Poetry: Seamus Heaney

The Skylight 
— by Seamus Heaney

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.
But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.


About Seamus Heaney:  The Wiki article, The Poetry Foundation

My Impressions:

  • Enjambment: In poetry, lines with broken syntax are called “enjambment“. Enjambment is in stark contrast to rhyming couplets or other rhyming patterns — which most of our minds have been raised on. Enjambment has always been aesthetically painful to me — perhaps like Jazz or Sitar music is to others, whereas I love both of those. Nonetheless, over the years, I have slowly gotten to the point where I don’t let poetic enjambment bother me — mind you, I still don’t love it, but it won’t stop me from appreciating a poem. Yet in Heaney’s “The Skylight” I actually appreciated his enjambment — I am not sure why. It is fun to have something outside of one’s familiarity finally stir one’s heart.
  • Skylights: I hold an ambiguous aesthetic relationship with skylights too. But in this poem, I felt the author surrendering aesthetics for the other, the lover, and falling slowly and trustingly into her/his influence — a sort of healing.
  • Jesus Healing: The final reference to Jesus-healing-story, was a perfect fit: a hole in a roof and a healing. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the story is shared in the synoptic gospels Mark 2  and Luke 5 while Matthew 9 has a bit of a different story of Jesus healing a paralytic lying on a bed.
  • Biblical Literacy: Biblical references may have rung true to many readers decades ago, but Biblical literacy is down. Yet perhaps in Heaney’s Ireland, it may have been much higher. Just as knowing the Bible helps with Western literature, in Eastern literature you may need knowledge of the Mahabharata (Indian) or the Shahnameh (Persian) or the I Ching (Chinese) to mention a few. There is too much to know out there.  I even get lost in conversations with others because I don’t watch TV shows or know sports. But it is fun when we understand allusions because they give depth to a story.  Learning about the unfamiliar and relaxing into their unknown aesthetics can be healing, eye-opening and enriching.

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Recovering Joy

Learning from TakiTaki was 16 years old and had a newspaper delivery route in his small Japanese town.  Like every morning for the last two years, he was riding his moped around with his load of papers strapped to his moped when, for a few seconds, his attention drifted and Taki tragically blasted headlong into a parked car.

Taki’s parents had given up on their son for all-but-dead when 6 months later he miraculously came out of his coma. Sadly, Taki had lost control over the right side of his body but his mind was not affected. It took him a year to learn to walk with a walker, and another year to get enough coordination to drop the walker. His gait was awkward, but he had won more independence.

Five years after that disaster, Takis showed up at my rural doorstep as a foreign exchange student – he was regaining more and more independence. Hand written on his application, Taki mentioned a “minor” physical handicap but I had overlooked that note, so was surprised to see a young man limp, with great effort, up to my door. “Minor” physical handicap?  Well, that already told me a lot about Taki. And soon  I learned that it was not with “great effort” that he walked, but he was used to his condition by the time I met him — it was his “normal” effort.

At that time I was a professor in a rural Pennsylvania university with two young children.  I thought the exposure to foreign students would be good for my son in our ethnically homogeneous community (my daughter was too young).  But I was naive, of course, both of my kids were too young to remember any of this (and thus this post).  Instead, all this was to add color to my life — and it was immediately clear that it would not be Taki’s Japaneseness in rural Pennsylvania that would be enlightening, but his indomitable spirit.

I did my best to show Taki a good time in our little town: I took him out to pubs, local restaurants, college classes and kite flying. One night, I even introduced him to chewing tobacco. You see, Japanese don’t chew tobacco, and though I no longer chewed myself, Taki saw lots of folks chewing and had asked me about it. So I thought, “What the heck, this could be fun.” It was horrible, of course, and his head was spinning for about a half-hour and the nausea was not fun.  But Taki was very happy and proud to have tasted Pennsylvanian tobacco chewing culture that day. As the Japanese say, “we had made a memory”.

But the real reason for this post is to share a different very special, touching experience I had with Taki that touched my heart.

One day Taki and I drove by a bowling alley in town and Taki shared with me that he use to be a bowler. In my 7 years in Japan, I had never run into Japanese person who bowled — I was fascinated, so I asked him more about his days of bowling in Japan. But Taki became tearful during our conversation. With no significant control over the right side of his body (his former dominant side), Takis had never bowled since his accident and our conversation reminded him of his huge loss. No matter how much his condition had become “normal” for Taki, he privately often sadly remembered the normal he desired. So I let the conversation end, to stop the tears, and soon we were talking about other things and laughing.

Two days later, however, I was thinking about what to do with Taki during his last week with us. And as is my nature, I decided to take a big chance: “Takis, I have an idea, tomorrow why don’t you join me and some of my students at the local bowling alley?” He was shocked and did not know what to say, but he finally decided to give it a try. He agreed to just go and watch.

We weren’t at the bowling alley for more than 20 minutes when he decided to participate. He rented some shoes and carefully picked out a ball. My graduate students, like me, were a bit nervous with him.

Sure enough, it was very awkward. Takis stumbled a bit down the alley, threw the ball with his left hand and we all watched each ball pathetically land in the gutter time after time.

However, in the end of our first game, in the very last frame, Takis threw a slow careful ball down the alley that made a perfect arc into the center pins and made a strike — all ten pins tumbled.

And then, to all our amazement, in the next two games, Taki slaughtered all of us with incredibly high scores. He had figured it out. Pins flew while he bowled only strikes and spares. Using his natural athletic mind and his strong spirit, he figured out a way around his handicap and reclaimed his former skills. It was amazing.

The beaming pride and happiness in Taki’s face as we congratulated him in his victories, will stay in my mind forever.  Thank you Taki.

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Motivations: Soldiers & Religious Laymen

Why do common soldiers fight in wars? Do they fight for all the lofty ideals their governments broadcast?

For a couple of years I had a part-time weekend job of interviewing American soldiers who returned from battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. My mission: to diagnose any lasting medical issues of the soldiers and get them to the appropriate specialist for further management. But the main focus of my job was to screen for traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and suicidal or homicidal ideation.

So, as you can imagine, my interviews (lasting between 10 minutes to an hour for each soldier, depending on their issues) could be very personal. And besides hearing horrible stories of the psychological impact of war,  I would also hear stories of why the soldiers joined the American volunteer armed services, why they stayed and accepted return deployment or why they left.

Patriotism, freedom, democracy and national security were almost never a reason. Instead, needing a job, needing money for education, escaping their town and seeking adventure were far more common. I don’t have statistics to back me, but that was my impression.

Well, apparently the reasons of soldiers for enlisting and remaining in the armed services has been studied by many people. I am listening to a course on “The American Civil War” which reminded me of this issue. As you can imagine, reasons for going to war vary widely — there is no one reason, but from the Civil War to World Wars I and II, soldiers’ reasons for joining are often not the same ones that the government tries to inculcate.

Thinking about this issue today, I was reminded about  writing I’ve done about the reasons the average lay religious believers belong to their mosques, temples, churches, synagogues and such? Is it because they believe the dogmas and rhetoric of their religious professionals? No, far less than we’d imagine. I wrote an article here addressing that issue for Christians: “Most Christians Don’t Believe“.

All of this is complicated — our minds aren’t homogenous — we hold multiple contrary beliefs and motivations simultaneously and are usually unaware of our own motivations. Instead, our minds make up reasons for us AFTER we make a move. Reasons to protect us from ourselves and make us acceptable. Soldiers and Lay Believers alike may echo the reasons that others like to hear for why they joined, but with very little effort and exploration, the inconsistency of their stories and the other more simple, earthy, practical reasons become clear. We often present ourselves as noble. We make ourselves the heroes of our stories.


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Comparing Language & Religion

The ways people use their languages and religions have many things in common. Looking at these comparisons help us see deep shared structures of both — that is, their common origin: the human mind.

I’ve done many posts on linguistic (the study of language), and this is a sub-index of posts I’ve done which make explicit what I find to be uncanny similarities between our languages and our religions.

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Need for Certainty: a deeper trait than religion


Dil Aram Ministry: India circa 1970s

In my youth, I worked for a brief time in a halfway house in India. “Dil Aram” (Heart of Peace) was a large Christian communal house in Dehli’s rich suburb of Defense Colony.  Dilaram’s mission was devoted mainly to helping Western travelers who had drug problems (many out of local jails) or those psychology lost. Clients did not have to be Christian, nor was conversion required.  But these rehabbing addicts did have to participate with the community which meant cleaning, cooking, and shopping together as well as attending prayer meetings and bible studies.

Inevitably, many of these troubled vagabonds converted. But ironically, while they were coming in, I was going out — I was slowly leaving Christianity. And watching the conversions of these ex-addicts was part of helping me see my way out of my Christianity.

Many of these addicts were manipulative, charismatic types. And what I observed was that they created their new belief in God and love of the Bible (yes, it was a Protestant group) around these personality traits. That is, their personality didn’t change much, just the tools their personality used.  Their Christianity was manipulative — they used it to gain favors and admiration — and all that, very charismatically. Mind you, Christianity served them better than their buying and selling of drugs, but the person did not change much.

Tom Rees, reviews a Polish study here which shows that “need for certainty” may be a common trait for vehement Atheists and religious folks alike. The study seems weak to me, but for some atheists, I certainly see this to be true — they may be open to lots of other ideas but they are certain that religion is only for the ignorant, superstitious and foolish. Their atheism allows them to divide up their world with some certainty — the foolish vs the wise.

As a huge number of my posts on this blog show, I disagree with such atheists strongly — but fortunately, I find that they are disproportionally more common among blogging atheists, compared to the general population of religion-free folks.

My point, and one I make often in this blog, is that our beliefs (religious, political and more) are flavored highly by our personalities. We usually use our beliefs to clothes our inner traits — it is those traits that are more telling of who we are, rather than our beliefs.

More info:

  • Here I write on how complex beliefs (all knotted up) can deceive us into certainty
  • Those months with Dil Aram were eye-opening. Here is a post I wrote about a more inane insight I had during my time at Dil Aram: “Peeing Epiphany”.
  • Interesting !  Just before posting this, I ran into this video set on the Dilaram house in Delhi.
  • Dilaram was a ministry of the protestant missionary group YWAM (Youth with a Mission)


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Me, me, me! — blogger policy

MEMEMEThis is a post for all you folks who are “me, me, me!” advertisers. You know who you are. Or sadly, maybe you don’t. You are the folks who send me emails saying “Check out my blog….”. Often these emails are just software generated generic stuff which I obviously delete.

Even if you add a small personal note to your email, it is the wrong way to get other bloggers to visit your site. It either shows a lack of common sense or worse, a blatant “me, me, me” blindness. If you want me to visit your blog, interact with several of my posts in an intelligent way — in the comments, not an email. Show me that us that you are really reading the posts and talk about the posts themselves. Then, if any of the readers or me find you interesting (or thoughtful), we may visit your blog.  That is the correct way to get readers on your blog — well, at least here.

The same goes for those of you leaving vacuous “me, me, me” comments. If it is obvious that the only reason you are commenting is to get me to your blog, and you do not interact with my post in a genuine way, I will not only not visit your blog, I may delete your comment for violation of my comment policy.


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p-value faith

p-valuegraph.jpegStatistics filters scientific research to find facts in the data. The p-value is one of the most important statistical calculations done on a data set — it tells you how likely your experiment would be to get the same results if run again (or at least I think I’ve got that right). But it does not tell you the magnitude of the effect or the strength of the evidence. It does not tell you if the experiment was run correctly, nor if the other stats were done correctly.  It certainly does not tell you how meaningful the results are. The p-value is useful, but it is easy to be deceived by it, and to deceive others using it.

Surprisingly, as this post by Christie Aschwanden claims, most scientist throw around p-values to support their claims yet do not really understanding its meaning and potential abuse. Now that is faith!

I illustrated the four main uses of the word “faith” here. The meaning I am using here is “trust”. And in an interview on that post, one scientist, when asked to define “the p-value” said:

“I know what many people that I have respected have written about [the p-value] and in fact quoted them. Is that a round about enough way to dodge your question.”

And indeed, that is what religious folks do. They listen to folks they trust, the read folks they trust and though they may not really understand the issue themselves, they trust these people. They have faith.

Take home message: “Faith” is useful, but we still need to remain skeptical.


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