Saturday, March 26, 2016



Father always managed to splash me,
shouting, Shmingus-dyngus! —
laughing as I’d run, shaking off
a trail of drops. The Church frowned

on the puddles of this pagan baptism.
Nuns taught me I was a sinner.
in the town where I was born,
a naked baroque angel

held gilded scales to weigh
good deeds against sin.
Heaven was up, hell was down.
the soul huddled, a chilled bird.

Mother said, “There is no hell.
God would not be so cruel.”
At ten I shuddered at the heresy:
hell was where my mother was going.


At fourteen I said, “If God exists,
let him strike me with lightning.”
Waited, shaking with terror.
For five minutes I could hardly

Pigeons cooed.
Broken sunlight
redeemed the rain-streaked masonry.

I began to walk fast, away
from that first-communion girl,
lilacs in her arms, moist and heavy,
veins crossing the silk of leaves.


Across an ocean of baroque clouds,
that other country still exists. Other children
pick up yellow pebbles
on a Baltic beach, believing it’s amber.

Another girl wakes on Easter Monday,
her father hidden in the kitchen.
The water in the basin
shivers with impatient sheen.


My cat wakes me up at dawn,
sky rimmed with a narrow gold.
I wade in the gathering
light of resurrection.

In the yard, spires of lilacs.
I agree with a chittering bird:
it is only practical to be happy.
Again I will climb the same

mountain, follow the bleached star
of the dry yucca where the trail
sharply turns. I agree once more
to the mortal price of love.

At dusk I come home to Mozart,
my one-candle vespers.
The notes shape a brief heaven.
Fog erases the pine-dark hills.

~ Oriana © 2016

The Weighing of Souls, Autun Cathedral, Burgundy, c. 1130 

In 2010, at an art colony in Vermont, I told the famous Polish poet Adam Zagajewski the story of how I waited to be struck with lightning for my blasphemy. He replied, in his expressionless way that worked very well in this situation, “Sometimes there is a delay.”

Nevertheless, back in that moment, at fourteen, I knew I could be wrong: what if the sky wasn’t as vacant as it seemed and the monstrous invisible god did exist? I began to shake with fear. But I was willing to die and suffer in hell for eternity for daring to think on my own. I chose to be sentenced to eternal torture rather than worship a cruel god who created hell. It was the moment of the greatest courage in my life.

Greater courage than going to America by myself at mere seventeen and a half? Yes, I think so, since not just my life but my eternity was at stake. But I knew that I couldn’t abide the church’s blackmail anymore. I could remain enslaved forever, or I could be free — even if ultimately doomed. The conviction of that doom stayed with me for years (I knew my “test” wasn’t a conclusive proof, though if did a lot to reassure me).

It took even longer to learn that my experience wasn’t unique: former believers began to open up and admit that sometimes that woke up at night, seized with the terror of hell. What a church does to a child can never be totally deleted. For me religion was chiefly about hell. You can leave a toxic religion, but that religion never leaves you. Not completely. God ceases to exist at the intellectual level, but not at the emotional level, where the fires of hell smolder still. I’m resigned to that. It’s not a major fear anymore. Is it really still there? Probably only at the unconscious level — it would take dementia or a psychotic breakdown to activate it.

What helped a lot is understanding more deeply that there is no afterlife — no disembodied, brain-free soul that detaches at the moment of death and goes off to be judged. Sure, in a way I knew that the moment I realized that Christianity was just another mythology. But I truly understood this only more recently thanks to the flame analogy. When a candle burns out, the flame doesn’t “go” anywhere. It simply ceases when the fuel that sustained it is used up.

It’s true that “something of us” may remain — a memory, or something we said. We may enter the collective psyche in some tiny and anonymous way. But that’s entirely different from the persistence of an individual consciousness.

As for that tiny something that may remain, please read this blog post, a personal favorite of mine:

To return for a moment to the experience of waiting to be struck with lightning for a blasphemous thought — how ludicrous, and yet how horrific to have been brainwashed with the idea of supernatural surveillance and punishment to this extent. The visible universe is estimated to contain one hundred billion galaxies. That the ruler of the universe would be concerned with a thought passing through the mind of a teenage girl in Warsaw, and violate the laws of nature in order to punish her, is bizarre. It was a fine springtime day, a few small white clouds, no chance of a thunderstorm.

But . . . we were taught that god watches us 24/7, and sees every thought in our sinful heads. Put that kind of insane garbage into a child’s head, and you can expect some insane bit of behavior. That kind of indoctrination is clearly child abuse.


No, “Ishtar” is not pronounced “Easter.” That name comes from Ostra, or Oestre (think “East”), the Germanic goddess of spring. But otherwise, yes.

Easter is an ancient pagan holiday  that falls close to the spring equinox, a springtime celebration of fertility. When I was a little girl, my mother pointed out to me that eggs that I duly took to church on Great Saturday to be sprinkled with the holy water were a symbol of fertility and springtime. At that point I was already used to my somewhat schizoid reality: I totally believed in science, e.g. in evolution, the long length of geological eras, and the huge size of the universe — but didn’t yet dare to draw the logical conclusion that the biblical account (e.g. Eve created from Adam’s rib) was simply nonsense — or call it mythology, at times endearing, at other times dark and disturbing — and if so, then no ruling deity existed.


Igoumenitsa, Greece; Stavros Dafis


I think I understand better now why I was so thrilled when during a history class I first learned about Martin Luther’s rebellion against the church. Later I went on to learn that he was far from being an admirable human being. Still, risking his life, he dared to think for himself and to speak his mind.

And if Luther said that there was no Purgatory — that Purgatory had been made up by the church so that people would be buying masses for the dead and indulgences supposed to release souls from the Purgatory sooner — if Purgatory was made up, what other things could also be made up? I didn’t yet dare to follow up that question, but a seed was tossed into my mind. My mother said there was no hell; Luther said there was no Purgatory
— the unconscious mind starts working on this.

Luther also seemed right about the pagan customs incorporated by the church in the guise of being Catholic and holy. For instance, on Great Saturday I, and many other children, took a basket to church to be blessed. The basket contained onion-skin colored eggs, some bread, some sausage, and some green twigs — I was never told what plant it was, but including some young green leaves was obviously important — for decoration, I thought. Later it all made sense: it was a celebration of spring and fertility, and the hope of a plentiful food supply.

I liked the custom, just as I enjoyed watching the processions where icons and statues of Mary and various saints were paraded in the immediate vicinity of a church. In the countryside, a procession of this kind might actually lead into the fields, so the saints could bless the land. It was quite sweet, with singing and little girls tossing flower petals on the path ahead of the icons and statues. Idolatry? It’s all mythology, magic, theater. 


“Do you know how many people the Bible says were raised from the dead on Easter weekend?

I have to point out to Christians, many of whom maintain that the Bible cannot be wrong, that in one place (and only one place) the Bible says that a whole bunch of people came out of their graves right after Jesus died on the afternoon of Good Friday and then walked around Jerusalem…a couple of days later.  Here’s what it says in the gospel attributed to Matthew about the moment that Jesus died:

   ~ At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. ~ (Matthew 27:51-53; emphasis mine)

In all my years in church I don’t recall ever once hearing a preacher acknowledge from the pulpit that a bunch of people were raised from the dead and appeared to many on Easter weekend.  Have you ever heard one talk about this?  Surely somebody has addressed it at some point.  But most of them don’t, and never will.  I find that fascinating!

They’ve heard about the earthquake. They know all about the tearing of the veil.  I’ve heard that preached about many times.  I myself have taught before about the significance of the veil because the book of Hebrews builds on that symbolism and it is rich with theological import (incidentally we have zero external historical verification for that happening, but never mind that right now). But for all the messages and sermons and studies I’ve heard on the first part of that passage, I’ve heard almost nothing about a mass resurrection or about a subsequent flash mob in the middle of Jerusalem on Easter weekend.

Does anybody really believe that this fantastic story happened? I’m not sure even Christians believe this happened.  Preachers don’t talk about it, and most Christians don’t even seem aware this story is even in there.  It’s the greatest story never told. The few who know it’s there just scratch their heads and say, “I’m not really sure what to do with that.”  This story is problematic for several reasons.

First of all, no other gospel writer says a word about a mass resurrection. This story is unique to Matthew’s gospel.  If something this dramatic really happened, why did no other gospel writer say a word about it?  And not only that, but nobody else ever says a word about it again, ever—not Paul, not Peter, not James or John—nobody!  That’s insane.  If this was supposed to have really happened, you’d think it would show up somewhere.  It should show up everywhere. But it never does again.

Even the details of the story are really fuzzy. It says there was an earthquake when Jesus died.  It was so big that “rocks split.” It’s unclear whether or not that was the cause of the graves opening, but what’s clear is that it says a bunch of people came back from the dead at that moment. How long had they been dead? Were they decomposed or had they been resurrected in fresh form? And how long did they hang around their graves before they came into town to circulate among the townspeople? All weekend? It says they were raised on Friday afternoon but curiously it says they didn’t go into town until after the resurrection. What did they do during all that time?

This story really is a fly in the ointment for the infallibilists among evangelicals and fundamentalists.  I know not everybody is hung up on having a perfect Bible, but if there’s any place they care about insisting it can’t be wrong, it’s right here on Easter weekend.  They may have decided the Bible can be wrong about common ancestry, or a worldwide flood, or even the Exodus or how many wives and concubines Solomon really had, but not this.

 Bible Story That Nobody Believes

Just to appease my curiosity I spent the better part of a Saturday in my old conservative seminary’s library rounding up as many commentaries on this passage as I could find. I surveyed the whole gamut of biblical scholarship from the most liberal to the most conservative and do you wanna know what I discovered?

Almost none of them think this really happened. Even the conservative scholars. Even the ones committed to biblical inerrancy. The Word Biblical Commentary has this to say about the passage:

    ~ A surprising number of commentators sidestep the historical question altogether. Those who do raise it can be found to use terms such as “puzzling,” “strange,” “mysterious.” Stalwart commentators known for their conservatism are given to hesitance here…

    We should not, of course, rule out a priori that Matthew may be recording historical events in these verses. If God raised Jesus from the dead, he surely can have raised a number of saints prior to the time of the general resurrection…The problem is that the event makes little historical sense, whereas what does make sense is the theological point that is being made. ~

[Theologians] who are still tied to the pulpit in one way or another cannot openly admit that they don’t think this story really happened. That would get them in far too much hot water. Those who write commentaries for their benefit must also be extremely judicious in the language they choose to explain the many things wrong with this story. Most have to obfuscate and equivocate and say things like Raymond Brown says in his famous commentary here:

  ~  …this popular, poetic description is deliberately vague—its forte is atmosphere, not details…to make a matter of major concern their literal historicity is to fail to understand their nature as symbols and the literary genre in which they are presented. ~

Except that’s not really how the story is being told, is it?  The writer of the gospel of Matthew isn’t speaking poetically here, no matter what parallels can be found in either Old Testament symbolism or contemporary Roman folklore. This story ventures beyond apocalyptic poetry and claims that the risen dead marched into Jerusalem and showed themselves to the residents, presumably as further proof that something supernatural has just happened.  That’s how the story goes.  And nobody who’s really wrestled with the implications seems to really think that happened.

Which means we’ve got a double standard at work here.  The story of Jesus rising from the dead has to be true. But nobody in his right mind can make a good case that this other part of the story makes any sense.  So they sweep it under the rug and then tell you to stop scrutinizing the story so meticulously.  “You’re asking the wrong questions,” they say. “Pay no attention to that over there, only look at this over here.  That stuff over there is mysterious, and we’re not meant to understand.”


I seem to remember (though I can’t swear to it) having heard the passage read in church, but with no comment whatever — whereas the earthquake, the solar eclipse, and the tearing of the veil did get a lot of dramatic emphasis.

I'm fairly certain that I heard in church and during religion lessons about the earthquake splitting boulders and the graves opening up. But it seems we were never told about the dead rising from those graves and walking around the city -- just as we were never presented with the passage in Mark that states that the family of Jesus came to take him away, saying that Jesus was "out of his mind" (the Patheos article discusses this too).

But now the cat is out of the bag, so to speak: the dead are out of their graves. What happened later to those other resurrectees? After having visited with friends and relatives, did they just return to their tombs and resumed being dead? What a drag that would be, after their  little walk and socializing . . .

But I wasn’t overly concerned with that. Perhaps because my grandmother was a seamstress, the immediate question in my mind as a child was not theological at all. Instead, I was curious if the torn temple veil got sewn up again. Surely the fabric was expensive, and it would be wasteful to just throw it out and get a new veil (obviously I didn’t grow up with American mentality about replacing rather than mending). Of course I knew that it was best to keep such questions to myself. 

Of course the mass resurrection mentioned only in Matthew is not the only story that is to be highly doubted. Later I learned that there was never any census that required anyone to return to the town of their birth; Mary and Joseph were not likely to be names of the parents of Jesus, but dignified names out of the Old Testament; there was no “slaughter of the innocents” and thus no flight into Egypt and return from Egypt (the story was created to serve as an echo of the Exodus);  and more. There are whole books devoted to debunking the historicity of the gospels. Obviously the correct reading is mythological. If there is an inspiring message to be found in those stories, wonderful. But first of all, we have to come to grips with the fact that this is a mythology.

Roses are excellent at resurrection; here is my Rio Samba, 8 weeks or so after a severe pruning


~ “When one reads the New Testament in the order in which these books were written, a fascinating progression is revealed. Paul, for example, writing between the years 50 and 64 or some 20 to 34 years after the earthly life of Jesus came to an end, never describes the resurrection of Jesus as a physical body resuscitated after death. There is no hint in the Pauline corpus that one who had died later walked out of his grave clothes, emerged from the tomb and was seen by his disciples.

What Paul does suggest is that Easter meant that God had acted to reverse the verdict that the world had pronounced on Jesus by raising Jesus from death into God. It was, therefore, out of God in a transforming kind of heavenly vision that this Jesus then appeared to certain chosen witnesses. Paul enumerates these witnesses and, in a telling detail, says that this was the same Jesus that Paul himself had seen. No one suggests that Paul ever saw a resuscitated body.

Please note that the story of the Ascension had not been written when these Pauline words were formed. Paul did not envision the Resurrection as Jesus being restored to life in this world but as Jesus being raised into God. It was not an event in time but a transcendent and transforming truth.

Paul died, according to our best estimates, around the year 64 C.E. The first Gospel was not written until the early 70’s. Paul never had a chance to read the Easter story in any Gospel. The tragedy of later Christian history is that we read Paul through the lens of the Gospels. Thus we have both distorted Paul and also confused theology.

When Mark, the first Gospel, was written the Risen Christ never appears. The last time Jesus is seen comes when his deceased body is taken from the cross and laid in the tomb. Mark’s account of the Resurrection presents us with the narrative of mourning women confronting an empty tomb, meeting a messenger who tells them that Jesus has been raised and asking these women to convey to the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Mark then concludes his Gospel with a picture of these women fleeing in fear, saying nothing to anyone (16:1-8).

So abrupt was this ending that people began to write new endings to what they thought was Mark’s incomplete story. Two of those endings are actually reproduced in the King James Version of the Bible as verses 9-20. But thankfully, these later creations have been removed from the text of Mark in recent Bibles and placed into footnotes. The sure fact of New Testament scholarship is that Mark’s Gospel ended without the Risen Christ ever being seen by anyone.

Both Matthew, who wrote between 80-85, and Luke, who wrote between 88-92, had Mark to guide their compositions. Both changed, heightened and expanded Mark. It is fascinating to lift those changes into consciousness and to ask what was it that motivated Matthew and Luke to transform Mark’s narrative. Did they have new sources of information? Had the story grown over the years in the retelling?

The first thing to note is that Matthew changes Mark’s story about the women at the tomb. First, the messenger in Mark becomes a supernatural angel in Matthew’s story. Next Matthew says the women do see Jesus in the garden. They grasp him by the feet and worship him. This is the first time in Christian history that the Resurrection is presented as physical resuscitation. It occurs in the 9th decade of the Christian era. It should be noted that it took more than 50 years to begin to interpret the Easter experience as the resuscitated body of the deceased Jesus. When Matthew presents the story of the risen Jesus to the disciples, it is on a mountaintop in Galilee where he appears out of the sky armed with heavenly power. Recall once again that when Matthew wrote this narrative the story of Jesus’ ascension had not yet entered the tradition.

Luke follows Mark’s story line about the women at the tomb, stating that they do not see Jesus in the garden on Easter morning. Luke, however, has turned Mark’s messenger into two angelic beings. He has also transferred the locale of Easter to Jerusalem specifically denying Mark’s words spoken through the messenger that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Luke has heightened dramatically the physicality of Jesus’ resuscitated body. In Luke, the resuscitated Jesus walks, talks, eats, teaches and interprets. He also appears and disappears at will. He invites the disciples to handle his flesh. He asserts that he is not a ghost. Finally in order to remove this physically resuscitated Jesus from the earth, Luke develops the story of Jesus’ Ascension.

Even in the Ascension narrative, however, Luke is not consistent. In the last chapter of his Gospel the Ascension takes place on Easter Sunday afternoon. In the first chapter of Acts, which Luke also writes, the Ascension takes place 40 days after Easter. Whereas the messenger in Mark, who becomes an angel in Matthew, directs the disciples to Galilee for a meeting with the risen Christ, Luke specifically denies any Galilean resurrection tradition. He orders the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they are endowed with power from on high. The narrative is clearly growing.

In John, the Fourth Gospel (95-100), the physicality of the Resurrection is even more enhanced. In the 20th chapter of this Gospel Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene in the garden and says to her, “Mary do not cling to me.” One cannot cling to something that is non-physical. Then John suggests that Jesus ascends immediately into heaven before appearing, presumably out of heaven, that night to the disciples, who are missing Thomas. Though Jesus appears able to enter an upper room in which the windows have been closed and the doors locked, he is once again portrayed as being quite physical. This physical quality is further enhanced a week later when Jesus makes a second appearance to the disciples, this time with Thomas present. It is in this narrative that Thomas is invited to touch the nail prints and to examine the place in his side into which the spear had been hurled. All of these appearances take place in Jerusalem.

Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel portrays a Galilean appearance much later in time after the disciples have actually returned to their fishing trade. Here Jesus directs them to a great catch of fish, 153 of them to be specific. Then he eats with them. Finally he restores Peter after his three-fold denial.

When these biblical data are assembled and examined closely, two things become clear. First something of enormous power gripped the disciples following the crucifixion that transformed their lives. Second, it was some fifty years before that transforming experience was interpreted as the resuscitation of a three days dead Jesus to the life of the world. Our conversation about the meaning of Easter must begin where these two realities meet.” ~


Paul seems to be saying that Jesus “appeared” to him [Paul], and to the disciples shortly after his death, as a heavenly being, or a spirit body. The word used by Paul in reference to both himself and the disciples is one that can be interpreted as a “having a vision” rather than experiencing a physical reality. Jesus wasn’t physically “seen”; rather, he “appeared.”

We know that one of the most common form of hallucination is bereavement visions; for instance, the recently dead person seems to be walking just ahead. We may even run up to that person, and only then see it’s a stranger after all, sometimes not even especially similar to the deceased. Or we may hear the person’s voice or certain other sounds indicating the deceased is nearby. I speak both from personal experience and that of friends and others.

A simpler explanation is that “historical Jesus” never existed and that we are dealing here with another dying and rising god. The resurrection story developed during a cultural era when dying and rising gods were nothing new. Even if historical Jesus existed, the existing death-and resurrection narratives would have likely influenced the story.

Attis, Ostia Antica


from Milosz’s “The Land of Ulro”: “Intellectual freedom in a Catholic country always goes hand in hand with atheism, and a comparison of [G’s] aristocratic atheism with [P’s] peasant atheism would make a splendid topic. As would the careers of other Polish atheists. The son of the devoutly Christian Apollo Korzeniowski, Joseph Conrad, could say: “The starry sky above me, the moral law within me” — and the inspiration for his irreligious ethics need not have come from Kant: Seneca would have sufficed.”

Fascinated, I googled Conrad’s views on religion, and got this from the British Humanist Association:

“He disliked the narrowness of his upbringing, particularly his father’s religious zeal. Later in life he wrote to a friend: “It’s strange how I always, from the age of 14, disliked the Christian religion, its doctrines, ceremonies and festivals … Christianity has lent itself with amazing facility to cruel distortion … and has brought an infinity of anguish to innumerable souls – on this earth.”

(Oriana: This reminds me of Nietzsche’s: “Religions are at bottom systems of cruelty.”)

“As a young man, he became fascinated by the sea and sailed to many places, especially in Africa and Asia, first as a sailor and then as a captain. He was saddened to see the divisions caused by religious belief in the many countries he visited. He came to look on humanity not as different nationalities or races but simply as people. It was the brotherhood and sisterhood of all human beings that concerned him. He saw this broken by advocates of the many, and differing, religions practiced in the world. His boyhood had made him distrust dogmatic attitudes of this kind.

He read an essay, A Free Man’s Worship, by the famous philosopher and humanist, Bertrand Russell, which said: ‘We should worship only the God created by our own love of the good.’ Conrad wrote to Russell saying, ‘For the marvelous pages on the worship of a free man, the only return one can make is that of deep admiring affection.”

His religious skepticism appears in his novels. In Under Western Eyes, he writes: “A belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are capable of every wickedness.” In Heart of Darkness he says, “We live, as we dream – alone.” And Under Western Eyes shows his humanist morality: “All a man can betray is his conscience.” One of the main histories of English literature says that although in his writing Conrad was a realist, he was also “a thinker and a poet”; that in his work there is “a profound ethical element”; and his “idealism lies in the sense of the unknown which we brush past at every moment,” an unusual way of referring to his agnostic view of life.

Joseph Conrad admired other writers with a humanistic, rationalist outlook. To John Galsworthy, the novelist and playwright, he wrote, making clear his own rejection of dogma: “Skepticism is the tonic of mind, the tonic of life, the agent of truth. It is the way of art and salvation.”


Apollo Korzeniowski (Conrad’s father) seems insufferable to me mostly because he was a fanatical nationalist. I haven’t thought of the Catholic angle. The two were no doubt fused together, a phenomenon I later observed in the Catholic church under the Communist rule, which I too found repugnant, yet another way the church tried to control the masses, the idolatry of “God and Fatherland” as a cover for repressive right-wing mentality.

Conrad chose stoicism just as he chose to write in English, though his fluency in French was perfect (he spoke it without an accent) — perhaps because there is something heroic about going with the difficult, but maybe primarily because he admired both the language of Shakespeare and the English culture with its stoic ideal.

I wonder if “aristocratic atheism” and “peasant atheism,” terms that Milosz doesn't explain, form a kind of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza pair. I was fascinated to read that there used to be a lot of anti-clericalism in the Polish countryside, including songs about the corruption and predatory sexual behavior of priests.

Certain Poles accused Conrad of betraying Poland and his native language, but Conrad had his reply: “A man can betray only his conscience.” I am so glad he didn't yield to “patriotic” pressure, which must have been enormous.

And I realize that the loathsome "God and Fatherland" Catholicism that poisoned my childhood must have been only a fraction of what young Conrad was force-fed. To recover from that, to see life and the world in a more universal light, what a journey. And finally, to transform all that pain into the honey of art.

The monument to Joseph Conrad in Gdynia


To the opossum I saw one night picking off grubs (or something) from my Jurassic araukaria, and who got scared at seeing me and ran away: Come back! My lawn is your lawn, my tree is your tree.

ending on beauty

I intended
Never to grow old —
But the temple bell sounds.

~ Jokun, 17th century
 (translated by R. H. Blyth)



Had to look up Dyngus. Now the poem makes sense and is beautiful. But your commentary on going face to face with God and possibly end up in Hell is so powerfully courageous and is more than beautiful. It is truly inspirational.

I also love your light-hearted treatment of  Bible Story That Nobody Believes. If I was teaching a midrash about it, I would have everybody embellish the story even more so they could see even more how obviously ridiculous the story is.

I gained a new appreciation for the opossum.


Thanks for the lovely comments. I hope that readers who aren’t sure google Dyngus. All of a sudden I am also once more in awe of the creative process: how did I connect all the things in that poem? Of course it all flowed from the cognitive-creative unconscious, without any conscious deliberation. That came only during revision, when I changed a few words.

The wild story in Matthew deserves more attention since it throws into question everything else that’s in the gospels and in the bible in general. Should we take any of it literally? What supportive evidence would it require?

Just recently I learned that the Mormon church used to preach that Jesus was married to multiple women and had children — and that some members of the Mormon church were actually genetic descendants of Jesus. That claim was later dropped. What about various other claims? But we know there is no end of making up stories — and usually no harm when we know a story is fiction. It’s when fiction is mistaken for facts that serious harm can result.

Saturday, March 19, 2016



I knew I’d never get there
but kept following the signs —
hiked as far as the meadow plateau,
the necklace of narrow lakes

linked by a darkling stream —
a tuft of mimulus, an eighteen-carat
gold evening primrose;
something purple, something blue —

and where the streamside trees
deepened into twilight,
beaver dams — and below, between
the afternoon-hot boulders, a whistling

marmot fattening herself for winter.
Did I really hear that whistle —
is that its echo bouncing off
the cooling boulders of my mind?

I knew I'd never get there
but kept following the signs —
I didn’t need to stand
on a wind-tormented summit

admiring my own strength,
straining to hear the silent
applause of the clouds.

I’d like to show

one of those weather-worn
sun-bleached trail signs to a god —
not sulky Yahweh or gore-smeared Jesus,
but a foolish yet dear ancient god,

as forgotten as I will be in time —
slouched like a boulder, sweating,
swatting at mosquitoes — to show
him or her what my life was about.

~ Oriana © 2016

A new poem! Where did the inspiration come from? It’s almost embarrassing to admit: in a book was reading at breakfast, I came across the word “Kearsarge” — and my thoughts drifted back to the Eastern Sierra, those glorious mountains I will never see again.

For the few of you who more or less know the area, yes, you take the Onion Valley exit from Independence, not far from Lone Pine and Whitney Portal. The first part of the trail is murder, steep and exposed. Then it gradually becomes paradise.

You may be wondering why a committed atheist like myself is invoking a god. Of course all gods and religions are a human inventions, but they can be a useful metaphor in poetry. A dilemma, I know, but in life there is no "purity." I always wished for a group of kindred minds; among other things, we might discuss what in our lives stands out as important, or at least memorable. I don't have such a group, so for the sake of this poem, I reach for an imaginary sympathetic listener (other than you, reader).

If a god, then a part of nature. One of the worst aspects of Yahweh is his being apart from nature. He may have started as the god of the storm, but then became more and more abstract, until in Christianity he became the Orwellian “Eye in the Sky
, spying on people’s sins, reading their thoughts for thought crimes like lust — since to “lust in your heart” is allegedly as bad as committing adultery (what idiocy). What a relief to acknowledge that this is just fiction made up to scare believers, to “keep them in line”!

Heaven was — at least for some weeks, while the thought still had novelty — the bliss of knowing that the Monster did not exist and there was no 24/7 spying going on. It was radical relief from the obsession with sin and punishment. And when I think about it again, and the certainty deepens (if we don’t have to be forever “agnostic” about the existence of leprechauns, then it’s the same with an invisible guy in the sky), the bliss returns.

I'm not saying that atheists are blissfully happy all the time — there are only blissful moments, as for everyone. For me it's enough to look at the moon — that fills me with happiness. Maybe that's ridiculous, but that's it. Every night I walk out and look at the stars and the moon — if visible. If not, the white clouds are enough. So beautiful!

I simply have no need for any deity. The world is enchanting enough. I know I'm incredibly privileged to live in California, surrounded by beauty — much of it human-created — all the gardens, the clusters of palm trees, the bougainvilleas -- I have found a purple one at least and am planning building a little hill for it, so the riot of blossoms can pour down in fuller glory. Have I rejected god's love? Can you reject something that doesn't exist? I have accepted what I can see and touch, and human love, and dogs' affection, and the beauty and innocence of animals in general. And trees, the trees of life.

Perceptive reader, I hear you say, Yes, but why do you imagine showing a trail sign like a symbol of your life to an old nature god? Ideally, I wouldn’t feel lonesome for some such being. In an optimal world, there would be a group of kindred minds with whom we could have a serious conversation about what is important in life, and what we think we have and have not accomplished — our joys, our regrets. Those “kindred minds” would accepting rather than judging, and old enough to have the wisdom of experience. I imagine they would say that no one gets everything they want in life, but what a privilege to accomplish and experience anything.

And rather than tell a long story, perhaps the idea would be an object or a word or two. And if I were to bring one word — all right, two — plucked from my whole life, it just might be “Kearsarge Pass,” high in the Sierra Nevada. 


~ “Those working the longest throughout their lives (even taking part time jobs after retirement) and working in the most stressful jobs lived the longest.”

“Cognitive ability predicts mortality.”

(Note: this study was based on the high-IQ children followed up through life by Lewis Terman. It started in 1921. Because all subjects had a high IQ, other variables came to light, especially conscientiousness.)

Those who were the most cheerful and optimistic, on average, lived shorter lives than those who were less cheerful and joking. According to the researchers, optimistic people tended to take more risks overall: going to more parties, using more drugs and alcohol, and getting into more accidents. Friedman notes that “fun can be overrated.”

Who lived the longest? Those who were the most conscientious and committed to their jobs, friends, and community lived the longest. In fact, those working the longest throughout their lives (even taking part time jobs after retirement) and working in the most stressful jobs lived the longest. Those working in low-status jobs were far more likely to die before the age of 60 than those working in higher status jobs. According to the researchers,

“It was the most prudent and persistent individuals who stayed healthiest and lived the longest.”

They also found an effect of divorce. While early parental loss didn't have an effect on longevity, early parental divorce was a very strong predictor of mortality in adulthood. The authors note how traumatic and painful divorce was for the children. There were also important gender differences. Men who remarried improved their odds of a long life, whereas women who stayed single after divorce were just about as well off as if they had stayed single.

Exercise also played a role, but not the kind you may think. People who lived the longest weren't obsessed with health and exercise. They didn't have structured regimes, but just tried to live as active a life as they could.

Also counterintuitively, kids who started first grade at too early an age had problems later in life and lived shorter lives. Early school entry was associated with less educational attainment and worse midlife adjustment. Also, while early reading ability was associated with academic success, precocious reading was less associated with lifelong educational attainment and was hardly related to midlife adjustment at all. Parents may want to re-think whether they push their child to enter school too soon.

The rapidly advancing field of cognitive epidemiology is showing that across a much broader range of IQ levels and demographics, cognitive ability predicts mortality, even after controlling for a number of related variables such as education and socioeconomic status. This research is pointing to the inescapable conclusion that cognition is related to health and longevity. Of course, the causal path is still unclear, but research in the coming years will get us closer to understanding why there is such a strong relationship.

The conclusion seems pretty banal: self-control and interpersonal stability leads to a long life. The finding that optimistic and cheerful people died younger is surprising though." ~


Ask anyone about what predicts longevity, and they are likely to say, “Diet and exercise.” In fact two best predictors of longevity are high IQ and high degree of autonomy (bosses live longer than subordinates). The first surprising (back then) finding in longevity studies was that Harvard professors live much longer than former Harvard athletes. The professors continued to lead an active professional life even after retirement — writing books and articles in their field, attending conventions. 

By “stressful jobs” I think the authors mean high-status jobs, those with the most autonomy. Studies have repeatedly shown that being the boss rather than a subordinate strongly correlates with better health and longevity.
IQ is a broad term. What seems important for longevity is EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS, especially self-control. This means the ability to choose long-term benefits over short-term gratification. And yes, you see differences between children as early as the age of five. I suspect that self-control can be improved with training.

What was not surprising was the finding that marriage benefits men more than women. Is it that men enjoy more autonomy in marriage, being more often the dominant partner? I wonder, if that finding becomes more widely known, along with the widely confirmed finding that having children lowers self-rated happiness, will women be less motivated to get married and have children? This already seems to be the trend, though socioeconomic status plays an increasing role: educated people tend to get married later in life, and also to stay married; divorced women and widows tend not to remarry, and staying single doesn’t seem to have a bad impact. Indeed it’s striking that we speak about the “merry widow” but never of the “merry widower.”

Of course we need to bear in mind the fact that correlation does not equal causation. Perhaps those who work hardest and longest are those who are exceptionally healthy to start with.

And again we need to bear in mind that “life isn’t fair”: ultimately nothing beats coming from a long-lived family. Being a health nut means nothing if people in your family tend to die of cancer before the age of sixty, and often sooner. It’s a classic story: he was a vegetarian who ran 3 miles every day, and died at 45 of pancreatic cancer.

But that’s an extreme. The take-away lesson is that it’s not diet and exercise, but rather intelligence, self-control, and leading an active working life — for as long as possible.



I remember the exact moment of my shift . . . On the outside, nothing changed; on the inside, everything did.

“Most psychologists agree that if you define wisdom as maintaining positive well-being and kindness in the face of challenges, it is one of the most important qualities one can possess to age successfully — and to face physical decline and death.

An impediment to wisdom is thinking, “I can’t stand who I am now because I’m not who I used to be,” said Isabella S. Bick, a psychotherapist who, at 81, still practices part time out of her home in Sharon, Conn. She has aging clients who are upset by a perceived worsening of their looks, their sexual performance, their physical abilities, their memory. For them, as for herself, an acceptance of aging is necessary for growth, but “it’s not a resigned acceptance; it’s an embracing acceptance,” she said.

Dr. Clayton says there’s a point in life when a fundamental shift occurs, and people start thinking about how much time they have left rather than how long they have lived. Reflecting on the meaning and structure of their lives, she said, can help people thrive after the balance shifts and there is much less time left than has gone before.”

Here is a minister who after 30 years discovered that he simply didn’t believe in Jesus anymore than he believed in Santa Claus. And it struck him that it’s too late in life to keep serving the wrong institution:

“If there really is a God, I no longer want to serve him. If he is as awful as he is depicted in the Old Testament, then I will oppose him. In the New Testament, Jesus said God is loving, kind, and forgiving. He said that his Holy Spirit resides in us and guides us. I have loved that idea but I have never seen it or felt it and I’ve waited long enough. Time to move on.”

I got older, lonelier, and more tired, and have grown rather intolerant of bullshit. I have come to the place where I don’t want to waste my remaining years saying things I don’t believe and propping up the failing institution we call the church.”

"I don't want to waste my remaining years doing X" -- this is the basic formula that changed my life when I finally felt cornered by mortality. A lot of people do something radical when they reach that point, astonishing others by leaving hated spouses, jobs, moving to Australia or Bali, all kinds of things they wanted to do for 30-40 years but just didn't have the courage to reach for their dream -- until it's almost too late (but never too late, except if you want to be a ballerina -- and even then, you can still do it just for the pleasure of it).


In a different vein: I know a story of a woman who only on her deathbed revealed that her uncle had raped her when she was thirteen. It’s easy enough to understand why she stayed silent when she was a young girl. But why stay silent in adulthood? She was, in effect, protecting a pedophile — exactly what pedophiles and rapists always count on.

The shame and not wanting to cause trouble in the family were of course still there as she grew older. I think that this story presents an extreme case of how mortality can make us take action. Only on her deathbed this woman realized that it was her last chance to tell the truth. She could die having told the truth, or she could die never having told the truth — and she made her choice.

(Much too late, that’s true. We need places where a rape victim can go for emotional help and counseling — places not connected with the police. That may be the next step, but first, let’s provide a place of safety and support.)


The problem of existence and the desirable approaches to the inevitability of death are well-known in philosophy. We are alive only for a while. Shall we give up in resignation and depression? Pretend we will live forever under a cloud of anxiety? Or make the best of things with the time we have remaining?

Ding ding ding: the answer is C, make the best of things we have with the time remaining. We should not live like the gardener who told Zorba the Greek that he lives each day as if he will never die; nor should we live like Zorba, who tells the gardener that he lives as if he will die each day. The correct way to live is based on a reasoned estimate of how much time we have left. If you’re thinking of learning a foreign language, you really need to know how long it will take, how much fun it will be, and how long you will have to live to enjoy whatever you learn.

Watney understands this, and the first thing he does is assess his life expectancy to estimate what he can accomplish in the time he has. Then, like a wise consumer of the serenity prayer (changing the things he can), he considers what he can reasonably do to extend his life expectancy. Thus, the first important psychological trait he displays in the face of existential despair is reason. After all, it’s reason that makes us aware of our own death, so the least it can do is start us off on a way to think about the time we have left productively.

Watney is blessed with a secure attachment. Although abandoned by his colleagues on a distant planet, he understands deeply that it’s not their fault, that he is loved, that if he manages his existential abyss, there will be a payoff in human relationships. This understanding helps to motivate him, but more importantly, it helps him not to ruminate. Resentment about reality is often the greatest impediment to improving things. Horney teaches us that the essence of neurosis is investing in how things should be instead of in how they are, and suspicions about injustice when the only villain is randomness is one of the main distractions from how things are.

One sign of dealing with the way things are instead of the way things should have been is a focus on the problems in front of you that can be solved instead of problems that can’t be solved or the problems that are brewing. Watney sees life as a series of puzzles and predicaments and addresses them as they arise.

Watney is undoubtedly a much more intelligent person than most of us, and this gives him an edge. But even more important than his level of intelligence is the use to which he puts it. Many people use whatever intellectual ability they have to make excuses, refine accusations, curse fate, or show off. Watney uses his intelligence to solve his problems. When he makes mistakes, large or small, he tries to learn from them.

Humor is central to Watney’s ability to muster his other assets to face the truth of his existence. The effort to live within reality and to avoid despair and depression on the one side and denial and anxiety on the other is best supported by a comedic or ironic frame. Like two independent, aggressive, selfish humans purporting to live for each other, it’s not sustainable if they really mean it. Only an ironic frame can sustain romantic love. In parallel, a person capable of imagining infinitude and perfection but settling for what is real cannot do so successfully if he or she really settles. That is just another route to despair. But a comedic or ironic frame around the settling enables us to make the most of our limited time on our planet, winking at ourselves as we indulge our petty desires before what Janna Goodwin calls the “glorious indifference” of the universe.

Presumably, if Watney’s life expectancy were too short to develop a plan to get off the planet, he would have devoted himself to making the most of a more limited time frame. Buddha tells a parable about a monk who is running from a tiger and comes to the edge of a cliff. He lowers himself down a vine, but there is another tiger at the base of the cliff. Mice emerge above him and start eating the vine. With only moments to live, the monk notices a strawberry growing in a crevice. Buddha reports, “How sweet it tasted!”



Reading this brief review stunned me because of a parallel with what happened as result of my sudden awareness of life expectancy. Once I fully grasped how little time was left, I was cured of life-long depression. It was the greatest event of my adult life, the only one that compares in magnitude and significance with my leaving Poland for America.

By the way, long before I had my own insight, I helped a friend reach a life-changing decision. She kept complaining how much she hated her job. Since she was around sixty and didn’t actually need to work, I asked only, “How much longer do you think you’ve got to live?” The question stunned her into silence. Within a month, she was training her replacement. The time I talked with her after that, she was playing with the city orchestra. She was radiant. In the past she’d been so busy complaining, she never even managed to tell me she loved music.

Bosch: Concert in an Egg, 1564


Isaac was to be a whole burnt offering, meaning after Abraham slaughtered Isaac, he was supposed to burn him. The smoke from burnt offerings was to rise up to heaven and be a pleasing aroma. This would point to the totality of the sacrifice and the rising up of the essence of whatever it was toward heaven. There’s not going to be a body, bones or anything else left to be “raised” and the writer of Hebrews doesn’t seem to pay any heed to that little detail….I’m merely pointing out that it would be incredibly unnatural for Abraham to conclude that a pile of ashes would be raised back to life. Such a belief would require a highly developed theology that’s completely foreign to the Old Testament and unprecedented in any Biblical example of resurrection…and most importantly, there is no mention in the text of Genesis itself that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead…The writer of Hebrews is either offering this resurrection belief up as his own supposition or is repeating some other tradition, but it’s nowhere in the text of Genesis.

In fact, there is nothing at all in the entire Old Testament that would give us any indication whatsoever that people in Abraham’s day even had a kind of bodily resurrection theology at all. It’s not until Daniel 12 (after coming in contact with Persian/Zoroastrian theology) that we even find a clear, overt reference to the idea of a bodily resurrection from the dead following the lapse of any time…

Caravaggio: Abraham and Isaac, 1604


In a previous post, I related that it suddenly occurred to me that the story got sanitized by later scribes: most likely, Abraham really did kill Isaac. It was interesting to learn that in a few medieval midrashim, Isaac does get killed. But this detail — just like animal sacrifice, he was supposed to be burned so that the smoke would rise up to heaven — makes this story, always difficult for me to stomach, even more difficult.

The official term for a sacrifice completely consumed by fire is holocaust.

I took everything literally, "historically" (as we were supposed to) until the age 14, and only then, around my birthday (I remember that lilacs were in bloom), I had a thought rise up that changed my life: “It's just another mythology.” But during my first religion lesson I thought we were being told a fairy tale (I didn't yet know words like mythology), and the years between 12 and 14 were perhaps the most terrible in my life in that I was constantly tormented by the question of the veracity of those stories and the existence of god, and tried to suppress the thoughts that I was sure would send to hell forever. I lived in terror.

By the way, I don't think our nun went into the detail of Lot offering his virgin daughters — or maybe she rushed over it. But it wasn't possible to skip over the story of Isaac.

Of course our modern understanding of someone hearing the alleged voice of god telling him/her to kill a child (or anyone) is psychosis. The woman in Utah who drowned her five children had that type of command hallucination. But way way back human sacrifice was not an exception, but part of regular worship. Also, what about Jephta's daughter? There was no last-minute reprieve. By the way, that story was part of our religious instruction; the nun said the moral was “not to make rash vows.” 

Antonio Giovanni Pelegrini (1675-1741), The Return of Jephta


~"News and people traveled faster than anyone had ever experienced. The cost of moving products and services plummeted in the same way Amazon or cloud-based apps have driven down distribution costs. Such forces made it easier for big companies in one place to serve customers everywhere. The technology “made possible a division of labor and specialization of production for ever larger and more distant markets,” wrote James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom, his epic Civil War history. So by 1850, factories were making certain types of craftsmen obsolete, department stores were driving local shops to close, and people found themselves losing jobs to someone far away.

Much like today, money in the early 1800s flowed to the new economy and away from the old economy. Capitalists who owned production got richer, and laborers lost power. The gap between rich and poor widened.

Cue the kind of anger Donald Trump is tapping into now.

Slavery turned into a flashpoint issue, but the real unrest boiled up from this giant economic rift. Technology transformed the North into an industrial economy while the South was anchored in an agricultural economy, one that couldn't operate without slavery. The North had a population that saw the advantage in embracing technology and progressive ideas (including that slavery was bad) and moving forward. The South's way of life and economic fortunes rested on keeping things as they'd been. The South viewed the North as a threat.

Look today at red states vs. blue, or even Trump supporters vs. “establishment” Republicans. Those divisions broadly define where digital-cloud-mobile technology and the modern economy work in favor of the population vs. where they work against them. Trump says “make America great again,” which, to his supporters, means “make America what it used to be.” To people whose livelihoods have suffered because of economic shifts ushered in by technology, moving backward looks better than moving forward—not just in economic issues but in social mores as well.

The big difference between now and then is that instead of that shift from agriculture to industry in 1850, today we’re seeing a shift from industry to software. The more that software can leverage the work of fewer humans, the fewer humans are needed for work, and the more profits flow to owners of the software. One industrial company, United Technologies, provides an example. At 218,300 employees, the company’s workforce hasn’t grown in seven years, even while revenue jumped from $42.7 billion in 2005 to $57.7 billion in 2012. That’s $15 billion not being spent on more employees. Productivity created by technology tends to put more earnings into fewer hands.

The lives of many of the people in tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., are going one way. The lives of many people in industrial or rural areas are going another. It may not be a North-South divide, but you can see a break widening between the coasts and the nation’s interior.

Trump has become the voice of those technology has hurt. He’s not just a protest vote; he’s a rebel vote. It’s a rebellion against Republican leaders who failed to conserve industrial jobs and a more traditional society. It’s not that different from the Whigs in 1850, when the party split between “Conscience” Whigs, who were pro-industry and anti-slavery (and thus threatened the whole Southern economic house of cards), and “Cotton” Whigs, who would fight to preserve an increasingly outmoded way of life.

The current rift in America isn’t going to mend if Trump wins, or loses. Look at what’s coming. Autonomous vehicles will eat driving jobs of every kind. Artificial intelligence will eat rules-based white-collar jobs like accounting. Block-chain technology will result in software-based contracts that eliminate the need for mortgage brokers and lots of lawyers. Factory work will be diminished by 3-D printing. The total disruption of the 20th-century way of life is inevitable and far from over.

Of course, like the tech revolution of 1850, ours should eventually create enormous opportunities we never dreamed possible. It is the path to wealth and comfort for every part of the country and every level of society. The best news is that, like in 1850, the U.S. leads the world in all of the important technologies. If we as a people can get through this, we won’t make America great “again”—we’ll make it into something cooler and better than it’s ever been.


Brian Wansink rejects the notion of good calories and bad calories — within reason, he believes, what we eat matters less than how much we eat. Indeed, researchers at the National Institutes of Health recently found that adults placed on balanced diets containing processed carbs from foods like white bread, instant rice, and fruit packed in sweet syrup fared just as well — at least in terms of cardiovascular risk factors — as those who got their carbs from apples, whole grains, and steel-cut oats. But eating fewer carbs and overall calories made a difference.

He and his grad students had planned to dump Wheat Thins and M&M's into large Ziploc bags, but by mistake they also brought some tiny, snack-sized ones. Since there weren't enough large bags to go around, some moviegoers got four small ones instead.

Something surprising happened: Most people who received the four small bags finished only one or two. In a follow-up questionnaire, Wansink asked the participants how much more they would pay for snacks that came in lots of small packages instead of one big one. A majority said they'd spend 20 percent more.

In the snack food aisle of a local supermarket, Wansink stops in front of the chips to tell me about a recent study he did with cans of Pringles. At intervals of either 7 or 14 chips (it didn't matter much which), his team inserted a Pringle dyed with red food coloring. Lab subjects who got these subtle reminders consumed 50 percent fewer chips on average than control snackers who got regular Pringles.

Outside the boundaries of the lab, Wansink did take on one major private client: McDonald's. In 2008, he'd independently funded a study on Happy Meals, spending three weeks watching kids dine. He found that it didn't matter much what McDonald's put in the meal. Kids mainly cared about the toy—in fact, most stopped eating once they'd unwrapped it. Three years later, McDonald's hired Wansink to determine whether some changes it had made to Happy Meals—ditching the caramel sauce that accompanied the apple slices and promoting milk instead of soda—had actually prompted kids to eat more nutritious food at its restaurants. (Wansink found that they had.) "What makes Happy Meals happy and fun is not the food, it's the atmosphere and the toys," he says. "McDonald's wins because parents feel less guilty about taking their kids there.”

Many parents won't be surprised to learn that Wansink found children to be exquisitely sensitive about food presentation. One of his studies, in 2011, determined that serving fruit in colorful bowls instead of metal trays more than doubled fruit consumption at school. In another, from 2013, he found that schools that switched from whole to sliced apples saw 48 percent fewer apples wasted and a 73 percent increase in students eating more than half of their apples. It also turned out that giving vegetables fun names — like "X-Ray-Vision Carrots" or "Silly Dilly Green Beans" — persuaded kids to eat 35 percent more veggies.

So far, some 17,000 schools have used the Smarter Lunchrooms training. Many report success. Jessica Shelly, director of food services for Cincinnati's public schools, implemented a few simple changes, such as placing the plain milk before the flavored milk in the line, changing food names, and adding a toppings station. "It's so awesome to see a student who went over to the salad bar to put some cumin on their chicken soft taco also end up adding some red pepper strips and broccoli florets to their plate," Shelly told me via email. Lunch attendance increased, and her once-struggling program climbed out of the red. In 2013, it turned a $2.7 million profit.

He tells me about a study he did with Birds Eye on how to get people to eat more frozen vegetables. Two sets of participants were told different versions of a story about a woman named Valerie. In the first one, she has a busy day, and when she gets home she serves her family a dinner of pasta, warmed-up leftover chicken, bread, and green beans from the freezer. The second version is exactly the same — minus the green beans.

When the researchers then asked study participants to describe Valerie, they were shocked at the difference in the responses. "People will rate Valerie when she uses beans as, 'Oh, she's a good mother, she is stressed out, but you can see that she cares for her family; she's really a good cook,'" Wansink says. "If you don't have the beans, people are like, 'Oh my God, this lazy excuse for a woman. What is she doing? It's all about herself; she is so self-centered.’”


Many people believe that they can eat bread as long as it's whole-grain, or that granola cereal is OK, etc. But all those are fattening because they raise blood sugar, which leads to the release of insulin, the fattening hormone. To lose weight, you have to keep your blood sugar low-normal.

Almost all carbs are fattening, even the “good carbs,” i.e. those with nutritional value. Exceptions include raw celery sticks, raw spinach, lettuce, and a few other things that have hardly any calories and sometimes take more calories to process than they provide. Usually absence of sweet taste is a reliable guide. Usually doesn’t mean always, e.g. whole-grain bread may not taste sweet but is in fact just as fattening as white bread.

And yet another problem is that fructose (which does betrayed its presence with sweetness — in fact it’s sweeter than glucose) is particularly fattening, though it acts through a mechanism different than raising blood sugar.

Ending on wisdom

A story of the Hasidim: Rabbi Moses from Kobryn said, “When you speak a word before God, enter into that word with your whole self.” One of his listeners asked, “How on earth can a big man enter a little word?” “Anyone who thinks he’s bigger than a word,” the Tzadik replied, “is not the person of whom we speak.” ~ from the Notebooks of Anna Kamieńska


Saturday, March 12, 2016


Every stick bursts into blossom.
Flame-beaked ocotillos
wave in the warm wind.
In the scar of an arroyo
silvers a live stream.

This is the most precious garden:
not hothouse orchids
but the desert lavish with gold
brittlebush, our-lady’s-slippers,
bells ringing purple, indigo and mauve.

Just one season of unstinting rain,
and this place of thirst
blooms the richest Eden.
Lilac-plumed grass tames to my hand.
The prickly pear opens its soft veils.

So after years without love,
tenderness makes us flower.
So our once-parched face
becomes the face of all,
unfolding petal by petal.

~ Oriana © 2016

I've lived in Death Valley for 25 years . . . And then I suddenly realized there are so many seeds out there, just waiting to sprout, waiting to grow. I had no idea there was that much out there.

 (My thanks to Lucrezia for sending me the video and pointing out the ranger’s richly symbolic words.)

Golden Evening Primrose, now briefly transforming Death Valley into the Valley of Life

The “superbloom" in Death Valley made me remember this poem by Blaga Dimitrova, the “Bulgarian poetess” wonderfully described by John Updike in “Bech”:


I was born for love —
to give it and to receive it.
Yet my life has passed
almost without loving.
So I’ve learned forgiving:

even the deserts
I have crossed
I feel no scorn for.
I only ask them
with astonished eyes:

What gardens were you born for?

~ Blaga Dimitrova, Because the Sea is Black, tr Niko Boris and Heather McHugh

Water god, Villa di Pratolino

Now that gardening has become one of the joys of my life, I have a new understanding of water. Here in Southern California we rely on artificial irrigation — sprinklers and drip lines; otherwise, the coastal strip of garden cities becomes the brown-gray desert it naturally is, except for a brief springtime. And lately that springtime, which turns the hills and freeway slopes into a paradise of lush greenery and wildflowers for a month or so, has not been so reliable. A year without wildflowers is always a sad one — we are shut out of Eden.

The rains either come, or they don’t come.

And life is the same way. For some, the rains come — at the right time, in the right amount. But not for others.

The longer I live, the more I realize how much depends on “mere” circumstances. Did it matter that Bach and Mozart were born into highly musical families? Would they have contributed to music the way they have if they happened to be born to illiterate peasants instead, but just “worked hard and believed in themselves”? Let’s not be silly.

You may say, “But look at Marie Curie, becoming a physicist at a time when no women went into science (or practically none).” She too had a very supportive family; her father was a mathematics and physics instructor who introduced her to laboratory work. But let’s imagine that she happened to be born in Afghanistan or Bangladesh, was kept illiterate and sold into marriage at 12 — what of her chances then?

And of course illiteracy and being a child bride are by no means conditions of the past in those and many other countries.

But at least progress has taken place, even granted the setbacks. No need to elaborate on the importance of women’s literacy — the effect of even a minimum schooling on family size and economic well-being is well-documented. Here, however, is something that came to my attention only recently, and it does relate to the two poems that open this blog: the importance of sufficient parental love, which can be as life-giving as rain, the difference between a garden and a desert.
//Sophisticated reader, please don’t yawn. I know this is a relatively well-researched topic — but bear with me. LOVE AND SURVIVING CANCER

I came across an article on a young boy dying of cancer. His cancer is actually quite survivable, the article stated, but this particular boy doesn’t have loving parents to be with him while he receives his brutal chemotherapy treatments. His small-town family dropped him off with distant relatives, who in turn brought the boy to the hospital and are not bothering to visit. Without TLC, the article said, the boy is doomed.

“I’ve seen so many cases just like his,” commented a surgeon who happens to be on my Facebook thread.

And that was the end of it, except for the horror that seized me: how many people die who might otherwise live on if they had received loving care? I know there are some wonderful nurses out there, but we can’t expect them to be like a mother who sits by the bedside for hours holding the child’s hand and speaking to him softly. After all, there are other patients to be looked after. Only the mother — or someone who assumes that role — could deliver enough love.

Not long ago there was an article to the effect that it was Nancy’s love that created the cheerful, self-confident Ronald Reagan the public knew. Without her total devotion, most likely he would not have even become president. Now, I loathed Reagan, but again, those words shook me up: what a difference receiving enough love can mean. It’s usually a mother who provides the love (in FDR’s case, for example; or take Freud’s mother, who worshiped him), but it can be the wife. It can be a grandparent. It can be any significant person(s), as long as a lot of loving support is delivered — and not just during childhood.

Neural pathways are changed. There are long-term effects on health.

But parents can’t be under too much stress if we expect them to be loving. And their ability to be loving has in turn been determined, to significant degree, by their own childhood.

And yet, when we ponder the brute fact that what we now call child abuse used to be normal child rearing in the past, we realize that progress has indeed been made. Technology and public hygiene have made life more secure. Cruelty revolts us much more than used to be the case in past centuries. There is hope for more blossoming.

The Alaskan tree frog freezes solid in the winter, stopping its heart completely, and then thaws in the spring.


“He lived in the south-east London suburb of Chislehurst. He was a builder. He was of average wealth. His name was William Willett and without him Britain – and a quarter of the world, including the US – might never have adopted daylight saving time (DST).

A lover of open spaces, Willett was horseback riding one summer morning in 1905 when, ruefully, he observed how many curtains remained drawn against the sunlight. A solution occurred to him: why not move the clocks forward before each summer began?

By 1907, he had self-published a pamphlet, Waste of Daylight, which advocated that time be advanced by four 20-minute increments during April, then similarly reversed in September. Along with more recreational opportunities, Willett said, this would lower lighting costs.

His cheerleaders included prominent politicians like David Lloyd George and a young Winston Churchill, then president of the Board of Trade. Discussing the newly-proposed Daylight Saving Bill, Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle also came out in favor, though he disliked Willett’s fastidious adjustments. “A single alteration of an hour would be a round number, and cause less confusion,” Conan Doyle said before the bill’s select committee.

But crucially, the opponents included Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. The bill was narrowly defeated in 1909 as were subsequent proposals. Tinkering with time was, it seemed, too radical a move – even for the reformist Liberal government. Undeterred, Willett continued to furiously campaign in Britain, Europe and America until dying from influenza in 1915.

William Willett, the man to hate this time of year

Just a year later, a revised version of his scheme was finally accepted due to the most extenuating circumstance of them all: war.

Two years into the World War One, Britain was running desperately short on coal – the chief source of power for its industry and households. “Not only was there increased demand to fuel the navy, railways and armaments industry, but Britain had to supply allies whose coalfields were German-occupied, plus thousands of miners had volunteered for service,” says David Stevenson, history professor at the London School of Economics.

Willett’s ideas promised relief: longer evenings and less demand for coal-powered lighting. After Germany ratified a DST bill on 30 April 1916, Britain promptly followed suit with its own Summer Time Act, passed on 17 May.

Britain went on to witness occasional deviations. During World War Two, it operated two hours ahead of GMT in so-called Double Summer Time, once more to cut industrial costs. Trialled between 1968 and 1971 was British Standard Time, which advanced clocks by an hour year-round. Characterized by children wearing fluorescent armbands on inky winter mornings, it proved deeply unpopular.

Ever since, recurrent parliamentary bills have challenged DST. Not just in Britain, either: daylight saving measures are constantly being introduced, amended, disputed or ditched somewhere around the world.

Why is it such a contentious subject? Chiefly because the pros never convincingly overwhelm the cons. For every compelling DST argument, there’s always a persuasive counter. Broadly speaking, DST is thought to aid retail, sports and tourism – but hurt those in agriculture and mail delivery.

Petts Woods, where William Willett went riding when he came up with the idea of Daylight Savings Time


“I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it, I do this designedly. An innocent man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can’t and don’t. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed."

~ Darwin, letter to the American botanist Asa Gray

Some may protest: you mean we weren’t “sent to the earth” with some specific task to accomplish? No, there is no evidence for any such “destiny.” But we are free to keep questioning how best to make use of our talents and our limited time, and to forge our own path.

I'm also struck by the expression “sent to the earth” rather than “born.” Being born is a biological process. Mystics want you to believe that we come from a “higher” realm. The brain-free soul, charged with a specific task, slides into a fertilized egg — perhaps even chooses just the right the egg and the sperm. This is the swamp of the supernatural, just with different details. Plenty of my educated friends have swallowed this version of “destiny.”

They like to say, “There are no accidents.” But there are. There is the unfortunate human tendency to look back and say that whatever happened HAD to happen. The stray bullet HAD to hit a child, who simply HAD to have stood on the porch at the precise time. Why? Well, maybe the mother had a “life lesson” to learn from her grief.

No. The lesson here, if any, is that perhaps we can work to restrain gun violence — a task that seems impossible, but isn’t, if enough good people stand together. And it’s precisely in seeing that the child was NOT DESTINED to be killed — that it did not have to happen — that there is hope.

As for all kinds of random misfortune, we can learn not to blame the victim, and to provide empathy instead. What we need is clarity: here are the things mostly under our control, and here are the things that we don’t control. In the vast majority of cases, not blaming is the beginning of wisdom.

It is scary to ponder that the most important things are due to chance (the genes we inherit, when and where we are born, to what kind of parents) — it’s totally opposite of the brave American notion that if you simply work hard, you’ll be reap rich rewards. And, side by side with the self-made ideal, the New Age delusion that we choose our destiny — just that we do it before birth, so all misfortune is just "life lessons" we came here to learn.

The belief in karma has also taken hold among people who otherwise don't seem anything like the “lunatic fringe.” “The first forty years of your life you're just working off your karma — that's why it's so hard.” Surely there are more plausible explanations for the fact that the first half of life tends to be difficult for many? But then we'd be forced to acknowledge the "unfairness" of life (and of social arrangements) — and who knows where that might lead . . .

One positive outcome, though, would be the end of that cruel division of people into winners and losers.

(A shameless digression: Ah, the extreme individualists out there may say, but didn’t you yourself “choose” not to be depressed? An act of will that shows we create our own destiny?

That act of will happened because of an insight, which in turn happened because of certain books and ideas, which came into my life due to factors too numerous to be even fully known, but which determined that I had the intelligence and education that enabled me to understand ideas — and to have acquired the skills that made it possible for me to substitute productivity for brooding. The more I understand what happened, the more I see the play of factors quite outside my control.)

Beech Tree Creek, John Guzlowski


I'm pondering Kent Clark’s statement: today, if we asked people what quality is most important, the majority would say “kindness.” Yet Dante or St. Francis would not say that. St. Francis would have probably replied, “Chastity, obedience, and poverty.” Chastity more important than kindness? Apparently so.

Others in past centuries might have named courage, virtue, piety. Or endurance and self-control (Stoicism). John Milton would probably put obedience first. Depending on social class, hard work and thrift could also be named as supreme values. It was not until the 19th century that revulsion against cruelty (including slavery) began emerging. The novels of Dickens had an immense social influence — perhaps the most proud chapter in the history of literature, a showcase of how a novel can expand empathy.

Recently I was astonished by an article insisting that Christianity is not about kindness. All those years I thought that Christianity WAS about kindness. In fact the teachings on kindness were Christianity’s saving grace, outweighing the barbarous human sacrifice, the “bloody ransom” that stood as the foundation. But it was possible to put that out of one’s mind and just follow the teachings on kindness. Forgiveness, compassion, non-revenge, helping the less fortunate — that, I thought, was the beauty of Christianity.

How misguided and un-Christian, the article argues. This sentence says it all: “To make kindness into an ultimate virtue is to insist that our most important moral obligations are those we owe are to our fellow human beings” (and to animals, I would add, who are also our brothers and sisters).

Our most important moral obligations AREN’T to our fellow human beings??

Well, no. To use my own lingo now, according to religious conservatives, your highest moral obligation is not to real beings, but to an imaginary being.

And it’s tricky to define our moral obligations to that imaginary being. Are we to wage crusades? If not going to mass on Sunday is a mortal sin, is it a greater obligation than taking the time to play with your children? Obviously everything depends on interpretation, meaning which century you happen live in, and which church you belong to.

I also remembered that for a long time numerous thinkers have argued that the divinity of Jesus was open to question, and he should rather be honored as a teacher of ethics. After all, that was the premise of Unitarianism.

Perhaps not surprisingly, though somehow I was surprised, what followed was a sermon on sin and fearing god and obeying the commandments. As for kindness, the author reminds us that “Jesus did not heal everyone who asked to be healed.” Sometimes, apparently suffering from kindness fatigue, Jesus would go off by himself to rest and pray. (True. Christianity doesn’t insist on excessive, pathological altruism that would destroy our health. Only “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Not more so.)

But somehow the commandment of love is never mentioned — though I admit that the command to love god caused me much grief since I could not feel the slightest affection for the monster who threw children into hell by the million (all the non-Catholic children, back then). But I loved St. Paul’s “though as speak with the tongues of men and angels . . .” If only it had occurred to me back then (as it did much later) that a nun threatening children with hell is like the clashing of cymbals.

But at the time, it didn’t yet occur to anyone that threats of hell were a form of child abuse. A mild form, I admit, compared to severe beatings, and worse, that used to be normal child rearing practices in past centuries. The levels of stress had to go down for cruelty to lessen too. Dickens and Victor Hugo had to write his novels about the sufferings of children and the poor, so that “kindness” could take root in the collective psyche.

The early deities were cruel. Times were harsh, and this was reflected in the various religions. The preaching of loving kindness by the Buddha and Jesus was indeed revolutionary. But for kindness to become more of a reality, life had to become less harsh — and that is fairly recent. The levels of violence had to go down, as has indeed happened in a significant portion of the world. When we feel secure and when our physical needs are taken care of due to greater prosperity, we then have the luxury (in contrast with the past centuries) of practicing kindness. We can even speak out against spanking and other cruelty against children. We grow intolerant (and justly so) of even petty violence and malice. We start imagining a world at peace, a world where everyone is kind.

Pessimists might reply that that is an unachievable ideal. Cynics might laugh — but not as loud as they would have during the Middle Ages. Against many odds, progress has been made. One indicator of it is indeed the high value we place on kindness. The gap between the ideal and the practice is undeniably there, but I argue that the very visibility of the ideal is already a fact to be celebrated.

As for the concept of hell, I'm told that in liberal Protestantism hell is not even mentioned anymore. Mark my words: eventually hell will go. Theists still believe in angels, but the percentage believing in the devils is decreasing. It is a trend, one that reflects the great value that put on kindness.


“Paul says, ‘and last of all he appeared to me also’. But the appearance to Paul as recorded in Acts 9:3–9 was a visionary sighting, and his companions at the time saw nothing. The same Greek word optanomai is used for each of the appearances: to Peter, the Twelve, the 500, James, the apostles, and then Paul. If the post-resurrection appearance to Paul was a vision, is that true of the others? If so, that contradicts the gospels.”

speaking of clocks . . .


A US scientist has discovered an internal body clock based on DNA that measures the biological age of our tissues and organs.

Steve Horvath, professor of genetics and biostatistics at UCLA, looked at the DNA of nearly 8,000 samples of 51 different healthy and cancerous cells and tissues. Specifically, he looked at how methylation, a natural process that chemically modifies DNA, varied with age.

Horvath found that the methylation of 353 DNA markers varied consistently with age and could be used as a biological clock. The clock ticked fastest in the years up to around age 20, then slowed down to a steadier rate. Whether the DNA changes cause aging or are caused by aging is an unknown that scientists are now keen to work out.

The clock has already revealed some intriguing results. Tests on healthy heart tissue showed that its biological age – how worn out it appears to be – was around nine years younger than expected. Female breast tissue aged faster than the rest of the body, on average appearing two years older.

Diseased tissues also aged at different rates, with cancers speeding up the clock by an average of 36 years. Some brain cancer tissues taken from children had a biological age of more than 80 years.

"Female breast tissue, even healthy tissue, seems to be older than other tissues of the human body. That's interesting in the light that breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Also, age is one of the primary risk factors of cancer, so these types of results could explain why cancer of the breast is so common," Horvath said.

Healthy tissue surrounding a breast tumor was on average 12 years older than the rest of the woman's body, the scientist's tests revealed.

Writing in the journal Genome Biology, Horvath showed that the biological clock was reset to zero when cells plucked from an adult were reprogrammed back to a stem-cell-like state. The process for converting adult cells into stem cells, which can grow into any tissue in the body, won the Nobel prize in 2012 for Sir John Gurdon at Cambridge University and Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University.

"It provides a proof of concept that one can reset the clock," said Horvath. The scientist now wants to run tests to see how neurodegenerative and infectious diseases affect, or are affected by, the biological clock.

"These data could prove valuable in furthering our knowledge of the biological changes that are linked to the aging process," said Veryan Codd, who works on the effects of biological aging in cardiovascular disease at Leicester University. "It will be important to determine whether the accelerated aging, as described here, is associated with other age-related diseases and if it is a causal factor in, or a consequence of, disease development.

"As more data becomes available, it will also be interesting to see whether a similar approach could identify tissue-specific aging signatures, which could also prove important in disease mechanisms," she added.


Aging remains the central mystery of biology: why do our self-renewal mechanisms increasingly fail? No, it’s not bad diet and lifestyle — quite obviously each species has a genetic clock that determines the rate of aging and maximum longevity. Obviously, we’d love to stay young and healthy. Various “fountains of youths” have been found and lost: vitamins; fasting; yoga; jogging; hormone replacement . . . and on and on. That’s not to say that diet and exercise have no effect, but — those effects are trivial when we compare a twenty-five-year-old body with an eighty-five-year-old body — even if our senior citizen is in spectacular shape (“for his age,” we usually add).

Resetting adult cells to being stem cells offers no solution since we need our cells to be differentiated and adult — just not deteriorated.

Stress and disease age us faster. In spite of technology haters, there is no denying that technology has mostly reduced stress and made our lives safer and more pleasant. And yes, we do live longer  now than a century ago, and old age doesn’t begin at forty as it used to in Elizabethan England, for instance. But, but, but . . .  As Woody Allen said, life is like eating in a cafeteria: the food is terrible, but what we want is bigger portions.

Especially since now and then the food is actually delicious.

Alaska Glacier Bay

      ending on beauty

I don’t believe in the other world.
But I don’t believe in this one either
unless it’s pierced by light.

~ Anna Kamieńska