Saturday, October 27, 2018


“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like trees.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke (photo by Jain 108 Mathemagics)



If you knew how much suffering awaits you,
you would stay with me and be deathless,
croons Calypso of the Tidy Braids —

but bronze-armed Odysseus 
only broods on the beach.
His gaze caresses the watery horizon.

He wants his own life, its breakable glory.
He wants to be Odysseus. We praise the man
who chose not to be a god.

Yet I wonder: would I choose
a life rich with the journey, yet doomed
to lap at the shore of less and less?

I could sail an infinity of sunsets
even marooned in Barstow, California,
in a tract named Desert Meadows,

married beyond return
to a gun collector, TV on loud,
scrawny palm trees rasping in dry wind —

My morning walk, the hills carved in crystal. 
Petting the neighbors’ dogs and cats;
returning home to read about Odysseus.

I’d build a monument of pebbles
to the pebbles in Barstow, California.
Memorialize a dung beetle’s march. 

Every cloudlet with its knife-blade shadow.
Every fissure in the sun-struck ground.
Trace the faces of the dead in the dust —

the silent dead who sing life’s siren song:
the miracle of mere existence. Even in
Barstow, caressed by the moonlight.

~ Oriana


I was very surprised by the reaction I got to this poem the few times I included it in reading. Afterwards, people would come to me with expressions of sympathy in their faces, and say things like, “But at least you no longer live in Barstow”; “At least you’re no longer married to that gun collector.”

I thought the poem was explicit in being a thought experiment — suppose I could be immortal, but at the price of having to live in Barstow, California? If you never heard of Barstow, there is a reason. But even in Barstow, there are clouds, sunsets, moonlight. There must be some dogs and cats I’d soon lure with tasty treats (let the neighbors do actual caretaking). Sure, I’d probably be watching travel videos of Italy, but even without those, there is always the infinite photo album of memory — photo-shopped, as we know, but then what is art if not brilliant fakery . . .

I think it was Tony Hoagland who said, “We’d die to have what we already have.”



~ “I am a classicist, and I recently published a new verse translation of Homer’s Odyssey. I hope and believe that my translation itself, as well as my introduction, brings out more clearly than many previous translations have done the fact that this poem is itself very much engaged with issues of migration, diaspora, colonization, trafficking, and the repercussions of war, including PTSD as well as people forced from their homes by war and violence. 

These aspects of the Odyssey have sometimes been made somewhat less visible, because translators and scholars, in their reverence for Homer, have been eager to heroize and euphemize the poem, for instance by translating words for “slave” with such terms as “servant” or “maid”. I’ve used the word “slave”, and the word “migrant” too. I believe we can see more clearly what is both distinctive and similar in the Homeric and modern social worlds, if we avoid representational modes that obscure what’s going on, or that shut down critical response by bombastic or archaic language.

Classicists would likely hesitate to apply the term “political” to the archaic period, since there was no polis and no fixed legislative system in archaic Greece. But we can see how the Odyssey is certainly invested in framing certain questions that are ideological and proto-political. As William Thalmann has argued (The Swineherd and the Bow, 1998), the poem can be seen to provide an idealized representation of master-slave relationships that serves the emergent aristocratic class. 


The archaic period in Greece was a time of massive cultural and economic change, after the fall of Mycenean civilization, as Greek speakers spread out across the Mediterranean world, colonizing, fighting, enslaving, raiding and looting as they went. For Thalmann, the Odyssey
 is an example of media portrayals designed to serve a problematic ideological agenda: to valorize an emergent class system propped on a growing slave population. But in my view, there are interesting contradictions and double standards visible in the poem, in terms of the representation of slaves, migrants, refugees and the homeless poor — four inter-related but distinct categories in the world of this text.

I think it may be useful to turn back to this very old poem, firstly, to remind ourselves that migration and “global shifts” are not entirely new phenomena, although the scale of the current global crises is of course quite different from that of the small pre-polis settlements of archaic Greece. And secondly, it may be useful to turn back to this poem to consider whether some of the psychology and some of the ideological tensions visible in Homer might also operate in our own media, and also affect our own policies surrounding migrants and refugees.


In Book 8, Odysseus has washed up on the island of Scheria, on his way back from the war at Troy to Ithaca. He asks the singer there, Demodocus, to sing about Troy, and Demodocus complies, and sings of Odysseus’ own great accomplishment, devising the Trojan Horse with which the Greeks managed to take the city. But Odysseus responds in a strange way to the tale of his own triumph:

Odysseus was melting into tears;
his cheeks were wet with weeping, as a   
woman weeps, as she falls to wrap her arms around
her husband, fallen fighting for his home
and children. She is watching as he gasps
and dies. She shrieks, a clear high wail, collapsing
upon his corpse. The men are right behind.
They hit her shoulders with their spears   
and lead her to slavery, hard labor and a life
of pain. Her face is marked with her despair.
In that same desperate way, Odysseus was crying.

The slippage between the experience of the woman, the victim, being taken into slavery, and the victor, hearing of her plight and his own triumph, could go different ways. Does it suggest he feels guilty? Does it suggest an equation between his experience and hers? Do refugees suffer no less than those who rape them, enslave them or force them from their homes? What does the passage suggest about how people lose their homes and their freedom in the aftermath of war? And whose fault is it?

Remember that Odysseus himself is, for a good chunk of the poem, a kind of migrant.  He leaves Troy and is blown off course, shipwrecked and blocked from his home. He says to Eumaeus (15. 343ff):

The worst thing humans suffer
is homelessness; we must endure this life
because of desperate hunger; we endure,
as migrants with no home…

The passage suggests deep empathy towards homeless people and migrants.  On the other hand, we’re also shown that this speech is part of Odysseus’ long-con: it’s part of his disguise as a beggar, and part of his pitch to Eumaeus, to test him and weasel good hospitality out of his own noble slave. So, is Odysseus really a migrant, and are real migrants really pitiable?  And if people are ever, even temporarily, migrants, how exactly does this happen, and how can it end? The poem again seems to suggest a complex, contradictory picture about how and why forced migration happens.  On the one hand, as the mythological background consistently suggests, the Greeks/ the Achaeans suffered on the way home, and in some cases did not reach home, because they violated the temple of Athena.

A bad homecoming (nostos) is your own fault; it’s divine punishment for idiotic or evil behavior. The poem also suggests that Odysseus is Athena’s favorite, and in certain respects, we are invited to view him as an admirable and relatable protagonist; he’s rewarded with an ultimately good homecoming, because he has pleased the gods. Is this an image of good luck and the right patrons, or something like justice (as Odysseus himself, but not necessarily the narrator, assert)? Can being a migrant or a refugee happen to anyone, even the most heroic, strongest and smartest of us?


In book 14, we get a heart-breaking first-person story of trafficking and forced migration, from Eumaeus, the swineherd slave with whom Odysseus, in his disguise as an old beggar/ migrant, is staying. This passage shows vividly how anybody, of any original class and social status, can be trafficked into slavery and forced from his or her home.  But it also suggests some representational collusion with the slave owners and slave buyers.  The traffickers, the Phoenicians, are the bad guys (as are most slavers in ancient literature); but the buyer, Laertes, Odysseus’ father, is the good guy who gives his slave a home that is supposedly even better than that of his original family. 

There is a further interesting contradiction surrounding the “right” or “wrong” way to fulfill the role of slave. Eumaeus provides Odysseus-in-disguise with good hospitality, showing that even a slave can be morally better than the rude elite suitors. But on the other hand, Eumaeus’ story shows he’s from an originally aristocratic background. So, are the “good” slaves the ones who aren’t slaves by birth? Maybe it can happen to anyone, but only some (elite) slaves or refugees are “good” enough to fulfill the role in an ideal way — in contrast to Melantho and Melanthius, the “black flower” slaves who align themselves with the suitors — submitting to the “wrong” masters and failing to bow to the right ones.

This set of double standards and ideological tensions is echoed by those surrounding the depiction of Iros, the real, career beggar, a real life homeless person, and Odysseus, the fake homeless person. We are told, at the start of book 18:

Then came a man who begged all through the town
of Ithaca, notorious for greed.
He ate and drank non-stop so he was fat,
but weak, with no capacity for fighting.

Iros wrestles with Odysseus, in disguise as a beggar, and Odysseus beats him up and humiliates him, and is rewarded by the suitors with food — significantly, an animal-stomach packed with meat (like a haggis). The conflict is over the belly, over hunger and class. The real beggar, Irus, supposedly deserves beating up, because his hunger and need are real, material, and therefore illegitimate. By contrast, Odysseus’ hunger for honor and for a name and for power is valorized by the narrative, even though it, too, is ultimately based on possession of material foodstuffs (the animals which the suitors are eating; the house, the furniture, the slaves, the wife, the bed). 

Whose mouths get fed? Who gets to be at home in the house?  That question is correlated with, Who gets to speak?  The elite warrior gets the best food, and deserves it, even when he’s disguised as a beggar. Notice, again, the double standard: it’s presented as a terrible black mark against the suitors that they are mean to Odysseus when he’s the beggar in their midst. But it’s also not at all represented as a black mark against Odysseus himself, that he beats up the real beggar.  There are two kinds of homeless/ migrant person, representing two entirely contradictory cultural notions about how to deal with what might be, in real life, the same population.


The archaic notion of xenia, hospitality, offers in some ways an inspiring model for how we in the wealthy countries of the modern world might aspire to treat refugees and migrants.  For instance, when the prophet Theoclymenos shows up at Telemachus’ ship, having been forced into refuge from his land after killing a man, Telemachus welcomes him, feeds him and helps him on his journey — and in so doing, forges a bond. This is clearly presented as the right choice; Telemachus worries not a whit about the fact that his guest is a killer, and that blitheness proves his correct behavior.  

But notice: xenia only really works between men, and elite men at that (we’ve seen how exceptional the slave Eumaeus is, as a host; like a woman, he can never hope to reciprocate the relationship, because he’s not likely to be able to go anywhere). Policy implication: maybe we need to think in terms of what humane policies about refugees, migrants and immigration might do for quid pro quo, in preventing war and forging relationships that may be beneficial in the future.

How are migrants and refugees dangerous? When Odysseus visits the Cyclops, Polyphemus asks him if he’s a “pirate,” Odysseus skips the question, but the narrative somewhat confirms that the answer is a qualified yes: after all, he’s just invaded, slaughtered, robbed and enslaved the population of the Cicones. What’s the difference between a migrant and a pirate? Might they be the same? How many migrants are, like Theoclymenos, murderers at home, on the run? How many are, like Odysseus, city-sackers who’ve slaughtered and enslaved whole populations? How many are potential invaders of another person’s home — like Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops, where he comes uninvited and maims his host; or like the suitors, who similarly enter uninvited and abuse the privilege? 

And the poem prompts us to ask: if migrants or refugees or immigrants enter your home uninvited, what are you justified in doing? Can you, like Odysseus, slaughter them, and claim the justice of Zeus on your side? What’s the cost to doing that, in terms of the community— like, the fathers and brothers who fight, in book 24, for vengeance for their dead boys?

Is there a way to avoid having all your own place taken over by strangers, but also avoid an escalation of violence that may pose just as much of a threat to your home? I don’t know if there’s a policy answer in all this, but I do think that this complex tangle of issues is very much still with us in thinking about contemporary global policy.” ~

Odysseus and the swineherd Eumaeus


~ “[One hundred years ago, as now] America was undergoing rapid demographic change. Immigration levels in the first decades of the twentieth century neared all-time highs, thanks to the millions who arrived from Italy, Poland, and other countries in Southern and Eastern Europe. A hit play of 1908 supplied a metaphor for what was supposed to happen next: “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!”

In real life, though, this melting didn’t happen as predicted. Immigrant groups kept their languages, styles of dress, preference for certain dumplings. Many Americans feared that newly arrived aliens would import hostilities from their homelands. 1916, the year Randolph Bourne wrote his essay, was the third year of the Great War. Were unmelted Germans going to fight unmelted Russians on the streets of Chicago? If President Woodrow Wilson decided to join the conflict, where would these aliens’ loyalties lie?

Many American leaders called for the melting pot to get hotter, to burn away the “hyphens” that made Hungarian-Americans or Greek-Americans a group apart. Theodore Roosevelt painted a dark vision of the dangers facing the country if its inhabitants failed to achieve “100 percent Americanism,” which he defined as speaking only English and feeling total and exclusive loyalty to the interests of the United States. “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of it continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.” A hyphenated American, he said, was no American at all.

Bourne’s essay, titled “Trans-National America,” is a bracing seven-thousand-word challenge to the morality, logic, and wisdom of that view, in his time and ours. The record of ethnic groups trying to live together in this country hadn’t been perfect, Bourne acknowledged, but considering the abysmal results of such attempts everywhere else it had been tried, he thought they coexisted here with “almost dramatic harmlessness.” What the ethnonationalists view with dread and suspicion, Bourne saw as grounds for pride and joy. “For the first time in history has been achieved that miracle of hope, the peaceful living side by side, with character substantially preserved, of the most heterogeneous peoples under the sun,” he wrote.

The fundamental error of those who insisted on a narrow definition of Americanism, as Bourne saw it, was believing that Americanism had any fixed definition at all. He made an impish reversal of our history, arguing that American identity consisted not of timeless truths handed down from all-knowing founders but from the accumulated prejudices of the ethnic group that managed to get here first. “English snobberies, English religion, English literary styles, English literary reverences and canons, English ethics, English superiorities, have been the cultural food that we have drunk in from our mothers’ breasts,” he wrote.

To Bourne, America wasn’t some citadel in need of defending: it was a project, one that continually enfolded new participants, dynamically renewed its character. The ethnonationalist looks backward for familiarity, security, a sense of control. Bourne, the child of a hopeful century, looked ahead with ecstatic optimism: “America is a unique sociological fabric, and it bespeaks poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the incalculable potentialities of so novel a union of men.” 

Other cosmopolitans, such as the philosopher Horace Kallen, had articulated the shortcomings of the melting pot, but Bourne was rare in his ability to glimpse the shining ideal that could replace it: the “Beloved Community,” a new kind of society in which citizens are bound together by the loyalty of each to all, regardless of race or creed. Bourne was the first American to extract that concept from the work of the philosopher Josiah Royce and hold it up as the ultimate fulfillment of our national project; the second to do so, forty years later, would be Martin Luther King, Jr.

Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” would outrage Bourne: How is it, he would want to know, that, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are still indulging in the kind of “tight and jealous nationalism” that had sent the European powers into a suicidal war and wreaked so much havoc on America itself? How have we learned nothing from the disasters of Bourne’s own generation? 

Less than a year after he wrote his essay, the United States joined the war on the Allied side, unleashing a wave of “100 percent Americanism” more virulent than he had dreamed possible. Nativist attacks, vigilantism, race riots, and censorship were inflicted on a terrorized citizenry, native-born and immigrant alike. People who spoke German were menaced by mobs, and sometimes killed in the streets; the Socialist press was all but shut down, leading to a full-fledged Red Scare. As Bourne took bolder and bolder stands against the war—even denouncing his mentor, John Dewey, who thought the war would promote democratic ideals—he found it more difficult to get published. Old friends fell away; prewar hopes went to pieces. He died in the influenza pandemic of 1918, at the age of thirty-two.

Bourne wouldn’t be surprised that Americans still feel the tug of nationalist sentiment. He knew that people need to feel that they belong to a group. The unique challenge of America, a teeming “nation of nations,” is to define itself in terms broad enough to suit its transnational population, not to mimic other countries’ exclusive, backward-looking pride. “We must perpetrate the paradox that our American cultural tradition lies in the future,” he wrote. In other words, it’s false to our history, and disastrous for our prospects, to think that we can return to a mythic greater past. Those us who are here now have the chance to make something better than our forebears made, and the obligation to try.” ~


Randolph Bourne's face was deformed by the use of forceps during his birth. While a WASP child of privilege, he felt sufficiently different to sympathize with the immigrants.


"Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism is when hate for people other than your own comes first. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism." ~ Charles de Gaulle


~ “In 2016, the UK issued more first residence permits to non-EU citizens than any other member state. That’s not a great surprise; but ask people to guess which country came second in the list and few would get it right. The answer is Poland, which gave out 586,000 permits, almost a fifth of all those issued across the entire European Union and well ahead of third-place Germany, with 505,000.

The EU data for last year are not yet available, but Poland’s numbers could be even higher. Figures released by the country’s Central Statistical Office last month show that in 2017 Poland issued almost twice as many work permits as the previous year, and four times more than in 2015.

By far the majority of these new arrivals are Ukrainians, who made up 82% of work-permit recipients last year. This mass movement of Ukrainians to Poland in the last three years is, in fact, the biggest and fastest migration of people from one European country to another in recent history. Precise figures are hard to come by, but it is estimated that somewhere between one and two million Ukrainians have come. (For comparison, in the three years after Poland joined the EU in 2004, the Polish population of the UK increased by around 300,000.) The sound of Ukrainian-accented Polish has become commonplace on Polish streets. Wrocław, Poland’s fourth-largest city, claimed last year that Ukrainians make up 10% of its population.

In contrast to many western countries, where large waves of migration have created resentment among natives, Ukrainians have met with little hostility from Poles, who generally appreciate their economic contribution and seamless integration. Intermittent attempts by far-right groups to organize protests against Ukrainian immigration have been unsuccessful, with attendance usually not higher than double figures.

Beyond the Ukrainian majority, there have also been growing numbers of migrants from further-flung locations too. South Asian Uber Eats couriers have become a ubiquitous sight pedaling around the streets of Warsaw (and playing cricket in its parks). The ever-expanding network of international firms establishing back offices in Poland also employ many foreign workers.

In 2017, over 13,000 work permits were issued for Nepalis, Indians and Bangladeshis combined, which is more than four times higher than the number in the previous year. Last month it was reported that the Polish embassy in New Delhi is struggling to cope with demand for work visas from those three countries, with a backlog of up to 25,000 applications from people with offers of work in Poland.

While cultivating anti-immigration public image, senior government figures have more quietly been sending signals that they are comfortable with, indeed supportive of, large-scale immigration. Two years ago, Mateusz Morawiecki, then the economy minister, told a small audience at the elite economic forum in Krynica that Poland needs to take ‘intensive action’ to counteract the declining size of its workforce and that he would therefore ‘try to make a friendly invitation to several hundred thousand Ukrainians workers’.

Negotiations are already underway to conclude a specific agreement with the Philippines to facilitate migration to Poland. Last year, during a visit to Bangladesh, the minister for family, labour and social welfare, Elżbieta Rafalska, told her hosts that Poland wants to welcome more Bangladeshi workers. The two sides agreed to establish a joint study group to help make this happen. ‘Poland keen on immigrants,’ headlined one Bangladeshi newspaper after the meeting.

The far right has also played a role in drawing greater attention to the issue. Krzysztof Bosak, a nationalist leader with a large online following, has been using his platform to raise questions about immigration. In May this year, he prompted national debate by commenting on the prevalence of Indian food-delivery drivers in Warsaw, saying that it is time to discuss whether Poland wants to head down a multicultural path.

In August, another nationalist live-tweeted an event at a conservative think tank, during which the deputy minister for investment and development, Paweł Chorąży outlined the government’s plans to facilitate greater immigration from the east, including countries like Vietnam and India: ‘Poland must [open up to migration] and even if it doesn’t want to, it should want to, because the prosperity of those countries that have achieved the greatest success is built by migrants.’ He added that bringing immigrants from Asia was cheaper than repatriating ethnic Poles from the former Soviet Union (something nationalists favor), though stressed that the latter remain ‘a priority group’.

Poland doesn't want its bison to suffer hunger in winter. Here a fox is helping himself to the leftovers. 


This is such a neat example of how economic necessity trumps the nationalist anti-immigrant rhetoric. Poland doesn’t have enough young workers. Immigrants — in this case, mostly Ukrainians — provide an instant solution. The Ukrainian language is quite similar to Polish, and there isn’t much difference — if any — between the way Poles and Ukrainians look. There are many cultural similarities as well, and some shared history. The surprise here is that Poland is opening up also to South Asians. At least some people are beginning to see the obvious: “the prosperity of those countries that have achieved the greatest success is built by migrants.”

The government’s efforts to increase the birth rate by through maternity payments have yielded meager results. The example of Sweden and France shows that such payments are ineffective; what works is providing affordable quality childcare. The current government, not known for brilliance, has not grasped it yet. Nor is the government honest enough to admit Poland’s great need for immigrants — that would go against the right-wing nationalist rhetoric.

But reality proceeds by its own laws. If workers are needed urgently enough, they will arrive and start working in their adoptive country, building its prosperity and enriching its culture. 


~ “Here’s one popular assumption: it’s important to look within and discover who you really are, your true self. Our thinkers would be skeptical of the existence of a true self, especially one you can discover in the abstract. They understood that we are multifaceted, messy selves who develop by looking outward, not inward.

Our personalities are formed through everything we do: how we interact with others, our reactions to things, the activities we pursue. You don’t behave the same way when speaking to your mother, say, as when dealing with a junior colleague, your dentist, or a close friend. 

Each of us is a complicated being bumping up against other complicated beings all day. Each encounter draws out different aspects.Who we are consists of behavior patterns and emotional ruts we’ve fallen into over time — but that means we also consist of numerous possibilities of what we can become.


    We aren’t just who we think we are; we can work on becoming better people all the time.

Once we find ourselves, the assumption continues, we must embrace and be true to that self. But the first great philosopher in the Chinese tradition, Confucius, who was born in the sixth century BCE, would have thought differently. The problem with authenticity, he’d say, is that it’s not freeing the way we believe it to be. Who is that authentic self you think you have discovered really? It’s a snapshot of you at this one moment in time. If you stay true to that self and allow it to become your guide, it constrains you. It doesn’t allow for the sort of growth you experience when you recognize that you are ever-changing.

We flourish when we recognize our complexity and learn how to work with it through self-cultivation. You grow, for example, when you understand that you are not a hothead just because you tend to think of yourself as short-tempered, or shy because you see yourself as an introvert. Most labels are patterns of behavior we’ve fallen into and can be broken. We aren’t just who we think we are — we can work on becoming better people all the time.


Confucius teaches that certain rituals — “as if” rituals in particular — are transformative because they break patterned behaviors we’ve fallen into. When you smile as if you’re not angry, or bite your tongue instead of lashing out you are faking it. It’s because those “as if” moments create a tiny break from reality that they are so valuable. We act “as if” we are different and our feelings are more mature. By doing so, we transform into someone who is kind and generous rather than someone exercising the right to express authentically honest but destructive feelings. As we complete these rituals again and again, letting our behavior lead our feelings rather than the other way around, we become different – and better – over time.


    Work with the shifts and detours – chance conversations, experiences, interactions — that nurture an expansive life.

Just as we often view the self as stable, we see the world as stable, too. Of course we realize that life can change, but at the same time we tend to proceed under the assumption that the world is generally predictable and that we should figure out how we will fit into it. If we see ourselves as good at maths, we continue along that academic track; if we consider ourselves whimsical, we seek a life partner who will join us on our adventures.

Mencius, a Confucian scholar living during the late 4th century BCE, saw the world as fragmented and capricious. He would advise that we should work with the shifts and detours — chance conversations, experiences, interactions — that nurture an expansive life. Rather than making plans for our lives, a Mencian approach means setting trajectories in motion.


    When you are contemplating a big change, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences.

What’s wrong with a life plan? When you plan your life, you make decisions for a future self based on the person you are today, not the one you will become.

Rather than boxing ourselves in by committing to big decisions, the Mencian way would be to approach them through the small and doable. When you are contemplating a career change, say, or a break up or move, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences on a small scale. Pay attention to your responses to these experiences, because they will guide you in new directions.

If you think you can lay out a perfect plan for your life, you’ve missed the “Path.” Instead, recognize that we are complex creatures constantly pulled in different directions, and that it’s through working on our interactions, experiences and responses that we grow. It’s the small actions through which you conduct yourself that matter most in transforming yourself, and the world, for the better.” ~

Buddha, Confucius and Laotzi 


I discovered some of those principles as a writer. For instance, I was always using the accidental — whatever was floating around — as part of whatever I was writing. I let the weather come into it, a few words from a book or conversation of the moment. The writing became richer that way than if I tried to follow a rigid focus.

Yet in spite of knowing how complex and changeable everything was, I hung the "depressive" label on myself. Reading articles to the effect that it was genetic was a huge hindrance. I had to start perceiving depression not as an emotional condition, but as a set of behaviors which I could decide to perform or not to perform. I could brood over my past, OR I could do something else (the word “or” is revolutionary in this context).

Deciding not to be depressed was perhaps the single most important event in my recent personal history. It was based on insight, but productive behaviors had to take the place of brooding — it was very exhausting at first. Once the habit of brooding was gone, I could afford to relax more. Also, I understood that work worked because it provided an outward focus — but work isn’t the only way to achieve an outward focus. Going to a museum and enjoying the art could be just as effective.

All in all, I whole-heartedly endorse the motto: “Stop trying to find yourself!”


Also, these words of wisdom from Tony Hoagland, whom we just lost — another premature loss of an unusual poet, one who knew how to comment on modern life with full honesty, yet left his readers exhilarated rather than brutalized:

If you want to see a lost civilization,
why not look in the mirror?
If you want to talk about love, why not begin
with those marigolds you forgot to water?

~ Tony Hoagland, from “Real Estate”


So much of the discussion here, in this latest blog, questions a static, backward looking vision, one that defines the self, or the state, as a fixed entity, an unchanging set of assumptions and principles, threatened by any and all changes — the influx of immigrants for instance, or the failure  of a "plan" for the individual future of a fixed and defined “self.” In both the larger and the smaller spheres, change is perceived as failure, as destruction of some precious and easily threatened integrity that must be preserved at all costs.

But such preservation is really more like mummification than anything else, a determination to cling to the forms and orders belonging to the dead past rather than a living and dynamic future. Even languages, often part of fierce nationalistic sentiment, must change or die. I would argue that nationalism is now something that both idealizes and longs for a largely imaginary past, and itself belongs to that past, that it is something denied by the very fabric and structure of the modern world. The economy and technology of our world no longer reflects or is suited to the divisions of nation states. Communication, commerce, technology, science, are all global, as interconnected and interdependent as the world wide web. This is the true structure we live and work within, unavoidable, all pervasive, the source of frustration at times, but also of tremendous potential.

The current nationalistic rhetoric and fervor we see here and in Europe is both atavistic and self deluding. To refuse globalism, to ignore that the “prosperity of those countries who have achieved  the greatest success is built by migrants,” is simply denying the realities of the global economy, that no nation can prosper now behind walls that prevent the movements of populations beyond national boundaries. Whether these migrants come seeking opportunity or fleeing wars and persecution matters less than the fact that they will be builders of the future for the countries that welcome them.

As for states, so for individuals. The self is not fixed and unchanging, something to preserve unchanged. Change and growth are what creates the self as well as what creates the future. There is no knowing who we are, who we are is a project developed in time, by living, learning, adapting, discovering, reworking and making choices.

And all this is wonderfully freeing, exciting, and reason for hope. Even on the darkest, hardest days, we need not resign ourselves to the divisions and hatreds of the past, even when they rise up and strike with the viciousness of Saturday's attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh. One man's evil act resulted in immeasurable grief, and was answered by the love and support of thousands standing up to refuse that evil further purchase.


Retro-nationalism is not compatible with globalism, but I can imagine a progressive nationalism (maybe not the best word, but we don’t have a better one yet) that preserves an interest in a local culture — perhaps a smaller unit like the city — with larger concerns. Thus, a concern with global warming is compatible with participating in a program to plant trees specifically in one’s city and its surrounding “green belt” (what in Europe is called “the lungs of the city”).

Likewise, progressive nationalism recognizes the truth that immigrants add to the nation’s wealth. Those capable of uprooting themselves and starting over in a different culture tend to be more enterprising than the average person. They are usually hard-working and energetic — if not by temperament then because they suddenly have to be. Funny: when you really have to find a job, you find it.

But it’s not necessarily true that immigrants always start at the bottom, doing the jobs no one else wants to do (though that alone is worth a lot to any country). Modern immigrants can be highly skilled and educated. Some come from rich families and bring capital; others become scientists and engineers, physicians and nurses. One way or another, they really do contribute to the new country. The retro-nationalist bigots are simply ignorant of facts.

As Mary says, “Whether these migrants come seeking opportunity or fleeing wars and persecution matters less than the fact that they will be builders of the future for the countries that welcome them.”

Now, the self. First, we are not a single self — we are a multitude of constantly changing selves  enclosed in a constantly changing body. Those selves too can be regarded as a country — with a rich history even if it’s largely mythical (given the nature of our shifting memories), and with an unknown future. The Eastern wisdom warns us that we better stay open to change and than get overly attached to plans we made when we were younger and essentially different, with different priorities. As I once wrote, “The stage of life rules almost everything.” We are always immigrants to the future.

To quote Tony Hoagland again:

If you want to see a lost civilization,
why not look in the mirror?

Fortunately new civilizations rise up — both within us and around us. Let’s stay open and welcoming. As Mary points out, history need not repeat itself: nowadays thousands rise up to protest any violence that tries to restore “purity” as opposed to diversity. At the personal level, let us welcome new thoughts, emerging new selves. Let’s not try to defend any “true self” — there is no such thing. That would be like believing that one particular religion is true while all others are false, and their adherents need to be slaughtered. No, they are all false — but something valuable can be extracted from each, just as we need many experiences to learn from. 

The new is always being born — let’s be good parents to it. Now more than ever, our greatest loyalty needs to be to the future.


“We have truly arrived when we are no longer afraid of departure.” ~ Sharmila Sen
I used to think that the older you get, the greater the fear of death. But actually my fear of dying was greatest in my youth — I experienced actual terror if I tried to imagine it. Perhaps age really does bring a more philosophic mind, as Wordsworth put it.

Surveys have found that this is a common phenomenon. Not universal, but fairly common. As people become “old enough to die,” as Barbara Ehrenreich phrased it, they seem relatively calm about the prospect. Many start giving things away, prepare last wills, etc. Not that they necessarily expect going to heaven, no. They are concerned with their earthly affairs until the very end. And some at least begin to notice the beauty of the world even more acutely.

A more terrible fear of people who are “old enough to die”: dementia, all forms of it.


“Some of the most notable and least noted bravery is in surrender, admitting defeat, conceding, changing our minds.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Magritte: Threatening Weather 

After realizing that the Judeo-Christian god, like all the other gods, had been invented by humans and did not exist outside of the believers’ minds, I had no trouble seeing it all as mythology — both the stories of the Old Testament and events like the Virgin Birth and Resurrection. It was only natural to conclude the virgin birth was absurd, the resurrection never happened, and Jesus was never coming back. That was pretty much self-evident.

Likewise, it was terribly unlikely that a Jew would tell anyone to drink his blood, given the huge taboo . . . so the Last Supper with its symbolic cannibalism (or call it a Dionysian ritual) never happened. Nor did Jesus die for anyone's sins like a sacrificial animal. That was just disgusting, archaic on the face of it.

When it comes to those big inventions, my attitude was soon, “How could I have ever believed this nonsense?” And I have to remind myself that it’s easy to brainwash a child, with her immature brain. You just repeat certain things, no matter how impossible they sound.

The shock was the small things. Scholars like Bart Ehrman publicized the historical findings that there was no census requiring anyone to go to the town of one’s birth (a bizarre idea; that’s not how census is done), no slaughter of the innocents, no flight into Egypt, no reading of a non-actual (conflated) passage of scripture at the synagogue in Nazareth (there was no synagogue in Nazareth, which wasn’t a functional town in the first century). Nazareth may have been a Greek mistranslation of Nazarene, which referred to men so consecrated to piety that they were not allowed to cut their hair. Oddly enough, it’s those relatively minor confabulations that shocked me at first — not the “big stuff.”

Benozzo Gozzoli: The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, 1460
No resurrection, no second coming — that was easy. But — the slaughter of the innocents never happened? — I was in a state of shock for hours. What a web of lies had to be invented.
Bart Ehrman also made sense of the apocalyptic preaching, gradually de-emphasized in the later gospels — there were many apocalyptic preachers during that era. Ehrman assumes that there was a historical Jesus and he was one of those end-of-the-world nuts. (If there was a historical Jesus, he meant the end days literally, clouds of glory and all. Later I was able to see this metaphorically, as applying to the last decades of a human life — there just isn’t time for a lot of things that may have been fine in youth.)

“The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell the truth.” ~ H.L. Mencken

“We're a paradoxically retro-progressive nation, on the pragmatic cutting edge but founded by uptight reactionary Puritans, nostalgic for less pragmatic religious dogmas (a recipe for lie buying). It's like if Silicon Valley had been founded by Druids.” ~ Jeremy Sherman


I'm not a Mencken fan, but now and then he hits on something true or close to it. Well, lying and politics — this is universal, not specifically American. However, Americans may be somewhat more likely to admire “daring liars” because the country has the dimension of myth so strongly embedded in it. To Jewish immigrants America (and not Palestine) was the “Goldene medine” — the “golden country.” This was the real “Promised Land” —  and not just to the Jews. The Puritans called America the “New Canaan” and saw themselves as the new “chosen people.” Same lie, new continent — but this time millions would have to be displaced and/or die.

But I agree that the number one factor in the propensity to buy lies is religiosity, and the religious extremists’ yearning for a religious utopia (aka nightmare for the rest of us)

New York, Mulberry Street, 1900

John Guzlowski:

There's a great book called The American Adam. The author argues that there are two camps here in America, the camp that sees us walking into the future like brave dreamers (Whitman) and the camp that wishes we would return to that Puritan past where we are constantly worrying about hell and damnation (TS Eliot). I look at American history and what I see is too much of the latter and not enough of the former.


Hell and damnation strictly for others, never for the group that's preaching it. The overall effect is that religious Americans blithely assume they are all going to heaven — or at least that was the impression that hit me very strongly after I arrived here, by contrast with Poland, where people were really often anguished about the afterlife (as if life weren't difficult enough already). I've witnessed some really intense praying, for instance — a long time on your knees — nothing I ever got to see in America.

But you are onto something with Whitman vs TS Eliot (talk about a retro guy! and there was a time when he was hugely influential). Yes, America runs to these extremes -- I see it as the country of extremes. As Jeremy said, “A retro-progressive nation.”

Probably only I will have this association, but the "American Adam" makes me remember the "New Soviet Man." Back when the Soviet Union existed (and it seemed that it would always exist), I wasn't the only one struck by the similarities between the two countries, especially in the lingo of political propaganda and (in America) advertising. These days the future looks dark, but not so long ago, the world had two super-powers, each babbling about how exceptional they were, and of course the radiant future (by whatever name).


Not only the dimension of myth but the myth of dimension
everything bigger, wider, taller, more expansive, open road, open frontier, more room, more opportunity — as though we were as great and grand as the landscape itself — big dreams, big liars, big sinners — think of Moby Dick, of The Confidence Man--or Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and that old Buffalo Bill.

And Great Gatsby — he’s such a minor chiseler, but having “Great” in that title makes it one of the supreme novels about the American dream.


“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” ~ Mark Twain


One exception to naked people's lack of influence is Adam and Eve. The fact that they never existed heightens the irony.

Dürer: Adam and Eve, 1504


~ “Austrian artist Egon Schiele died of influenza in October 1918, just a few days after his wife Edith, who was pregnant with their first child. In the interim, though desperately sick and grieving, he worked on a painting that depicted a family – his own – that would never exist.

Schiele was 28 years old, firmly within an age group that proved acutely vulnerable to the 1918 flu. It is one reason why his unfinished painting, The Family, is often described as a poignant testimony to the disease's cruelty.

Because it was so deadly to 20-to-40-year-olds, the disease robbed families of their breadwinners and communities of their pillars, leaving large numbers of elderly people and orphans with no means of support. Men were at greater risk of dying than women, in general, unless the women were pregnant – in which case they died or suffered miscarriages in droves.

Scientists don't know precisely why those in the prime of life were so vulnerable, but a possible clue lies in the fact that the elderly – always a high-risk group for flu – were actually less likely to die in the 1918 pandemic than they had been in flu seasons throughout the previous decade.

One theory that potentially explains both observations is "original antigenic sin" – the idea that a person's immune system mounts its most effective response to the first strain of flu it encounters. Flu is a highly labile virus, meaning that it changes its structure all the time – including that of the two main antigens on its surface, known by the shorthand H and N, that engage with the host's immune system.

There's some evidence to suggest the first flu subtype that young adults in 1918 had been exposed to was H3N8, meaning they were primed to fight a very different germ from the one that caused the 1918 flu – which belonged to the H1N1 subtype. Following the same logic, the elderly may have been relatively protected in 1918 by dint of having been exposed to an H1 or N1 antigen that was circulating in the human population circa 1830.


Flu has sometimes been called a democratic disease, but in 1918 it was anything but. If you lived in certain parts of Asia, for example, you were 30 times more likely to die than if you lived in certain parts of Europe.

Asia and Africa suffered the highest death rates, in general, and Europe, North America and Australia the lowest, but there was great variation within continents too. Denmark lost around 0.4 per cent of its population, while Hungary lost around three times that. Cities tended to suffer worse than rural areas, but there was variation within cities too.

People had a vague sense of these inequalities at the time, but it took decades for statisticians to put hard numbers on them. Once they had, they realized that the explanation must lie in differences between human populations – notably, socioeconomic differences.

In the US state of Connecticut, for example, the newest immigrant group – the Italians – suffered the worst losses, while in Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of Brazil, it was those inhabiting the sprawling shanty towns at the city's edge who were hit hardest.

Paris presented a conundrum – the highest mortality being recorded in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods – until the statisticians realized who was dying there. It wasn't the owners of the grand apartments, but their overworked maids who slept in chilly chambres de bonne high up under the eaves.

All over the world, the poor, immigrants and ethnic minorities were more susceptible – not, as eugenicists liked to claim, because they were constitutionally inferior, but because they were more likely to eat badly, to live in crowded conditions, to be suffering from other, underlying diseases, and to have poor access to healthcare.

Things haven't changed all that much. A study of the 2009 flu pandemic in England showed that the death rate in the poorest fifth of the population was triple that in the richest.

Less well-known is the fact that the flu affected the entire body. Teeth and hair fell out. People reported dizziness, insomnia, loss of hearing or smell and blurred vision. There were psychiatric after-effects, notably "melancholia" or what we might now call post-viral depression.

It continues to be true that the waves of death associated with both flu pandemics and annual flu seasons are followed by waves of death due to other causes, notably heart attacks and strokes – indirect consequences of the inflammatory response to flu. Flu wasn't in 1918, and still isn't, exclusively a respiratory disease.

The pandemic revealed the truth: that although the poor and immigrants died in higher numbers, nobody was immune. When it came to contagion, in other words, there was no point in treating individuals in isolation or lecturing them on personal responsibility. Infectious diseases were a problem that had to be tackled at the population level.

Starting in the 1920s, this cognitive shift began to be reflected in changes to public health strategy. Many countries created or re-organized their health ministries, set up better systems of disease surveillance, and embraced the concept of socialized medicine – healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery.

The expression "the lost generation" has been applied to various groups of people who were alive in the early 20th Century, including the talented American artists who came of age during the First World War, and the British army officers whose lives were cut short by that war. But it could reasonably be argued, as I do in my book Pale Rider, that the title should really go to the millions of people in the prime of life who died of the 1918 flu, or to the children who were orphaned by it, or to those, not yet born, who suffered its slings and arrows in their mothers' wombs.

Those who survived the flu in utero to be born, lived with the scars until they died. Research suggests that they were less likely to graduate or earn a reasonable wage, and more likely to go to prison, than contemporaries who hadn’t been infected.

There is even evidence that the 1918 flu contributed to the baby boom of the 1920s, by leaving behind a smaller but healthier population that was able to reproduce at higher rates.

That the 1918 flu cast a long shadow over the 20th Century is not in doubt. We should bear that in mind as we prepare for the next one.


So here for once the elderly had an advantage: a degree of immunity they acquired through exposure to various strains over their lifetime.

As the article points out, it wasn’t the flu virus itself that killed, but rather the complications that followed the flu: pneumonia and “heart attacks and strokes — indirect consequences of the inflammatory response to flu.”

~ “Besides replicating very quickly, the 1918 strain seems to trigger a particularly intense response from the immune system, including a ‘cytokine storm’ – the rapid release of immune cells and inflammatory molecules. Although a robust immune response should help us fight infection, an over-reaction of this kind can overload the body, leading to severe inflammation and a build-up of fluid in the lungs that could increase the chance of secondary infections. The cytokine storm might help to explain why young, healthy adults – who normally find it easier to shake off flu – were the worst affected, since in this case their stronger immune systems created an even more severe cytokine storm.” ~

from another source:

~ “The first wave of the Spanish flu struck in the spring of 1918. There was nothing particularly Spanish about it. It attracted that name, unfairly, because the press in neutral Spain tracked its progress in that country, unlike newspapers in warring nations that were censored. But it was flu, and flu as we know is transmitted on the breath—by coughs and sneezes. It is highly contagious and spreads most easily when people are packed together at high densities—in favelas, for example, or trenches. Hence it is sometimes referred to as a “crowd disease.”

That first wave was relatively mild, not much worse than seasonal flu, but when the second and most deadly phase of the pandemic erupted in the autumn of 1918, people could hardly believe that it was the same disease. An alarmingly high proportion of patients died — twenty-five times as many as in previous flu pandemics. Though initially they reported the classic symptoms of flu—fever, sore throat, headache—soon they were turning blue in the face, having difficulty breathing, even bleeding from their noses and mouths. If blue turned to black, they were unlikely to recover. Their congested lungs were simply too full of fluid to process air, and death usually followed within hours or days. The second wave receded towards the end of the year, but there was a third and final wave—intermediate in virulence between the other two—in early 1919.

The disease claimed between 50 and 100 million lives, according to current estimates, or between 2.5 and five percent of the global population. To put those numbers in perspective, World War I killed about 18 million people, World War II about 60 million. Rates of sickness and death varied dramatically across the globe, for a host of complex reasons that epidemiologists have been studying ever since. In general, the less well-off suffered worst—though not for the reasons eugenicists proposed—but the elites were by no means spared.” ~



Since nutritionists have been urging us to eat the “colorful food” like carrots and bell peppers, some people seem to have concluded that, like white bread, creamy white vegetables such as cauliflower and parsnip and white onions offer poor nutrition. Not so! Their color is due to anthoxanthins, a group of flavonoids known for a variety of benefits. The most common anthoxanthin is quercetin, abundant in onions and shallots.

Anthoxantins are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. They are thought to be especially useful in lowering the inflammation that contributes to asthma and allergies. They help block the release of histamine. Bothered by skin rashes? Try eating more onion — onion is a natural anti-histamine.

Anthoxanthins can also help with lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, stomach cancer and heart disease. They are anti-viral and anti-bacterial.
Foods don’t have to be white to contain anthoxanthins. Red onions actually have more quercetin than white onions, and apples are also a good source of quercetin.

Cauliflower, being a cruciferous vegetable, also offers cancer-fighting sulforophanes, detoxing glucosinolates, bone and artery-helping Vitamin K and manganese.

(multiple sources)

ending on beauty:

Last of October, light thinning
toward the cold. Deep shadow.
Tamaracks, lurid, glamorous
upon the breast of
moving darkness, clouds thick with
gunmetal blue.

~ Denise Levertov

Saturday, October 20, 2018


Sartre and Cat. “The present changes the past.” The right cat also changes the past. Mary: “A cat changes everything.” “Time spent with a cat is never wasted.” ~ Colette

And when it was time
I came to the Petrified Forest,
not of trees but men and women,
and I touched their cold faces.
I still had questions to ask,
and I told them of that grief
when I had lost them, no matter
how, their fault or mine (years
of that worthless emotion).
And I wondered again, aloud,
why we had made of our lives
such a stone hardness,
why so few of us held
to our roots, leafy with praise
one for the other, helping all
of us bear what we must come to.
And after a while I bent to the wind
to speak softly with petrified time.

~ David Ray


This is the heart of the poem:

And I wondered again, aloud,
why we had made of our lives
such a stone hardness,
why so few of us held
to our roots, leafy with praise
one for the other, helping all
of us bear what we must come to.

“Leafy with praise” — we are simply not taught how to praise intelligently. Most of us grow up with constant criticism, with put-downs. These are meant to “improve” us, even though deep down everyone knows that the result is going to be the opposite: the person who is criticized will now harbor bitterness against the critic and may even be moved to take revenge. Yet life is hard for everyone, and our first impulse should be to listen and understand, “helping all / of us bear what we must come to.” 


“Colette” is a must-see if you’ve seen “The Wife” — the contrast between the two speaks volumes about the difference between a story that’s obviously made-up and a “”true story” — one based on the actual life of a woman writer of genius. In an interesting parallel, Colette’s characters were not really made-up; they were quite obviously drawn from her life and the lives of the people she knew. You could say that she wrote semi-autobiographical non-fiction (Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar comes to mind as an example of that genre; one of my creative-writing professors remarked, “That’s not a real novel, is it?”).

Keira Knightley plays a complex, daring, exuberant (but see later) Colette coming into her own. But arguably this isn’t a movie dominated by the title character. Equally important is the piggish, shameless husband, Willy, brilliantly played by Dominic West. If you quickly grow to hate Willy that is understandable — but Colette would be the first one to remind you that without Willy, she would not have become a writer. He’s greedy, unscrupulous, manipulative, exploitative — a lecher, a wastrel, a scoundrel— and ruthless enough to lock up his young wife alone in a room to force her write, so that he can enjoy unearned fame and waste the fortune his wife’s novels make.

“We need more spice, less literature” is his how Willy understands literary business. Nevertheless, he did introduce this village girl to a life that expanded her experiences and broadened her mind. We can detest him but we have to acknowledge his peculiar importance in French literary history — a fact made almost farcical by his own lack of writing talent combined with his charlatan’s facility for pretending to be a real writer (he used a
factory of ghost writers already before marrying Colette). 

But to see Willy simply as evil incarnate leaves out something important. The same can be said about the perception of Colette as more than anything an independent modern woman, a free spirit triumphantly coming into her own. This is, strangely enough, a kind of sad love story. The movie makes it clear that when the two met, they truly fell in love. When Colette discovers Willy’s first infidelity, far from being a free-spirited polyamorist, she is heartbroken. It is a shattering of dreams, of the yearning for a true soul connection (nor is Willy entirely free of the same yearning).

And Willy understands that longing for connection and being truly loved at least to some degree. He buys his bride a dog, so she’ll have at least one loyal companion — and I don’t mean it sarcastically. The movie does not imply that Colette’s spirit was broken early — yet I can’t help guessing that the wound never healed completely. And while she soon becomes determined to make the best of it and live and love as she pleases, social conventions be damned — “Since when do you consider scandal to be a bad thing?” she asks Willy, who continues to pose as her “schoolmaster” — there is a shadow of sorrow that subtly darkens the movie.

Yes, this is a luminous movie about a highly spirited and ultimately very successful woman who enjoyed not only popularity with the public but also praise from formidable figures such as Marcel Proust. “Sido,” the story of her mother, is regarded as Colette’s masterpiece (and not the Claudine novels, “spiced up” by Willy); some of her descriptive passages are famous for a marvelous sensuality. Yet the sadness and suffering are undeniable as well. In spite of the cheerful façade, the sadness keeps showing. Perhaps open marriage is too great a violation of human nature — especially for a young woman at a stage of life when the longing for a deep romantic connection is very intense. No woman could be happy being married to a man like Willy, but especially not a sensitive woman with Colette’s depth of feelings. 

Also, she had the example of her parents’ marriage: her father, the “Captain,” was completely in love with her mother, Sido, and marriage was sacred to him. 


Only Willy can be called a true hedonist. Colette was a real writer, and writing is hard work. Like all creative work, it has its deep pleasures — but a writer’s life is not a life of pleasure. True, it is not without its special joys — that’s why it can compensate for romantic disappointments (but that’s probably true of all dedicated work). But it’s not “fun.” The parties, the glamour, the “beautiful people” one meets (“But aren’t they rather superficial?” asks the young and still naive Colette) all fade next to the endless hours of solitude spent writing and crossing out, writing and crossing out . . . 

“No one asked you to be happy. Get to work.” ~ Colette

Of course no movie can accurately portray a writer’s life — it would be much too dull to show those hours of solitude — the plodding struggle as well as the sudden spurts of inspiration that are the real drama. So movies about writers concentrate on their love affairs, on the witty and/or profound things they said in conversation, and on whatever else they may have done or experienced besides writing. Thus, here we have a drama of feminine liberation in addition to a couple of lesbian affairs, and a portrayal of the French society during the Belle Epoque. All this creates a rich, sensual, sumptuous “viewing experience.” But, caught up as we are in these important externals, let’s not forget those streaks of shadow that pass over Colette’s face as if she were traveling down a tree-lined country road — or those stain-like scratched-out words that spoil the neatness of the notebooks in which she wrote, and wrote, and wrote.


I  say a “love story” but a plural would be more appropriate. Colette’s relationship with Missy was obviously important. Missy was supportive at a time when Colette badly needed an ally — a best friend who wanted what was best for the woman writer who still let her husband take the credit (and payment) for her novels. Colette’s closeness to nature and animals was a love story of sorts as well. But it was her love of writing which proved to be the most enduring and empowering romance. Old age didn’t stop her — she wrote until the end. 

Keira Knightley as Colette.


~ “The night was murmurous and warmer than the day. Three or four lighted windows, the clouded sky patched here and there with stars, the cry of some night bird over this unfamiliar place made my throat tighten with anguish. It was an anguish without depth; a longing to weep which I could master as soon as I felt it rise. I was glad of it because it proved that I could still savor the special taste of loneliness.” ~ Colette, Bella Vista

~ “By leaning over the garden wall, I could scratch with my finger the poultry-house roof. The Upper Garden overlooked the Lower Garden - a warm, confined enclosure reserved for the cultivation of aubergines and pimentos — where the smell of tomato leaves mingled in July with that of the apricots ripening on the walls. In the Upper Garden were two twin firs, a walnut-tree whose intolerant shade killed any flowers beneath it, some rose-bushes, a neglected lawn and a dilapidated arbor. At the bottom, along the Rue des Vignes, a boundary wall reinforced with a strong iron railing ought to have ensured the privacy of the two gardens, but I never knew those railings other than twisted and torn from their cement foundations, and grappling in mid air with the invincible arms of a hundred-year-old wisteria.” ~ Colette, My Mother’s House and Sido

~ “Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” ~ Colette, Casual Chance

Colette’s view was that ideal companions “never have fewer than four feet.”


“Do not throw away your heart. Keep your heart. Your heart is all that matters . . . Throw away your ancestors! Throw away your shyness and the anger that lies just a few inches beneath . . . Accept the truth! And if there is more than one truth, then learn to do the difficult work — learn to choose. You are good enough, you are HUMAN ENOUGH, to choose!” ~ Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story


“When one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” ~ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own


GIFT, GRACE, THE UNCONSCIOUS ~ meditations by Milosz and on Milosz

Milosz: “How is one to cope with beauty and at the same time with the mathematical cruelty of the universe? What is the illusory appearance here and what the real content . . . If God is evil, what is there to justify my prayers?

If one rejects the idea of punishments and rewards after death as indecent (what sort of shallow transaction is that?) and if the history of Christianity raises doubts not only because it has often served as a mask for oppression but also because the first Christians deluded themselves, anticipating the end of the world; if dogma is out of harmony with scientific thought — then one must uncover a different dimension where the contradiction can change form and find a new validity.

. . . I recognized that reality is a good deal more profound than what I might happen to think about it and that it allows for various types of cognition. In this I was loyal to my mother and loyal to Lithuania — a Lithuania haunted by the ghost of Swedenborg. Nothing could stifle my inner certainty that a shining point exists where all lines intersect. . . . I felt very strongly that nothing depended on my will, that anything I might accomplish in life would not be won by my own efforts but given as a gift.” (The Native Realm)

In my first years as an atheist, still in my teens, I completely rejected the idea that it’s all a gift — too close to “grace.” But later I realized that I could say neither “all can be achieved by systematic effort” nor “all is a gift.” Obviously it’s a mix of both. Anyone who’s practiced the piano or another instrument can shrug his shoulders at my making such a big deal of this “effort plus gift” phenomenon. You make the first clumsy efforts, and then the “gift” part takes over — but let’s not forget that concert pianists practice for at least six hours a day, and up to twelve hours a day before a concert. And that persistence, isn’t that genetic and thus a gift?

Some matters are such a complex tangle of causes and effects that we’ll never know. Life has shattered my youthful optimism that anything can be accomplished if only one has an “iron will.” But I have a strong feeling that it’s not “either-or” but both. Life is an intricate interweave of both gift and effort (some wouldn’t hesitate to call the effort “agony”). Some days are mostly effort, while other days seem mostly “gift.” I don’t go with “90% perspiration, 10 percent inspiration.” It varies.
Artists can, and do, work insanely hard. But circumstances certainly do enter the creative process, all kinds of random factors not under our conscious control. I don’t speak of grace, but I do speak of circumstances beyond control and the astonishing behind-the-scenes work of the unconscious. Just the unconscious is a gift — the brain on automatic able to make the best the the circumstances, and find beauty even in what others might toss into the refuse bin.

In summary:   There are days when “all is a gift.” There are other days, when effort is the dominant theme . . . It's a complex interweave.

It’s interesting to compare Milosz to Colette — the nature-loving Milosz, that is, to whom the Lithuanian estate of his grandparents was what Sido’s house and garden were to Colette. But Milosz, a hunter rather than a gardener, did not see nature as quite as lyrical and idyllic. He saw it as permeated with death and suffering.

(A shameless digression: It’s interesting how often Milosz mentions Swedenborg — in fact he has a whole essay devoted to this particular “heretic,” obviously Milosz’s favorite. I have recently read about the history of Unitarianism. It turns out that there are other non-trinitarian varieties of Christianity — a handful of them claim that while god is is just one person rather than three, that one person is Christ and not Yahweh. To Swedenborg, the only deity was Christ.)

I'm not sure if Milosz was familiar with Universalism, i.e. the idea of universal salvation [Universalists later merged with the Unitarians] and a loving god. It's not a question of evidence -- Milosz saw mostly an evil god — but then Milosz would say that religion has nothing to do with reason, only with feelings, and is indeed a matter of choice. To be sure, this raises a question of whether a thinking person can really just choose anything that seems pleasant to believe, e.g. the Second Coming rather than a climate catastrophe.

Another point can use some clarification: Milosz didn't ascribe *intentional* cruelty to the universe. He was an educated (even an erudite) man who spent quite a bit of his adulthood as an atheist — then returned to the Catholic church possibly chiefly because of it was a political (anti-Communist) statement. And then he kept wrestling with the idea that if god did exist, and if the order of nature included so much suffering (let's consider just the natural suffering, not the man-made sort; Milosz was supremely aware of both), then god was evil.

Milosz said something to the effect that the more humanity's morality evolves, the more cruel the god of our ancestors seems to us (Yahweh; Milosz refused to answer the question whether Yahweh and Jesus were two different deities). Hence Milosz's deep interest in Gnosticism and Swedenborgian mysticism. If you read his essays and his last poems, you can see his agonies and temporary reconciliations. Basically he was forging his own personal religion, with an afterlife that consists of restoration [“the entire personality will be preserved,”], not reward or punishment. He obviously wanted a loving deity, but suspected the opposite. He also speculated that god is simply nature, but rejected this idea precisely because in nature "everything devours everything.”

One of his provocative ideas was that people choose to believe or not to believe — that faith was a matter of choice, of feelings rather than reason. You can start going to church and praying — Rilke saw this as creating god in your mind. But Milosz’s own example shows that for a thinker, doubt is a constant. Desire to believe may be real enough, but the proverbial voice of reason cannot be silenced — except perhaps for those moments of “grace” when you see yourself and others as workers in the vineyards of the Lord, with no extinction ahead, only unconditional acceptance and restoration of all that was loved and lost).

Yet here is Milosz asserting his loyalty to the earth and to his moment in time rather than  the afterlife.


~ Of the seven deadly sins, the one with perhaps the most diverse menu of antivenins is the sin of pride. Need a quick infusion of humility? Climb to a scenic overlook in the mountain range of your choice and gaze out over the vast cashmere accordion of earthscape, the repeating pleats swelling and dipping silently into the far horizon without even deigning to disdain you. Or try the star-spangled bowl of a desert sky at night and consider that, as teeming as the proscenium above may seem to your naked gape, you are seeing only about 2,500 of the 300 billion stars in our Milky Way — and that there are maybe 100 billion other star-studded galaxies in our universe besides, beyond your unaided view. ~ Natalie Angier 

Here is nature from the point of view of awe rather than the problem of evil. That seems a lot more satisfying. 


~ “Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organization. Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability and it contributes to 800,000 suicides per year, the majority of which occur in developing countries.

No one knows how many Zimbabweans suffer from kufungisisa, the local word for depression (literally, “thinking too much” in Shona). But Chibanda is certain the number is high.

[In Zimbabwe] those suffering from depression have few options due to a dearth of mental health professionals. Chibanda, who is director of the African Mental Health Research Initiative and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Zimbabwe and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is one of just 12 psychiatrists practicing in Zimbabwe – a country of over 16 million. Such grim statistics are typical in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the ratio of psychiatrists and psychologists to citizens is one for every 1.5 million. “Some countries don’t even have a single psychiatrist,” Chibanda says.

In brainstorming how to tackle this problem, he arrived at an unlikely solution: grandmothers. Since 2006, Chibanda and his team have trained over 400 of the grandmothers in evidence-based talk therapy, which they deliver for free in more than 70 communities in Zimbabwe. In 2017 alone, the Friendship Bench, as the program is called, helped over 30,000 people there. The method has been empirically vetted and have been expanded to countries beyond, including the US.

As Chibanda puts it: “Imagine if we could create a global network of grandmothers in every major city in the world.”

Chibanda always knew he wanted to become a doctor, but dermatology and pediatrics were his original interests. Tragedy awakened him to his calling as a psychiatrist. While in medical school in the Czech Republic, a classmate killed himself. “He was a very cheerful chap – no one expected this guy to harm himself and end his life,” he says. “But apparently he was depressed, and none of us picked up on it.”

Chibanda became a psychiatrist. But it wasn’t until Operation Murambatsvina (“remove the filth”), a 2005 government campaign to forcibly clear slums, which left 700,000 people homeless, that he realized the scale of the problem in Zimbabwe. When he ventured into communities after the campaign, he discovered “extremely high” rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.

Chibanda was the only psychiatrist in the country working in the public health space, but his supervisors told him that there were no resources they could give him. All of the nurses were too busy with HIV-related issues and maternal and child health care, and all the rooms at the local clinic were full. They could, however, give him 14 grandmothers and provide access to the space outside.

Rather than throw up his hands, though, Chibanda came up with the idea for the friendship bench. “A lot of people think I’m a genius for thinking of this, but it’s not true,” he says. “I just had to work with what was there.”

That’s not to say that Chibanda initially believed it would work, though. The grandmothers, who were community volunteers, had no experience in mental health counseling and most had minimal education. “I was skeptical about using old women,” he admits. Nor was he the only one with misgivings. “A lot of people thought it was a ridiculous idea,” he says. “My colleagues told me, ‘This is nonsense.’”

Lacking any other option, though, Chibanda began training the grandmothers as best he could. At first, he tried to adhere to the medical terminology developed in the West, using words like “depression” and “suicidal ideation”. But the grandmothers told him this wouldn’t work. In order to reach people, they insisted, they needed to communicate through culturally rooted concepts that people can identify with. They needed, in other words, to speak the language of their patients. So in addition to the formal training the received, they worked together to incorporate Shona concepts of opening up the mind, and uplifting and strengthening the spirit.

“The training package itself is rooted in evidence-based therapy, but it’s also equally rooted in indigenous concepts,” Chibanda says. “I think that’s largely one of the reasons it’s been successful, because it’s really managed to bring together these different pieces using local knowledge and wisdom.”

[One of the volunteer grandmothers] Chinhoyi, who is 72, has lost count of the number of people she has treated on an almost daily basis over the past 10-plus years. She regularly meets with HIV-positive individuals, drug addicts, people suffering from poverty and hunger, unhappy married couples, lonely older people and pregnant, unmarried young women. Regardless of their background or circumstances, she begins her sessions the same way: “I introduce myself and I say, ‘What is your problem? Tell me everything, and let me help you with my words.’”

After hearing the individual’s story, Chinhoyi guides her patient until he or she arrives at a solution on their own. Then, until their issue is completely resolved, she follows up with the person every few days to make sure they are sticking to the plan. 

Having come from the same communities as their patients, Chinhoyi and the other grandmothers have often lived through the same social traumas. Yet Chibanda and his colleagues have been shocked to find that the grandmothers themselves present surprisingly low rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other common mental health ailments. “What we see in them is this amazing resilience in the face of adversity,” he says.

Nor do the grandmothers seem to get burnt out despite counseling people on the brink of crisis day after day. “We’re exploring why this is, but what seems to be emerging is this concept of altruism, in which the grandmothers really feel that they get something out of actually making a difference in the lives of others,” Chibanda says. “It gives them a lot of great benefits, too.”

In 2016, Chibanda – collaborating with colleagues from Zimbabwe and the UK – published the results of a randomized control trial of the program’s efficacy in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers split 600 people with symptoms of depression into two groups. They found that after six months, the group that had seen the grandmothers had significantly lower symptoms of depression compared to the group that underwent conventional treatment.

The program has also expanded to several countries, and in doing so, Chibanda and his colleagues have found not only that it translates well across cultures but also that grandmothers aren’t the only ones capable of giving effective counseling. In Malawi, the Friendship Bench uses elderly counselors of both genders, while Zanzibar uses younger men and women. New York City’s counselors are the most diverse, including individuals of all ages and races, some of whom come from the LGBTQ community. “We cover all the bases,” says Takeesha White, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Communications at the NYC Department of Health’s Center for Health Equity. “New York City’s population is very broad.”

“When I visited New York, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the issues New Yorkers deal with are very similar to the issues here in Zimbabwe,” Chibanda says. “It’s issues related to loneliness, to access to care, and to just being able to know that what you’re experiencing is treatable.”

“This isn’t just a solution for low-income countries,” Simms says. “This may well be a solution that every country in the world could benefit from.” ~


I love the idea of grandmothers as therapists, and the native word for depression — “thinking too much” — which contains its own solution. One important step in my deciding to end my depression was coming across the book “Eating, Drinking, Overthinking.” The title alone did the work — the “overthinking” part, and putting it in the addiction category.

Regardless, I love the idea of a “friendship bench” where people can confide in a grandmother — a non-threatening, non-judgmental older woman trained in how to gently guide them to figuring out their own solutions.



~ “The Catholic church and the Communist party in formal terms are very much alike. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church said outside the church there was no salvation. The Communist party said the exact same thing. In Solidarity you didn't have one group against another group, you had an association of individual citizens, and ironically enough for a Marxist system, they were workers in effect saying, we don't need the tutelage of this group, we don't need you for salvation. And I think that was the undoing of communism, its inability to recognize in moral terms and in political terms the individual.” ~

(Oriana: This reminded me of a self-made Chinese woman billionaire who was used to work in Western high finance, but decided to go back to China: “I missed the idealism.” I also love the way that Jowitt sees an essential similarity between St. Augustine and Stalin, and Aquinas and Khrushchev. The Catholic church is a perfect example of a totalitarian institution that used to be charismatic but then went into decline.)

~ “Ken Jowitt, author of New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, argues that Lenin created a charismatic political party that gave people a heroic ideal. He compared it to monastic orders: the Benedictines and the Jesuits. I think the Marines are another charismatic organization, looking for “superior” men capable of total dedication. No one joins the Marines to get rich. It’s about being a hero.

That’s also why fundamentalist religions that make extreme demands keep attracting followers while the toothless, non-demanding churches lose membership. Charismatic organizations actually negate the individual: the group is everything. Forget your inner life, your individualism. You get your identity from the group to which you give yourself totally: “Totus tuus.” Idealism pushed to an extreme (being willing to die and kill for the cause) results in evil, but I don’t think we can ever rid human nature of the longing to live for a great cause and be a hero.

Renunciation, asceticism, total dedication, the heroic ethos — nothing could be more opposite of consumerism.

Jowitt also makes a point that sooner or later a charismatic organization loses its charisma. This is reflected in attempts to reform the system (Vatican II comes to my mind), but the more you reform, the less you demand of the faithful, the lesser the opportunity to be a hero and the greater the loss of the organization’s charisma. It doesn’t matter if it’s a right-wing or left-wing organization: both kinds feed the emotional hunger for heroism.

Jowitt: “I think in every ideology you'll find an Augustine and an Aquinas. The Augustines are those who argue that they represent the superior and that the rest of the world is inferior; you have to attack the inferior, maintain the cohesiveness and the bounded quality of the superior. The city of God versus the city of man. Now, I'm not arguing Stalin was a Roman Catholic or an Augustinian, but in analogous terms they were the same.

As soon as you dissolve the tension between that superior group and the society, unless the group is willing to allow those people in society to be equal as individuals, there's only one thing that can happen to that group: it becomes corrupt. Aquinas, in effect, tried to revise the church to deal with the fact that the society had become more Christian. Khrushchev was Communism's Aquinas, but neither Aquinas nor Khrushchev allowed for the individual to become the major figure. Rather, the church stayed superior, even under Aquinas; the party stayed superior. What happened in the church? You got a Luther. What happened in the Communist Party? You got a Lech Walesa and an Adam Michnik. And what did they stand for? They stood for the appearance of the individual against the domination of that group.”

There is also a need for an enemy: “You have to have a combat quality, there has to an enemy to sustain your need to convert the world. If you've converted the world, charismatics go out of business.”

Jowitt says that Gorbachev really thought he could reform the system; he didn’t realize he was dismantling the Soviet Union.” ~


One can argue that the early communists exhibited a perverted version of heroism, in the wrong cause, but they were heroic nevertheless. Aleksander Watt, a Polish poet and an ex-Communist ("My Century" is his fascinating tale of Soviet prisons, which cured him of both Communism and dadaist poetry) remarked that the most attractive individuals he'd ever met were pre-war Polish Communists, a fairly small and persecuted group. Their courage and devotion were total. When the party was embattled it was not corrupt. It took coming into power to corrupt it. Just one more variation on the eternal theme.


The comparison of the Communist party and the Catholic church hit me as stunningly, inarguably true.
I have had personal experience with both forms of charismatic idealism, being raised in the church before the “reforms” of Vatican II, and then being caught up in the radical “marxism-leninism-maoism” fringe politics of the early 70's.

To become a hero in the church required dedication and renunciation, the selfless and unwavering belief and dedication of the saint. There was an ecstasy there, in the very intensity of commitment, of “belonging" to something so much bigger than the individual, to something that went beyond time and death, with its own internal structure of meanings, orders, definitions, regulations, procedures and rewards. We had our ceremonies, our books of prayer and catechism, our degrees of sanctification, our mission to fulfill.

Rejecting all that, I gravitated to something similar in structure with the leftist politics of that time — very much influenced by the Maoist version of Revolution, with the charismatic leader and his "little red book", the insistence on renunciation of the individual to the demands of the "masses," and of course the dictates of the leader, the rituals of endless meetings where members practiced “criticism/self-criticism" and worked to eradicate any bourgeois  tendencies or thoughts in themselves and in the group.

Very harrowing, as you can imagine, and so like a religion, with saints and sinners as heroes and traitors to the Revolution, with rituals and punishments and penance to endure, and with the ecstatic sweep of being part of the movement of history toward a golden, perfect state all must sacrifice, fight and die for. A people's  heaven on earth.

Of course we have seen the suffering these systems have produced — the “bankruptcy” of these ideas and ideals. They may not have disappeared entirely as of yet, but have been modified and “reformed” into much less grand and powerful shapes, and are pretty much on the road to becoming something small and unappealing, powerless and with little hope of a future.

Now we may even shake our heads and wonder how we, or anyone, could ever have been taken in by such ideals, that seem so empty, useless, and even silly. But it is wise to remember how powerful they were, and how much, both good and evil, they accomplished.


I was horrified by Mao and his “Cultural Revolution.” To me that was sheer delusion. Coming from Poland, I realized how vulnerable to corruption the system was, and how quickly corruption took over at the first taste of power — including the power to imprison and kill. It was Catholicism, though, and reading about the saints, that gave me a certain degree of understanding of what it might feel like to have that “totus tuus” feeling — “I am all yours.” You toss your ego aside, and when you suffer, there is bliss even to that — it has a meaning. So when I came across “true happiness is only on the cross,” to me that was no joke.

But the voice of reason can’t be completely stifled, and when it whispers, “There is no one up there,” the truth of that seems so blatantly obvious that there is no mystery about why it prevails. Invisible entities milling about in the clouds? Millions of the dead up there? A city with sidewalks of beaten gold? The Catholic church in rare wisdom never pushed that one — too obviously made-up, a poor man’s fantasy.

How intelligent people can remain believers into adulthood remains a mystery to me. Some explanation has come from the study of cognitive biases, e.g. we are prone to see signs and wonders, pattern and meaning where there are none. And then there is the odious aspect of organized religion — the trail of blood, the misery it imposes through sexual repression and just its anti-life, anti-human attitude of preferring the pie in the sky to the proverbial “glory in the flower.”

And keeping the poor meek, and the women silent and subjugated — though some religions are much worse that way than others — that becomes more and more obvious as the child’s mind matures and perception broadens.

I also had a father who loathed the church precisely as a totalitarian institution, so at some point it was simply a matter of seeing how right he was, and how much the ideals were encased in an ugly shell of worldly power and sadomasochistic pathology from which they could not be divorced. The good and the evil were just too intertwined. And I could see the same thing with the Communist party, down even to some similarities in rituals (e.g. a May Day parade and a church procession) — the music, the “icons,” the flowers. It was almost funny how much overlap there was in flowers — tall showy flowers like red gladioli were the favorite. Ultimately it was all about the theater, impressing the faithful with pomp and circumstance (and, in the case of the Soviet Union, also with nuclear missiles).

The party had the advantage of not selling an invisible product — it could point to something very real like the agricultural reform or health care or education — a specific humanist ideal becoming a reality. It was not a matter to talking to imaginary friends in the sky. True, there was “historical necessity,” and those with most insight and erudition could see how Hegel “Spirit” or “History” became substitutes for god. But at least it was not an archaic god who could walk and talk. 


But the corruption within party ranks — self-enrichment, for instance, or the special stores where party members could buy Western goods, and the special clinics where they could benefit from Western medicine — that was terribly obvious too, so it was difficult to become and remain a true believer. The true believers were a dying generation; they grew up before World War 2, when the party really was charismatic, persecuted, and relatively “pure.” I can perfectly imagine how the singing of the International was once a sacred ritual providing a tremendous uplift.

And I envied that. I loved the feeling of total dedication to a cause — what moments (I think “moments” is probably the most accurate term) of it I experienced. But I could never discard my reason, which kept pointing out that nothing is all good or all bad — and even more important, nothing is an absolute truth.
“Once I was lost, and now I'm blind” — past a certain age, I was never sufficiently blind to embrace either religion or political activism. 


Then came dedication to poetry, and for a while that was tremendously satisfying — there was certainly enough crucifixion in being a poet to satisfy the idealist in me, and enough sheer sensual bliss to provide the ecstasy part. But the intellectual part of me was getting starved. I loved learned new things, and past a certain point, poetry couldn’t provide that particular pleasure.

Once I found  that fascinating non-fiction gave me more fulfillment than reading poetry — plus a gazillion of other factors, including the hostility and futility of a typical poetry workshop — I was again left in that bereft, lonely place of not belonging to anything larger. Fortunately, I was beginning to embrace the small — small rituals, small accomplishments, modest pleasures of daily beauty and human connection. It was contentment rather than bliss, but that ultimately was just enough to make life worth living even in the absence of a great cause to dedicate myself to. Even the nostalgia for such a cause has become only a vague memory. The awareness that a great cause also means a potential for great harm has never left me.

But can I still understand the “true believers”? Less vividly now than in the past, but I can. But I still wonder at the blindness of someone who can’t see that great harm can come from idealism pushed to the extreme. “Once I was lost, and now I’m blind” — that’s Jeremy Sherman’s description of extremists, religious or political or any other kind.

And I'm perfectly aware that the phrase “Little Way” comes from St. Therese the Little Flower. That just beautifully adds to the ironies and complexities. 


But then most readers of this blog are presumably younger than you and me, with our memories of both pre-Vatican 2 Catholicism (the real thing, not the shabby Protestantized church of today — no, the overwhelming spectacle and splendor of the bygone era) and this or that version of communism (though today it seems that, more than anything, the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were simply super-fascist states, with no human rights as the core principle). Maybe we are not reaching anyone anymore — if so, then let this remain a historical record: that’s how it felt to be a true believer, at least for a time. 


~ “Why is Stalin actually more popular in Russia today than he was during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991?

It's complicated. Make no mistake; most Russians aren't ignorant of Stalin's crimes. In a recent poll conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 65 percent of Russians agreed that "Stalin was a cruel, inhuman tyrant, responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people." Yet in 2011, 45 percent of Russians also had a "generally positive" view of Stalin.

 A lot of that discrepancy has to do with World War II, or as the Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War. At a recent conference held by the Russian Orthodox Church, which was persecuted by Stalin's government, one speaker told an audience that "the nation must be grateful to Stalin for the 'sacred victory' over Nazi Germany," according to Reuters.

Samuel Rachlin, whose Jewish family was exiled from Lithuania to Siberia by the Soviet government, recalls in The New York Times how some of his family's neighbors might have actually been grateful to Stalin, because Lithuania was later invaded by the Nazis. Sixty percent of Russians are in the "at least he's not Hitler" camp, agreeing with the statement that "for all Stalin's mistakes and misdeeds, the most important thing is that under his leadership the Soviet people won the Great Patriotic War.”

Some celebrate Stalin as one in a long line of strong Russian leaders, extending back from the Tsars to the inexplicably shirtless Vladimir Putin. Others have even more bizarre reasons for admiring him:

A surprisingly large number of Russians even believe that Stalin had mystical powers. As recently as 2003, about 750,000 people voted for a party that aimed to continue what it said was Stalin's attempt to battle the ancient Egyptian priesthood of Ra, which supposedly runs the world from its base in Switzerland. [Associated Press]

In Georgia, they have a more traditional reason for liking Stalin: He was born there. The Carnegie poll found that 68 percent of Georgians agreed that "Stalin was a wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity." According to the BBC, his birthplace of Gori features a Stalin museum and has voted to erect a huge statue of the dictator. One tour guide summed up the country's feelings towards the man:

‘In Georgia, most of the old generation like Stalin. They think he was a great statesman, with his small mistakes. Young people don't like Stalin, of course. Our young people are not interested in history and they don't like Stalin.’ [BBC]

That brings up an important point: Young people in Russia don't really think much of anything about Stalin. The Carnegie poll found that 18- to 24-year-olds were “almost twice as likely not to care about Stalin one way or another” as those who were 55 or older. Lev Kudkov, one of the authors of the study, is troubled by a population that feels increasingly positive or indifferent about Stalin, mainly because another Russian strongman might be learning lessons from him:

Vladimir Putin's Russia needs symbols of authority and national strength, however controversial they may be, to validate the newly authoritarian political order. Stalin, a despotic leader responsible for mass bloodshed but also still identified with wartime victory and national unity, fits this need for symbols that reinforce the current political ideology. [Carnegie]

As another author of the Carnegie report, Maria Lipman, gracefully points out, despite being buried in Moscow, "Stalin is not dead." ~


Let’s detox by reading about Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s a capsule summary, but it contains some details that I didn’t yet know (even after reading Eleanor’s biography):


~ “Anna wore frumpy clothes. Her teeth needed straightening, they would say. People would continue to attack her looks and her self-esteem to the point that she was very insecure, she believed what everyone said about her, admitting she was an "ugly duckling."

When she first met him, she could not believe that a man was interested in her. She wanted him to see her world, so instead of going to a fancy, social event, she instead took him to the slums of the Lower East Side, where she did volunteer work, helping young immigrants.

The young man, who had held a rich, sheltered life, saw things he would never forget — sweat shops where women labored long hours for low wages and squalid tenements where children worked for hours until they dropped with exhaustion.

This walking tour profoundly changed the young man, moving him to say, that he “could not believe human beings lived that way.”

The young man's name was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the young woman, who changed his life forever, who would change the world forever, was Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.

They would eventually marry. On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt would be inaugurated as the 32nd President of the United States and Anna Eleanor Roosevelt would become the First Lady. At first, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt remained shy. She would also continue to be ridiculed by the press, making fun of her stout figure, toothy smile, and way of dress. Even her own mother-in-law, still over-protective of her son, would tell Eleanor's own children that their mother was boring.

But, being First Lady allowed Eleanor Roosevelt to see more of the world, to see how the rest of the nation lived, outside of her privileged surroundings. She started speaking up for women, African-Americans, and children. And she started influencing her husband, telling him what she saw.

She would continue to receive hate mail for her views, but it just made her stronger, more determined.

When the Daughters of the American Revolution boycotted the 1936 concert of African-American singer Marian Anderson, she would resign her membership and helped organize a new concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial that made history.

She flew with black (male) pilots and helped the Tuskegee Airmen in their successful effort to become the first black combat pilots.

She would be nominated three times, during her lifetime, for a Nobel Peace Prize. She became a renowned social and political activist, journalist, educator, and diplomat. Throughout her time as First Lady, and for the remainder of her life, she was a high profile supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, of equal rights for women, and of social reforms to uplift the poor.

Even after her husband's passing, she remained active in politics for the rest of her life. President Truman would appoint her as a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations, where she would receive a standing ovation when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948.

She would chair President Kennedy's ground-breaking committee which helped start second-wave feminism, the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. And, she continued supporting women, even personally assisting in the careers of many women, providing them with guidance, giving them hope.

She would still remember when they called her an ugly duckling when she was growing up, but to the world, she was and continues to be a beautiful swan whose beauty inside helped her speak the truth, making the world a little better for all.” ~ Jon S. Randal


I was heartened by the discussion of Eleanor Roosevelt … because it demonstrates what one human being can do in their lifetime as a source of good … that even one person of integrity and goodwill can make positive change a real possibility. We need this now.


We certainly do. Yet imagine all that hatred and ridicule she drew. How odd it is is that an outstanding, large-souled individual can bring out the worst in some. And then the heroism of carrying on in spite of the nasty things said about you. Since this was a woman, much concerned her looks — how “ugly” she was.

But I remember one anecdote: she came to visit wounded soldiers, asking if she could help in any way, e.g. help write letters to the family. One soldier said that when she walked into the room, he thought Eleanor was ugly — “but after she talked with you and showed how kind she was, it was if as she became the most beautiful girl in the world.”


“We need this now.” Now that the Democrats seems to have lost their way and sold out to the corporations, will we ever have the likes of FDR, Eleanor, and Frances Perkins — and the many less-known public servants who believed in the common good? I prefer not to think about it — despair is too close.



 Cassava is high in resistant starch, a type of starch that bypasses digestion and has properties similar to soluble fiber.

Consuming foods that are high in resistant starch may have several benefits for overall health (8).

First of all, resistant starch feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut, which may help reduce inflammation and promote digestive health.

Resistant starch has also been studied for its ability to contribute to better metabolic health and reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

This is due to its potential to improve blood sugar control, in addition to its role in promoting fullness and reducing appetite.

The benefits of resistant starch are promising, but it is important to note that many processing methods may lower cassava's resistant starch content.

Products made from cassava, such as flour, tend to be lower in resistant starch than cassava root that has been cooked and then cooled in its whole form.” ~


Like potatoes, cassava must be cooked to be safe. The peel should be sliced off with a knife. Some sources recommend soaking; I suspect pressure cooking removes that need. Cumin, sliced onions, garlic, etc are nice additions when added to the final step of gently frying the cassava chunks in coconut oil and/or olive oil.

But it’s so much simpler to steam a yam, or boil some ordinary potatoes. By the way, chilling those potatoes afterwards (as in potato salad) changes part of the starch into resistant starch.

Baking potatoes exposes them to excessive temperature, which creates carcinogenic compounds.

ending on beauty:

Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.

~ Geoffrey Hill