Tony Judt, “Reappraisals”

The time has come when I felt like I needed to read something more intellectually challenging then self-help and spiritual texts. “Reappraisals” by the late brilliant Tony Judt, has been collecting dust on my shelves for the past eight years, since the year I started doctoral studies in history. The idea was to write about communist legacy in Poland’s political sphere, the decline of the left, etcetera etcetera. My studies director recommended Furet, Aron and Judt to me; I bought “Reappraisals”; the director scoffed that it was the least relevant of all his works; I moved on without ever reading the book, until now. I quit the programme too after the first disappointing session; I congratulate myself to this day.

I don’t remember if it was that professor that made me discover Judt or had I been reading his essays in the New York Review of Books before, but I was a die-hard fan for many years, and was saddened by his passing from ALS in 2010. His was an old-school erudite brilliance of a polyglot scholar, haughtily enjoying his breadth of knowledge, mercilessly pointing out the shortcomings, short-sightedness and limitations of authors he reviewed for the NYRB. “Reaprraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century” is a collection of essays, mostly book reviews. One reason for which I’ve always enjoyed reading Judt was his “feel” for Eastern Europe, and a non-condescending language with which he unraveled the complexities of the troubled region. However, what I never realized was his distaste for identity politics, feminism and related issues. In The Silence of the Lambs: On the Strange Death of Liberal America he writes:

We are all familiar with intellectuals who speak only on behalf of their country, class, religion, “race,” “gender,” or “sexual orientation,” and who shape their opinions according to what they take to be the interest of their affinity of birth or predilection. But the distinctive feature of the liberal intellectual in past times was precisely the striving for universality; not the unworldly or disingenuous denial of sectional identification but the sustained effort to transcend that identification in search of truth or the general interest.

It’s astonishing that he would not see how the “general interest” of the past liberal intellectuals defined the secure well-being of white men only. It’s hard to take the quotation marks around race, gender, and sexual orientation after seeing the very real, struggles, experienced by living, feeling human beings, surrounding these categories. As if pointing out the many imbalances and setbacks encountered by people who do not fall in the white, male category only made the “universal, common good” less possible.

In Arthur Koestler, the Exemplary Intellectual, Judt is clearly irritated by Koestler’s biographer’s (David Cesarani’s) seriousness in reporting “the exemplary intellectual’s” numerous assaults on women. Curiously, he labels as anachronistic Cesarani’s “tak[ing] Koestler severely to task for his attitude to women.” Judt’s argument goes, sure, he was disrespectful, pushy and demanding, but Cesarani goes way too far by calling him a serial rapist. Again, “beating and raping” and “serial rapist” are put in sceptical quotation marks. Judt goes on to say, “If Koestler were alive, he would surely sue for libel, and he would surely win. Even on Cesarani’s own evidence, there is only one unambiguously attested charge of rape: In 1952 Koestler assaulted Jill Craigie, the wife of English politician and future Labour Party leader Michael Foot, in her own home during her husband’s absence.” Clearly, only an assault on a married, wealthy woman could ever be taken seriously (and even that, not always), especially in the 1950’s, but the situation hasn’t changed that much after all. Judt then denounces the black-or-white vision of the author, cals “disarming” the frequency with which the word “rape” occurs in the book, suggests that the reluctantly conceding women might have simply enjoyed Koestler’s advances, and comes up with the following conclusion: “As for the notion that someone might indeed be disposed to sexual domination, and even occasionally to force, and yet be appealing to women – well, this has apparently never occurred to Cesarani, even as a hypothesis.” Judt sneers at the tediousness and “sexual correctness” of Cesarani’s accounts of “Koestler’s adventures.” It was part of the mores of the times, after all. And in a particularly callous turn of phrase, he adds:  “To the best of my knowledge, the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian, Austrian, Russian, German, and French intellectuals who pass through the pages of Cesariani’s bookk shared most of Koestler’s views on such matters, even if they were not always so assiduous or so successful in practice.” Is this gross or is this gross? Judt criticizes Cesariani’s moralistic tone, but at the same time trivializes sexual assault over and over again. He seems to be saying, big deal! “We know now that he raped the wife of a friend and forced his attentions on some reluctant women. This is deeply unattractive behavior. But Koestler was no moralist.” – so we shouldn’t judge him morally.

Judt’s view of Hannah Arendt’s thought can be summarized as calling her unoriginal and inconsistent, inexplicably appealing to the young people of our times. Simone de Beauvoir has even less respect in his eyes. There aren’t many more women mentioned in the book.

So yes, while I enjoyed “Reappraisals” and appreciate the insight I gained on many authors I will most likely not read (Leszek Kolakowski, Karol Wojtyla aka John Paul II, Primo Levi, and others), the book had an added benefit for me of helping me kill another idol. Tony Judt no longer has my unqualified admiration, and neither should he. I welcome these moments of awakening opposition to those I would like to revere. It teaches me not to expect total truth, wisdom and understanding from anyone – which is something that fuels much of the social media debate. Some authority we love suddenly says something that is not in line with our dearest narration – we want to educate them, force them to apologize, change their opinion. They resist. We move further away, beginning to question everything else they have done. I don’t want to do this. Tony Judt will still be an authority to me, on certain questions, but with qualifications. And on that note I will end. With love, goodnight.


Make your own rose-tinted glasses!



A Polish woman living in Canada for over 7 years now, I still find myself a stranger to North America. Truthfully, Québec is a very special pocket of NA, its independentist tendencies and provincial nationalism making it feel very much like Europe, in some ways. Nevertheless, this is North America, a culture built on white man’s optimistic belief that anything is possible if he only works hard enough and completely denies such trivial limitations as, say, mortality.

While my heart made me embrace Buddhism, and while Buddhism helps me deal with existential issues, it is not of much help in the business of staying financially afloat. The sweet and quiet resignation, tempting as it might be, can be deadly in the hunger games of capitalism, even as tempered as they might seem in Quebec.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helped me stand on my own two feet once before, beconed again, and so I picked up the apparently legendary Learned Optimism by Dr Martin Seligman, just to see if I could stop moping around and become more, I don’t know, American, in my approach to everyday life. Enough philosophising, I thought, time for action. Symptomatically, action meant picking up a book that pretended to be more upbeat than the usual stuff I seek out.

What did I learn from dr Seligman, then? I learned that being optimistic is GOOD FOR YOU. It makes you happier, more productive, healthier even. You die later, on average, if you are an optimist. Dammit. Apparently I can learn optimism by disputing my own thoughts; I believe it, and do it, I really do. Dr David Burns’ Feel-Good Handbook told me how to do it the last time I needed it. It is very effective indeed. Nothing is as serious as you think.

One thing that bothers me though is that those ways of changing how we talk to ourselves, by swapping negative delusions for positive ones, is just that – swapping delusions.

But I promised myself not to be so Buddhist, because I do want to get shit done.

Mind you, I know people who are Buddhist and get shit done, and beautifully so.

To be honest, getting shit done has nothing to do with your spiritual orientation.

I like reflecting on things.

I hate Seligman’s focus on productivity.

I really wish everybody could just stop producing and start reflecting a little, and stop, just effing stop for a moment, and just be, and not DO so much, because a lot of what we are doing fills our days and pockets and gives us purpose but this purpose is so detrimental to life on earth, in the end… and yet it is crazy to be saying so.

I think maybe I do not want to talk myself into optimism.

One thing that I really retained from Learned Optimism was the fact that children do not commit suicide. They might be depressed, yes, and as severely as adults are, but they never choose suicide. Seligman explains it by evolutionary psychology, to me, it’s about divinity, I guess. I can’t stop thinking about it.

I also laughed at his experiment with life insurance agents that ended up with the guy he helped make succesful selling him a super duper expensive policy. Nice touch.

Also the part where he advises parents not to divorce because it fucks up the children. Do not provoke your partner, says he, do not chase your own happiness. Then he writes of his own divorce. I’m guessing some serious guilt there. Also, he never even mentions the existence of domestic violence. Screw that.

I did the optimism/pessimism tests dr Seligman created, coming off as an extremely pessimistic person. It wasn’t that bad overall on a variety of indices; where I really scored low was in not attributing good things happening in my life to my own merits. I can often see how other people fucked up in case something bad happens, but good things, whew. I just never seem to be able to congratulate myself on good stuff. Makes me feel phony. Probably this is the reason I don’t write more.

Because I know it’s just luck.

Being stoic cannot go along with being optimistic though, and to believe dr Seligman, only optimism can get you anywhere.

Man, what a struggle of my sceptical, Eastern European self with this obnoxiously positive American mentality. But if I don’t embrace it, can I even survive here?

The next post will be about Rigoberta Menchu, and then Ishi, and how living with their stories makes it kind of impossible to embrace dr Seligman’s theories.

Why do I live with their stories? Why do they resonate with me so much?

To be continued.





To know enough’s enough is enough to know.


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Circulation of Ch’i (1886), via the Public Domain Review

The title of this post, as well as the previous one’s, come from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way. The translation I have is Ursula K. Le Guin’s, which is why I picked it up in the first place. As a teenager, I devoured Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and have respected her enormously ever since. A few years ago, I read an article about her father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who eventually quit practicing anthropology when he understood that studying other people as savages was disrespectful and ansurd, or at least this is how I remember it. I also read that Le Guin’s fantasy characters were inspired by the Native American perception and wisdom, which makes perfect and beautiful sense. So when I saw that she translated Tao Te Ching, I was intrigued. She makes it clear in the Introduction that she does not read Chinese, and so her translation is more of an interpretation, based on reading all available English translations of the book and deciding on the sound and meaning that rang truest to her:

The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth.

Some critics have subsequently criticised Le Guin for trying to dumb down the content of one of the most important texts in the spiritual tradition, but she warded off these criticisms in advance:

I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening to the voice that speaks to the soul.

So there you go. I picked up this book as that very kind of reader, and wasn’t disappointed in that I didn’t get much out of it. I have an impression that it would be presumptuous for anybody to claim to “get it,” though. This is the expected Asian philosophical quagmire par excellence. To my postmodern eye, its paradoxes and wisdoms evoke kung fu movies, comical in their culturally untranslatable gravity. Of course Lao Tze came before kung fu, and movies, and postmodernism, but what can I do. I get to know all of it backwards. It’s the curse of being born in the 20th century.

The Book starts off discouragingly enough, by explaining what Taoing is. Thus,

The way you can go

isn’t the real way.

The name you can say

isn’t the real name.

And it ends in the following couplet:

Doing without outdoing

is the Way of the wise.

Every poem, or passage, contained in the Book of the Way (and there are 81 total), is based on oxymorons which blow my Western mind, and I love it.

It makes me wonder about the so-called universal wisdom, though.

I realize that in order to benefit from the wisdom of Tao Te Ching, I need to learn much more about Chinese philosophy, some historical context too, delve deep. And I don’t mind doing it. But what it really menas is that the Tao is not really universally accessible, clear and helpful to all – and neither is the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Quran. It’s like I am suddenly aware of this very obvious thing. We keep trying to translate those holy doctrines into other languages and mentalities and it’s never exactly right, but then it can’t be exactly right, because they are all built on paradoxes. Languages express or evoke, and nobody really knows which one is happening at any given moment.

I couldn’t sleep last night, and I was slipping in and out of dreams all night long. At some point, at 4 am maybe,  not-so-wide awake, I was mulling over this thing where we are told, by Buddhism, that we are asleep and that all we need to do is awake to see that this, here, is nirvana. And then I thought about the research that shows how much we are all creatures of habit, that we spend our days on autopilot, predictably reacting to various situations in the ways we are accustomed to. Mirror neurons play a part in making us react in unison with those around us, and so we end up in this half-awake state that very few people manage to break. And perhaps the biggest difference between being asleep and awake is that other people influence us by their actions in the latter case, while we dream alone, although Jung would disagree. And meditation leads to the same conclusion. Watching my mind spin off every random thought, sound, smell, sensation that reaches my senses, seeing how far it can take me in the space of seconds, how I make myself smile or cry with going along with the story I just unwittingly produced, is humbling. And that is only when I sit and am aware of these thoughts – I make myself not to act on them, I wait them out. But it is true, I am dreaming something all the time. My mind is dreaming something and showing me something and me, I think, this is my life.

So I read Tao Te Ching like a tourist visits a Shaolin Temple: wondering at how much I do not understand, cheering when I do seem to understand something, and than immediately distrusting my understanding. Enjoying Le Guin’s cheeky footnotes. Not really feeling that warmth and sense of humour that she claims permeate the work. Thinking about the patriarchal, feudal notions of political rule, and how they do not seem compatible with Lao Tsu’s proclaimed pacifism. And also the idolization of “not doing.” Like in Chapter 47, which rings very true to me.

You don’t have to go out the door

to know what goes on in the world.

You don’t have to look out the window

to see the way of heaven.

The farther you go.

the less you know.

So the wise soul

doesn’t go, but knows;

doesn’t look, but sees;

doesn’t do, but gets it done.

In other words, “Be water, my friend.”

Nothing much to add, really.

Whatever you lose, you’ve won. Whatever you win, you’ve lost.


Stacked by my bedside are books I have read in the past few months, plus a Kindle. I kept putting them there to remind myself to write, and then I never did. I usually want to write about them right after turning the last page, or while I read. As I go through them, the words I read raise so many  questions, issues, criticism, gratitude. They make me feel smart, enriched, connected, engaged. But that feeling ends once I put them down.

I didn’t use to like reading anything twice, gods forbid more than that. But here is something I did for the first time in 2015: I latched onto a book and read it over and over again. Four, maybe five times so far. The strange thing is that I can’t remember what it is about. Maybe that is because it is not really “about” anything in particular. It’s a book that makes me go through the day’s events and see whatever happened from a fresher perspective. It is a spiritual guide and a part of me never wants to put it down, because it helps me deal with loss, that tragic theme of 2015.

This spiritual loop book is Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. It’s a philosophy, a lens, a filter, a reality check. Sometimes it makes me shudder, but mostly it calms me down. I read it over and over because every time I go through a chapter, what I learn has a different color and flavor than it did the last time. It teaches me something new every day. And lessons must be repeated until they are learned.

This past September, only six months pregnant, I unexpectedly went into labour and gave birth to a tiny baby girl. She died five days later. Her short life began and ended in a hospital, where kind and courageous people fought for her survival. But she was too small, too early. One after another, her organs broke down: heart, lungs, brain. Taken off life support, she died in our arms.

In the five days of my baby girl’s life, my heart broke open and I understood the meaning of bereavement. I have also experienced an icredible wave of love, as powerful as nothing I have felt before. It seemed like too much to bear, and it made everything else meaningless. Until then, I didn’t truly realize that love does not shield from pain, because there is nothing to be done in the face of death. That those you love are not yours to keep. That sometimes, babies die. Yes, my intellect knew these notions to be true, but to have that truth settle in my heart was nothing alike.

In those moments, I tried to recall whatever I could from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. About a year ago, I think, I pored over its mythical descriptions of the passage of the soul and the advice to those left alive. I remembered the souls floating through bardo, the false heavens and the nightmare realms. I imagined my baby girl’s tiny soul floating through clouds and muddy waters, sucked into a painfully distorted mouth of a daemon, like the ones I saw in Tibetan temples. Then I saw her slipping right back out, brushing against daemon fangs, bobbing along on her way, free of anger, sadness, longing.

As Tibetans would have it, I tried my best not to hold her back. I tried hard not to burden her with my despair. I assumed my grief and was there for her with a beaming heart and gratitude for every second we spent together. I didn’t want to let her go, but what I wanted didn’t really matter. There are no words.

I don’t always feel strong and I don’t have it all together. My life energy is very low. Caring about anything takes a big effort. Pema Chodron is a good companion for these wound-licking times. I remember getting home from the hospital and reading, tired and resigned:

Hopelessness means that we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together. We may still want to hold our trip together. We long to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we’ve tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and the ground just keeps moving under us. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can’t be done.

And I knew it was true. I was not comforted, but there was relief in facing the truth. Anyway, no comfort is possible in such moments. Grief has a life of its own. I couldn’t fight it. I couldn’t do anything about it but be kind. One of my friends, after hearing about baby’s passing, sternly admonished me to close this chapter of my life, march ahead, and never look back. Shut off the pain, stay strong, keep walking. But this is not the way I will have it. I will keep examining my own mind, and have faith in my own experience. There is nothing to shut off, throw out, forget. There is everything to embrace.

Yes, I got my share of suffering, but I do not feel like I have been wronged. I thought about it on my birthday, Christmas day, and New Year’s, when people who love me and wish me well expressed their hopes that better things were coming our way in 2016 and later on. That we would all live happily ever after. I agree, it would be nice not to lose anyone or anything dear to me anymore. But it will happen. Hopefully not too soon, because, at this point in time, I might just collapse, but eventually it will. I don’t want to fear it, though naturally I do. I want to say, ‘Just stop dying, you people, stop it, alright?’ – but that’s impossible. Pema has  something to say on this, too:

The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.

Doesn’t it go against the grain of everything we were ever taught? I find it fascinating, the way I want to deny it.

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.

I used to read this passage in relation to self esteem, but when death enters the picture, it still makes profound sense. That feeling of lack is perhaps the driving force behind human actions. Accepting lack as inevitable dissolves it. If this is the way it must be, then there is nothing lacking.

Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time – that is the basic message.



Shlomi Nissim

As I was reading the many myths and tales recounted in the Handbook of Native American Mythology, I wondered if I was going to find my favorite story, one I could own, and finally I did. It was listed under “Transformers.” Here it is, in its entirety, the story of a White Wolf Woman:

Sometimes the change takes place in a person’s spirit long before it is made evident by a physical transformation.

Once, long ago, a young Zuni woman was captured by a Navajo raiding party. She was tied to the back of a horse and the group galloped back to the Navajo village. The young woman was taken to the home of a Navajo man to become his younger wife. However, by the second night, she chose to sleep alone outside. Very early the next morning, when the young woman awoke, she found the older wife standing beside her. The Navajo woman offered the Zuni girl a blanket, food, and container of water, and then pointed to the east where the sky was just beginning to turn light. The Zuni girl gratefully took the items and ran from the Navajo village toward the rising sun.

She ran quickly through the underbrush and covered her tracks when she walked on sandy riverbanks. Finally she reached the top of a high mesa and looked back in the direction she had traveled. No one was following her, so she unwrapped the package of food and ate it all and drank most of the water. After the refreshing meal and rest, the Zuni girl began to run again until evening. She dug into the ground under a large tree and slept in the depression. Later, when she awoke, she was hungry again, but found that she’d consumed all of her food on the mesa. Then she tried the water container, but it, too, was empty. The girl was frightened, cold, and tired, but she got up and began running toward home again.

Another night came and she fell asleep huddled under the Navajo blanket. Snow fell and covered the ground. When she awoke, the girl pushed the cold, wet blanket away and started running again. However, exhaustion soon caught up with her and she collapsed on the snowy ground. A large, white, furry animal came to examine her nearly lifeless body. The animal looked toward the heavens and let out a spine-tingling howl and trotted off. The girl tried to sit up, but collapsed again. The white wolf returned quickly, pulling a freshly killed animal. He pulled it up over the girl to give her warmth. Then the wolf tore off a piece of the prey’s flesh and pushed it into the girl’s mouth. She ate the raw meat and was grateful for the warmth of the dead animal covering her.

When she had recovered the young girl began running toward home once more. She ran all day and again collapsed in the snow when her strength was gone. Soon the white wolf found her and lay in the snow beside her to keep her warm. For four more days the two traveled together toward the east. On the morning of the fifth day, the girl could see her village and ran down the slope toward it with the white wolf running beside her. The girl called out to the people who only stared at the strange sight. She told them her name and how happy she was to have returned home. Some men grabbed their bows and arrows and pointed them toward her and the wolf. The girl stopped suddenly, confused by what she saw. The men ordered her to move away from the wolf so they could kill it. Just then the girl realized that the men thought the wolf was chasing her. “No! Stop! This wolf saved me and brought me home.”

The men lowered their bows. As they approached her, the wolf disappeared and the girl sank to the ground. She was carried to her father’s home. When the girl awoke she was lying on the floor next to her father’s corpse. As she looked around, she realized the house had been stripped bare. Her father had died while she was gone and no one was there to prepare his body for burial. Tenderly she washed her father’s hair, dressed him, and covered him with a blanket. No one spoke to her as she made her preparations, nor while she pulled his body to the Cliff of Death. The young girl continued to live in her house alone. Occasionally food was left at her door overnight, but no one dared speak to her.

Zuni woman by John Karl Hillers

Zuni woman by John Karl Hillers

Over time the young girl became an old woman. She knew there would be no one to take her to the Cliff of Death when the time came, so she decided to prepare her body and dress in her burial clothes. Unable to stand any longer, the woman dragged herself through the village—the village that had been her home. The people watched as she made her way up the hill. They saw her turn to look back at the village and suddenly a chilling howl pierced the air. The howl came from the old woman as her body changed into a white wolf. The White Wolf Woman howled again and then with strong legs loped away over the hills. She still roams the area today and White Wolf Woman Canyon is named for her. People tell of being lost in that canyon, but White Wolf Woman shows them the way home.


Still on the topic of Native Americans, I took to a more somber publication: James S. Frideres’s First Nations in the Twenty-First Century . Even though I am pretty much aware of the history of exploitation on the part of the European settlers, the facts I am learning now still are chilling. Take this, for instance:

Once reserves were established [turn of the 19th century], the well-being of the First Nations was largely ignored by the Canadian government, except for the presence of local Indian agents whose principal task was to see that federal rules and regulations were followed. The promised provision of animals, agricultural equipment, and seed, in numerous instances, was not forthcoming for the prairie First Nations.  . . .  And when some communities were able to successfully circumvent those barriers, white neighbouring farmers objected to First Nations people placing their goods on the market, citing unfair advantage. Consequently, revisions to the Indian Act made it illegal for First Nations farmers to sell their produce on the open market. The deputy superintendent-general of the Department of Indian Affairs at the time concluded that Indians could not make an ‘unnatural’ leap from ‘barbarism’ to a nineteenth-century agricultural environment. First, they would have to become ‘peasant’ farmers, with Indian Affairs as their feudal lord. While Indians might want to emulate the whites, federal officials felt that this could not take place too quickly or too soon. Indian agents were instructed to discourage Indians from engaging in potentially lucrative grain farming and, instead, encouraged them to cultivate small vegetable gardens without the help (or cost) of plows and draft animals. In short, First Nations people and communities who had become successful and competitive were defined as ‘unnatural’ because they had achieved success in only a few years rather than through the slow process of evolution that the whites had experienced. (14)


Source: Archives of Manitoba

Source: Archives of Manitoba

The author also makes interesting points about the legal aspects of the entire Native American “problem” – definitions, botched treaties, the “we are the chosen people, we are progress” bias, the blatant discrimination:

 “In 1927 the federal government decided that one way to stop First Nation tribes from expressing their disagreement with the government over land issues was to make it illegal for them to hire a lawyer (or any other third party) to initiate legal claims against the government. This law was not revoked until the 1950s.” (13)

The law, the governments, the monstrously petty bureaucracy have inflicted nearly unimaginable violence with white gloves on.

At the same time, we are witnessing a true First Nations renaissance right now, and it is impressive. There is incredible activity, A Tribe Called RedMoe Clark and others rock the boat, there is Idle No More, there is Quebecoisie, in which a couple of young Quebeckers are moved to reevaluate their identity by taking an honest trip into the province’s interior. There is hope and pride visible in the recent reaction to Ellen DeGeneres’ ill-informed plea to ban seal hunt. It all makes me optimistic.


In other news, I have registered to participate in an online conference, Recovery 2.0: Beyond Addiction. It is free to participate in live, but downloading the lectures costs about $100. I am going to try to take in as much as I can live. I am looking forward to hearing Gabor Mate, Krishna Das and Ram Dass. I don’t know other people on the list but I am sure I will learn much. I have come to see addiction as the defining malaise of our time, its pattern underlying most destructive human behaviors. The more I learn about it, the more I understand, as well, that it takes a strong spiritual stance to face it in naked honesty and to lead a good life. I am still not used to writing and talking about it, but I believe that it is all good that the words don’t turn all smooth and glib in my mouth. I appreciate the stumbling, the humility.

I have recently re-watched my favorite documentary in the world: 1 Giant Leap’s What About Me? You can follow the link to watch the entire thing on YouTube. I swear you won’t regret it. You might dance. You might cry. I’ll finish with this quote from Krishna Das:

That there is going to be enough to make us happy in this world is one of the basic illusions that carries us through life. We’re born hungry in every level. We’re hungry for everything. All our senses are hungry for input and when you don’t get enough you think that there is enough somewhere. And until you get enough and realize that it isn’t enough it will keep coming back. You keep dreaming that romantic image that this will be enough. This relationship, this car, this thing that you know. Cause wanting doesn’t stop. No matter how much you get. In the west we kind of like live as if we’re supposed to be all of us, kings. All the time. And all have everything we want. And when we don’t there’s something wrong with us. And we get angry . . . We take our suffering so personally. How could this happen to me!



Going on


I haven’t stopped writing, but I turned to more private musings in the mornings, as a way of clearing my head. The reading/ watching/ listening lately has been predominantly on various release techniques, Alexander, Feldenkreis, Klein, core integrity, what not. I exercise and watch the ego admire my muscles, then debase itself in a binge. Native American myths and legends on the metro and, come bedtime, Julia Cameron to keep the faith. I started a mandala workshop to bypass the logic and words and to go deeply into something I am pleasurably null at.


Bones Water-n-Harmony

I’ve slowed down in my book reading a little bit and got lost in the Internets again, with specific focus on mobility, bones, fascia, movement, and other wonders of the body.

My search has taken me strange and beautiful places, such as Emilie Conrad’s Continuum. “The woman who dances like water” has since the 1960s pursued her inquiry (not a complete theory, as she emphasizes, not a masculine assertion of infallibility) into the essential unity of the universe, movement as its graceful expression, water as our eternal environment. Stressing the spiral, the spontaneous, and the involuntary, inspired by fetal development and the evolution of our species, and drawing on Haitian dances, Conrad has found a way to float without water, seemingly diluting gravitational pull, opening and nourishing every cell of her body in the process, as she puts it. Her videos show remarkable corporeal awareness, rarely seen in human beings, as in this video:

I have gained much body awareness in the past couple of years, but am still half asleep when it comes to reading internal sensations. I’ve begun wondering how my scoliosis fits in here. I wore a back brace through high school, a plaster cast for about three months, and finally was operated at 18 (two metal rods screwed into my thoracic vertebrae). Luckily enough, I never had any complications and even though I was told that sports were an absolute no-no (with the exception of swimming), I kept sneaking some into my life. It always felt like breaking a taboo, though, as if my life was on the line. I was scared of becoming badly hurt, or disabled, but I kept trying. Until today, each completed run, vinyasa sequence, or boxing class feels like a miraculous victory to me.

I listened to Liz Koch‘s audio book on scoliosis the other day. Liz Koch is the psoas woman, studying and spreading the good news about the human filet mignon, as she calls it, with fierce love and dedication. It would appear that nourishing the psoas, keeping it juicy and supple, is the key to everything: alignment, freedom from pain and fear, openness to love. She wrote about and collaborated with Emilie Conrad, and her psoas exercises echo Conrad’s liquid movements. What I found startling in Koch’s words on scoliosis was the idea that it had much to do with family dynamics, sexuality, creativity, and a score of other, deeply embedded issues. I balked at the claim that getting her spine surgically strengthened was tantamount to sending a message to a young girl (as scoliosis usually appears or worsens at puberty) that she, her developing body, is not ok and has to be called to order, or fixed. Koch unraveled her own curvature, but I have met hunchbacked people – and yes, the hunch was the result of untreated scoliosis. So I am very grateful for having been operated and being more or less straight now. Perhaps, had my parents been Californian hippies, and had we had any idea about alternative treatments back then, we would have found another way of dealing with it. The way things were, my mother did everything she could to save my back: I was followed by orthopedists, chiropractors, I swam and exercised every day, until I was about 13 and grew 12 cm in one year, which was when my scoliosis became dangerous. Perhaps mine was a pathological case. Not everybody requires surgery, but I reached the 50 degrees threshold.

Criticism aside, it is true that emotions and physical experiences do leave traces in the body. An invasive surgery, involving stretching, drilling, scraping, and grafting of the skeleton, must present an enormous trauma to the organism. According to Koch, fear and pain get lodged in the fused vertebrae, which in turn influences breathing patterns, both physically and psychologically. I also know the importance of early attachment patterns and the constant, unconscious replaying of family dynamics every adult is bound to perform, unless they acquire a bit of a higher awareness. So I followed Koch’s suggestion, went into the memories linked with my scoliosis, saw many things surface, and cried. I’d never cried over being sick before – that was what my mother, aunts, and grandmothers did. I laughed it off, and roughed it as well as I could. But the sorrow I felt today softened me. It was good.

It’s interesting that three weeks ago I was moved to write a story about my scoliosis in the creative writing workshop.

Travis Bedel

Travis Bedel

It seems like I am getting deeper and deeper into this flesh business, and oh, them bones! Ania, my Berlin-based dancer friend, spoke to me of Klein Technique today, and I wish I could try it in motion, but reading must suffice for now. Susan T. Klein writes,

Bone is the deepest, densest tissue of the body and thus it conducts the greatest currents of energy. Bone is at the core of who we are and through it we know the essence of our being. When all else is gone, as a tree stripped bare in the season of winter, we can read its code; we can see its essential nature and know what was, through reading the bone. Bone does not yield to gravity, but acts as a conductor, conducting energy, and connecting us to the system of nature, to the greater whole. It is through the bone that we stand as a ridgepole, “the tai chi”, between heaven and earth. When all else is gone, it is the bone that remains. It is bone, which holds our self-identity, our essential selves and our will power. Dropping away from the superficial and deceptive strength of the muscles we access strength from coordination; we access power connected to the knowledge of self-identity and the spirit of will available in the bone. Our power and identity come from working at our deepest physical level – the bone. (source)

This is so fascinating. Somehow, this knowledge results in enormous relief and humility. And it just seems so natural that I am doing it now, the whole going inside thing, reaching through to the bones. I was reminded of Clarissa Pinkola-Estés’ words, in “Women Who Run With the Wolves”:

Some say that the soul informs the body. But what if we were to imagine for a moment that the body informs the soul, helps it adapt to mundane life, parses, translates, gives the blank page, the ink, and the pen with which the soul can write upon our lives? Suppose, as in fairy tales of the shapechangers, the body is a God in its own right, a teacher, a mentor, a certified guide? Then what?  . . . It is in this light that the wildish woman can inquire into the numinosity of her own body and understand it not as a dumbbell that we are sentenced to carry for life, not as a beast of burden, pampered or otherwise, who carries us around, but as a series of doors and poems through which we can learn and know all manner of things. In the wild psyche, body is understood as a being in its own right, one who loves us, depends on us, one to whom we are sometimes mother, and who sometimes is mother to us. (205-206)

I need to sleep now (my morning ritual has suddenly become a Saturday night thing, how did THAT happen?), but I want to note down two more things.

One: I saw Jane Goodall speak at Concordia University on Friday and it was an absolutely beautiful experience. Her new book, out on April 1st,  is about plants and is called “Sowing the Seeds of Hope.” Along with Vandana Shiva, she advocates for Mother Earth with such steady passion and conviction that I know it must flow from some deeper source. Goodall turns 80 tomorrow. Reportedly, after one of her recent lectures, someone asked her, “You achieved so much in your life, what’s the next thing?” She smiled and said, “Well, death, I suppose.”

Two: I am listening to the audio of Julie Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” and it is precious, offering lots of kindness and compassion. Cameron writes of “artists in recovery,” as if life without creation were one drunken spell, while creativity meant sobriety that could only be granted by the Great Creator (aka God). It sounds  religious, but not institutional, and I am with her on it. Happy that I chanced upon this book. Goodnight now.


Clap your hands, Blue Jay

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy (The Library of Congress)

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy


Native American myths and legends often deal with death, and I often wonder how today’s children would like them. When I was little, my mother thought that H. C. Andersen’s or Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were too cruel, so she’d change the endings as she read them to me. She feared I was too sensitive. I don’t think so; I would have just probably pestered her with questions she wasn’t sure how to deal with. I remember finding a collection of Inuit stories in my parents’ large library and being absolutely terrified and yet drawn to their stark universe, in which life and death coexisted, not peacefully, but not at polar opposites either. Last night I read the story (not Inuit; this one’s from the Pacific Northwest) of Blue Jay and his sister Ioi, who married a ghost. Blue Jay went to visit her in the land of the dead, where he had a grand time switching skeletons’ bones, ripping them off, and being generally wicked. The story ends thus:

Eventually, the ghost people complained about Blue Jay’s tricks, and Ioi’s husband told her to send him home. At first he didn’t want to go, but he finally left. On his way, he came to a prairie that was ablaze, and Blue Jay burned to death. Then he went back to the land of the ghosts. His sister met him at the river and went over to him in her husband’s canoe. . . . When they came to the village, the people were playing games and singing. Blue Jay shouted at them, trying to get them to fall into piles of bones, but the people just laughed at him. He kept pestering them to no avail until finally his sister told him that he was dead, too. And then he became quiet. (72)

I like how there is justice and there is logic to the story, but also this soft transition from the living to the dead, the consciousness of illusion, and the life that goes on, regardless of death.

Interestingly enough, the day after writing skeptically about “the power of storytelling” and feeling terribly bold about it, I read a 2010 BOMB Magazine interview with Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst and essayist I’d just discovered. Here is a passage that made me prick up my ears :

SP: One of the things that most resonates for me in “On Balance” is your writing on the dissonant, disjunctive, essentially random nature of existence. My last question concerns this state of incoherence. A word that is bandied around a lot at the moment is storytelling. It’s applied to branding, marketing, everything. In its wide, popular usage, the word is becoming increasingly incoherent. I literally don’t know what it means anymore. Could you talk a little bit about that?

AP: You can see the issue in a current debate in psychoanalysis. One version of psychoanalysis will say that the definition of mental health would be the capacity to tell a coherent narrative. From another psychoanalytic point of view, that would be precisely the problem. I think both things are true. People who have suffered ruptured, violated lives need and want some narrative coherence, but narrative coherence quickly can be a problem when it becomes a refuge from thinking. I agree that the idealization of narrative coherence is a bizarre cultural development. The problem is finding forms of incoherence that are listenable to. . . .  Somebody’s got to find a way of making a form of incoherence extremely revealing and alluring. It’s a really interesting cultural task—not that we should become better storytellers, because that’s the most boring thing on earth, but let’s become better antistorytellers. There is more to life than the stories we can tell about it. . . .

People need to be educated into believing that evocation is more important than information. If we could bear listening to people, without trying to understand what they’re saying, we would get more from them. Effectively, psychoanalysis listens for the incoherencies that are saying more, or something other, than the coherences. It’s got something to do with the musicality of people’s voices and intonations; it’s a form of listening that’s less hypnotized and distracted by their coherences.

There is something about this idea that makes my heart beat faster. Maybe it’s because I have tricked myself into believing my own story, and playing the character I imagined I was with laughable zeal and conviction. It’s true that words have a life of their own. The ease with which they come to me is deceitful, because it also signals that I am always up for one hell of a ride. Fiction writers often describe how, in the middle of the book, characters seem to take a life of their own and, at some point, almost hijack the story and dictate it back to the writer. I think this might be true in life as well. I wish I could meet Blue Jay and see if, when he claps his hands, I’d really turn into a pile of bones? Or not yet? 

Lastly, Phillips’ statement that “there is more to life than the stories we tell” and his call for incoherence of narratives reminded me of this brilliant documentary by Sarah Polley. You can watch it here. It is so worth it.

Silver spring

The participatory photo exhibit went well. I was kind of relieved to see a small group attending and I am happy to move on to other things. I got to ask a couple of people involved in film making how to proceed with the documentary, now it’s up to me to make it happen. I have all it takes – except the microphone, but it’s on the way. I’m stoked again. What I needed.

I’ve finished the full engagement bible and, again, it is implementation time. The toughest and the most desired.

Yesterday, in the Metro, a black boy sitting next to me was reading Krishnamurti on his iPhone, in French

As for me, I think I’ve had enough self-help for the moment (mind you, I might change my mind again tomorrow). Right now I’m treating myself to two books: Handbook of Native American Mythology” by Dawn E. Bastian and Judy K. Mitchell, and “The Illustrated Guide to Native South American Myths and Legends: Tales from the Aztec, Maya, Inca, and Amazon Peoples,” compiled by Geraldine Carter.

I have been fascinated by Native Americans ever since, as a kid, I discovered suitably themed adventure novels (in Polish, many of them by Polish authors). I soon realized that no happy ending ever came to stories of noble warriors and their tribes. They were always tragic. I remember that it made me sad and angry at the white man’s, my, destructive civilization. I think I never quite got over that anger.

I’ve often wondered how it is possible that, as kids, we are taught very clearly what is right and wrong by so many books and films: we learn that greed and war and destroying nature is evil – we all do! And then we grow up, rationalizing that, after all, grades, productivity, efficiency, jobs and economy and this thing called “progress” are the most important. We need to make more money, people! Screw the forests, we need to build highways; fuck the mountains, there’s precious stones inside them! And stinky liquid under the ocean floor! And gases trapped in the Earth’s belly! We’ll have fuel and fighter jets and space shuttles and no oxygen! Won’t it be grand. And so we deride the same values we should have absorbed and followed through, calling them “idealistic,” or “utopian,” or “unrealistic.” Is this a naive rant? Oh yes, very. And very, very true. And everybody and their gut knows this to be true. But there’s no happy ending for us either, I’m afraid.

This is what makes me wonder about the value of stories and “storytelling” as such. It’s one of the words used so much today, and it’s been commonly accepted that it’s good and important because hey, that’s how we think, that’s how we understand the world, right? True, no doubt. But, as Krishnamurti points out, if we look at our model of knowledge critically, including the storytelling part, we see that accumulation of facts and narratives did not make us a better humanity. It is actually this greedy, agglutinating paradigm that makes us continue in our suicidal ways. Maybe we don’t need more stories, you know? Maybe we need to really listen to some old stories, and really learn them, and live them through, in silence. Again, I realize I am contradicting myself here, because I carry on with this blog, and I have plans of writing this, and filming that, but really, I think I want to do all that mostly to validate my existence. To show that I have something to offer. I feel forced to show, to prove, to be deserving. I wish I could just sit down, shut up, and be, and I wish that were enough. But I’m not ready to be homeless.

I’m clearly oversaturated with language and verbalized thought processes. So why do I read Native American stories? I think it’s the mystery that attracts me. Elements that will never be known or explained; sequences that escape my logic; unfathomable, and yet strangely relatable, gods and goddesses with as much to lose as us humans. Just listen to this Aztec myth:


Itzpapalotl, the horrible “obsidian-knife butterfly” is a supernatural being who combines attributes of the butterfly, or soul, with the knife of sacrifice. The butterfly in many mythologies is the ghost of the dead, and in this ghostly creature it is associated with the horror of the altars of blood. She is one of the Tzitzimime – “the demons of darkness.” Her dreadful face is tricked out with the cosmetics of the Mexican court ladies – rubber patches and white chalk. Her claws are borrowed from a jaguar, and sometimes she is represented as having a skull instead of a face.

The Expulsion of Itzpapalotl from Heaven

Itzpapalotl was expelled from heaven because, as she pulled up some roses in a garden of great delight, the tree suddenly snapped and blood streamed from it. As a consequence of this action she was deprived of that place of enjoyment and was cast into the world. (36)

Simple, almost familiar, and yet so foreign. The above excerpt comes from the “Guide to South American Myths,” indeed beautifully illustrated. It’s the first time I’ve actually taken a close look at Diego Rivera’s murals. Genius.

All in all, fascinating as these stories are, the language used to transmit them in the books seems inadequate. Maybe it’s the oral tradition that dies in the writing. There is definitely a big SOMETHING lost in translation. Something eludes me, like a beautiful fish I see swimming in shallow water and cannot name, even though I Know it. Actually, I’ve decided, I don’t even want to know its name any more. Seeing is enough. The “Handbook” is on to something when it explains that

Long before Newton, Kant, Einstein, or Minkowski, ancient cultures around the world understood that there was a relationship between time and space. They understood that an event happening right here, right now could be imbued with a sacredness that not only set the event apart from the mundane, but also set apart the time and the place where it occurred. In the remembering of the event, whether by telling and hearing oral narratives, or by participating in or viewing various ceremonies, people were able to transcend the present and become part of the sacred. . . .

Native American people believe that time is cyclical and dynamic, and that this cyclical time functions not only in the spiritual realm, but in the day-today existence of all living things. One Hopi scholar has called this relationship “mythic reality.” In other words, the truth of this present, physical world exists simultaneously with that of the mythic, spiritual world. (36)

The past and the future coexist with the present. There was no bing bang. There is just this constant growth and death and overlap. And we within it. And I am just beginning to feel this pulse.

Malinche by Diego Rivera

Malinche by Diego Rivera



Poisonous silence

I finished reading “Addiction to Perfection” last night – with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is much to be learnt from Marion Woodman’s insights, on the other – her perspective can be very narrow. When claims to universality are made using a limited  range of symbols, it all falls apart – there are just too many caveats. Also, too much normativity. Part of me wants to follow and believe, another part is left cold. However, I found the section on filial complexes very revealing. Woodman would call me a “father’s daughter,” Athena, Brunhilde. It’s funny, and at times unsettling, to see oneself in these categories. Psychoanalysis makes me feel superstitious. There is so much vagueness in the unraveling of symbolic meanings, so much berth for transference. Well, I’ll let good lady Marion rest for a while. Her conclusion is, as any wise woman’s would be, to go inside and find what needs to be found there. Fair enough. Oh and do body work to express emotions without exploding. I’m on it. This is definitely one plus of being unemployed: there is time to move and write. The only thing I don’t like about writing is sitting.

Actually what I have been reading and watching most lately are books, articles, interviews, lectures, videos, etc. on the way the body works. I do yoga and just started boxing, and I try to figure out what hurts, what is locked, what to do with tensions, why I can perform one move but not another, how to challenge myself and not get injured. I discovered Kelly Starrett and Mobility Wod and I am impressed. Starrett is annoyingly macho at times (most of the time, tbh), but his mission of bringing physiotherapy home, so that everyone can “perform basic maintenance on themselves,” is just plain awesome. He is a geeky jock, if you will imagine. I also study a yoga anatomy atlas and do psoas exercises with Liz Koch, and I am learning to do self-massage (myofascial release) with yoga therapy balls. I miss dancing. In a week or two I am taking my bike out of the basement and, once the snow in the Olympic Park is thinner, go running. I can’t wait. I am sleeping well, drinking lots of water, trying to make sure that my joints and muscles are strong and in good order. The body is endlessly fascinating. It is sadly amazing how little we know about ourselves, how easily we delegate that knowledge to specialists. I want to know me, so I listen hard and treat well this awesome body of mine.

I finished the text on that art event I mentioned earlier, and I am pretty pleased with it; waiting for feedback now. It’s very dense, poetic, and sensual, a tad on the heavy side.

In a creative writing workshop I am taking I get intense, positive reactions to my stories. Last week, a fellow writer began encouraging me to get them published. I realized how much I wanted it – encouragement – and also how afraid I still am to step forth. I am afraid! In so many ways. The workshop is my little safe outlet, where I write either memoir-type stories or fiction, often based on family stuff, and even thinking of making it public feels sacrilegious. Even writing these very words here feels wrong. I shrink as I write, as if someone was standing behind me and reading this over my shoulder, disapproving. This someone looks a lot like my mother.

On the other hand, I really want to do it. Family secrets are poison and they have made me sick to the core. Even now, I feel angry as I type – angry that I should feel like I have to “protect” (i.e., not talk about) a person who crushed me with all her might, all in the name of love. This is absurd. I don’t hate, I just suffocate, and the more balance I am seeking out in my life, the less sense it makes to go along with the old family narrative. There is no one left to please, I tell myself. I don’t want to be angry forever. The prize  is being expelled from the family, losing the last imaginary stronghold of belonging. But that has already happened, I guess. 

I am dizzy with incertitude and made to think of Marion Woodman again. This time her words ring very true:

“Having sacrificed our old attitudes and traditional structures, we are not at all sure that Yahweh won’t destroy us. We stumble along, walking as proudly as we dare, trusting in the love of others who are walking their parallel paths, mustering the same kind of courage, trusting that there is meaning in the irrational.” (187)

Djuno Tomsni

Djuno Tomsni