Sunday, September 25, 2016



~ “A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” ~

~ Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (Benjamin owned the print for many years)

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus

But we have also seen much real progress, not just in technology but also toward gentler child rearing, which I think is the greatest revolution — the shift from the religious view of man as a sinner deserving eternal damnation to a psychological view of man as wounded and in need of healing.

We’ve seen a movement toward less racism and sexism, in spite of the recent setback that shows us how much bigotry still remains. Just in my lifetime I have seen so much progress, at least in the realm of the laws (and that’s huge; also, some of you may remember when Harvard did not admit women and women did not normally go to graduate school or become lawyers or MDs, only nurses and secretaries) that I agree with FDR, speaking in the darkest times, who pointed out that in spite of setbacks, the trend in civilization is toward betterment.

Gwynn: Benjamin's statement, “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned..." reminds me that I once read that the ancient Greeks imagined that we travel through time not facing forward to the future, the direction in which we are traveling, but facing the past, watching it recede as we travel “backwards” into the future.

Oriana: Yes, that makes sense. All we can know is the past — which keeps on changing because our understanding keeps on changing, and the stage of life determines so much. Another famous saying about it is: “Life can only be understood looking backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

So that’s our dilemma: we can’t predict the future. As if we didn’t know any better, we keep thinking it will be just like our recent past. Oh, in the abstract we know that we’ll be older and thus probably have less energy and more aches and pains, and our interests and  tastes won’t stay exactly the same. But in practice, we don’t keep that in mind — we just can’t imagine that future self. Studies have confirmed that we assume the current self will continue, our interests and priorities exactly what they are today. 

And that makes each human being an “angel of history.” We are the angel of history, each of us, propelled into the future though we can only see the past.


Fortunately, there is always beauty to help us keep on living: the beauty of nature, and the beauty of art (in modern art, it’s not the idealized beauty, but beauty comes through nevertheless). Beauty and the good prevailing in the end. Here is an inspiring story:

Jacqueline Picasso, the painter's last love and second wife, was the model for these two watercolors. The Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev handed them over to the French authorities, saying he was unaware that they were stolen from Picasso's step-daughter.

* *
This kind of humor woks on multiple levels.  One level is the  “bliss of the familiar” as we recall the scene in the movie when Death first appears to the knight, and then delight in the new version. Bleak horror is transmogrified to comedy. There is the absurdity of “modesty” and our hopeless ways of trying to deal with a medieval mentality. “Gender issues” — we have a marvelous case of cross-dressing here. And there’s the delight of having the kind of brain function that gets it all at once in a fraction of a second, the effortless mental leap.


We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person. ~ Somerset

Klee: Head of a Man


Stage of life rules. It's an incredibly determining factor. But one learns that only after passing through a few stages. 
In youth, even middle age was inconceivable, much less old age. Now youth seems a time of incomprehensible lunacy, and true old age isn’t yet real. Surely medical advances etc etc — we were promised that fifty years ago, weren’t we? All disease was supposed to be eradicated by the year 2000. 


Yesterday I heard a rabbi say, "I've searched all sources, ancient and modern, for the secret of a happy relationship, and found nothing." Well, he (on his fourth marriage, btw) didn't consult us, the birds of the Goddess of Wisdom. But we'll tell you the two-fold secret: 1) I'm flawed, you're flawed. Accept yourself and your beloved completely and don't be secretly waiting for The One 2) Love is mutual nurturing. Don't criticize. Be deeply supportive.



~ “By declaring our Prophet infallible and not permitting ourselves to question him, we Muslims had set up a static tyranny. The Prophet Muhammad attempted to legislate every aspect of life. By adhering to his rules of what is permitted and what is forbidden, we Muslims suppressed the freedom to think for ourselves and to act as we chose. We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mind-set of the Arab desert in the seventh century. We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves.” ~ Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I'm absolutely thrilled that Moses was never declared infallible. Otherwise we’d be studying stories like this one as sacred texts:

Numbers 31:13-18

~ Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. ~

So only female virgins get to survive as sex slaves. Now, maybe similar things took place and it was just the military custom of the times, but if we classified the Torah as mythology (as even some Orthodox rabbis do) then at least we wouldn't try to sanctify this sort of thing as piety. Nobody would have to try to justify Moses in his anger that women and young boys were not killed. 

The story is usually dealt with by simply being omitted. And that’s fine. More and more stories should simply be omitted. But best of all, they should be declared to be mythology. If there is a relevant life lesson to be learned from a myth, great, let’s explore it. If not, let’s just note that those were brutal times, give thanks for having been born much later in history, and move on to something inspiring.

Moses and the Burning Bush


~ “The Yahwist (because he was the first author of the Hebrew Bible to use the name Yahweh for God), most clearly set out his anti-Canaanite views at the beginning of his version of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 34:12-15, where Yahweh warns the Hebrews against associating with the Canaanites, intermarrying with them, and worshipping their deities; Yahweh also orders the Hebrews to tear down Canaanite altars, pillars, and asherahs (wooden poles (stylized trees) in sanctuaries that were the cult object of their goddess Asherah (in Hebrew pronounced ah-shei-RAH) and symbolized her). Against this background, the anti-Canaanite polemic in the Eden story becomes apparent, especially that against the goddess Asherah, who at the time was widely viewed by Israelites as Yahweh’s wife or consort. As official Israelite religion trended toward monotheism, the other local deities had to be eliminated (Asherah in particular), and Yahweh appropriated their powers and functions. Insofar as this process affected Asherah, I call this “Yahweh’s Divorce,” and the proceedings began in the Yahwist’s Eden story.

Before the rise of Israel, Asherah was the wife of El, the head god of the Canaanite pantheon. According to the archeological evidence, the people who became Israelites were mostly native Canaanites who settled in the hills of what is now the West Bank, while it seems that small but influential groups also migrated there from the south in the Midian (in and around the Araba Valley in Sinai). As the Bible itself testifies, that is where Yahweh veneration appears to have originated, and, in a process that in this respect resonates with the Moses story, the migrants introduced Yahweh to the native Canaanites who were becoming Israelites. Over time, El declined and merged into Yahweh. As part of that process, Yahweh inherited Asherah from El as his wife.

The Yahwist and the other biblical writers could not accept the presence of this goddess as a deity in Israel, much less as the wife of Yahweh, who they specifically depicted in non-sexual terms. So they declared war on her, in part by mentioning her existence sparingly in the Bible, by referring to her and asherahs negatively when they did mention her, and by waging a polemic against her by allusions that would have been clear to the Yahwist’s audience. These tactics are apparent in the Eden story, from the kinds of symbols used and the trajectory of the narrative. These symbols include the garden sanctuary itself, the sacred trees, the serpent, and Eve, herself a goddess figure. In ancient Near Eastern myth and iconography, sacred trees, goddesses, and serpents often form a kind of “trinity,” because they have substantially overlapping and interchangeable symbolism and are often depicted together. Let’s examine each of these symbols briefly.

The Garden. Originally in the ancient Near East, the Goddess was associated with and had jurisdiction over vegetation and life, which she generated herself. People partook of the first crops (including fruit) as her bounty – indeed her body and her divinity – and set up her sanctuary with garden of crops for this purpose. Such a sacred garden sanctuary was “estate” over which she exercised jurisdiction. Examples include Siduri’s vineyard with a sacred tree in the Gilgamesh epic, Inanna’s garden precinct with sacred tree in Sumer, Calypso’s vineyard sanctuary in Homer’s Odyssey, and Hera’s Garden of the Hesperides.

Sacred Trees. Sacred trees were thought to connect with the divine realms of both the netherworld and the heavens, and therefore were considered conduits for communicating with and experiencing the divine and themselves are charged with the divine force (thought of as “serpent power”; see below). In harmony with the seasons, trees embody the life energy and symbolize the generation, regeneration and renewal of life. Therefore, they are associated with the source of life, the Earth/Mother Goddess. Accordingly, sacred trees were venerated in Palestine in sacred sanctuaries known as “high places,” as means of accessing and experiencing divinity, principally the goddess Asherah. (Similarly, the divinity of the male deity was accessed through vertical stone pillars, e.g., the one set up by Jacob at Bethel.)

And at the end of the Eden story the tree of life is clearly designated as Yahweh’s, being guarded by his trademark symbols, the paired cherubim.

Serpents. In the ancient Near East, serpents had both positive and negative connotations, and in the Eden story the Yahwist played on each. In its positive aspect, the serpent represented the divine force itself, responsible for creation, life, and rebirth, as symbolized by its constant shedding of its skin. This and the fact that it lives within the earth (the netherworld) made for a natural association with the Mother Earth Goddess. As a result, the serpent was venerated as having divine powers and was used in rituals, including in marriage (to secure conception of children) and to maintain health. Serpents were also considered wise and sources of knowledge, and thus were used in divination. (The Hebrew noun for serpent (nāḥāš) connotes divination; the verb nāḥaš means to practice divination, and observe omens/signs.) Hence the serpent’s connection with transmission of the knowledge of good and evil in the Eden story. This “good” serpent was typically depicted in an upright or erect form, as in the case of the Egyptian erect cobra (in the illustration above), Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole, and the serpent on Asclepius’ staff (now the symbol of our medical profession).

But the serpent also was represented negatively as unrestrained divine power, which produces chaos, which is evil. Therefore, in creation myths the serpent/dragon represents the primordial chaos that must be overcome in order to establish the created cosmos (known as the “dragon fight” motif). This primordial chaos serpent is most often a serpent goddess (e.g., Tiamat in the Babylonian Enuma Elish) or her proxy (Typhon was the creation of Gaia). The serpent in this “evil” aspect is most often depicted horizontally. In the Eden story our author used this negative aspect, while parodying the traditional positive associations, which Yahweh appropriated. Thus, in the story, the serpent connoted chaos and symbolized the chaos in Eve’s heart as she deliberated. At the end of the story, Yahweh cursed the serpent and flattened its posture (compared with the upright/erect posture it had when talking with Eve). As a result, Yahweh was victorious over the serpent and chaos and, by implication the Goddess, in a mini version of the above-mentioned dragon fight motif.

The Goddess. As noted by numerous biblical scholars, the Goddess is also seen in the figure of Eve herself, the last figure in our trinity of tree-serpent-Goddess. In the Eden story she is given the epithet “the mother of all living,” an epithet like those given to various ancient near Eastern goddesses including Siduri, Ninti, and Mami in Mesopotamia and Asherah in Syria-Palestine. Eve’s actual name in Hebrew (ḥawwâ), besides meaning life (for which goddesses were traditionally responsible), is also likely wordplay on an old Canaanite word for serpent (ḥeva). The name of the goddess Tannit (the Phoenician version of Asherah) means “serpent lady,” and she had the epithet “Lady Ḥawat” (meaning “Lady of Life”), which is derived from the same Canaanite word as Eve’s name (ḥawwâ). At the end of the story, Eve is punished by having to give birth in pain, whereas goddesses in the ancient Near East gave birth painlessly. Further, in Genesis 4:1, Eve needs Yahweh’s help in order to become fertile and conceive, a reversal of the Goddess’ power and function. (Indeed, Eve is even created from Adam!) Adam’s only fault was “listening” to Eve in order to attain divine qualities. Here the Yahwist may be alluding to Goddess veneration, saying not to worship her. This seems to be one reason for the punishment of woman’s subjugation to man in Genesis 3:16.

As a result of these events, by the end of the story Yahweh is supreme and in control of all divine powers and functions formerly in the hands of the Goddess, and Canaanite religion in general has been discredited.  The serpent has been vanquished, flattened, and deprived of divine qualities, and thus is not worthy of veneration, and enmity has been established between snakes and humans. The Goddess has been discredited, rendered powerless, and is eliminated from the picture and sent into oblivion. Yahweh’s divorce from her has been made final.


And here is Neil Carter’s (Godless in Dixie) take on the myth of Eden


IN THE FIRST CHAPTER OF GENESIS WE LEARN THAT ALL LIVING THINGS WERE CREATED TO BE VEGETARIANS. No animals were made to eat other animals, nor do humans kill and eat anything else, at least at first. As a young Christian, I accepted this with such a naive deference that now it embarrasses me. I recall a conversation I had once with my own elementary-aged child during bath time in which she said her Sunday School teacher suggested the same—that all animals were once vegetarian. I replied that I have a hard time imagining a fierce lion lounging around the African savanna, using his gigantic carnivorous chops to chow down on a spear of broccoli. I’ll never forget how much it upset her for me to say that.

[“If God has made us in his image, then we have certainly returned him the favor.” ~ Voltaire]

The God of Genesis 2 and 3 is greatly concerned with maintaining innocence. He isn’t too fond of critical thinking skills, and he would prefer that mankind rather blindly trust his edicts. As we read further into the text of Genesis, we will soon learn that he’s also not too fond of technological innovation. It’s the people who don’t know him—who don’t “call on his name”—who invent tools and develop better housing methods and create art and culture. We also learn from Genesis that Yahweh is particularly averse to very tall buildings, and that he would even resort to “confusing our language” to make sure human beings don’t advance too far in our intellectual and technological capabilities.

I would argue the God of the Old Testament is resolutely anti-humanistic. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. If you want to know more of my thoughts about that, you can read my post entitled “Anti-Intellectualism and the Bible.”

What strikes me reading the second creation narrative (most would agree it’s clearly a separate story from the one we find in the chapter before it) is how insightfully it represents developments in human evolution which I cannot imagine the earliest Hebrews could have possibly understood. In this narrative, mankind goes from not knowing what “naked” means to being suddenly ashamed to show their naughty bits. Humankind goes from being naked like all the other animals to being ashamed of having visible genitals. After they eat from the tree from which God told them not to eat, “their eyes were opened” to see that they were naked. From that point on, they want to hide who they are.

This ancient story is replete with amusing nuance: First, God tells the human couple not to eat from this one forbidden tree which presumably he himself put there in the middle of the garden. Evidently it was permissible for them to eat of the Tree of Life, which we learn at the end of the passage would have made them live forever. It seems to me that would have been a remedy for the consequences of eating the other tree, which Yahweh insisted would kill them “on the day that you eat of it.” But let’s skip that discussion for a second.

The serpent, whose presence and identity are never explained in this text, speaks to them (!) and informs them that they will not in fact die the day they eat of it. Rather, after eating of it, they will become “like God” knowing good and evil. It will make them wise. This to me speaks of moral awareness, critical thinking skills, and logical analysis. It seems Yahweh isn’t in too much of a rush for humankind to acquire these traits, so he tells them to lay off of it.

The story tells us that the woman made the first move, a fact which the man points out when they get “called on the carpet” by their creator.

    “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
    The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:11-12)

Would you look at that? Right out of the gate, the man shifts the blame to the woman. As if that ever happens.

The story says that man’s curse for disobeying God was that the ground would be much harder to tend from that point forward. Evidently entropy is entirely the fault of human beings. Once I even heard a preacher say that God originally designed the planet to not experience seasons, but that “the fall of man” tilted the earth on its axis, producing the climate extremes we experience today. And that’s not even the weirdest thing I’ve heard a preacher say about this story. I once heard televangelist Benny Hinn report that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that women were originally designed to give birth out of their sides. That’s quite a picture.

Yahweh goes on to tell the woman one other punishment she will have to endure as a consequence of her disobedience:

    “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16b)

Well, how about that? This passage actually suggests that the subordination of women underneath men in a hierarchical (whoops! I mean complementarian) alignment isn’t really the way Yahweh originally intended the sexes to relate to one another. It suggests that this is a punishment for disobeying the word of the Lord.

But does that really wash his hands of the matter? Does it really absolve the biblical God of this suboptimal arrangement for him to say, “You did this to yourselves, folks. It’s not my doing.” As much as I want to support the progressive readers of the text in their forward-thinking endeavors, I can’t get away from the rest of the story in which Yahweh says, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife…” (v.17).

It All Makes Sense If You Don’t Think About It

Even when I was a kid, it struck me how much these stories read like mythology. You’ve got a story of a woman being made out of a piece of a man which then concludes by saying in essence “this is why we marry.” You’ve got another story with a talking serpent (which we’re told now must be metaphorical) but after he misbehaves, he loses his legs and he’s cursed to crawl on his belly (which now sounds like an explanation for how literal snakes move the way they do). You’ve got ground that used to be all soft beds of clover, flowers, and ripe fruit now cursed to bear thistles and thorns. Then you’ve got women suddenly experiencing pain in childbearing as a consequence for disobeying a command.

By the way  yes, I know broccoli doesn’t grow in the African savanna. Lighten up, will ya? We’re analyzing fables about vegan predators; I figure I should be allowed some creative license.

Masaccio, Expulsion, c. 1425 (Brancacci Chapel, Florence)

Oriana: The nakedness of Adam and Eve, though inaccurate in terms of the biblical narrative (they would presumably be wearing animal skins at this point), heightens the pathos. Eve's face is particularly expressive. I think Masaccio was wise not to show Adam's face: less is more.

A very good article on the “culture of toddlerhood”

~ “Suffering and failue begin in the Toddler brain, the volatile limbic system, which reaches full structural maturity around age three. When not under stress, we’re able to turn pain and failure into growth and accomplishment in the Adult brain - the prefrontal cortex, the most profoundly evolved part of the most complex organism in the known universe. In the Adult brain, which reaches full maturity around age 28, we have the mental capacity to construct a solid sense of self. There we’re able to improve situations, connect to others, protect all that we value, and appreciate people, ideas, nature, and creative beauty. There we can stand for something, learn from mistakes, forge a legacy, and make the world a better place.

When we retreat to the Toddler brain under stress, we create conflict and almost invariably act out self-defeating behavior. In the Adult brain, we create value, meaning, and purpose.

The signature process of the limbic system is to sound alarms. This more primitive part of the brain lacks reality-testing, which is why we can get alarmed when we’re dreaming or when nothing is happening outside of an active imagination. The prefrontal cortex regulates limbic alarms by testing them against reality (is there really a fire out there) and by assessing the threat (how serious is the fire, how much damage). It then chooses a course of action - put out the fire or evacuate or declare a false alarm and go back to work or play.

Unfortunately, the assess and improve modes of the prefrontal cortex are often hijacked by habits that were forged in the Toddler brain, when those habits are repeatedly reinforced in adulthood. Instead of regulating alarms with reality-testing, thought processes amplify and magnify them. Intelligence and creativity go to justifying the alarm. Commandeered by Toddler brain habits, the prefrontal cortex can reduce the alarm only temporarily by blaming it on someone or by denying responsibility for it or by avoiding it with distractions. That's right, it employs the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance.

Although most self-defeating emotional habits were initially formed in toddlerhood, they would do little damage, were they not so vigorously maintained by cultural reinforcement. When a pervasive pop-culture promotes living and loving in the wrong part of the brain, we can hardly escape ubiquitous toddler dialogues of “Mine!” and “No!” Politicians sound like stubborn toddlers overstimulated by a 24-hour news cycle. We seem surrounded by power struggles, overreactions (temper tantrums), and resentful pouting, to which we respond with powerless frustration or worse, react in kind.

Toddlerhood is the first stage of development where children become aware that their emotional states differ from those of their parents. Now they must struggle with an inchoate sense of self prone to negative identity, i.e., when they feel bad or willful, they don’t know who they are, but they know who they’re not – they’re not whatever you want. Thus we have the favorite two words of the toddler: “Mine!” and “No!”

The Toddler brain cannot tolerate uncertainty because it provokes too much anxiety.

The media discourage and suppress complex adult dialogues that focus on cooperation and reconciliation of disparate views. Adult dialogue makes for poor sound bites, lousy tweets, and boring blogs. No wonder it's hard to have an adult conversation with your significant other.

Polarization, fueled by Toddler brain splitting, has taken over the media and, by extension, political discourse. Angry, resentful, contentious, and rude emails, blogs, and tweets, like heavily negative political campaigns and governmental gridlock, are here to stay. And they're certain to get a lot worse, until we change the Culture of Toddlerhood.

We give more importance to personal feelings than personal values and to expressing how we feel rather than doing what we deeply believe is right. People are now entitled to express every feeling they have, without regard of the effects on others, just as they felt entitled to litter a few decades ago and to smoke in public buildings a few years ago. The result is a culture that elevates superficial feelings over the deeper meaning of experience.

In the most tragic circumstances, we choose to blame rather than heal. A hallmark of our toddler culture is “victim identity.” A plethora of media call-in shows and self-help books seduce us into prolonging feelings of injury to illustrate how badly others have treated us. Like lawyers for the plaintiff, we try to prove damages, as if our suffering would hold offenders accountable or healing and growing would let them "off the hook." The cruel cost of victim identity is a perception of the self as “damaged,” which lowers the likelihood of healing and growth.

Substituting Power for Value

Much of the psychological suffering in the world comes from substituting power for value. When they feel devalued, many people confuse the decline in energy and wellbeing that result from a deflated ego with physical threat, which floods them with adrenalin and cortisol. These stimulating hormones make them feel temporarily more powerful and primed to exert power, either overtly or passively. A lot of the excess cortisol typically blamed on “stress” comes from Toddler brain egos perceiving continual threat and insult.

TV and movie screens are rife with displays of aggression in response to petty ego offenses. Nowhere is there a model of what every person needs to know: WHEN FEELING DEVALUED, WE MUST DO SOMETHING THAT MAKES US FEEL MORE VALUABLE, NOT MORE POWERFUL.

The good news is that many, if not most, of the problems that seem like emotional disorders or childhood issues or relationship incompatibility can be viewed as mere Toddler brain habits. With self-compassion - and lots of practice – habits can be changed in the Adult brain. Every adult has a supremely developed, growth-oriented, upper-prefrontal cortex, capable of brilliance, compassion, and basic humanity. Accessing it under stress is just a matter of self-care and practice. [We must learn] to access the Adult brain [when we are] under stress.” ~

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” ~ Joan Didion

Oriana: But the complexity of the stories and ideas depends on how developed our adult brain is. The toddler brain can deal with only simple stories and ideas. It has no attention span for complexity. It’s terrifying to consider that the attention span of adults seems to have gotten shorter.

Kandinsky: For and Against, 1927

~ “A group of researchers from the University of Copenhagen found that eating cheese could help to improve health by increasing our levels of "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol - thought to offer protection against cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

This isn't the first time a study has linked cheese to good health. A recent study from Japan found that cheese consumption prevents fat accumulation in the liver and has the potential to improve serum lipid parameters — how we measure for cardiovascular risk.

Meanwhile, a small 2015 study found that cheese could be the key to a faster metabolism and reduced obesity.” ~

ending on beauty

Not that I want to 

be a god or a hero.
Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.

~ Czeslaw Milosz

Sunday, September 18, 2016


The road leading out of Warbende


What I’ve picked up is a letter — tossed
Yesterday into the grass, beside the path.
It has rained: the pages are stained with mud;
Ink overflows from the words, illegible.

And yet the iridescence of these signs,
Decomposed, now is almost light.
The downpour has drenched a promise;
The ink has become a puddle of sky.

Like this, let us love the words of the cloud:
They too were a letter, and our lure;
But light redeems them by passing through.

Shall I try to decipher these phrases? No:
They are more to me by coming undone.
I dream that night is the breaking of day.

~ Yves Bonnefoy, tr Hoyt Rogers

Ah, those first two stanzas — so simple, the very simplest words — especially in the first stanza. And yet we instantly know we are in the presence of a great poem. For one thing, the speaker focuses on a small, ordinary detail: a letter found by the roadside, the pages stained with mud, the words smeared with rain, illegible.

 A commentary that would only dim the luminosity of the words of the poem about the words washed out by the rain:

And yet the iridescence of these signs,
Decomposed, now is almost light.
The downpour has drenched a promise;
The ink has become a puddle of sky.

It takes a poet’s mentality to see something sacred and radiant in the smeared, mud-stained, illegible words. We see here a poet’s worship of words and of nature: “the words of the cloud” . . .

And there is the sacredness of human caring that’s usually (not always, I know, but usually) involved in the effort of writing a letter. People often keep love letters for as long as they live.

And almost any personal letter stands for love. People used to gather in harbors waiting for ships — because ships brought letters.

Those letters were hardly literary masterpieces. The great majority were ordinary news from home, filled with platitudes and trivia — even with little white lies meant to keep the recipient in good cheer. But every word said: “I care. I care if you live or die.” And people live for that, and die for lack of it. We physiologically need to receive the signal that someone cares, that you are important to someone.

The buzzword is “connection.” We need connection as much as much as physical nourishment. Humans are strange enough to be able to have a connection with an imaginary being; if they are isolated enough (hermits), their brain will oblige them with plausible responses from that being.

And people who love books and/or movies can genuinely fall in love with a fictional character, who becomes a part of their psyche. And of course people turn to pets for a reliable source of affection.

This is Bonnefoy’s last known poem. He died this July (1923-2016).

Brief is German for letter (epistle — remember handwritten letters we used to exchange?) and Weg = way, road. My guess is that Bonnefoy came up with that name for path because that was where he found the letter. Warbende is an actual little town in northeastern Germany — more like a village.

Ah, the gift of having found this poem!


A Letter always seemed to me
like Immortality,
for is it not the Mind alone,
without corporeal Friend?

~ that’s how I wrote it down in my notebook many years ago. But it turns out that the accurate quotation is

“A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”

It’s in one of Dickinson’s letter to Higginson — which by the way have an unnerving if delightful quality. How could he possibly respond to those missives? How could anyone? Her gift for language is overwhelming. And her strangeness.

Here is an example:

~ Enough is so vast a sweetness, I suppose it never occurs, only pathetic counterfeits.

Fabulous to me as the men of the Revelations who “shall not hunger any more.” Even the possible has its insoluble particle.

After you went, I took Macbeth and turned to "Birnam Wood." Came twice "To Dunsinane." I thought and went about my work. . . .

The vein cannot thank the artery, but her solemn indebtedness to him, even the stolidest admit, and so of me who try, whose effort leaves no sound.

You ask great questions accidentally. To answer them would be events. I trust that you are safe.

I ask you to forgive me for all the ignorance I had. I find no nomination sweet as your low opinion.

Speak, if but to blame your obedient child.

You told me of Mrs. Lowell's poems. Would you tell me where I could find them, or are they not for sight? An article of yours, too, perhaps the only one you wrote that I never knew. It was about a "Latch." Are you willing to tell me? [Perhaps "A Sketch."]

If I ask too much, you could please refuse. Shortness to live has made me bold.

Abroad is close to-night and I have but to lift my hands to touch the "Heights of Abraham."


(Yes, this is THE Higginson, Emily's hapless would-be mentor, writing in 1891. The Atlantic Monthly goes back to 1857.)

“Enough is so vast a sweetness.” But instead of stopping there, we spoil things by going for more, more! And yet, “we manage best when we manage small.” A perfect poem is usually just a few stanzas. A beautiful home is not filled with stuff. Less is indeed more. But none of these statements have the pull of Dickinson’s “Enough is so vast a sweetness.” The word “sweetness” is unexpected. We have to digest it for a while to realize it’s true, and to feel the delight.

But is Dickinson speaking out of emotional starvation? The next sentence mentions the promise that men shall not hunger any more. Yet I can’t quite decide. Because Dickinson never married, some assume that there was no love in her life. I think there was a wealth of love in her life. For one thing, had a close relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan — much of it by letter, though Susan lived next door. Again, the joy of receiving a letter is very special: it’s the joy of connection.

And yes, perhaps there is a sense of immortality. “To work is to live without dying,” Rilke said. The very act of being absorbed in work is beneficial. But when the work happens to be writing, there is the additional pleasure of engaging in human connection — even though it’s the “mind alone, without corporeal friend.” 


Dickinson, who often signed off “Your Scholar” in her letters to Higginson, continues to dazzle and bewilder not only most readers, but also literary scholars. I simply must quote from Adrienne Rich’s poem, at least briefly:

“Half-cracked” to Higginson, living,
afterward famous in garbled versions,
your hoard of dazzling scraps a battlefield,
now your old snood

mothballed at Harvard
and you in your variorum monument
equivocal to the end —
who are you?

from “I am in danger — Sir — ”

 Another view of Warbende. Note the elderberry bush in blossom near the stone wall.


“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” ~ Colette


I can’t tell you which wise person, sadly; the internet attributes it in roughly equal measure to Confucius and Tom Hiddleston. (It’s not a very Confucian sentiment, so I’m going with Hiddleston.) But it hardly matters. It’s an aphorism, and like all the best ones, it feels as if it always existed, and only needed someone to discover it. Or rediscover it: judging by various new books and essays, this oldest of philosophical forms is making a comeback.

My favorites are the ones that land at first like a bucket of cold water, issuing a bleak assessment of life, yet turn out to contain a liberating truth. Take Rilke, translated by the Jungian psychologist James Hollis: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by ever greater things.” The economist Thomas Sowell: “There are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs.” (You’ll never solve all your problems. So which ones are worth putting up with, to solve the others?) A line attributed to Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to let go of the life we had planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Or the therapist Sheldon Kopp: “You are free to do whatever you like. You need only face the consequences.”

But a good aphorism never really draws a line under things. Instead, it keeps on giving, unfolding further meanings. I’m convinced that Earle Hitchner’s quip – “Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way” – explains more about transatlantic relations than you’d think. And the whole of human happiness may be encapsulated in Carl Rogers’s line: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” There are whole books – lots of them – that don’t contain nearly that much wisdom." ~

“There are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs” — it takes maturity to discover this. “When you change partners, you change problems” is a subset of this.


~ “While philosophers debate if everything is predetermined, psychologists have basically established something only slightly less disturbing: a large proportion of your decisions aren’t independently made by you. In his new book, Invisible Influence, Jonah Berger puts the figure at 99.9%: that’s how many of your choices are significantly influenced by forces of which you’re unaware. We choose music and novels, clothes and careers, because others did. Or we choose the opposite, to show we’re not like them – a phenomenon marketers call “snob effects”. You probably named your child in order to sound similar, but not identical, to names that were in the air at the time: after Hurricane Katrina, fewer American kids got named Katrina, but girls’ names starting with a hard K shot up, Berger writes. We choose our politics partly to mimic or rebel against our parents; and we’ll support or reject the exact same policy, research suggests, depending on whether it’s described as right- or leftwing.

Taken individually, these effects aren’t surprising. What is striking is the volume. Pop psychology tends to present these “hidden persuaders” as anomalies, as if we usually make up our own minds, and only occasionally get blown off course. But, reading Berger, you get the feeling it’s the other way round: we’re mainly robots, acting out the influences of our environments, lucky if we manage a tiny sliver of independent thought. Even the decision to kill yourself is heavily influenced by the immediate availability of the means to do so. When you remove people’s access to those means, they often don’t just “find another way”; rather, a suicide is prevented.

Is this lack of autonomy a cause for alarm or relief? When it comes to ordinary daily decisions, probably the latter. If my choices are my own, I’ll be constantly anxious about choosing well. But if every “choice” I make is inevitably shaped by countless unseen pressures, I can relax a bit. If I ever write my autobiography, I have the first line: “Due to circumstances beyond my control…”


Speaking of choice — it’s misleading to imply that Mother Teresa could have built suffering-relieving hospitals staffed with trained medical personnel. She didn’t have a choice — not because she didn’t have the funds. She didn’t have the psychological choice because she was indoctrinated (as I was) with the idea that SUFFERING IS GOOD FOR YOU. So of course you don’t relieve it! You increase it! You flagellate yourself, you fast, you wear coarse, itchy clothes or s spiky metal belt (with spikes toward the body — if they draw blood, all the better; infection? don’t treat it). This is the sadomasochistic pathology that religious asceticism easily leads to.

“There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.” ~ Mother Teresa

Oh really? And it’s only now that we question the saintliness of such statements? It’s only now that we see the dubiousness of wanting to perpetuate poverty and suffering? Apparently. And Mother Teresa’s apologists still vastly outnumber the questioners. 

This is not about “throwing stones at saint.” There is a larger issue here, concerning the nature of religious charities. Those charities never support medical research aimed at curing disease, nor do anything that would effectively diminish poverty, for instance empower women through access to contraception. Religions’s secret wish is to perpetuate chronic poverty and disease. The more people suffer, the better for the nuns and priests. 

Mother Teresa received her own health care at the UCLA Hospital. She flew to Los Angeles first class, but then she always flew first class.

By the way, it turns out the toxic view that suffering is good for you has an enormous number of defenders, both religious and secular, bolstered by Nietzsche's wrong-headed pronouncement about suffering making you stronger. It took me forever to discover that it took something very different to make me stronger: being loved. Being loved and happiness (having a reliable source of happiness to return to), rather than suffering, made me it much easier for me to endure all kinds of stress and ordeals.

Love sculpture by Robert Indiana


“YHVH is the ruler of the entire universe, but he reveals Himself and His commandments only to Israel. It is this same tension which [Yehezkel] Kaufmann traces to the more modern phenomenon of exile and ghettoization.” ~

I think that's Blake on the cover, and probably it's Yahweh hiding his face — another puzzling thing is how the Old Testament progresses from a very active, visible (in some form), talking god to a silent, withdrawn, hidden, and ultimately absent god.

Note that Yahweh, even though we can’t see his face here, seems deeply unhappy. Other religions generally had happy gods — the Hebrew god was usually either angry or sulking. Of course other gods typically had lots of sex. It was part of the divine dolce vita.


“ – groups of people in the ancient southern Levant came to worship a storm/thunder god named Yhwh (or another close variant of that name);

– the peoples of ancient Israel and Judah worshiped Yhwh, El, and a goddess named Asherah, among other deities;

– these same peoples gradually made Yhwh their tutelary or national deity and attributed to him many of the characteristics and functions of these other deities;

– in sanctuaries at Bethel, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, ancient Israelites built and worshiped boviform and anthropomorophic statues of Yhwh;

– in the wake of the northern kingdom’s conquest, reforms under King Josiah insisted that Judeans should worship Yhwh alone;

– during the Persian period that followed the Babylonian exile, the priests and scribes at Jerusalem further asserted that Yhwh was the sole God of the universe. Also, they insisted that there should be no statue of Yhwh in the rebuilt Jerusalem temple.

Römer’s basic reconstruction of the emergence of Jewish monotheism out of the rubble (so to speak) of ancient Israelite religion is not new, as the centrality of the post-exilic period for the redaction of the Torah and the creation of Judaism is well known. The Invention of God, however, is original in many of its details, meticulous in its discussion of a wide variety of biblical and extrabiblical sources, and refreshingly candid at many points.

Römer suggests that the ancient Israelite and then early Jewish ideas about Yhwh changed dramatically over a long period of time and that one can find textual evidence of those evolving conceptions:

“We should not imagine … that a group of Bedouins met one day and huddled around an oasis to create a God for themselves, or that some scribes, much later, invented Yahweh out of whole cloth, so to speak, as their tutelary god. Rather this “invention” should be understood as a progressive construction arising out of a particular tradition.”

In his discussion of the United Kingdom, of Josiah’s reforms, and of the exile — to name a few examples — Römer does allow that biblical texts contain “traces of historical events.” Most non-specialists will find those traces, however, to be rather minimal. Thus, despite the way Römer positions himself, general readers will find The Invention of God rather minimalist in its use of the Bible as a source for reconstructing the history of the ancient Israelites.” ~

angel statue by Raffaello de Montelupo, 16th century, Castel Sant'Angelo -- military looking -- the military-religious complex

from the Harvard Press summary:

 “The god of Jephthah is considered to be the tutelary deity of a tribe or people, in the same way in which Chemosh is the tutelary god of Sihon. If we read on in the Hebrew Bible, we discover further curious texts. The audience for which the book of Deuteronomy was originally written and to which it is addressed, for instance, is often exhorted not to follow after other gods, without it ever being asserted that these gods did not exist or were not real. So the Bible itself retains traces of the fact that a plurality of gods existed in the Levant, which means also in Israel, and that the god of Israel, whose name was pronounced Yahweh or Yahu, was far from being the only god worshipped by the Israelites.

The biblical narrative, however, contains other surprises. When Yahweh reveals himself to Moses in Egypt, he appears as a previously unknown god. After all, he himself tells Moses that this is the first time he has manifested himself under his real name. Is this a trace of the historical fact that this god was not always the god of Israel? Why, after all, does he reveal himself in Egypt or in the wilderness? Does he have some special connection to these places, and if so, what connection?

An examination of [extra-biblical] documentation allows us to retrace the path of a god who probably had his origin somewhere in the “South,” between the Negev and Egypt. Originally he was a god of the wilderness, of war and storms, but gradually through a series of small steps he became the god of Israel and Jerusalem. Then eventually, after a major catastrophe—the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah—he established himself as the one god, creator of heaven and earth, invisible and transcendent, who nevertheless loudly proclaimed his special relationship with Judaism. How did one god among others become God? Despite what certain theologians continue to assert, it is now beyond doubt that the god of the Bible was not always “unique,” the one-and-only God.

If we try, then, to understand how the discourse about this god developed and how he eventually became the “one God,” we can observe a kind of “collective invention,” a process in which the conception was continually revised in the light of particular, changing social and historical contexts.”

Blake: Abraham and Isaac


The layers of former myths go back thousands and thousands of years — but the narrative has been changed to accommodate the new concept of a single god who rules the universe. But when we look at the story of the Garden of Eden, for instance, we see the sacred trees, the fruit of immortality, the goddess (Eve), and the snake — all familiar elements. But now they become radically reshuffled.

The Hebrew scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann objects that Jewish monotheism had unique features from the start, began earlier than scholars currently assert, and with fewer “foreign” influences.

Yet Kaufmann’s insistence on Jewish “exceptionalism” could be wrong. Incidents like the Golden Calf and the Brazen Serpent (especially the brazen serpent) show how vital the old magical ideas still were. The emerging monotheistic Judaism was a cauldron of influences (Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite, and more) and ongoing reinterpretation and rewriting of all the stories that survived to our day (let us remember that the majority did not even survive).

I suspect that it was only with the Diaspora and the cessation of animal sacrifice that more solid monotheistic dogma emerged, and not before, when the features of observance were so pagan-like.

Yet Kaufmann is pleading “exceptionalism.” Cultural evolution doesn't apply to us! It’s nationalism in yet another disguise.

But that’s pretty much an argument for scholars: in what era did monotheism REALLY emerge? And how? Obviously it wasn’t overnight, and the process had to be complex. What excites me is a personal fantasy: what if I didn’t have a Catholic childhood.

Imagine: instead of indoctrination, history of religion! The evolution of the concept of god depending on the culture, the historical era, and the place.

How different and fascinating it would have been if my religion instructor (I don’t think it would have been a nun — would convents exist in that alternate, enlightened reality?) said, “There was a tiny tribal nation whose people worshipped Yahweh (perhaps pronounced as Yahu), the god of storms and war, and El, the chief of the gods, and the mother goddess Asherah — and other minor deities. Here is what probably led to the emergence of the belief in Yahweh as the sole god, the creator of the universe. Here are the stories that got conflated and changed to end up as the scripture.”

And the creation myths of other cultures would be discussed as well. I don’t know at what age the child’s brain is developed enough to absorb even part of that kind of complexity — but since we were taught history and that was deemed accessible even at the age of nine and ten, this would be simply the history of religion. I think age 15-16 would probably probably perfect.

Blake: The Creation of Adam


 ~ “In the 1960s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed the risks of sugar and highlighted the hazards of fat, according to a newly published article in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The article draws on internal documents to show that an industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation wanted to "refute" concerns about sugar's possible role in heart disease. The SRF then sponsored research by Harvard scientists that did just that. The result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding.

The sugar-funded project in question was a literature review, examining a variety of studies and experiments. It suggested there were major problems with all the studies that implicated sugar, and concluded that cutting fat out of American diets was the best way to address coronary heart disease.

The authors of the new article say that for the past five decades, the sugar industry has been attempting to influence the scientific debate over the relative risks of sugar and fat.

"It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion," co-author Stanton Glantz told The New York Times.

If Americans could be persuaded to eat a lower-fat diet — for the sake of their health — they would need to replace that fat with something else. America's per capita sugar consumption could go up by a third.

But in the '60s, the SRF became aware of "flowing reports that sugar is a less desirable dietary source of calories than other carbohydrates," as John Hickson, SRF vice president and director of research, put it in one document.

The next year, after several scientific articles were published suggesting a link between sucrose and coronary heart disease, the SRF approved the literature-review project. It wound up paying approximately $50,000 in today's dollars for the research.

One of the researchers was the chairman of Harvard's Public Health Nutrition Department — and an ad hoc member of SRF's board.

Glantz, Kearns and Schmidt say many of the articles examined in the review were hand-selected by SRF, and it was implied that the sugar industry would expect them to be critiqued.

The project wound up taking longer than expected, because more and more studies were being released that suggested sugar might be linked to coronary heart disease. But it was finally published in 1967.

The review minimized the significance of research that suggested sugar could play a role in coronary heart disease. In some cases the scientists alleged investigator incompetence or flawed methodology.

"It is always appropriate to question the validity of individual studies," Kearns told Bloomberg via email. But, she says, "the authors applied a different standard" to different studies — looking very critically at research that implicated sugar, and ignoring problems with studies that found dangers in fat.

Epidemiological studies of sugar consumption — which look at patterns of health and disease in the real world — were dismissed for having too many possible factors getting in the way. Experimental studies were dismissed for being too dissimilar to real life.

One study that found a health benefit when people ate less sugar and more vegetables was dismissed because that dietary change was not feasible.

Another study, in which rats were given a diet low in fat and high in sugar, was rejected because "such diets are rarely consumed by man."

The Harvard researchers then turned to studies that examined risks of fat — which included the same kind of epidemiological studies they had dismissed when it came to sugar.

Citing "few study characteristics and no quantitative results," as Kearns, Glantz and Schmidt put it, they concluded that cutting out fat was "no doubt" the best dietary intervention to prevent coronary heart disease.

The documents in question are five decades old, but the larger issue is of the moment, as Marion Nestle notes in a commentary in the same issue of JAMA Internal Medicine:

    "Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor? Yes, it is, and the practice continues. In 2015, the New York Times obtained emails revealing Coca-Cola's cozy relationships with sponsored researchers who were conducting studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity. Even more recently, the Associated Press obtained emails showing how a candy trade association funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not."


This is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The food industry continues to fund a lot of nutrition research.

~ “Nutrition scholar Marion Nestle of New York University spent a year informally tracking industry-funded studies on food. "Roughly 90% of nearly 170 studies favored the sponsor's interest," Nestle tells us via email. Other, systematic reviews support her conclusions.” ~


At least these days there are laws requiring disclosure. Not so in the past.

By the way, since fructose is the sugar mainly responsible for the damage to arteries, obesity, and more, we have to watch for the so-called “healthy” sources of fructose. I agree that it’s hard to overeat on whole fruit: after you’ve done all the work of chewing one apple, you don’t feel like having a second one. Just stay away from apple juice, which is loaded with fructose but devoid of fiber. This goes for all fruit juices except unsweetened cranberries and grapefruit (you’re still better off eating the grapefruit in its natural form).

What about fruit smoothies? While they contain fiber, by mashing the fruit to a pulp they make the fiber less effective, and make it easier to over-consume.  It would be rare for someone to eat an apple, a banana, a cup of strawberries, some mango and pineapple slices all in one sitting. But some health food nuts are also secret sugar junkies, and get their sweet fix by drinking fruit smoothies. Nor will adding a bit of kale make it OK. Beware of too much fructose. It will do very ugly things to your arteries. 


Adriaen Coorte: A Sprig of Gooseberries on a Stone Plinth, 1699

Gooseberries! Not that they really tasted all that great, but that they were a part of my childhood . . . funny how that is enough to enshrine them, to make me long for them, to remember them in compotes as dessert . . . even though they weren't even a fraction as good as red currants, or even white currants. Slimy, sour things, it it only now that I love you — in memory.

ending on beauty

~ “The Realmonte Salt Mine, Sicily: These salt deposits were formed during the “Messinian Salinity Crisis”, a geological event during which the Mediterranean Sea was cut off from the Atlantic Ocean and dried up (or mostly dried up), creating massive deposits of previously dissolved salts. This occurred at the end of the Messinian age of the Miocene epoch, from 5.96 to 5.33 million years ago, ending when the Atlantic again flowed into the basin.” ~


Sunday, September 11, 2016


Peter Landon, Daedalus and Icarus, 1799. Academic kitsch, but it's such wonderful kitsch. And it always interested me that art and poetry tend to glorify Icarus and put down the moderation of Daedalus, even though the ancient Greeks praised “moderation in all things” (metron ariston). But we, perhaps influenced by the Romantics, extol passion. 



We marched around the schoolyard,
memorized rifle parts. 
In June we were taken
to an indoor shooting range.

I pulled the trigger blindly,
shaken by the noise, the recoil.
Most of the time
I hit the side wall.

I pleaded poor eyesight,
was excused.
In truth I didn’t know
how to sight the target.


Grenade training: if you throw
a grenade to your right, you must run
to your left. I never got as far
as that. My fate was sealed in first grade

when I switched our primers
while a classmate was away
from our desk. My copy
had crisper, darker print. To be different

was to be wrong.
Someone else's meant superior.
I felt guilty about it for years.
I failed to confess it in church,

and felt guilty about that
also. At ten I confessed,
knees sunk into the hollowed,
creaky kneeling board,

the air musty with so many sins.
The priest solemnly insisted
I must give the primer back. 
Also say five Hail Marys

and three Our Fathers. By then
I lived in another town,
on the verge of suspecting
both religion and life were absurd.


There’s a New Age theory of the beyond:
we get to see our lives
moment by moment all over again.
What an economical design for hell.

But I wouldn’t beg for another
chance to do it right.
Impossible. I’d like to fail again,
in a brilliant new way.

I'd like an angel to be
not a giant like my six-foot-six
Military Preparedness instructor,  but a small
lap angel. He wouldn’t force me

to review my life
or scores on the shooting range.
He wouldn’t care about rifle parts,
wouldn’t listen to my “field report.”

He’d take me by the hand and say,
Relax, you unexpectedly
made it, here, eat this lily —
and I’d eat it the wrong way,

as the first time I was given a banana,
and ate it sideways,
leaving behind a delicately carved
banana-core — and we’d exit

laughing. You have to have
military preparedness for that.

~ Oriana © 2016

I apologize to those who expected my more typical, lyrical poem full of nature imagery. This is a personal narrative that’s close to absurdist humor. We really did have a Military Preparedness (or “Readiness”) class in high school. It was Beckett and Ionesco all the way.

(“We became savages under Communism,” my mother liked to say. But I begged to differ. Mainly, we became actors in the theater of the absurd.)

Back then, the official enemy was the U.S. But Poles knew who the real enemy was: the country to the East, usually referred to as “our brother.” And some Poles feared that Germany would invade again, trying to regain its pre-war “eastern territories” like Silesia and most of Pomerania. Not that Poland really had a chance, if it came to that. It would have to be an underground struggle again, just more of the tragic history.

But the poem only brushes against those tragic implications. Nor does it wade into my personal “history of tears” — just a few details, hardly major. No, the poem is about the absurdity of it all. It exits laughing. 

Image: Lilies in a Kraków pocket garden. Photo: Anna Stępień (who tells me the new right-wing Polish government has re-introduced the class as Defense Preparedness)


You love as many times as necessary, as necessary in order to be happy. ~ Samuel Beckett

How I wish I had come across this in my teens, when I fell in love easily, and felt deeply ashamed of being so “fickle.” Assuming I had a character defect, I decided to pretend I could stay in love forever, as the songs always said. Need I say that awful things followed that decision made at 18, the age of wisdom? There really should be a support group for victims of early marriage. The joke is on us. We never really got to be young.

How I wish that instead of our hopeless sex ed class (or in addition to it) we had a class on emotional education, on (blush) falling in love and the different kinds and stages of love. Maybe not a class, but at least a book for young readers that would explain that school crushes are normal and not a sign of pathological incapacity for lasting love, and especially on how normal it is for romantic love to end — while attachment love deepens over the years.

Yes, a book would be more private and effective in a repressed Catholic culture. And I’d have liked this book to include wise statements about affection and mutual nurturing, and the golden rule — something the church rather neglected in its obsession with sin and punishment.

“You love as many times as necessary” — I keep thinking about this statement by Beckett. The trust in life and in yourself. The acceptance, the permission. The admission that it's all right to love whenever love happens, “as many times as necessary, as necessary to be happy." That statement is so nurturing — instead of condemning you for having failed to live up the ideal of the one and only true love.

But let me not lament the past. Instead, let me celebrate the wonders of now — which include having found (again) this quotation, completely unexpected given its source.

Photo: Charles Fishman


Last night I heard the owl. And I thought: “It’s as good as being loved.”

(I mean the owl that lives in the eucalyptus trees across the street. It always feels special to hear the marvelous hooting.)


It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then ~ Alice in Wonderland

Salvador Dali: Alice’s Evidence


“Most people have no idea what their talents are.” And if you are to do excellent work, and love it, and be energized by it, it should be in the area of your natural aptitude — “you should be in your element.” This is a very funny talk about something that is in fact tragic . . . most people don't know what their talents are, what they are good at. Schools tend to mis-define us and parents don't always realize that they have to be “hands off” — so most people spend their lives doing things they don't enjoy.


There should be much less separation between work and pleasure, life and work. I've always hated the idea of a “balanced life.” I’m all for a passionate life, without strict boundaries.

Another big factor is that some talents are valued and encouraged much more than others. Believe me, poets know!

And Vincent knew it too.

A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke. ~ Vincent Van Gogh


This is a superb video, ideal for Labor Day. Maybe I should put a piece of cardboard around my neck: "WILL WORK FOR MEANING." Watch it to the end for the brief discussion of the contrast between Adam Smith (efficiency) and Karl Marx (meaning), and how Marx has become more relevant in the post-industrial era.

I loved the part about the meaningful condition versus the “Sisyphic” condition — yes, perhaps meaningless work is the greatest torture, even though Camus tells us that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.

The presentation of how the effort we put into something increases its subjective value is not to be missed either. You could call it the “IKEA effect””: you will be more pleased with something you put a lot of effort into.

And you will value your children more if you put a lot of effort into raising them. The part about “kids for sale” is both funny and eye-opening. You may think your kids are really wonderful (smart, great personalities, and oh so cute) by objective standards, but it’s really the huge amount of labor that you invest in them that makes you value them so extravagantly. On the dark side, when a new project is canceled by the company after the employees already put in considerable effort into it, deep depression will follow — even though the employees get paid as before.


 In Isaac Asimov’s 1964 predictions of the world in 2014, the last one was: The most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!” in our “society of enforced leisure.” To some extent, I see this around me. I see a lot of "cognitive reserve" — bright, educated people whose jobs do not utilize enough of their intellect, so they write long book reviews for Amazon, create blogs and interesting and complex social media posts — sometimes in addition to creative work in the arts. Intellectual/creative work remains its own reward. Or, for some, work that is of obvious use to others, work done in the spirit of service. 

Photo: Camilla Evers


~ “A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.”

Management writer Peter Drucker: “One of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours–productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”

Secretary to novelist Saul Bellow: “Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’”

Photographer Richard Avedon: “Sorry — too little time left.”

Charles Dickens, rejecting an invitation from a friend:

“‘It is only half an hour’–’It is only an afternoon’–’It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes–or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day… Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

Creators do not ask how much time something takes but how much creation it costs. This interview, this letter, this trip to the movies, this dinner with friends, this party, this last day of summer. How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less.” ~


“It will take only a moment.” Instead of zooming in on the work, we say, “I'll just take 10 minutes to answer email”; "I'll just check today's news headlines." Soon an hour has gone by, and then it's time to prepare a meal, then there is the laundry etc — but we keep kidding ourselves again and again.

I notice that every time I skip the news, my productivity improves. The best kind of morning I have starts with skipping both email and news and opening my writing program instead.

“Sorry — too little time left” is frightfully real. I remember when my mother began saying, “That’s not important.” She meant precisely that too little time was left to bother with most concerns.


Beware of drought in the heart love the wellspring of morning
love the bird whose name you don’t know and the winter oak
the light on the wall and the splendor of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath they exist to tell you
no one will console you

~ Zbigniew Herbert (from the cycle “Mr. Cogito”; my translation):

Only the beauty of nature is our source of emotional strength? No one will console you? Let me approach these questions in an indirect way.

John Ruskin fell pathetically in love with Rose la Touche, who was nine when they met; Ruskin was nearly forty. An Evangelical Christian, she naively tried to convert Ruskin, who kept proposing to her. Her nickname for him was “St. Crumpet.” After a bout of mental illness (possibly involving anorexia), Rose died at the age of 27. Ruskin commented:

“I wonder mightily what sort of creature I should have turned out, if instead of the distracting and useless pain, I had had the joy of approved love, and the untellable, incalculable motive of sympathy and praise. It seems to me such things are not allowed in the world. The men capable of the highest imaginative passion are always tossed on fiery waves by it.”

I don’t think it ever dawned on Ruskin that pedophilia is not the kind of love that should be returned. But never mind Ruskin’s attraction to nymphets. Unrequited love is a universal human dilemma, and a great source of inspiration, at least for poets. “Depression strokes the feathers of the Muse,” a friend of mine remarked when I lamented that giving up melancholy made me less lyrical, which used to be so effortless when there was a pool of immense sadness to dip into for instant “atmosphere.” 

a sketch of Rose la Touche on her deathbed, by Ruskin, 1875

Like the middle-aged Ruskin wondering what marvels requited love would have done for him, I went through years and years of asking myself various “what if” questions: what if I’d stayed in Poland, what if I’d had a happy marriage and a beautiful Polish daughter (she’d be a goddess in my eyes), what if a brilliant professor had “discovered” me, what if I had had a mentor . . . Then a friend answered, “We don’t write because we have a mentor. We write because we are compulsive.”

Instantly I knew she was right. Having a mentor is obviously not what makes you a writer. Yes, it would have been helpful, but . . .  Thinking about it wasn’t helpful, so I simply stopped thinking about it. I just “shut up” — and have been a happier and more productive person since, quietly going on about my work.

I also happened to read Sheldon Kopp’s “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!” The back cover said: “A grown-up can be no man’s disciple.” And inside: “There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.”


Nevertheless, I wonder about Herbert’s “No one can console you.” True, he indicates that “no one” doesn’t mean “nothing.” There is the miraculous birth of the morning and splendor of the sky, there is the nameless bird and the bare winter oak. As Larry Levis admonished his (young and self-centered) students: gaze at the world.

And that is wonderful advice. The answer is not within; it — or at least “consolation” — is outside. Gaze at the world. Engage with it.

But that’s not everything. There are also other human beings to engage with, and yes, they can console during times of distress. A close friend is invaluable, but sometimes a perfect stranger will pay you a compliment out of the blue, lifting you to a state of gratitude that can transform a difficult day. Being valued by others, even in small ways, helps us value ourselves.

And that’s the essence of it. I discovered that I need to be deeply supportive to myself, and to do things that express that deeply supportive attitude toward myself. Recently, that has meant getting rid of the accumulation of stuff (books, books, and more books!) that no longer serves me, creating shelf space for the special books that are loved NOW — and for displays of beautiful minerals. It also means that if I want to have a soothing time reading before bed, I give myself that treat without any guilt that I should be instead doing ab exercises. There will be time for those too — a time when the loving thing will be precisely to do the exercises.

Herbert was a bipolar alcoholic who had trouble truly loving anyone. (Once he even said that he never loved any woman except for his grandmother — but that may have been a deluded “bipolar” statement.) He had a devoted and long-suffering wife, whom he appears to have treated mainly as a servant. Apparently he never experienced a deeply supportive relationship going both ways, which alone would have led to a feeling of connection and, if needed, consolation. Being a poet, he managed to get just enough nourishment from the “loyalty of objects,” the beauty of nature and art, and the world of ideas. But his mature work doesn’t include a single love poem, and human warmth in general is mostly missing. When he warns the reader to “beware of drought in the heart,” he is preaching to himself. 

Donald Trump started out boasting that his much-flaunted wealth meant that he could self-fund his campaign and that this made him incorruptible, a feckless notion that went flying out the window as soon as he became the presumptive, official party nominee and went running to fat cat funders with his diminutive hands out.

As The Washington Post‘s Matea Gold reported Sept. 1, “The New York billionaire, who has cast himself as free from the influence of the party’s donor class, has spent this summer forging bonds with wealthy GOP financiers — seeking their input on how to run his campaign and recast his policies for the general election, according to more than a dozen people who have participated in the conversations.”

And let’s not get started on the wacky world of Trump’s actual finances, his bragging about using cash to buy political favors, his failure to release tax returns, his dodgy connections with overseas banks, Russian plutocrats and organized crime. “... It is safe to say,” The New York Times recently reported, “that no previous major party presidential nominee has had finances nearly as complicated…”

Now there’s a classic Times understatement for you. It continues:

    As president, Mr. Trump would have substantial sway over monetary and tax policy, as well as the power to make appointments that would directly affect his own financial empire. He would also wield influence over legislative issues that could have a significant impact on his net worth, and would have official dealings with countries in which he has business interests.

What a swell idea to put him in charge.

Not that Hillary Clinton and husband Bill are polestars of virtue. They seem to have gone out of their way to favor the wealthy and make sure they themselves always have a well-upholstered seat at the groaning banquet table of foundation, government and political largesse.

Then there’s Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, the man infamous for telling the Times of London in 2009 that his bank was “doing God’s work,” head of the very same gang that gave Hillary Clinton those big six-figure lecture fees you’ve heard about.

Hillary Clinton has claimed she wants to get rid of the deductible performance pay loophole, but there are several bills out there that would do the job and so far she hasn’t endorsed any of them. Why would she when she already relies so heavily on the counsel — and campaign cash — of many of these bank CEOs and their elite associates at law firms and corporations?

So far, close to half a billion dollars have been raised for her campaign, $50 million alone during the last two weeks of August at 22 fundraisers. According to The New York Times, that’s an average of $150,000 an hour.

It’s all part of a long tradition going back to Bill and beyond. And despite the objections of those who say there’s no evidence of a direct link between money given and favors granted, remember: It’s not just about the quid pro quo. It’s about the web of influence, the nod to the insider, the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.

How can you be sure a Hillary Clinton White House will be any different? Given all the evidence, given the billions of dollars in play, you can’t.

But here’s one hopeful sign: Politico reports:

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her allies aren’t waiting for Election Day: Months before the votes have been counted, they’re already exerting pressure on Hillary Clinton’s transition team over key hiring decisions... They’re vowing to fight nominees with ties to big banks, and warn against corporate executives assuming government roles in regulating the industries that made them rich.

Warren believes “personnel is policy.” She and her colleagues have reserved an especially hot place for the Wall Street big shots and corporate nabobs who fancy a job in the Clinton administration. It’s called the “Hell No” list.

Attention must be paid to that list or with a Clinton back in office it’s four more dreary years of greased palms and the status quo. That could be a recipe for disaster almost but not quite as horrific as an egotistical know-nothing with his fingers in the piggy bank and worse, near the button.

 This face (Miles gloriosus/ the boastful soldier) by Leonardo makes me wonder how Leonardo might draw Donald Trump
The very thing that is potentially destroying us is at the same time waking us up. ~ Paul Levy


"When surgery first started 300 years ago, you would have people walking around with blood and pus all over their outfits. In that situation it makes a lot of sense to make the system very clean," Gilbert said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver.

"But if you go into any wound infection clinic and speak to a surgeon, they are constantly sterilizing the bejeebers out of their operating room. There is theoretically nothing there – they have scrubbed themselves with sterilizing agents – but somehow, magically a pathogen gets into the person when they're in the operating theatre and they get sick.

"This is a situation where one organism from one person hasn't had any competition from any other microbes on the skin or in the environment because there's nothing else there," he said.

Florence Nightingale noted the virtues of open windows in her Notes on Nursing in 1859. "True nursing ignores infection, except to prevent it. Cleanliness, fresh air from open windows, are the only defence a true nurse either asks or needs," she wrote.

Last month, Jessica Green at Oregon University reported that air conditioned hospital rooms had less diverse populations of microbes compared with rooms that were aired by leaving the windows open. But the air conditioned rooms had a greater portion of pathogens that lived on humans or belonged to groups that caused disease.

"There's a good bacterial community living in hospitals and if you try to wipe out that good bacterial community with sterilisation agents and excessive antibiotic use, you actually lay waste to this green field of protective layer, and then these bad bacteria can just jump in and start causing hospital borne infections or mediated infections," Gilbert said.

"If you open the windows and let all of these other bacteria in from outside, you will either dilute out the pathogens or not allow the pathogens to establish themselves because there is too much competition for the nutrients and energy that the bacteria need to survive," he added.

Mark Enright, research director at AmpliPhi Biosciences and a microbiologist at Bath University, said: "I do think that opening windows is a good thing. Air flow is a good thing in hospitals; you don't want pockets where organisms can pool and swarm and pass on.”

We are finding out more and more about the good bacteria or simply the advantages of microbial diversity — in the gut, in the mouth, in the air at home, office, or hospital.

I used to think my mother was ridiculously old-fashioned in her practice of daily "airing" the house. Now it seems there is something to it. 

 Andrew Wyeth, Wind from the Sea, 1947

ending on beauty

Here and everywhere
is my homeland, wherever I turn
and in whatever language I would hear
the song of a child, the talk of lovers.
Happier than anyone, I am to receive
a glance, a smile, a star.

~ Milosz, “Mittelbergheim”