My sister gave me a stack of back issues of The Sun to look at while vacationing this summer in my cabin on Traverse Bay in Michigan. At the end of the week she absolutely would not part with them, despite my promises of a speedy return. I wasn’t done looking at them. I felt as if I’d been part of a reunion of long-lost friends — all of them telling their stories about where they had been in the last twenty years. We’ve been some places all right, all of us making our pilgrimages to the same shrines — a little surprised and amused and saddened that we never recognized a soul in the crowds. Thanks for reminding me that I wasn’t alone, even when I thought I was — that my experience has meaning, and that the search for understanding is everything.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Danaan Parry interview [“From Conflict to Intimacy,” Issue 151]. A British feminist told me that I couldn’t possibly call myself a feminist because, “Man, you’ve got the wrong sexual organs.” A hot issue — nobody likes to be excluded from a club to which he thought he already belonged. It was nice to read of Parry’s search for his understanding of his sexuality and feminist awareness, and of the boundaries where those two meet, clash, or envelop each other. To read about a man who in many ways seems very comfortable with himself, who refuses to feel inhibited simply because he is physically big and passionate, gives me license to explore those parts of my own life that appear similar to Parry’s.
Reading The Sun is like a meditation for me — I go in to a place of peace within myself. Especially resonant for me are the themes of us as abandoned children (David Guy’s “What’s Eating Me” [Issue 151], and Candace Perry’s “Mama’s Story” [Issue 152]), and us as wounded parents (Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” and Kent T. Hoffman’s “Hunches on Childhood” [Issue 150]).
I just had my second baby in two years and my major issue now is how to be a good parent. My own parents continue to berate and browbeat me for being a bad daughter, which I know, somewhere deep inside, I am not. They are Holocaust survivors and are extremely difficult to deal with on an emotional level. I feel sorry for them. I wish I could help them, but I have finally realized that I can no longer do what they couldn’t do and want me to do. They have tried living vicariously through me, but we are very different.
It is very hard to be both a mother and an artist. I never thought it would happen to me, but the creative juices are flowing toward my children and away from the things that once defined me: my writing, my photography, my music. I used to get up at 4:30 a.m. and write until 6, when my husband and son get up and the house is no longer the dark, quiet shrine I love. Now the baby nurses several times during the night and at 4:30, too — so I no longer have time to write. When everybody else goes to bed, I’m usually physically tired and my brain is too fried to make sense on paper. So, what I want to know is, does the Artist as Parent ever get back to being the Artist as Artist?
It’s my big fear that I will never have the inspiration to create the way I once did. I feel like I’m a phony — not really a writer and photographer anymore, and not really a good mother either, because I resent the time my kids take away from my creative pursuits. I don’t lay this on my kids, or try not to, and of course I love them and realize that, in the long run, they will give me more than being alone and “creating” ever would.
I’m isolated. I live in a rural area and know no other artist-mothers to talk about this with. Maybe you could print this letter inviting others to write in and comment.
I thought Patricia Sun had a lot to say (“The Evolutionary Leap: An Interview with Patricia Sun,” Issue 154). Yet, I felt an undercurrent of hostility toward what she was saying, too. Maybe it had a little to do with the pictures that accompanied the interview. What a stunningly beautiful and open face. It made me feel inadequate. How many of us are born with such looks? As for the openness, do these pictures represent the actual face of Patricia Sun, or have they been selected to catch her at her very best? (I really appreciated the picture you used of Ram Dass a couple of years ago which showed him looking a little down, tired, and introverted.) In other words, do these pictures tell the truth of Patricia Sun’s face, or should we have seen one that was grumpy or less self-assured? It may sound like a small point — but is it?
As for the words themselves, there were many helpful insights. Yet I was annoyed by the “positive thinking” tone throughout. Is there nobody in the whole world to whom Patricia Sun would not be open, by whom she would be repelled? We in America speak too easily, too comfortably about loving everybody, letting everything be what it is. I had the same problem with Joseph Campbell’s recent television series on myth. It takes a very special perspective, I think, to have the right to say, “It’s all perfect,” or, “We’re all unfolding as we should.” Is it perfect to the idealist being tortured right now in Latin America, as his torturers break his fingers one by one, cut off his nuts while he watches? Is it perfect for the woman being raped right now, as this hairy bulk of a stranger dishevels her most private esteem? I’m suggesting that one must be quite cautious in saying such things. Jesus, on the cross, had the perspective to let everything be, to forgive his enemies while they tortured and killed him. But I wonder about such statements from sunny California or from the ivory towers of Sarah Lawrence College.
A key to enlightenment, the difficult key, the subtle key is this: after several days outside in sunny weather, of being positive and outgoing, you want a cloudy day to go inside, to think, to brood, to feel closed-up. This cloudy day is not merely a rest for future sunny days. It’s a day you feel all the negativity inside: the shame, the limitations the half-forgotten griefs (people who are dead whom you miss, estranged relationships that never healed), the genuine weights of life, the aging process, whatever is disheartening to you in the world. Then, after a few cloudy days, there should be a desire to go back out there again, on the look-out for sunny skies and summer weather. A person who doesn’t take this cloudy day now and then, on a rhythm at least as regular as nature’s — not just to rest but to feel actual shortcomings and misery — will end up with a shallow happiness and be vaguely self-deceived.
It’s my intuition that enlightenment is hard work, perhaps because anything I’ve experienced as a genuine gain in life has been hard work. The greater the reward, the harder the work, so why shouldn’t this be especially true for enlightenment? It can’t just be about thinking positive thoughts, taking positive actions, but feeling the negative, too, taking negative actions, doing the “wrong” thing. (What else is risk if it doesn’t mean on occasion doing the wrong thing?) It also means thinking the wrong thoughts. Wrong thoughts have to be thought if they’re there. Those on the path of enlightenment can get too sophisticated. We have this mistaken idea that if we say “wrong thought” to ourselves while we are thinking a wrong thought, then we aren’t actually thinking that thought: that thought is not really us; our observation of it has somehow negated it.
Of course I understand the importance of observing our subtle, inner processes. But doesn’t this ability to observe ourselves too often lead us into another error: a soft and sunny self-forgiveness, an “everything is going to God,” a gentle approach toward what we see in ourselves that makes it somehow less than real? It always seems to end up with “everything is right where it should be right now, everything is perfect if we could only see it from a high enough perspective.” I think perspective is valid only from the depths of suffering; that the cross is not just a neat symbol of the meeting of eternity with time, of the vertical and the horizontal, but the actual price of telling the truth and loving our enemies.
The photographs of Patricia Sun mentioned above are available as a PDF only. Click here to download.
Last year my dear friend Cameron visited me shortly after he’d been diagnosed with AIDS. I gave him my copy of The Sun with the Ram Dass interview [“The Heart of Compassion,” Issue 135]. I’d found it so healing and wonderful, and wanted to share it with him. Soon after, Cameron told me that he’d subscribed to The Sun.
This summer I learned that Cameron was dying. I visited him in Maine, where he was being cared for by friends. It was clear that he had been preparing to die — simplifying his surroundings, getting rid of his possessions. Yet, sitting in his living room near the hearth, was an impeccably-stacked pile of Suns. It meant a lot to me that Cameron was still keeping The Sun around. I felt so loved and supported by your presence at that moment.
He died on Labor Day. In a few hours I’m going to a memorial service being held for him at the Friends Meeting House.
Thanks for giving me something I can share with friends whom I love as much as I’ve loved Cameron.