vague as threats to family honor or to the honor of Islam itself.

Yet from the moment I first began to argue that there was an unavoidable connection between the religion I was raised in and the violence of organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the self-styled Islamic State, I have been subjected to a sustained effort to silence my voice.

 Elsewhere, Hirsi Ali writes:

As I see it, the fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts. It simply will not do for Muslims to claim that their religion has been “hijacked” by extremists. The killers of Islamic State and Nigeria’s Boko Haram cite the same religious texts that every other Muslim in the world considers sacrosanct.

. . . I believe that we can distinguish three different groups of Muslims.

The first group is the most problematic. These are the fundamentalists who . . . envision a regime based on Shariah, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version. What is more, they take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else.

I shall call them Medina Muslims, in that they see the forcible imposition of Shariah as their religious duty. They aim not just to obey Muhammad’s teaching but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, they do not hesitate to condone it.

It is Medina Muslims who call Jews and Christians “pigs and monkeys.” It is Medina Muslims who prescribe death for the crime of apostasy, death by stoning for adultery and hanging for homosexuality. It is Medina Muslims who put women in burqas and beat them if they leave their homes alone or if they are improperly veiled.

The second group—and the clear majority throughout the Muslim world—consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence. I call them Mecca Muslims. Like devout Christians or Jews who attend religious services every day and abide by religious rules in what they eat and wear, Mecca Muslims focus on religious observance. I was born in Somalia and raised as a Mecca Muslim. So were the majority of Muslims from Casablanca to Jakarta.

Yet the Mecca Muslims have a problem: Their religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with modernity—the complex of economic, cultural and political innovations that not only reshaped the Western world but also dramatically transformed the developing world as the West exported it. The rational, secular and individualistic values of modernity are fundamentally corrosive of traditional societies, especially hierarchies based on gender, age and inherited status.

Trapped between two worlds of belief and experience, these Muslims are engaged in a daily struggle to adhere to Islam in the context of a society that challenges their values and beliefs at every turn. Many are able to resolve this tension only by withdrawing into self-enclosed (and increasingly self-governing) enclaves. This is called cocooning, a practice whereby Muslim immigrants attempt to wall off outside influences, permitting only an Islamic education for their children and disengaging from the wider non-Muslim community.

It is my hope to engage this second group of Muslims—those closer to Mecca than to Medina—in a dialogue about the meaning and practice of their faith. I recognize that these Muslims are not likely to heed a call for doctrinal reformation from someone they regard as an apostate and infidel. But they may reconsider if I can persuade them to think of me not as an apostate but as a heretic: one of a growing number of people born into Islam who have sought to think critically about the faith we were raised in. It is with this third group—only a few of whom have left Islam altogether—that I would now identify myself.

These are the Muslim dissidents. A few of us have been forced by experience to conclude that we could not continue to be believers; yet we remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. The majority of dissidents are reforming believers—among them clerics who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.

The Medina Muslims pose a threat not just to non-Muslims. They also undermine the position of those Mecca Muslims attempting to lead a quiet life in their cultural cocoons throughout the Western world. But those under the greatest threat are the dissidents and reformers within Islam, who face ostracism and rejection, who must brave all manner of insults, who must deal with the death threats—or face death itself.

For the world at large, the only viable strategy for containing the threat posed by the Medina Muslims is to side with the dissidents and reformers and to help them to do two things: first, identify and repudiate those parts of Muhammad’s legacy that summon Muslims to intolerance and war, and second, persuade the great majority of believers—the Mecca Muslims—to accept this change.

(he saw a caliphate would be a nightmare; Islamism is basically fascism)

It was while in prison, surrounded by several prominent jihadist leaders, that Nawaz realized he wanted to take a different path. He was reading George Orwell's Animal Farm and came to a new understanding of "what happens when somebody tries to create a utopia.”

He says he began to see that it's "impossible to create a utopia."

"I'm living up close and seeing [the radicals'] everyday habits and lifestyle, I thought, 'My god, I wouldn't trust these guys in power,' because when I called it, back then, and said, 'If this caliphate, this theocratic caliphate, was ever established, it would be a nightmare on earth,'" Nawaz says.

Nawaz discusses sexual repression and how he was lucky to be able to get married at a young age, and how unresolved sexual tension can lead to ugly pathologies.

He also states that Islamism as a movement is relatively recent. It’s basically fascism, with the ideal of a super-state and super-people.

"Now, when we see what ISIS is doing in the name of this theocratic caliphate, I believe I have been vindicated that these guys, any of them, if they ever got to power, they would be committing mass atrocities," Nawaz says.

How to counter it? The democratic, anti-theocratic movement within Islam must present a strong counter-narrative. Nawaz points out that the young don’t join Stalinist-style communist groups because that narrative has been discredited and is not attractive anymore.

Time to relax with a bit of levity:



There's new evidence reaffirming that eating foods with fat from avocados and salmon to dairy fat doesn't make us fat.

One of the moderately high-fat diets included a daily serving of one avocado.

In one sample meal plan, lunch was chicken salad with half an avocado, and dinner included turkey tacos with another half an avocado.

The diets were similar in terms of macronutrients (like protein and fats) and calories. The only difference between the two was the avocado — the other diet had the same amount of fat from other sources.

The avocado diet decreased LDL cholesterol about 14 milligrams per deciliter of blood. Compare that with a decrease of about 7 mg/dL for the low-fat diet, and about a 8 mg/dl drop from the moderate-fat diet.

"I was surprised to see the added benefit [of the avocado]," Penny Kris-Etherton, a nutrition scientist at Penn State and the lead author of the study, tells us." It's something in the avocado" other than just the fat composition, she says.

She says she'd like to do follow-up research to look at the bioactive compounds in avocados, which may explain the added reduction in LDL cholesterol in the study participants. It's also possible that the fiber in avocados plays a role in the cholesterol-lowering effect, she says.

The liver produces most of our cholesterol. Also, we need a certain level of the supposedly "bad" LDL cholesterol. And for women, what seems to count more is high HDL -- in one study, avocado increased HDL by 11%. Still, people with the same cholesterol levels may or may not have heart disease — inflammation is probably the critical factor. Stress is as bad as smoking. Still, an avocado-rich diet is probably better than a low-fat diet, especially if the low-fat diet is mostly carbs.

Another piece of the puzzle is that high thyroid is excellent at reducing LDL cholesterol, but increases the risk of an ischemic heart attack; hypothyroidism protects seniors from an ischemic heart attack, but raises the risk of hypertensive heart failure. Past a certain age, something will eventually get us. Life is a sexually transmitted disease, and no one gets out of it alive.

Based on my own experience, I do recommend an avocado a day for a different reason: like all fat, it makes you feel satisfied. When I tried a low-fat diet I was constantly hungry and became an eating machine. Atkins was regarded as evil, a kind of dietary Darth Vader back when I discovered him, in those horrible days when "whole grains" were the Holy Grail. He was my savior.

ending on beauty

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

~ E. A. Poe

photo: John Guzlowski


The the selection of pictures could be among your best The first fractal is amazing and goes perfectly with IN THE HEAVEN OF INDRA.

Some Jews and Christians also believe that everything is the will of God and that “there are no accidents.”

The section on Allah’s “love” is especially scary. “His greatest hatred, however, is reserved for all the kuffar, that is, Christians and Jews and everyone else, who did not accept the message and prophethood of Muhammad.” Exactly the opposite teaching of Jesus.

This was excellent research on Islam. Also some interesting information on Islam can be found by searching, “islam infidel.”

Hirsi Ali has become a real role model for me. Love her article.

And thank you for those “ending on beauty” endings.


Oriana: THE REVOLUTIONARY NATURE OF “SHIT HAPPENS” (aka “the First Noble Truth”)

The teachings about the will of god are indeed confusing (as are lots of things in religion). On the one hand, Yahweh supposedly did not will Adam and Eve to eat the Forbidden Fruit — hence free will. On the other hand, there is supposed to be the eternal and immutable Divine Plan. Nothing happens except in accordance with the Divine Plan (if your prayers are not answered, that’s a sure sign that your request was not in line with the Divine Plan). Unlike the Soviet five-year-plan, god’s master plan spans eternity, and apparently went into effect on the first day of Creation.

The Calvinists were pretty logical in deciding that everything was predestined. Only modern physics, with its probabilistic approach, managed to abolish our tendency to see determinism everywhere (including the Jungian determinism; Jungians too believe that “there are no accidents” — nothing random ever happens).

Words, being concepts, have enormous power. The modern saying “shit happens” has in fact been revolutionary. It means that some (perhaps most) nastiness is simply random, like stepping into dog doo-doo. No, that wasn’t predestined! No deity was involved in that or a billion other events. No cosmic consciousness. Yes a dog was involved, and dog is god spelled backwards, but . . . only in English. 

And once you have “shit happens” (which some, in honor of the Buddha, have called the First Noble Truth), atheism is around the corner. I think the Buddha’s deliberate and emphatic silence about the existence of deities speaks for itself. 

Yes, the loving nature of Jesus (if we don’t count the scary Jesus of Revelation, who is a judge and punisher) is probably the first great difference that comes to mind when we ponder the differences between Islam and Christianity. Yet to me the most important difference may stem from the verse: “Let us then make man in our own image.” The essential similarity between man and the Judeo-Christian god should be spoken of more often.

The problem is that this similarity easily lends itself to a reversal, i.e. if man and god are so similar, perhaps the real reason is that man created god in his own image — something we take for granted about the Greek gods, so obviously human except for immortality and greater powers. And if elephants had a god, would they not imagine him as a Great Elephant in the Sky?

But the great advantage of idea of man being in the image of god is that it increases human dignity. And this is a foundational verse, which can’t be erased with later attempts to present a more abstract, image-less deity.

Ending on beauty is both my pleasure and my special challenge. I see the sharing of beauty as my primary task. A blog often deals with unpleasant matters, but I never want to leave the reader in a depressed state of mind. Beauty is a great antidote to all the unavoidable unpleasantness. For me, it’s beauty, along with affection, that makes life worth living. 

Below: Homage to Escher, Bob Boldt