Monday, July 27, 2015

The Acquisition of Language

From 'Strange Behavior, Tales of Evolutionary Neurology', Harold Klawans, M.D:

"...While improved hunting implements could assure a better supply of food, and therefore a decrease in infant mortality (the key to true Darwinian biological superiority), it is difficult to ascribe to such a technological advance any changes other than a mere increase in numbers. Certainly not man's cultural explosion, nor the development of language.

So if it wasn't "man the hunter" who was responsible for the explosive biological advantage of modern humans, what was?

Our advantages over other species are most probably due to the development of a complex language. And women are far more likely to have played the more significant role in this than men. Women were the ones who did the tough job: raising the juvenilized children in caves or any other environment and teaching those children what they needed to know to survive in the world while they were still dependent, weak and slow.

Teaching survival to the juvenilized infant depended on language. Language gave the human the distinct advantage for survival. And over a million years or two, the result was the evolution of brains selected for acquisition of language and other skills during the period of prolonged juvenilization."

Page 35

Friday, July 24, 2015

Tell me your story

" Sunday morning in 1971, Lewis was summoned to a terrifying scene. A man was holding a loaded gun on his family, threatening to kill them and himself and anyone else who got in the way. Lewis walked right into the man's house, sat down beside him, and said quietly: "Tell me your story."

Ten hours later, the man gave him his gun.

The truth buried in this drama gets to the very heart of Crisis Center work: each of us has a story, each of us has a loaded gun that we aim at ourselves. After hours, or years, of talking, the story can at last be told in its fullness, and the gun can be laid down.

The story has both happy and sad chapters, and parts if it may be forgotten. Sometimes it takes an outsider to help remember or clarify it. Lose your story and you lose the pageant of your life."

Page 23, 'A Slender Thread, Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis', Diane Ackerman


"The Pleiades, an open star cluster, sparkles in the constellation Taurus. ..Although I can't see it with the naked eye, I know a "brown dwarf" lives there, a faint denizen of deep space too large to be a planet but too tiny to be star. Brown dwarfs, which form from a collapsing cloud of gas and dust, are suns that for some reason didn't ignite into leaping infernos. Frigid to the core, not bright enough to see, they're only detectable because of their abundant lithium.

Lithium, the chemical manic-depressives take to stabilize their moods. I bet manic-depressives would enjoy knowing they share an elemental chemistry with huge objects in the far reaches of space, wondrous objects located and defined by their use of lithium."

Page 157, 'A Slender Thread, Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis', Diane Ackerman

If you have ever gone to the woods with me

How I Go Into the Woods

Ordinarily I go to the woods alone,
with not a single friend,
for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree.
I have my ways of praying,
as you no doubt have yours.

Besides, when I am alone
I can become invisible.

I can sit on the top of a dune
as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned.
I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.

If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love you very much.

Mary Oliver

Some deaths are polite and quiet

In a Hospital

By the side of an old woman
who is dying in a corridor
no one stands

Staring at the ceiling
for so many days already
she writes in the air with her finger

There are no tears no laments
no wringing of hands
not enough angels on duty

Some deaths are polite and quiet
as if somebody gave up his place
in a crowded tram.

Anna Kamieńska

Holding the world together

There are so many unsung heroines and heroes at this broken moment in our collective story, so many courageous persons who, unbeknownst to themselves, are holding together the world by their resolute love or contagious joy.

Although I do not know your names, I can feel you out there.

David Abram

Our stories, and our evolving self

"Our stories help us understand a terrifyingly confusing and dangerous world, most of which is a riddle. For the world to feel safe, we need to make sense of it, especially when we encounter setbacks and misfortunes that shatter our confidence.

Telling anecdotes to friends,  we reveal our true natures, we're not just offering the what and when of our lives.

How was your trip? someone asks. The answer gives more than the whereabouts and the weather. It includes encounters, small triumphs, accidents, embarrassments, revised attitudes. Anecdotes alert our friends and loves ones to our basic values, biases, qualities, and concerns - and also how those vital pieces of identity are changing over time.

The more we learn about ourselves, the more we revise the facts to fit our evolving sense of self. As the vocabulary of life changes, we need our memory to say something fitting, something that makes sense in a newly ordered world.

How we tell the story influences how we feel about ourselves. Change your story and you change your identity."

Page 233, 'A Slender Thread, Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis', Diane Ackerman

The Enemy

"...Storr sees in Churchill's story a classic relationship between depression and hostility, in which an emotionally deprived child resents his deprivers but can't risk showing any anger or upset, since he desperately needs the very people who are torturing him.

Depression results from turning that hostility against oneself.

Sometimes such people aim at opponents in the outside world. As Storr observes, "It is a great relief to find an enemy on whom it is justifiable to lavish wrath."

In Churchill's case, "fighting enemies had a strong emotional appeal to him....and when he was finally confronted by an enemy whom he felt to be wholly evil, it was a release which gave him tremendous vitality."

Page 183, 'A Slender Thread, Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis', Diane Ackerman​

An Innate Sense of Value

"...For most of his life, he (Winston Churchill) crumbled under the repeat blows of a depression so familiar, loud, and unshakable, that he called it his "Black Dog" - I suppose because it hounded him. It had its own life and demands, was uncompromisingly brutal, and became a monstrous family member to be reckoned with.

It seems to have been an affliction he shared with a number of his ancestors, including his father, who suffered from what was described as "melancholia". A small, feeble boy, bullied at school and neglected by his remote, glamorous, high-society parents, Churchill grew into a dynamo of a man packed with energy, assertiveness, bravery to the point of recklessness, a tough attitude, extreme ambition, plentiful ideas, willfulness, aggression alternating with compassion, artistic tastes, egomania, and a yen for daring adventures.

The deprivation he felt as a child may well have fueled his ambitions, but, having no innate sense of value, he was easy prey for the armies of depression that plagued him throughout his life.

..In psychiatrist Anthony Storr's fascinating character study of Churchill, he argues that in 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, it took a bold conviction for Churchill to rally the British people, but "it was because all his life, he had conducted a battle with his own despair that he could convey to others that despair can be overcome."

...For the last five years of his long life, Churchill sat in a chair staring at a fire, partly paralyzed by a stroke, wholly demoralized by depression. He stopped reading, he rarely spoke. The Black Dog finally caught up with him and pounced, flattening him under its rough weight.

But what a dynamo he had been, so inventive, so courageous, so resilient. A history-making, difficult life."

Page 183, 'A Slender Thread, Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis', Diane Ackerman

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Forget meaning, practice being

"...Bare attention, Buddhism calls it, a pinnacle of meditation, a path to freedom from pain and suffering - not by fleeing the world, but being fully available to it.

Disponibilité, André Gide named a related attitude. (Availability, Receptiveness, in French)

Phenomenologists label their version of "bare attention" phenomenological reduction. But it's interesting how many of the world's religions and philosophies urge us to live in each silvery moment, while resisting the temptation to skim over, take for granted, or ignore the impromptu sensations that give life its vigor.

Forget meaning, this attitude says; practice being.

Feats of disciplined awareness wouldn't be necessary if we weren't in such a hurry to die and shed the burden of the senses, those permanent houseguests that keep us tipsy or tormented throughout our lives. Slow down, our sages advise, slow all the way down to the pace of stone and shadow.

How long can you watch sunlight flash across threads of spider silk stretching between two limbs of an evergreen? How long after the tree appears to be full of tinsel? Can you observe it longer than that, with continuous pleasure and surprise, but without remembering a Christmas? Without planning gifts or visits? This is the tinsel test.

Poets tend towards bare attention naturally, and are usually able to address one facet of the world with such devotion that, as Blake described it from the depths of his own supple vision, it is possible to "see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour. (

Page 266, A Slender Thread, Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis', Diane Ackerman

Friday, July 10, 2015


Wanting Sumptuous Heavens

No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.

Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
Heaven to be, and God to come, again.

There is no end to our grumbling; we want
Comfortable earth and sumptuous Heaven.

But the heron standing on one leg in the bog
Drinks his dark rum all day, and is content.

Robert Bly

This constant good, this saving hope

Because we spill not only milk

Because we spill not only milk
Knocking it over with an elbow
When we reach to wipe a small face
But also spill seed on soil we thought was fertile but isn't,
And also spill whole lives, and only later see in fading light
How much is gone and we hadn't intended it

Because we tear not only cloth
Thinking to find a true edge and instead making only a hole
But also tear friendships when we grow
And whole mountainsides because we are so many
And we want to live right where black oaks lived,
Once very quietly and still

Because we forget not only what we are doing in the kitchen
And have to go back to the room we were in before,
Remember why it was we left
But also forget entire lexicons of joy
And how we lost ourselves for hours
Yet all that time were clearly found and held
And also forget the hungry not at our table

Because we weep not only at jade plants caught in freeze
And precious papers left in rain
But also at legs that no longer walk
Or never did, although from the outside they look like most others
And also weep at words said once as though
They might be rearranged but which
Once loose, refuse to return and we are helpless

Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over, beginning
Again: just this constant good, this
Saving hope.

Nancy Shaffer, 'Instructions in Joy'

En Route

En Route
Adam Zagajewski

1.  without baggage

    To travel without baggage, sleep in the train
    on a hard wooden bench,
    forget your native land,
    emerge from small stations
    when a gray sky rises
    and fishing boats head to sea.

2.  in belgium

    It was drizzling in Belgium
    and the river wound between hills.
    I thought, I'm so imperfect.
    The trees sat in the meadows
    like priests in green cassocks.
    October was hiding in the weeds.
    No, ma'am, I said,
    this is the nontalking compartment.

3.  a hawk circles above the highway

    It will be disappointed if it swoops down
    on sheet iron, on gas,
    on a tape of tawdry music,
    on our narrow hearts.

4.  mont blanc

    It shines from afar, white and cautious,
    like a lantern for shadows.

5.  segesta

    On the meadow a vast temple—
    a wild animal
    open to the sky.

6.  summer

    Summer was gigantic, triumphant—
    and our little car looked lost
    on the road going to Verdun.

7.  the station in bytom

    In the underground tunnel
    cigarette butts grow,
    not daisies.
    It stinks of loneliness.

8.  retired people on a field trip

    They're learning to walk
    on land.

9.  gulls

    Eternity doesn't travel,
    eternity waits.
    In a fishing port
    only the gulls are chatty.

10.  the theater in taormina

    From the theater in Taormina you spot
    the snow on Etna's peak
    and the gleaming sea.
    Which is the better actor?

11.  a black cat

    A black cat comes out to greet us
    as if to say, look at me
    and not some old Romanesque church.
    I'm alive.

12.  a romanesque church
    At the bottom of the valley
    a Romanesque church at rest:
    there's wine in this cask.

13.  light

    Light on the walls of old houses,
    Passerby, open your eyes.

14.  at dawn

    The world's materiality at dawn—
    and the soul's frailty.

Everybody needs to be understood

"You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word?

Everybody needs to be understood.

And out of that comes every form of love.

If someone truly feels that you understand them, an awful lot of neurotic behavior just disappears — disappears on your part, disappears on their part."

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