Issue 219 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine

Correspondence

It’s zero degrees outside. The oak and rock maple logs in the fireplace are warming this one corner of the living room, where I’ve just finished reading the January issue of The Sun.

I love your magazine! Among friends and people I meet who were first awakened by the extraordinary events that happened almost thirty years ago, I notice a deep and healthy hunger for evidence that it was not all some adolescent dream. Those of us who were stirred into awareness of the deeply sacred nature of our existence are longing to see evidence that other souls have been similarly stirred. The Sun seems to be one of those oases in the desert of the prevailing culture where we can reach each other.

By the way, the line from Marge Piercy’s extraordinary poem “To Be of Use,” quoted in Sunbeams [January 1994], should read:

The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Ken Radeloff Glenmoore, Pennsylvania

Michael Ventura [“The Talent of the Room,” January 1994] seems to think writers have a corner on the talent for being alone. But many people spend time alone in a room on a regular basis — to study, to paint, to make furniture, to watch television, to repair watches, to sew, to meditate, to read. We writers shouldn’t pretend that we’re the chosen few who can enjoy or suffer solitude. Music, painting, and gardening can be done alone and can also reveal your soul. The talent for being alone and being creative is not reserved for the gifted few. There is an artist in all of us.

Ventura suggests that we meet “the demands of solitude,” that we pull away from people to confront the truth about ourselves. He’s right, to a degree, but we also have to connect with people. If we are not connected, if we are wholly within ourselves, we can be among people and still feel isolated. Conversely, it is possible to be alone and feel connected. I am alone writing this letter, but three individuals are with me at this instant because I have their concerns in mind. My writing opens me up and connects me to people in an intense way, and that is what can be so scary about any creative act. (Perhaps Ventura is right that a writer’s psyche is more at risk, that writers bare more of their souls; I don’t know. Ask Mozart. Ask Danielle Steel.) It’s scary to take an honest look inside ourselves precisely because there are so many people in there offering us gifts and making demands.

Art has the power to connect. It requires that you reveal yourself in front of the world. It is not an isolating activity per se. If I feel isolated while creating, if I feel lonely, my art will suffer unless I use it to reconnect. I’d be better off talking to someone.

Thom Hawkins Berkeley, California

I found Wendy Ellyn’s regressions in “Daddy” [January 1994] to reek of incest. I’ve been wondering whether she realizes it.

Bruce Deveau Portland, Maine
Wendy Ellyn responds:

There was no incest in my childhood. Physical intimacy, sensuality, and adoration, yes. Sex and the abuse of power, no.

I’m sorry Bruce Deveau found my prose poem distressing. I see his reaction as a sad sign of our times, in which rightful outrage about sexual abuse is often taken to an extreme that twists physical closeness between adults and children into something pathological, and turns men, especially, into suspects.

The closeness and trust I share with my father are among the greatest blessings of my life. I wish as much for every father and daughter.

My Cockroach Diary” [January 1994] was most interesting. I could not help but wonder if it was real or not. Please do me a favor and tell me if Sparrow wrote this story for kicks or if it was a true account of his life.

Daniel Clendening, age fifteen Pickens, South Carolina
Sparrow responds:

Everything in my diary was completely true.

Although I agree with much of what John Taylor Gatto says, especially his appraisal of the dismal state of American classrooms, I find his view of the role of teachers far from complete [“Bitter Lessons,” December 1993].

Perhaps Gatto’s having been a teacher in a “wealthy Manhattan school district” influenced his perspective. He sees the relationship between teacher and student as a highly individualistic one in which teachers “reproduce” themselves in their students. My experience, however, as a student, as a parent of schoolchildren, and as someone who lived for a number of years with a woman considered (like Gatto) to be an exceptional teacher, is quite different. I believe the primary role of teachers is to bring children from their lives in their homes to their lives in a larger society.

For many years, schools were able, for good or ill, to accomplish this objective. As preparation for jobs in stores and factories, obedience and mindless industry were highly valued, and regimentation was an optimal means of instilling them. Today, many of these jobs no longer exist, or have been transferred to third world countries with educational systems far more regimented than those of the United States.

To achieve social and economic success these days, people must learn the right combination of individual assertiveness and interpersonal finesse. In teaching this, some school districts may lag behind. On the other hand, I have met school administrators who, rather than being strident disciplinarians, are full of vague and ineffectual talk about self-realization. In reality, schools are not so much institutions of regimentation as instillers of personal anxiety and, in poorer districts, physical fear. In this respect, they are no different from other institutions.

No form of education can produce “complete” people. Completeness, to the extent that it is possible, can be achieved only by linking individual consciousness to collective traditions. Our job is to find these traditions and to associate ourselves with them. Most parents and teachers can be of very limited help in this effort. Going to school may be necessary for children to see what they are up against. After about junior high school, however, the appropriate attitude is one of cynical pragmatism: get what vocational training you can from the system, but after that accept that we’re living in America and that we’re on our own.

John Peters Phoenix, Arizona
John Taylor Gatto responds:

There is no real conflict between what I seek and John Peters’s insistence that teachers bring children into the larger society. But if that enlargement is not done on an individual basis, then it can only be done corporately through official abstractions, trivialized and sanitized — lies, in plain talk. Peters is right about the self-realization garbage (I wish I had space to discuss its genesis in the ideas of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, both of whom repudiated it before their deaths), but he misses how it actually regiments children by taking up huge quantities of time when vital and risky personal appointments with challenge have to be kept — that is, if an inner autonomy is ever to be won.

Peters and I agree completely on his conclusion: no form of externally imposed “education” can produce complete people. “Nothing worthwhile is learned by coercion,” said Plato twenty-four hundred years ago, and in saying that, he said it all. People who want to make money or minions out of schooling prefer not to hear.

I’d like to note that The Sun heavily edited and retitled my piece. The original was three times as long, it was written as advice to a foundation deciding to underwrite a new form of teacher training, and its title was “A Different Kind of Teacher.” I say this not to object to what The Sun’s editors did — they were sensitive in the edit (although by choosing a provocative title they gave it an adversarial tone) — but to call attention to the prescriptive and cautionary parts of the essay. Assigning blame wasn’t my point. If anyone wants my original, I’ll be glad to send it for $3 (copying cost) and a 9x12 envelope with four stamps. Write to me at 235 W. 76th St., New York, NY 10023.

Over the years there has been an ebb and flow of magazines in my life, but I’ve always read The Sun. I savor the nourishment, the controversy, and the occasional piece of startling and unique beauty, like Tomas Alex Tizon’s “Angel of Lamentations” [December 1993]. I am amused and saddened by the self-righteousness and anger of some correspondents; although the magazine does tend to be white and middle-class (but not especially male), and although I have hardly agreed with everything I’ve read, the writing has always been engaging and stimulating.

Like Sy Safransky, I tip my hat to history, to The Sun’s twenty years, and give thanks to the dedicated few who keep offering such consistent quality. Here’s to the next twenty.

Anita Bine St. Paul, Minnesota

It still seems like an amazing miracle to me that things I’ve written here in Oakland are traveling around the country and reaching people I’ve never met. I’ve been getting an incredible response to “Letter to Maxim” [August 1993]. Half a dozen people have looked up my phone number and called. One guy from Austin, Texas, left a message on my answering machine saying he’d read the piece and cried all afternoon. I feel very blessed to be part of this passionate, eccentric, far-flung circle of Sun-aficionados. Thank you for working so hard to create and sustain this nourishing network.

Alison Luterman Oakland, California

The main reason I haven’t renewed my subscription is because of the inclusion in each issue of a piece written by Sy Safransky. Even if his writing were on a par with the rest of what’s in The Sun (and let’s be real — it’s not), putting his writing in his own magazine is patronage, nepotism — call it what you will, it just ain’t honest.

Sy, you have good taste in choosing other people’s writing; stick to that. Be an editor. Take yourself out of the magazine a bit. There’s enough of you — and a good part of you — in there simply as editor. Publish your writing in some other magazine, where it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

Michael Cohen Berkeley, California

I’ve wondered why you don’t change the name of your magazine to The Moon instead of The Sun. The sun’s brilliant rays drive clouds away and make all clear and sparkling. But like Diana’s mystic undertones, your magazine hides its shades of meaning. What I’m trying to say is that though I have little time to read, I read and reread your magazine because it provokes thought.

Elaine Stanberry Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Corrections

The line from Marge Piercy’s extraordinary poem “To Be of Use,” quoted in Sunbeams [January 1994], should read:

The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

We regret the error.

— Ed.

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